The Third Sunday after the Epiphany – January 23, 2022
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
I Corinthians 12:12b-31
Epiphany is the season of divine inspiration – in scripture, in the heavens and the non-human world, in our personal gifts, and in the life of the church. Epiphany stretches revelation beyond the church building and Christianity to embrace the Whole Earth. Revelation is relational and not just private. Though we may experience God’s presence in the depths of our hearts, we are also part of an intricate fabric of relatedness, which binds us to all creation. Mystics leads to action. Inspiration inspires responsibility to others.
Today’s readings orient us toward God’s many and diverse revelations in our lives and in the world. God’s law, embedded in our hearts and in the universe, may take many forms. Following God’s law, written in our hearts and in scripture – dynamic, intimate, and communal – enables us to experience and share grace in daily life. Divine revelation is found in the depths of our being and awaits our response. Divine revelation is also aimed at our communal lives. Saying “yes” to God’s revelation in our lives binds us to divine inspiration in our congregational, community, and planetary journeys.
For many of us, there is little joy in hearing about rules or law. We see law as inflexible and limiting and standing in the way of joy and freedom. It evokes judgment, penalty, threat, and the need to hide one’s true identity and behavior to avoid punishment. In contrast, the Law of Moses is the source of celebration for those who hear Ezra’s words. After years in exile in which the nation’s culture and customs were curtailed and almost lost, the reading of the Law is met with tears of joy. Law is a source of identity and the inspiration to the better angels of our nature. The re-discovery of the books of Law re-defined the people as God’s beloved children and gave them a renewed sense of identity. Remembering the inspiration given to Moses, they were able to rediscover their own center as persons and as a community. The recovery of the Law, as a manifestation of divine providence and care, allowed the people to make a new beginning in relationship with their creator. Law is not external or self-willed but involves the alignment of our spirits and behaviors with God’s vision, and thus is the source of fulfillment.
While this passage may not resonate with congregant’s experience, it invites preacher and congregant alike to consider what documents of faith shape our identities as Christians. In contrast to the Jews of Nehemiah and Ezra’s time, we don’t feel ourselves set apart and this may be a problem in our pluralistic age. In mainstream and progressive churches, we don’t often see ourselves as “other.” North American Christians reap the benefits of our privileged status. Consequently, the boundary between church and culture, church and social values and expectations, is often barely existent. Christians reflect their political persuasions and vision of American identity as much, if not more so, than their Christian faith. Many conservative Christians, especially these days, identify God, guns, private property, success, individualism, and patriotism as interdependent, when a creative distance between God and politics might enable our faith to shape our politics rather than the other way around. To these Christians, the flag on the chancel identifies our faith as much as the presence of the Cross and the Bible.
Does our faith as Christians serve as a type of “law” that enables us to have a critical relationship to both culture and government? Can our faith define us on Christ’s terms rather than the liberal, conservative, or capitalist agendas? This is an important question as many social and political commentators worry that we as a nation have lost any pretense of a moral compass. While there has never been a “golden age,” utterly unambiguous morally or politically, in American history, these days bullying, polarization, scorn of science, public lies and exaggerations, and inhospitality have been normalized at the highest level of government. Leaders intentionally choose the worse rather than better angels of our nature, and the ties that bind us as Americans are fraying. Can we as Christians come up with some sort of common values regarding honesty, civility, and hospitality despite our political differences? Can we put truth and community above individualism and power?
Psalm 19 describes the interdependence of personal and cosmic law. The Psalmist lives in a God-filled world in which all creation shouts God’s existence and reveals God’s love. The divine harmonies of the heavens are reflected in harmonies of the spirit and revealed in our congruence with God’s inner law. The law within and among us sets our spiritual GPS and enables us to be in harmony with the cosmos and faithful to God in our daily interactions. In harmony with the orderly cosmos, we discover order in our personal and community lives. These passages cry out for a mystic vision to guide our relationships and political lives. While we cannot expect everyone – most especially our politicians – to be mystics, we can demand that their policies are grounded in reverence for life, both human and non-human, in their use of power.
The passage from I Corinthians 12 continues last week’s meditation on the body of Christ. We are all part of an intricate fabric of relationships. The well-being of the parts and whole are interconnected. A healthy body depends on each person discovering and living out her or his vocation. This requires that each member receive the nourishment of the whole to which it contributes. We are made for relationship. Our joys and sorrows are one. Out of relatedness emerge the unique gifts of each member of the community.
A Jewish story relates Rabbi Zusya’s proclamation: if the Messiah comes, the Messiah will not ask, “Were you David, but were you Zusya?” Our vocations are unique, contextual, and always evolving. As we “listen to our lives” (Frederick Buechner), we can “let our lives speak.” (Parker Palmer) Healthy community enables us to discover our vocations in congruence with God’s vision and, thus, in discovering our gifts find ways to share these gifts with others. Accordingly, the church should be a laboratory of vocation.
The adventurous preacher needs to remind his or congregants that within the body of Christ:
• Our lives are part of a dynamic fabric of interconnectedness.
• Each of us emerges from our relationships.
• There are no self-made persons, but persons in relationship, actualizing their gifts through a
creative synthesis of personal giftedness, community support and influence, mentoring, and
• Every gift and, thus, every person matters in community.
• There are many possible vocations within a community, all of which are necessary to its
• Our own gifts evolve all the time.
• Our gifts are meant to serve the community.
This image of the body of Christ, while aimed at the church, is not restricted to the church. Responsible Christians must support social structures that enable every child to have the opportunity to realize their vocation. We cannot live in siloes, immune to the pain of the world, but must remember that in the interdependence of life, the successes and failures of others, the joys and sorrows of others, contributes to our own well-being. No one can be left behind either in the congregation as body of Christ or the body politic if God’s Shalom is to be achieved on earth as it is in heaven.
Mark 4 describes Jesus’ first public presentation. Jesus shares the good news of God’s realm as it grows in our world. God’s realm of Shalom reflects the divinely-grounded interdependence of life and involves healing, hospitality, and hope. Invoking the prophet Isaiah, Jesus’ message is profoundly political. God’s presence will bring good news to humankind and this good news is the result of divine initiative and human response. The promise of God’s spirit is that we can become partners in our Creator’s world healing process. As God’s companions, we can feed the poor, visit the prisoner, and heal the afflicted. In the death-full culture of Rome and our own time, followers of Jesus can be rays of hope, revealing a different set of values, guided by loving affirmation.
Our congregations are challenged to be places where good news is proclaimed and lived out, and where humans can experience abundant life. This may mean advocacy for human rights, equality of opportunity, good schools, gun safety, and care for the earth. Accordingly, we need to be intentional in revealing the good news in our lives and our communities. God’s good news nurtures our souls and cells and also the souls and cells of others. We cannot, as Martin Luther King asserts, be what we our intended to be unless our brothers and sisters, locally and globally, are who they are intended to be, living out their gifts as God’s beloved children.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of over sixty books, including WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; MYSTICS IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; and PROCESS THEOLOGY AND POLITICS.