3rd Sunday after Epiphany

January 23, 2005
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 9:1-4
Reading 2: 
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
Reading 3: 
I Corinthians 1:10-18
Reading 4: 
Matthew 4:12-23
By Tari Lennon

Let me begin this week by saying that the tragedies unfolding in Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Indonesia, et al., have completely redirected the focus of my thought for this season of Epiphany. I offer this word to you because today’s reflections will not seem to follow easily from what has been offered for the first two weeks in Epiphany. Certainly it is not uncommon for the events of the week to alter our plans for Sunday morning worship in general and our sermons in particular. But what has transpired and will continue to transpire is not just an event, even a life-altering event. It is a catastrophe of such magnitude that the world will be dealing with its consequences for years, decades, perhaps a generation. And of course, those affected directly will live with the consequences forever. So . . .

With the images and stories of such massive devastation and loss overwhelming us, but within the safety and comfort of our distanced lives, what indeed is the (Epiphany) word for our brothers and sisters in southeast Asia? And obviously, when I use the words "brothers and sisters," I am not using them in the traditional meaning of us all being …"one in Christ…" since the majority of the tsunami victims were Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu. More importantly, is there a word?

I would think the word would be "bigger.” If ever there was a bigger catastrophe--as of this writing 155,000 dead and rising--I don’t know when, or where, or to whom. If ever collective human need was bigger I don’t know when. If ever the entire human species was called upon to act, I don’t know where. If ever there was a need to preach a complete gospel, it is now. By "complete," I mean darkness as well as light; despair as well as hope; suffering as well as well-being; death as well as life. Just coincidentally, that is what the season of Epiphany asks of us as well. In the completeness, Epiphany, especially Epiphany, challenges us to see the bigger, get the bigger, do the bigger and become bigger.

As we know from textual criticism Psalm 27 is probably two psalms. When exactly verses 1-6 and 7-14 were redacted is not certain. The very fact of that work is the bigger of it. It is a religious sensibility that gives rise to the conviction that trust and fear, or hope and grief, or affirmation and lamentation are yoked together. It is no more appropriate to see God singling us out for success than it is to blame God for misfortune. What is appropriate is the understanding that life happens and no matter what transpires in life the bond between God and us will never be severed. God is in the midst of the sorrow and participant in the joy. And we know that from the relational nature of life itself.

Yet further, the editor of this psalm knew that it would be chanted or sung within a community, that it had been chanted/sung before, and would be sung/chanted again. Once again, the bigger of it goes to the recognition that just because something sounds personal in expression does not make it private in reality. Our psalmists assume that there are commonalities in human experience and that those commonalities yoke us together regardless of geography, biography, or even the century in which we live(d). Now, that’s big! In its very existence this psalm, like so many of the psalms, asks us to understand that every time we repeat it we evoke all who have said it before us and act as a fulcrum for all who will say it after us. Our connections to one another transcend all separations, even time itself.

In fairly creative fashion Paul is doing something similar in his correspondence with the church in Corinth . Just as an aside, I love imagining the unknown Chloe and her people, running back and forth between Ephesus and Corinth to fill Paul in on the latest tidbits of gossip and taking great pleasure in watching him react. Sound familiar? (Paul’s churches, as we know, were more like house-churches and not uncommonly people/staff in the household of the house-church took the name of the owner of the
house. It is possible, therefore, that Chloe was a successful merchant of some sort, involved in commerce which would have required considerable travel. For me, little bits of information like this kindle the imagination in such fiery ways that I couldn’t resist sharing).

In his concern over conflicts and rivalries in the Corinthian situation, Paul is onto something important. In Descent Into Hell (1937) and All Hallows Eve (1945), Charles Williams grapples with how everything effects everything else and how we co-inhere with one another. Now it might seem strange for a process theologian to be invoking the works of one who was and continues to be termed a supernaturalist. But just as efforts are currently underway to reinterpret and rehabilitate Paul for our time, so also Williams affords us an opportunity to do the same work for the concept of supernaturalism. For Williams the supernatural was not about an arbitrary and intrusive God but rather modes of existence and realms of experience beyond our immediate awareness and comprehension. Aware or not, those modes and realms both impinge upon us and influence our choices and behavior.

That is why Paul is so intense in his confrontation of the "divisions among you. ” It almost doesn’t matter what the issue is that is causing the conflicts, it is the divisiveness itself that is of concern to Paul. Why? Because in Christ such treatment of one another is unacceptable. That people should disagree with each other is one thing, but that people should compete with each other, and to compete to gain advantage is another.

Such behavior points to a blindness, an inability or refusal to see that baptism in Christ has nothing to do with personal gain and everything to do with how we treat one another and in that treating create community. For Paul the Christ of God discloses in dramatic fashion that we participate in one another. We don’t just participate with each other or for each other but in each other. We co-inhere with each other. Accordingly, to use a phrase from John Cobb, we are relativized by the needs of others. Superiority, arrogance, one-upmanship have no place in a community gathered in the name of Christ. In fact, just the opposite must become characteristic of a Christ-centered community--building up, not tearing down; giving to not just taking from; reaching out not just digging in; embracing the entire world not just hugging those we know and like.

Many years ago, in the early 1970’s I attended a Methodist (Women’s) Missions Conference in San Diego , California . The preacher for the week was the Rev. Don Selby. His texts for the week were taken primarily from Paul’s correspondence with the church in Rome . At one point in the week he asked the question, "what difference does it make if we give a glass of water to a thirsty man in the name of Christ or we give the thirsty man a glass of water?” I thought it was a rhetorical question seeing as how it came in the midst of his morning meditation. Nevertheless, many different people sitting in different places in the auditorium offered answers to the question.

After some moments the responses ceased and the room was quiet. Finally someone called out, "well, what’s the answer preacher?” Don Selby’s answer was swift and sure, "no difference. ” There were gasps, but also "ahhhs" and even some applause. I thought then and continue to think that that was quite remarkable for the early 70’s at a Methodist women’s Missions Conference in San Diego , California . The meaning of that moment has gotten bigger for me over the years as my own understanding of the Christ has grown. Both in our misplaced involvements in the Middle East and our desperately needed involvements in Asia we must continue to make choices and opt for behaviors that bear clear witness not to a system of beliefs but to an understanding of relationships--irreducible and irreplaceable--for a world engorged with so much loss.

And that truly is the bigger of it.

Addendum: I have spent so much time on two of the texts that I am reluctant to launch into the other two. But do notice that in the Matthean passage Jesus is serving notice from the beginning that he is doing things differently from how they are usually done. It was the practice in Jesus’ time for people (men) to seek out a particular rabbi to aid them in their learning and help them advance in their religious understanding. In that way, rabbis developed followings and became known for particular teachings. Jesus himself does the going-to and asking that certain individuals join him. He doesn’t wait to be discovered or give people time to decide if they want his message or not, or to develop a following. He "Carp Diems" before we had those T-shirts. I love his daring and what could be construed even as bravado. Not much sentimental or cynical there, just panache.

The Isaiah text is so familiar and so used . . . just one cautionary word: darkness is important, it is not negative, it is not simply the absence of light, and as most artists will attest, absolutely essential to the act of painting.

The Rev. Dr. Tari Lennon is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and holds degrees in theology, ministry and psychology. She retired from parish ministry after 43 years and now convenes Open Gatherings which draws people together from all faiths and nonfaiths to explore topics of spirituality, relationships, and personal ethics.