Sermon notes: Keep awake!

Sermon notes, Advent I, Year B (11/27/11). Preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church/St. Louis

Well, wasn’t that a cheery set of readings?

Third Isaiah calls on God to rip open the heavens, and confesses that we have all sinned, horribly. Mark speaks of the approaching end of the world, and warns that no one knows when it will come: “Keep awake!”

This is not exactly the message we’re picking up from the world around us right now, unless the idea is just to keep awake long enough to be the first in line for the big Black Friday – or, increasingly, Black Thursday Night – sales.

On the first Sunday after Thanksgiving, the secular world tells us to get shopping, because Christmas is coming. On the first Sunday in Advent, the Church tells us to get prayerful, because Christ is coming. And there is a huge difference between the two.

Every age has its own vision of Jesus. Today we tend to see Christ as an all-accepting buddy – as a forgiver of sins, yes, but as a rebuker of those sins? …not so much. “Hey, that’s okay. No problem!”

In times past, though, he was seen as a stern judge, coming to separate the sheep from the goats, to gather up the elect for heaven, and send the non-elect to someplace you’d really rather not be.

Advent, then, was a little Lent, a time to repent and make ready for the return of Christ and all that it meant. The first Sunday in Advent is the first day of the new church year. It’s a time to be thoughtful, to consider what God wants for us. The lessons for these weeks deal with preparation, with the coming of God’s kingdom.

Repentance is a key part of that. The Christ who will return is not a kind of celestial Mr. Rogers, who likes us just the way we are. Think of him more as a Marine drill instructor who wants us to be the best we can be. Unlike the Marine, however, Jesus’s desire for us to change and grow better is based on pure love.

In Isaiah, the prophet points out that the relationship between God and humankind is a two-way street: “You were angry, and we sinned; but because you hid yourself from us, we stepped over the line.”

God is the potter, and we are the clay that God has shaped – but God is also our parent, who loves us. God is not some bully of a bearded sky god who flings down destruction whenever he’s annoyed; God is the Creator, who cherishes all of Creation and the people in it.

In the reading from Mark, in what is known as the “Little Apocalypse” – the big one is in the Gospel of John – we hear of the frightening time to come, when the world as we have known it will fall apart, when the powers that have ruled the Earth will pass away, and when Christ will step through the clouds of chaos to rule.

Jesus specifically says that no one knows exactly when this will all take place, except for God. The angels do not know the hour; even he does not know. (This might be an indication that math-happy preachers who predict the end of the world on a particular day can be safely ignored.) Therefore, Christ’s message: Keep awake.

That message usually gets lost. That’s true not only in the larger society around us, but in the Church. Some Christians are already singing Christmas carols this morning, skipping over the whole season of Advent (not to mention the wonderful hymns of Advent).

We tend to get caught up in the coming drama of the baby in the manger, without considering the whole story that comes first.

That story is not just about a young woman told by an angel that she will bear the son of God; it’s not just about overcoming the suspicions of her fiancé, and a long hard journey to a strange town. It is not just about a birth in a stable, accompanied by choruses of angels and shepherds.

That’s a wonderful and meaningful story, but it’s not today’s story. That story comes at the end of the four weeks of Advent. Before celebrating Jesus’s birth, this is a time to consider the meaning of his humbling himself to be born as one of us, after considering his coming again.

And as unsettling as that image is, of Christ descending upon the clouds, robed in dreadful majesty, at its core it is really one of comfort. Then as now, the world was a mess in almost every way we can imagine. Then as now, the world was filled with injustice and suffering. Then as now, God’s hand was not always immediately apparent.

But now as then, God is in control. Now as then, God calls us to work to end injustice and suffering wherever we find them. And now as then, God loves us, and shows that immeasurable love in ways that we can hardly understand.

Keep awake!

Voiceless/powerless

WikiCommons image, in the public domainIt was not a good weekend.

First, I got sick. Looking back, it actually started during the 10:30 service last Sunday, when my voice curdled bizarrely during the anthem and never quite returned.

It was official by Wednesday, when I acknowledged that Something was Wrong and called my doctor. He listened, and said, “Sounds like a virus. There’s not much we can do for that. Just take it easy; take some Mucinex, and try drinking tea and lemon.”

Huh. Even after treating me for 12 years, he doesn’t get Singer Panic. It’s a state to which I readily revert (understandably, perhaps, after a couple of decades of earning my living by my voice), a form of  (mostly) justifiable hypochondria for those who cannot work, and therefore do not earn, if they cannot sing.

So I drank hot tea with honey and lemon (and, occasionally, just a touch of rum) by the pint; I gulped Mucinex; I mixed fizzy patent vitamin-rich mixtures into glasses of water and slugged those down, too; I went on vocal silence; I looked up prayers to St. Blaise, alleged heavenly protector against throat ailments. I even got some sleep.

St. Blaise and I are not presently on speaking terms, even if I could talk. None of the rest of it worked, either. I had to cancel the solo I was supposed to sing on Sunday, and took minimal comfort in the responsible grown-up act of having given the choirmaster adequate warning to find something for the choir to sing in its place. To top it off, let it be noted that more than one editor is impatient with my current inability to conduct telephone interviews.

My voice is an integral part of my identity, of me; losing it is, for me, like an athlete being deprived of the ability to walk, or an accountant’s knowledge of numbers. It’s more than inconvenient. It brings on introspection, and who wants that?

And then the power went out.

It went out during a bam-pow-wham rainstorm on Friday night. Coming home from an opera through buckets and sheets of rain that resembled (as the friend who was driving remarked) “a summer blizzard,” lit up by a vivid electrical storm, I said a prayer for all the people who would lose their power – and pulled up to the house to discover that they were me.

Said power played a cat-and-mouse game all weekend: now on, now off. I gave up on resetting the clocks. I got to know my neighbors a little better when a group came out of hot houses for a confab in the street.

This morning the power came back and stayed on. I cleaned out the recently deceased foodstuffs from the fridge, and quietly cursed the fact that trash pickup isn’t until Friday: that bag will stink powerfully by the time we can legitimately lug it down to the curb.

And I put it all into perspective in my mind. There are so many things we take for granted, in ourselves and from technology: the ability to talk and to sing, power – for air conditioning and lights, for sound systems and telephones – that requires only the flicking of a switch. Yet it is all surprisingly fragile; a virus, or a broken part on a transformer, can take it all out.

It was a minor outage. It didn’t even make the paper.

We aren’t accustomed to hardship; we are greatly blessed. Experience has taught us that a call to the doc, or the power company, will make it all right. But it’s a fragile balance.

It’s easier to take the ups and down and wreckages of life – and, on a scale of one to ten, my set barely rated a two – if we’re firmly anchored in faith. It reminds us of the greater vicissitudes that our predecessors stood down; it reminds of the greater vicissitudes that we still may face.

Perhaps the trick is to take it all in stride and in prayer, to remember how much we have even at the worst of times. Not being able to sing along with the English church anthems I could finally hear tonight will make me more mindful when I get my voice back; not having power for a couple of days makes me appreciate what others endure on a regular basis. Thank you, Lord, for giving me perspective.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: Faith and the race

Runners, 2007 Paris Marathon (Wikicommons Share Alike photo)SERMON NOTES, PENTECOST 12, Preached at 8 and 10:30 a.m. August 15, 2010, at St. Peter’s/Ladue

What is faith? It’s an important word in the Church, but it’s also a word with a variety of meanings.

In one sense, faith can mean “confidence or trust in a person or thing,” as in “I have absolute faith that the choir will do its collective best in singing the anthem.”

In another sense, faith is “a system of religious belief,” as in “I am a member of the Christian faith.”

In the highest sense, faith involves “trust in God and in God’s promises,” as made through Christ and in Scripture. You can find the specifics on that in the Bible, in the Creeds and in the Book of Common Prayer.

Most of us are here this morning because we are members of the Christian faith. More specifically, we are Episcopalians, whatever that may mean to us as individuals: prayers, the liturgy in general, the Eucharist in particular, music, service to God’s people in need, Sunday School… coffee hour.

Ideally, on a higher level, we are here because we have faith in God’s promises, and in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, as our Savior and Redeemer.

How should that faith be expressed?

Some people think it’s enough to say, “I believe in God,” and let it go at that, to float along through the world without ever sticking a paddle – of prayer, of thought, or action – into the water of faith.

The problem with that approach is that when an unexpected storm blows up, they have no way to propel themselves toward safety – and this life is full of storms, whether they involve individual health issues, crises in human relationships, problems in society, or disasters in the world outside.

Millions of people are paddle-less occasional Christians, most at home with the fashions and mores of the secular world – but that is clearly not the model set out for us in this morning’s readings from the New Testament. That model concerns commitment, action, and the price of faith.

In the Gospel, we heard from Cranky Jesus, frustrated because the crowds aren’t really listening to what he’s telling them about the judgment to come. People are enjoying the miracles and the healings, but they’re not paying attention to the deeper meaning of what Jesus is teaching: Discipleship has a cost. If we really commit to following Christ, we will frequently find ourselves in disagreement with the world outside the faith, and even with those we love the most.

The author of Hebrews goes into more detail. He speaks of how faith in God sustained and aided God’s people, from triumphs like Moses’s parting of the Red Sea and David’s victories, down through the centuries to what was then relatively recent history, the uprisings against Greek authority in the time of the Maccabees, 200 years before.

Faith assists us in dealing with the world, but it also sets us apart in the world – and the world has a way of smacking down those who stand apart. We heard in some detail about what kinds of smacking that particular group of faithful endured, from mocking to flogging, from impoverishment to imprisonment and painful death.

Elsewhere in the world, they’re still making martyrs; witness the most recent murders of Christian aid workers in Afghanistan, and the continuing trials of Palestinian Christians, caught between one army that despises them because they’re Palestinians, and another that attacks them for being Christian.

Few of us in the United States face more than mockery. Some of that mockery is due to the perception that Christians are prudes in a society in which just about anything goes. Part of it is the fact that identifying publicly as a Christian means being held to a higher standard of morality.

You’ve probably noticed the unseemly glee with which my colleagues in the news media seize upon each new case of a prominent figure in the “Christian Right” caught stepping out with an attractive young person of negotiable virtue. Those stories get a lot of play – a lot of ink, a lot of air – and one reason is that they are saturated with the irresistible odor of hypocrisy.

We can’t sigh in relief when those caught telling lies, or behaving unethically, or exploiting the powerless turn out to be members of other denominations. The non-Christian world lumps us all together. The shame sticks to all of us, like an oil slick coating the beach. We are all diminished by it.

Christians are called to better behavior, to walk humbly with our God, to live what we preach. It is inevitable that we will stumble from time to time; that’s a fact of being human. Acknowledging and correcting our missteps is a part of being faithful.

The best-known section of this passage comes near the end: “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” There are many kinds of races, from sprints to marathons, and the strategy for each of them is different. A brief race requires full power and full speed for its duration; a long one demands endurance.

A full marathon is 26 miles, and takes runners through all kinds of terrain, in all kinds of weather. Except for a few elite athletes, most people who enter a marathon train for months not with any idea of coming in first, but in the simple hope that they will be able to cross the finish line, that although they may be slowed they will not stop, that when they stumble they won’t collapse.

Life, of course, is a kind of marathon, except we have absolutely no idea of how long it will be. It’s different one for each of us, and few are fully prepared for it. It’s not easy to run a good race. There are distractions, and temptations and difficulties.

But we are blessed to have “a cloud of witnesses” to cheer us on, those saints who have run and completed the race before us. I believe that if we persevere in faith, even when that faith comes hard, God will sustain us to the very end.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

After the fall


In April, I took a tumble: lacking much in the way of depth perception, I failed to see a step and went straight over, landing on my left arm and shoulder.

Happily, I didn’t try to brace myself, and didn’t break anything. I got right up, and thought a little bruising was the only consequence of my clumsiness.

Wrong again: The bruised feeling didn’t go away, but turned into pain and then numbness. Two months later I found myself with an orthopedist, a physical therapist, and a brand new load of sometimes taxing exercises. In this case, the cliché – “no pain, no gain” – is absolutely true.

As it turns out, this fall was a blessing.

I have scoliosis, a hereditary affliction that shows up in adolescence. My spine has a double S curve that, left alone, will eventually turn me into a human pretzel. (It’s usually a bad sign when medical professionals remark on how “interesting and complicated” something is, and bring in their students to check it out.) Despite my years of preventative exercises, it turned out to be further along than I’d realized – but now I have a chance to do something about it, to strengthen myself, to control it before it’s too late.

Had I not fallen, I wouldn’t have have sought medical help, wouldn’t have been sent to therapy, wouldn’t have realized how advanced my condition really was, wouldn’t have received new tools to fight it.

Sometimes it takes a wake-up call like this one to force us to recognize and address serious problems, whether in the physical or the spiritual realm. It may not feel like one right now, but it was a blessing to have this particular call arrive in time: Thanks be to God.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Just visiting

This month I’ve had an almost unprecedented stretch of three Sundays in a row without liturgical obligations at my parish: no singing, no reading, no preaching. That’s given me an opportunity to experience other services and other churches.

One morning, with a long list of chores to accomplish, I decided to catch an early service that would give me more of the day. I arrived about five minutes before the hour and sat at the end of an empty pew, one of several available, near the front of the church.

A couple of minutes later, a woman came in from the far aisle, looked at me a little bit askance, then sat a couple of seats over from me. A minute after that, another one came in, this time from the center aisle. “Excuse me,” she said, with a touch of frost in her voice, “may I get in here?”

As I rose to let her in, I realized that I’d committed the essential faux pas of church visiting: the sin of sitting, innocently but still guilty, in someone’s Regular Pew. I debated shifting to one of the other nearby pews that still sat empty near us. But would that look as though I didn’t want to sit with them? What is the proper church etiquette in these situations? I stayed put.

I stayed put, but there was an undertone of discontent vibrating faintly in our pew through the service: My presence in their usual spot disrupted their Sunday routine.

We are territorial creatures, and creatures of habit. When I’m not in the choir, I like to sit on the aisle near the front, on what is traditionally known as the “Epistle Side.” I do it because my mother always sat there. My mother always sat there because her mother and grandparents always sat there; they sat there because that was the location of the family pew generations ago, in the days when pew rentals were a major source of parish support.

Who knows how long my ladies have held down their particular spots? On reflection, I should have smiled brightly and said, “Oh, is this your regular pew? I’m sorry – let me move!”

As it is, it’s a gentle reminder to me of Biblical injunctions, from Genesis through the Gospels, of the requirement of hospitality: “For I was a stranger, and you took me in,” says Jesus in Matthew 25. My brief discomfort is something to keep in mind the next time I’m the one confronting another in a spot I consider my own, and to welcome everyone I meet.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes, Easter VI: Revelation, Rapture, and Nashville, Tennessee

Sermon Notes – Easter VI, Year C (May 9, 2010) Preached at St. Matthew’s/Warson Woods

“And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.”

I have mixed feelings about the Revelation of John. It contains an incredible amount of beautiful, moving poetry, with striking images that have been an inspiration to Christians of many persuasions through the centuries, images both of terror and of comfort.

It has also been the inspiration for an incredible amount of bad theology and ill-founded speculation, including the 19th century invention of the “Rapture” and such contemporary notions as equating bar codes with the “Mark of the Beast.” It’s been used to smear the Roman Catholic Church and justify all kinds of bad behavior toward others – whoever those “others” might be – by bigots of many stripes.

This is not new; Revelation was controversial from the start. Even in the second century, many in the Church questioned its value, and the book barely made it into the canon. Martin Luther, who was not one to mess around, wanted to chuck it out. The Eastern Orthodox never did accept it.

In some ways that makes the job of the Eastern Orthodox clergy easier: if their parishioners come up asking about the “Left Behind” series, they can simply dismiss the whole premise out of hand. On the other hand, they can’t draw upon Revelation’s inspirations and comforts. And those are considerable.

The Book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature. Like its predecessors, particularly the Book of Daniel, it was written in the guise of prophecy as a response to great persecution.

At the time it was written, in the late first century, Christians were suffering terribly for their faith. They needed reassurance that their pain was not the last word.

There’s no particular mystery about the book’s audience – the churches of Asia Minor, the area that’s now Turkey – and explanations of its symbolism are readily available. There is no prophecy involved, in the sense of foretelling future events: almost everything in Revelation is quite specific to its first century time and place.

But if that were all there were to it, we wouldn’t still be reading it in church today.

Consider the passage we just heard. The climax of the entire book, it’s a transcendent vision of the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem. There is no need for a temple there, we are told, no need for a special place to worship and draw near to God, because God is always and obviously present, as the city’s visible and omnipresent center. The nations will gather there, and be healed, and worship God in true unity.

This was undoubtedly inspiring to Christians in the first century, and it has been inspiring to Christians in the centuries that have followed. That’s because every age is filled with suffering and terrible events, and every age needs the comfort of knowing that God cares, that God’s will shall be done, that God’s kingdom is coming.

We don’t have to go into the distant past of plagues and persecutions, wars and natural disasters to realize that. We only have to look at the last few months: economic crises, with their cost to people’s livelihoods; the fear of a swine flu pandemic; the cruelty of terrorism, wherever it occurs; assorted earthquakes, with their cost in lives, property and hope.

I was just thinking that the earthquake thing had been overdone when the Icelandic volcano started spouting off. Meanwhile, last week the combination of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Times Square bomber almost knocked the terrible flooding in central Tennessee out of the news. Thousands there have lost their homes and property, and are about to learn that regular homeowners’ insurance doesn’t cover flood damage.

19 people lost their lives. This morning a funeral service will be held for two of them, Bill and Frankie Rutledge, at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville: the pair, longtime faithful parishioners, died on their way to church last Sunday when their car was swept away in the surging waters.

In an online note to his parish, the rector of St. George’s, the Rev. R. Leigh Spruill, wrote about a seminary class he took in “crisis management.” The professor asked his students what they would do in a hypothetical disaster rather like the one that hit Nashville last week.

Father Spruill and his classmates came up with responses like, “Organize groups to start rebuilding homes and the church… initiate pastoral care ministries to reach out to those in shock and sorrow… secure shelter for the suddenly homeless… scavenge food and clean drinking water… call a vestry meeting!”

“Wrong,” he recalls his professor saying. “Remember who you are. Your first order of business is to worship God. Do all those other things you mention as soon as possible. But above all else, never forget to be the Church on Sunday, to be a people who worship God.”

Revelation’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – pestilence, war, famine, and death – walk, trot, canter or gallop through the world on a regular basis. There is no way to stop the earth from roiling, and only slightly more hope of controlling human nature, and no one is going to be plucked from all the unpleasantness by a “Rapture.” Unpleasantness is part of the human condition.

But our pain is not the last word. We can fight the pain, as the people of St. George’s are doing this morning, as Christians in churches all over that region are doing, as Christians all over the world do every week: being the Church, in worship and prayer and in the practical work of feeding, clothing, healing, and helping to house God’s people.

We have hope, through Christ. We have God’s promise that this world is not the end. And we have the inspiration and the expressions of that hope and promise that are to be found in Scripture, even in problematic books like Revelation: “And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Daffodils

I’m not much of a gardener; I’m not physically strong, and I can’t take the sun. Besides, I suspect that most plants really don’t much care for me, and would just as soon let go and die as give me the satisfaction of their flourishing.

There are two exceptions. There’s the admirably undiva-ish “Knockout” rose bush, which seems to be virtually unkillable as long as you don’t actually set it on fire, and which even then might come back. The other is the narcissus, hundreds of bulbs of which – jonquils, daffodils, paperwhites, and all their friends and relations – shine every spring on the steep hillside just behind my house.

I buy them by the hundred, in a grab-bag collection called “The Works.” One never knows what the new ones will look like until they bloom, which is part of the appeal. In the autumn, I inveigle my friends into helping me claw shallow graves in the rocky clay soil, then reward them, in spring, with brilliant bouquets of varied blooms. This year, unusually (oh, the issues inherent in holy days built on a lunar calendar!) their flowering coincided with Holy Week and Easter, bringing fresh meaning to themes of rebirth.

I used to be rather rigid about what daffs should be: big monochromatic yellow flowers with big monochromatic yellow trumpets. Then I bought my first bag of mixed bulbs and discovered the greater beauty of diversity.

Some of them are tiny; some are enormous. They come in plain vanilla versions or with ruffles, white petals and red trumpets, yellow petals and orange trumpets, delicate little blossoms and big assertive ones, short and tall, surprising and delightful. They bloom for weeks, from the earliest pale ghost of spring until blazing summer.

Diversity is one of God’s gifts, and we miss a lot when everything’s alike. It’s true for flowers, landscapes – and people. Thanks be to God, who opened my eyes to the beauty of differences.

– sbm

The One True Religion

We have friends who are Jehovah’s Witnesses; they’re a delightful family who commend their faith by their lives. The father, Tom, is a senior and very knowledgeable elder, one of my husband’s major informants when he was working on an academic study of JW history.

As part of his research, my husband suggested he should do a Bible study with Tom, making it clear it was strictly for academic purposes, to get an insider’s view of how the Witnesses approach scripture. Somehow I got roped in, too.

Unfortunately Tom really enjoyed these sessions,  and I think began to hope that we were going to be converted. They went on and on, and they were not interesting – the correct answers were already supplied, as Jehovah’s Organization knows exactly what the Bible means and doesn’t want you to get it wrong.

But the end came quite suddenly one day when Tom got on to the subject of the Trinity and what nonsense it was, and I finally had to abandon my research-assistant persona and argue for my beliefs. It didn’t blow my husband’s research sky-high, or even do any lasting damage to our friendship, but Tom hasn’t forgotten it. A couple of weeks ago when he visited us he told me cheerfully that I’d regret my belief in God as Trinity when Armageddon came.

Now this has turned into my challenge for Lent. What do you do when you have to deal with people who just know that they’re right and you’re wrong? I’m very tempted to tell Tom, as nicely as I can, that though I respect his faith I believe that his interpretation of the Bible is based on entirely false premises.

But there’s not much point in doing that, except for my own satisfaction, because it will mean nothing to him; he believes he’s one of the only group which has The Truth, and all the rest of us – Christians, Jews, Buddhists, you name it – are all trapped in False Religion and deeply disapproved of by Jehovah.

Of course it isn’t just JWs. There are plenty of other religious groups who are equally sure that they’re right and so everyone else is necessarily wrong (and probably headed for a very nasty fate). Unlike them, I don’t think that the God who went to such lengths to save us from the consequences of our sin is that picky.

Can I learn to look, as God does, past the narrow views and rigid assumptions of some of the people who cross my path and see and love the image of their Creator in them? That should give me plenty of work to do this Lent, and beyond.

– mzw

Snow blindness

St. Louisans are always unpleasantly surprised by snow.

Highway authorities don’t clear it; motorists forget how to drive in it. This seems odd, given that this is the Midwest, not the South, and given that it always snows here at least a few times each year. It may not hang around for long, but you definitely know that it stopped by.

Yet we are always sore amazed when white stuff starts pelting down from the heavens. We don’t always make good choices.

I saw this the other afternoon, as big fat flakes began floating past the newsroom windows: when tough veteran journalists start fussing over a little snow, you know you’re in trouble. By the time I got on the highway at my usual time, just after 4, the expressway was solid with fleeing automobiles. A should-have-been half-an-hour trip took an hour and 15 minutes.

The problem wasn’t the snow, which had by then stopped and hadn’t left much of an impression in the first place. The problem was the drivers who assumed that the worst was on its way, left work early, and thus treated themselves (and others) to a far nastier commute than they’d have had if they’d just stuck to their regular schedules.

We do this to ourselves in other ways, too – giving way to fear or anger in work, personal and social settings, instead of calming down and waiting to see what will happen next.

Sometimes it’s best to beat a hasty retreat, but more often, with weather and with life in general, we’re better served by checking the forecast before we move.

Authority, or not

Sit down, you're rocking the boat!

This Sunday’s readings deal, in large part, with issues of authority: the passage from Nehemiah addresses rededication to the Law of Moses; 1 Corinthians speaks to the question of who performs what tasks; and Jesus, at the very start of his ministry causes a riot back home in Nazareth.

We tend to be prickly about authority, both when it comes to maintaining our own and accepting that of others. Sometimes people under authority reject it, whether because they fail to recognize it, or because they just don’t care to follow the rules. Sometimes people with authority abuse it, whether because of some variation on a political theme, or because wielding it makes them feel better about themselves.

The author of Nehemiah makes it sound simple. Rebuilding Jerusalem was hard on the people who’d stayed behind when the leaders of the city were exiled to Babylon; rudderless, they fell into easy ways, taking foreign spouses and assuming foreign customs. But when confronted with the requirements of the Law, they made the sacrifices necessary to conform to it.

In the case of Jesus, returning to the place where he grew up, authority was a much harder sell. It’s hard to go home, to people who remember changing your diapers and wiping your nose, and say, “Here I am, God’s gift to the world.” In Jesus’ case, it happened to be the absolute truth – but the neighbors, perhaps recalling old gossip as well as scraped knees, could not accept it. By rejecting Jesus’ claim, they also shut themselves off from too much that was good.

Not everyone can claim authority. Not everyone in the Body of Christ, as Paul points out, can run the show. Like any other organism beyond the unicellular, the Body of Christ has many parts, and it needs each of them to perform specific tasks.

The brain may have a high opinion of itself, but without the eyes and the ears and the nose, it can’t tell what’s going on. Without the hands and the feet, it can’t accomplish much. Without organs that perform more prosaic functions, it will simply die.

The glamour organs wouldn’t be much without hands to do their bidding, or legs and feet to take them where there is work to be done. For everyone who stands in the pulpit and teaches, there are hundreds more doing the practical work of the Gospel: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless. And who is to say that one calling is more important than another?

– sbm

Adapted from a sermon preparation study done for the Episcopal Preaching Foundation