Leaving the Mountain

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Transfiguration is here again. The story brings with it an invitation to follow Jesus up a mountain, sit, pray, and expect God to show up. The trick is that we have to allow God to be God and not comply with what we think is appropriate. Peter, James, and John were likely dumbfounded when Jesus started to glow and two others showed up with him. They might have understood that Jesus was up to something when he invited them to go mountain climbing, but they could not have imagined what they experienced on the top of that mountain. They were so enthralled that they wanted to build tabernacles and stay for a while. Isn’t that what we have done?

We have built tabernacles to our image of church and we have overstayed our usefulness. At one point in time, our buildings were a reflection of where God was in the lives of followers. We had religious and spiritual experiences and we honored those with dwelling places for God Most High. And we have failed to hear Jesus calling us away from the mountain top. It is highly unlikely that God is going to show up in the same way again. Our buildings, our traditions, reveal where we have been. Seeking to maintain them as they are prevents us from seeing where and how God is transfiguring those around us. Our dedication to the past also keeps us on the mountain top where we can ignore those who are in need of healing and inclusion in the Body of Christ.

This week’s vote by the United Methodist Church to deny full inclusion to LGBTQ+ folx is a vote to remain tabernacle on the mountain top, expecting repetition from a God of new life. It’s heartbreaking to see a church divide while holding onto archaic biblical interpretation which leads to excluding people whom God loves. In this case, the small majority of UMC voters failed to hear Jesus call to hike down the mountain and heal those in need of Divine Love. Of course, this stance is not limited to the UMC. Across all denominations there are people who believe the tradition of judgment and exclusion is more important than embracing LGBTQ+ folx with Christian love.

LGBTQ+ folx being welcomed by the church is not the only place where we insist on staying safe in our dwelling places. We have also failed to offer welcome to persons with mental health concerns and persons with physical disabilities. Our biblical understanding has gone unchallenged and has confined us to the past. The tabernacles built by our ancestors were not meant to define the limits of the Body of Christ. Every day we have opportunities to bear witness to the power of transformation, if not transfiguration. Transfiguration, Jesus shining with glory, is present every time the Body of Christ extends genuine welcome to those we have previously excluded.

We can no longer afford to sustain the tradition that tells us that being an LGBTQ+ individual is a sin. Nor can we keep telling ourselves that having a mental illness is a punishment for sin, a sign of a character flaw, or demon possession. So, too, we cannot think of physical disabilities in a similar way. The Bible was written long before science could explain any of these things. It was written at time when people believed that all things were either a sign of God’s blessing or God’s displeasure. Surely we know better now. Surely we know that all human beings are made in the image of God and, at any moment, can shine with Christ’s glory.

It’s time we come down off the mountain and offer healing to all who suffer. After all, my friends, the Body of Christ is queer. The Body of Christ has mental illness. The Body of Christ has disabilities. These are facts. They will not change. Let’s leave our tabernacles where Jesus’ glory has shined in the past and turn our attention toward the valleys of people in need of healing and welcome. We never know where or when or in whom God’s glory will next be revealed. Yet, it isn’t likely that God will return to the mountain top after telling us to hike back down…

If you are looking for more sermon help, try here.

RCL Year C – Transfiguration Sunday – March 3, 2019
Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12–4:2
Luke 9:28-36 (37-43)

Photo: CC0 image by Adam R

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The Ways of Dust

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When will we stop honoring the dust and start embracing heaven? There’s more than enough judgement and hatred going around. They conspire together to builds walls and condemn anyone who isn’t white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical, economically sound, well-educated, and male. These socially endorsed biases are decidedly not Christian. Yet, we continue to act as if they are. How easily we forget that Jesus was not a white, wealthy man. We just as easily forget that we are to love not condemn or judge.

Jesus was pretty clear that we are supposed to love our enemies with a God-like, unconditional kind of love. We are not meant to judge or dismiss someone because of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, or economics, or even religious practice. We are, as Paul put it, called to bear, to embody, to reflect, the image of Christ, the One of heaven. Instead we live in fear of the other. We believe the on-going lies of the Empire that say only the powerful must remain in power and anyone else is a threat. As a result we live in fear of our neighbors and Jesus’ call to love remains mostly unheeded. Or, at the very least, we tend to love only those who love us.

I’m particularly sensitive to the discrepancy between the love Jesus called us to embody and the love we actually embody. I grew up without a lot of love in my life and, as a result, questioned my value as a person. While the church provided safe harbor for me, it did not replace the lack of love in my life. And, later, the church proved just as unsafe a place for me as my home had been. How many times have I been told that a woman cannot and should not be a pastor? How many times have I been told that I cannot be a pastor because I am married to another woman? How many times I have I been made to feel inadequate or shame because I came from a poor family? How many times have I hidden or lied about the mental health challenges in my family or in my own life? How many times have I ignored, hidden, or dismissed my chronic illness? All these judgments coming from those who call themselves Christians, myself included.

We wonder why the church is struggling to survive the transformation that is in progress. We struggle, at least in part, because we have fallen into the service of the empire. Church has taken on all the values of society and tried to shape them into the Body of Christ with far too much success. However, if we are to survive the refining fires of transformation, we must turn our attention away from the powers of dust and toward the powers of heaven. We can no longer afford (if we ever could) to embrace the empire. Jesus spoke against the oppressive Roman Empire with every word and action. If we are the embodiment of Christ today, then we ought to be doing the same.

Our history of valuing what society values – wealth, power, success (as defined by those with power) – has not served us well. It has divided us one from another and detracted from our mission of bringing the Realm of God into the here and now. The time for facing our fears has come. What will it mean if we fully accept women in ministry? What will it mean if we embrace all our LGBTQ+ neighbors and welcome them into the full life of the church? What will it mean if we try out worship styles born of other cultures? What will it mean if denominations come together and create something new? What will it mean if all our buildings become fully accessible to people with physical disabilities? What will it mean if all our services and activities become accessible to people with cognitive impairment? What will it mean if we recognize that it takes the full diversity of humanity to truly embody Christ in the world today? What are we afraid of losing? What are we afraid of gaining?

Jesus commanded us to love one another exactly as we are loved by God – no limits, no conditions, no end. All that separates us is constructed by human minds and hands; we are all equal before God. The Body of Christ is impaired by racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, and a whole bunch of other fears handed to us by the empire that would prefer to keep us all separated and disempowered. Imagine a world in which we discard fear and embrace Love… Let us exchange the ways of dust for the ways of heaven…

RCL – Year C – Seventh Sunday after Epiphany – February 24, 2019
Genesis 45:3–11, 15
Psalm 37:1–11, 39–40
1 Corinthians 15:35–38, 42–50
Luke 6:27–38

Photo: CC0 image by Tom

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Mistaken Blessings

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At 3:03 am I woke with these words in my head, “Holy S***! We have been so wrong about what it means to be blessed!” Before these words, I had been dreaming about walking on a beach in the midst of an intense winter storm. I was dressed warmly and could walk through the winds, the ice and snow, and crashing waves without distress or discomfort. I was desperately searching for someone or something. Then I woke up with a revelation echoing through my head.

As long as there has been human beings, we’ve associated prosperity or success with God’s blessing. Our accumulation of wealth and power, individually or communally or nationally, is proclaimed as evidence of living in a way that pleases God. I think this is wrong, misguided, though understandable. God does not hand out rewards or punishments to the chosen few (or many). God really cannot work that way or the wealthiest, most power-centered people would be the ones God most favors. If that were the case, God would be on the side of empire-building oppressors. How have we not seen that we have attributed the things that this world values as a sign of God’s favor? God does not value these things.

In fact, God values the very opposite. In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes we are told what God’s blessings look like. We are also told that woe will come to those who ignore those whom God views as blessed. While Jesus is clear about who is blessed and who is not, we have embraced the opposite point of view. We have fooled ourselves and created a breach between popular Christianity and God’s holy ways.

Jesus tells us that the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the reviled (for the sake of the Gospel) are blessed. Yet, we tend to blame them for their situations. We see poverty as a failure to work hard. We see hunger as a failure to use resources well. We see weeping as a character flaw. Most startlingly, we see anyone who might be persecuted for faith as lacking a fundamental degree of sanity. It’s as if we have not heard a word Jesus said.

How is it that we have come to seek after riches, full bellies, easy laughter, and the approval of those around us above other, more essential, things? According to Jesus, these things are met with woe. These are not the blessings God hands out. Yet, we repeated live as if this were the truth. How many times do we hear folks saying, “I am so blessed” because they have achieved something culture has determined is good and worthy?

It’s important to note that Jesus was speaking to his disciples when he called out the blessedness of those we would rather ignore. Because the blessedness comes when we are active in service to our neighbors. The blessedness comes through relationship that results from building the Realm of God. As followers of Christ, we are blessed when we are poor because we have used our financial resources in service to our neighbors. We are blessed when we are hungry because we have shared our food with our neighbors. We are blessed when we are weeping because we are merciful and compassionate in relationship with our neighbors. We are blessed when we are reviled because we have sought to bring Divine Love into the world above all else. Blessing comes in the hardships wrought through embodying Christ in the world today.

On the other hand, if we are rich it is because we have not shared our resources to the fullest extent possible. If our stomachs and cabinets are full, then we have not added enough seats to our table. If we are laughing, then we have not risked depth of relationship with our neighbors. And if we are not reviled or ridiculed for the sake of the Gospel, then we have failed to build the Realm of God.

We really have been wrong about being blessed. Individual, communal, or national prosperity is not a gift from God if it leaves out any of our neighbors. As followers of Christ we have no business being rich if anyone around us is poor. We have no right to be full if any of our neighbors are hungry. We have no right to easy laughter if any of our neighbors feels unloved, unwanted, or unseen. We ought not seek the approval of others before we seek to bring Love into the world. All these things will bring distress, if not to us then to our neighbors.

May we adjust our understanding of what it means to be blessed by God. Prosperity, wealth, power, success mean nothing if our neighbors have so little. God does not choose one person over another. Human beings have set up kyriarchy. Let us find the blessing in dismantling it and repairing the breach that we have made between what we value and what God values. Let us all seek to be blessed in the ways that Jesus indicated.

RCL – Year C – Sixth Sunday after Epiphany – February 17, 2019
Jeremiah 17:5–10
Psalm 1
1 Corinthians 15:12–20
Luke 6:17–26

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Let’s Be Like Peter

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I like Peter. In fact he is one of my biblical favorites. He has moments of impulsive wackiness, flashes of transformative insight, and he’s totally caught up in his humanity. And Jesus relied on him through it all. If Peter could be Peter and love and serve God, then there’s hope for me, for the rest of us. Luke’s story at the lake of Gennesaret is the perfect example of the hope Peter provides for all of would-be followers of Christ.

Early in the morning the fishermen return with empty nets and were washing them out. Jesus comes along and asks Peter to row out a bit. Jesus then proceeds to teach the crowds from the boat. We don’t know how long he spoke or what he said. All we know is that when Jesus was done addressing the crowd, he told Peter to continue out into deep water. I can almost see Peter roll his eyes before telling Jesus that they’d been out all night and caught nothing. But sure, if you say so, I’ll go out again.

Peter humored the unusual rabbi and lowered his nets once more. To Peter’s astonishment, it was worth it. He needed help hauling in his nets which were full to breaking. And it hits him with full force just who Jesus is and just who he is, “Lord, get away from me! I am a sinner! I did not believe in you or in myself. You picked the wrong guy. I am not worthy.” Jesus response is perfect. “Do not be ruled by your fear. You are meant to be catching people in nets of Love. Come on, we have work to do. You and me, and James, and John, and others along the way. Leave your fear with your boats and follow me.”

And Peter does! Peter will screw up again. His humanity will get the better of him and he will forget that Jesus is Lord. He will let fear overtake him again and again. His impulsive acts will get him into trouble. But he always comes back to Jesus and setting up those nets of love to catch people up short and free them from their fear.

The world needs more Peters. I try. I try not to get caught up in my fear or the fear that is so pervasive around me. I try to string those nets of Love, tying new knots where anger and hatred have torn through. Then there are those days when I just want to cry out, “Lord, get away from me; I am a sinner. I don’t believe this can be done. I don’t believe it can be done by the likes of me. I am afraid to love those who spew so much hatred. I am afraid that anger will get the better of me. I am not the one you want out in the deep water. I don’t think I can drop these nets.”

If I am honest, Jesus is always there saying, “Yes, you can. Love is stronger than fear. Most people don’t remember that, ever. Let down your nets and others will come to help bring in the catch. We have work to do.”

Yes, we have work to do. When a wall is being built in a way that separates loved ones on an arbitrary, human-made border, where is Love? When congressional women wear white and are called defiant rather than powerful and strong, where is Love? When white men in power refuse responsibility for their racism and the racist system that supports it, where is Love? When faithful people of all religions squabble about dogma and doctrine rather than coming together in efforts to raise up humanity and care for the planet, where is Love?

In this time of extraordinary fear and hatred, we must put our trust in that unusual Rabbi who directs us all to venture into deep waters. Then remains with us when we question our value, our ability and wonder if there is any such thing as holy wisdom and guidance, let alone Love. We cannot afford to give in to the fear and hatred that is encouraged by those in power. We need to string together our nets made of Love until acts of resistance topple the current empire and Love has its day. It has to be possible. We cannot give up. Do not be afraid. We are called to catch people with these holy nets tied together with Love.

RCL – Year C – Fifth Sunday after Epiphany – February 10, 2017
Isaiah 6:1–8, (9–13)
Psalm 138
1 Corinthians 15:1–11
Luke 5:1–11

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Life on the Edge

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I am afraid of heights even though I don’t want to be. If I am up high and get the feeling like I could fall, vertigo hits in a big way. I get dizzy and hear buzzing in my ears which increases the feeling that I could fall. It doesn’t matter how safe I am, it happens and I cannot rationalize it away. Truthfully, though, I don’t avoid heights. If need be, I will climb the ladder or the mountain, walk along the bluffs, and peer over the edge. The vertigo will hit and the dizziness will come with its buzzing in my ears and I will wait for it to pass. And it does. Everytime.

I read the passage about the people of Nazareth pushing Jesus to the edge of a cliff because they were angry at him. They were angry that he spoke truth in their midst and challenged the status quo. They were just going to push him over the edge of a cliff so they could resume their life as usual. I would like to think that I wouldn’t have joined in with that crowd that day. I would like to think I was among those who helped Jesus slip through the fear and anger and go on to another town. However, I’m not so sure that would be the case.

Everyday I hear about someone pushing Jesus off a cliff and sometimes it’s me who gives the last push. You know what I mean. When someone claims to be a follower of Jesus and refuses to act with love and compassion. When someone says they are Christian and pretends not to see the person sitting out in the cold asking for help. When someone professes Christ and then engages in politics of hatred. When Christians remain silent while racism governs too much of what passes for justice. When Christians hide behind the law and blame victims for the violence they experience. When Christians think that Jesus was white and endorsed the same supremacist views they hold now. All these things push Jesus to the edge of the cliff. Then my own collusion in the racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and zenophobia push him right off the edge.

The irony here is unmistakable. Those Nazarenes wanted to throw Jesus off the cliff because he challenged them to see beyond the limits of their comfort. He wanted them to see God-in-their-midst, standing right in front of them. He wanted them to take a stance against their oppressors. He wanted them to break free of the status quo and claim their power in love, love of themselves and love of their neighbors. He wanted them to live life without the limits of fear and hatred. He wanted them to claim their place by his side as siblings, neighbors, friends, as God’s beloved. He wanted them to claim their place and leave no one out.

They couldn’t do it. They couldn’t hear what he had to say. They couldn’t see who he was. Their fear and complacency was way too powerful. They believed the lies of their oppressors. They believed they were powerless to change the norms of their day. They chose security and predictability over the unpredictable safety of loving those around them with unconditional love that comes from seeking the Divine in everyone, even the Romans and those in Rome’s employ. They chose the security of the Empire over the intensity of living in God’s love. And they tried to push Jesus off a cliff.

Isn’t it time for us to line up along the edge of that cliff and prevent anyone from throwing Jesus over? It’s scary, I know. When you step close to the edge, there’s nothing at your back. Vertigo might hit hard. Your ears might fill with a buzzing sound. Your knees might grow week. But take a breath and take the hand of the person standing next to you. Life on the edge doesn’t mean life alone. All the people who have been dismissed and dehumanized are right there, too. They’ve been waiting to be seen and heard while trying not to fall over the edge into the abyss.

Maybe we should all take a look around and ask ourselves where we are in terms of that cliff. Are we in the heart of the Empire trying to keep ourselves secure? Have we sentenced others to walk the cliff edge so we can keep our privilege? How many times have we pushed Jesus off the cliff so we can keep ignoring the needs of our neighbors? It’s time we address our fears. Our fear of heights and our fear of Love. It’s not too late. Just reach out a hand and see God-in-our-midst in the eyes of your neighbor. The Empire has no power if we unite with everyone on the margins and refuse to send anyone over the cliff.

RCL – Year C – Fourth Sunday after Epiphany – February 3, 2019
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

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Fear Not

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“You are going to hell.” I was about fourteen the first time someone said this to me. I had attended a youth group meeting with a friend at a conservative church. After the meeting one of the kids asked me if I had been saved. Not having any idea of what was being asked, I said that I didn’t think so. Didn’t I want to be? I wasn’t sure. A little more cajoling followed and I remained uncertain and a little confused; I thought I already was a Christian. No one told me that I needed to be saved. The end result was the certain proclamation that I was going to hell. Since I wasn’t sure that hell existed as a place, I wasn’t overly concerned. However, I did think about it. And I worried that maybe I wasn’t the “right” kind of Christian.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the last time I was informed of my destined date with hell. It has been repeated more times than I can count over the course of my life. Some people were genuinely concerned for the state of my soul. Others were angry that I understood Jesus differently, and in a way that gave me permission to be me. Some just tried to instill the “fear of God” in me. Of all the things to be afraid of, I’m not sure God should be one of them.

Fear is not the best motivator for human behavior. When we do something because we are afraid of what will happen if we don’t do it, that fear narrows our world view. It’s a slow and gradual shutting down or shutting out of options. Fear eventually backs us into the corner where either meets or and we can see nothing else. I know Proverbs says that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” but it doesn’t mean what some people think it does. In this case awe is a better word than fear. Awe implies respect, a recognition of something greater than ourselves. It’s a better to approach God with awe than it is with fear. Fear has a way of narrowing down our lives.

In my teens I was anorexic. I remember the gradual way in which my choices to eat or not eat transformed into something I had no control over. In a matter of months, I was terrified of eating and of gaining weight. I knew what I was doing was unhealthy, wrong even, and I was absolutely powerless. It was a very long time before I could make a choice about my body that was not governed by fear.

This kind of governance by fear has no place in church. God isn’t sitting around waiting for us to mess up so God can pounce on us with wrath and punishment. When we act a certain way because we are afraid of God’s anger or afraid of going to hell, it won’t be long until we find ourselves trapped. We will be trapped into believing that there is only a right way or a wrong way to follow Jesus, to please God. Fear limits our vision and our imaginations. It can leave us spiritually hungry with no way to feed ourselves.

On the other hand, if we act the way we do out of love for God and gratitude for God’s love for us, our options open up. The Spirit isn’t limited to the narrow corridors defined by fear. Instead, the Spirit can flow and inspire us in all kinds of ways; either/or becomes a thing of the past. The more we recognize that God’s primary way of being known is through acts of loving-kindness, the more likely we are to generate those acts. As much as fear can narrow our vision, love is just the opposite.

When Jesus read from scripture in that synagogue in Nazareth, he was not trying to goad people into faith through fear; he was trying to demonstrate just how much God loves them. Motivated by love, Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, release the captives, give sight to the blind, free the oppressed, and proclaim God’s favor. Could it get any better than this? Jesus demonstrated God’s love with words and actions, and invites us to do the same. We are to engage in these same actions, not out of fear of hell if we don’t do them, but in response to or gratitude for God’s love for us. Where fear limits, love frees.

We can let go of our fear of God’s wrath and eternal punishment and take our places within the Body of Christ. We can take up the mantle of Love and get busy bringing good news to the poor, releasing the captives, creating new visions, freeing the oppressed, and shouting God’s favor with our whole lives. This is a lot of work and it takes time and commitment, but it sounds a whole lot more fun than sitting trapped in a corner somewhere trying to make a choice between either and or. A long time ago, God declared an amazing, unending love for the whole of the cosmos. Isn’t it time we stopped being afraid that we won’t or can’t be included or that there somehow wont’ be enough for everyone and start living in the fullness of God’s grace and abundant love?

If you are looking for more sermon help, try here.

RCL – Year C – Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 27, 2019
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

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Who are You?

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What makes us who we are? Is it what we do? Is it what happens to us? Is it our race or gender, gender expression, sexual orientation? Our age or education? Is it the way other people see us or the way we see ourselves? What makes us ordinary or extraordinary? Is it genetics or family relationships? What about environment or economics or opportunities? Mental health or physical health? My mother once told me that my grandmother asked how I could possibly have gotten into Princeton when I didn’t know anyone. Of course, my mother also told me that I had some “artistic skills” but they were learned, and my brother had the “real” talent. I grew up feeling less than ordinary, less than important. It took years to change that.

In more recent years I’ve been dismissed as just a woman, too young or too old depending on the circumstances. Sometimes it’s just a pastor. Sometimes it’s just queer. I shouldn’t know what I know or be able to do what I do because I’m not something in the eyes of someone who at least thinks they have power or authority over me. I can’t be Christian because I’m bi-sexual. I can’t be a pastor because I’m a woman. I can’t speak to mental health issues because I was educated in seminaries. The list goes on and on. I used to believe these judgments. I used to question myself and my value and my abilities all the time. I had a voice in the back of my head that constantly second guessed nearly everything I said or did.

Not anymore. Maybe it’s the privilege of being over 50, maybe it’s grace, maybe it’s healing, but I’ve come to a place where I know that no one thing defines me. I am more than a sum of all my experiences, education, roles, mistakes, and triumphs. I am decidedly more than anyone’s perception or judgement of who I am, or who I am not. And you know what? I am extraordinary.

And so are you. It’s ridiculous to allow anyone or any one thing to define who we are unless, of course, we’re talking about faith. God tells me I am Beloved and I am Delight. God says the same thing of every human being. Unfortunately, we don’t believe this message of love and value as readily as we believe the people who dismiss, devalue, and demean us.

Maybe more importantly, we believe that our value is determined by all the things society tells us define us. The funny thing is that social values are established and maintained by those with power. Those with power will always seek to disempower and oppress everyone else. They will twist everything to their version of truth and tell us everything else is wrong. How many of us have fallen prey to this power-hungry, greedy nonsense?

How many times and how many ways has God demonstrated God’s love for humanity? How many stories do we have that tell us it is God who makes the ordinary extraordinary? Jesus turned water into wine. The water was in purification jars and Jesus made it into wine. Water for purification rituals wasn’t needed when Divine Love Incarnate was present. Why not take that water and turn it into wine that would allow the wedding host to continue to offer hospitality?

This story also tells us that we become extraordinary when we use our gifts in service to someone else. Who we are and what we are able to do, don’t matter if we don’t use what we have in service to others. We are not meant to deplete ourselves for the sake of others. We are meant to serve others in a way that builds them up, that communicates their value as God’s Beloved or God’s Delight.

Imagine how different the world would be if we all recognized who we are and used the gifts we have in service to others. If everyone did this, not for the purpose of recognition, validation, praise, or payment, but to share the knowledge and power of God’s love? How extraordinary would we all be then?

RCL – Year C – Second Sunday after Epiphany – January 20, 2019
Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

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