5 Epiphany 2019, Year C

In our first reading, Isaiah describes a vision of encountering amazing, heavenly beings going about their worship of God. The very sacredness of it gives him a feeling of unworthiness even to have this feverish glimpse of the heavenly hosts. He says, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined. I’m a man with unclean lips and I live among a people with unclean lips.”

This is the response of a man deeply moved and deeply shaken by his spiritual experience. The vision makes him concerned not only for himself but for those in his faith community. They are all unclean. In the Hebrew community, “unclean” is an important concept. One bible commentary says: ‘The central lesson conveyed by this system is that God is holy but human beings are contaminated. Everyone by biology inevitably contracted uncleanness from time to time; therefore, everyone in this fallen world must be purified to approach a holy God.’

“Unclean” doesn’t mean “evil.” It means ritually impure and therefore ineligible to participate in holy matters. The holiness of the heavenly creatures in Isaiah’s vision simply drives home that point. The heavenly creatures he witnesses at worship are pure, clean, spiritual beings basking in God’s grace and glory. Compared to them, Isaiah is . . . impure, unclean, unspiritual.

While we may not use the word “unclean,” most of probably do have moments when we feel unworthy, dirty, bad; pick a term. At such times, we can focus almost too much on our faults and failures. And while these are significant, they do not completely define us. We are not, only, our negative attributes.

In a way this is what the vision is telling Isaiah. In the midst of the vision, one of the creatures literally burns away any uncleanness. “Your guilt has departed and your sin is removed.” Here is a prospect of becoming more worthy and a promise that God wants that to happen. Sin is generally not so readily removed or resolved. The Jews established rituals and annual liturgies of sacrifice for the temporary relief of the burdens of sin. The high priest presided over these liturgies.

Early Jewish Christians sometimes used this system to explain Jesus’ ministry in terms of these liturgies of sacrifice. The letter to the Hebrews likens Jesus to the high priest in charge of these, with this difference:

"t’s appropriate for us to have this kind of high priest: holy, innocent, incorrupt, separate from sinners, and raised high above the heavens. He doesn’t need to offer sacrifices every day like the other high priests, first for their own sins and then for the sins of the people. He did this once for all when he offered himself."

Do you see the similarity to Isaiah’s description of the heavenly beings in our reading? The contrast of their holiness, like Jesus’ holiness, to our own sinful nature is stark. But it is not condemning – through God’s grace, and through the efforts of the holy, we can be cleansed. Through God’s grace, we have a way out of sin.

Isaiah learned this and God called him to serve as a prophet and bear witness to that promise. In our baptisms, Jesus calls us to bear witness to a similar promise: that we are not doomed by sin. Unless we choose to turn down God’s grace.

4 Epiphany 2019, Year C

In the film Love Actually, Hugh Grant says, “When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge. They were all messages of love.”

Love is the message in our epistle, too. Even in our relatively recent translation, the centerpiece of the reading offers a well known description of some attributes of love. But the passage is so well known, so familiar, that we can gloss over it’s real message.

One commentator recently wrote about the passage: “Although we associate his words with weddings, Paul is not talking only about marital love, but about something much larger: the love all Christians should have for each other.” Literally, that is what Paul says to this divided church but his description of love is broader than that: Paul description would also include loving non-Christians.

Paul is using a particular Greek word: “agape.” It is the highest form of love; higher than, say, “I love chocolate;” or even, “John loves Mary.” Agape love is like God’s love for humanity. One web page defines “Agape” as: “embracing a universal, unconditional love that transcends and persists regardless of circumstance.”

Paul urges his readers to follow the path of agape. As Paul describes it, love is active, not just a feeling or an abstract ideal. That is, if we have agape love, we will act out of that love.

When we do act out of agape, it can confuse people. They may see us making choices that are illogical to them, because what we do is not necessarily going to be the polite thing, the expected thing, something that benefits us. Here is one example:

The book Every War Has Two Losers recounts the life and work of William Stafford (d 1993) an 20th century American poet and pacifist. In the introduction to the book, his son told this account of his father’s childhood:

“Sometime around 1920, the young William Stafford came home from school and told his mother that two new students had been surrounded on the playground and taunted by the others because they were black.

“And what did you do, Billy?” said his mother.

“I went and stood by them,” Billy said.

That story shows love in action. Young Billy Stafford didn’t know or care whether those new students were Christians, didn’t seem to notice that they had different colored skin. He only knew they needed a friend.

It was, perhaps, a childish reaction to the situation. After all, he could not really affect the outcome. He did not fight the bullies or report them to the school. But he also did more than just stand with the two new students: he did not join their tormentors and add to their burden.

Active love is rarely a big or flashy thing. It’s a day-in, day-out frame of mind. It’s as simple, and as complicated, as that.

2 Epiphany 2019, Year C

In our second reading, Paul writes about gifts of the spirit. Episcopalians don’t usually spend a lot of time thinking about gifts of the spirit, which is a tragedy in a way. In some faith communities, the gifts of the spirit are a central concern. Some Christians even have tried to determine which gifts someone needs in order to be considered a real Christian.

In our reading, Paul lists seven different gifts. To give context, before his list Paul says (in a different translation from our bulletin insert): “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (NRSV)

I want to highlight those last words: “for the common good.” The gifts we have from God are for the common good. His list of 7 gifts is not an exhaustive list of all the gifts God gives people; noone has all of them and not one of these gifts is given to everyone. In fact, in his letter to the Romans Paul offers a different list.

The gifts God has given us include natural abilities or aptitude. But also may include the training and experience we have the prepare us for our ministries. Think, for example, about healing. In some cases, natural aptitude is joined with special training. Some doctors have the ability to make rapid, accurate diagnoses, others have dexterity in their hands to give them that little bit extra skill as surgeons. Some people don’t have medical training yet have gifts of healing: perhaps miraculous healing through the laying on of hands – though that seems fairly rare these days; or a gift of comforting and encouraging the sick and their families. And these are just examples off the top of my head. They are all variations on the gift of healing: different forms for different people and situations.

Those not given a gift of healing still have received gifts of the Spirit. Some have superb empathy; some are great with computers, which in Paul’s day would have not have even surfaced let alone been useful; some are wonderful teachers, or artists in music or clay or paint, or farmers and gardeners, or chefs, or pilots, or what have you – different gifts from the Spirit.

The point is that we all have gifts which God has given us through the Spirit. Perhaps we have not recognized our own gifts as gifts; maybe we have abilities and resources we simply take for granted.

Our youngest member at Calvary is 2-year old Isabelle Payne. As a toddler, her gifts would seem to be kind of limited, and yet she has many gifts. Her personal abilities are still developing; our gifts usually emerge as we mature. But we share with her in one basic gift that some people do not have: an ability to grow and learn. Another is the gift which our other young members also demonstrate: their childish, or at least child-like, openness and joy in life.

I want to underline 2 things. We all have receive gifts for the common good. They are to be used, and for the common good; don’t get the idea that those are the same thing.

1 Epiphany 2019, Year C

While sport fishing off the Florida coast, a tourist capsized his boat. He could swim, but his fear of alligators kept him clinging to the overturned craft. Spotting an old beachcomber on the shore, the tourist shouted, “Are there any gators around here?”

“Naw,” the man hollered back. “They ain't been around for years!”

Feeling safe, the tourist started swimming leisurely toward the shore. About halfway there, he asked, “How'd you get rid of the gators?”

“We didn't do nothin',” the beachcomber said. “The sharks got 'em.”

Early in our reading from Isaiah, we find this: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when through the rivers, they won't sweep over you.” Passing through the waters is a metaphor for many dangers, toils, and snares – like alligators, illness, or flood. In the metaphor of passing through the waters, God promises, “I will be with you.”

Note that Isaiah says “When you pass through the waters,” not “If you pass through the waters.” The promise is that when life has terrible things happen, God is with us.

Isaiah is not speaking primarily to individuals but to the whole community. Today’s reading was written many generations after the time of the original Isaiah, but the writer is adopting the name Isaiah in order to address the then present situation of the nation of Israel. Israel was a nation in theory only. Their leaders and their well to do had been sent into exile, life was bleak.

In this bleakness, 2nd Isaiah, as this section is usually called, is focused on bringing hope to the exiles, reminding the Hebrew people that God had made promises to be with them, always. So in exile, God has been with them; when the exile ends, God will continue to be with them.

Here’s the thing, though: God being with them won’t somehow shield them from dangers or difficulties. So what good is the promise that God is with them, or with us? It’s a shift in perspective, for one thing. When something terrible happens, it was not God who caused it, even if God did not intervene to stop it from happening. God is in the midst of the people as they go through the event and God is in the midst of the people as they struggle in its aftermath.

God inspires and empowers people to step up in faith to help others with their time, talents, and treasure. And God lightens the load of the afflicted by giving them loving companions to be with them on the road. This is why I stressed that Isaiah was talking to the whole community because the whole community uplifts and supports one another; they laugh cry together as the situation warrants.

There's a story about a woman who was grieving the loss of her husband. Throughout the deepest time of bereavement, she kept coming to church, but she would just stand there with the hymnal in her hands, not singing. A close friend noticed this and said, “I see you're not singing, and I also know how much you love to sing. Why don't you just try to join in? It'll make you feel better.”

“I'm sorry,” said the bereaved woman, “but I just can't sing right now. I'm sure that I will, eventually. But for now, I know the church is singing the hymns for me, and that's a great source of comfort.”