Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Vigil with the Word: Year C, Third Sunday after Epiphany

The texts for the third sunday after Epiphany are:

Luke 4:14-21
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Psalm 19

My commentary for this week focuses on the Gospel and the Epistle.

Luke 4:14-31
 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

Jesus is proclaiming what he is called to do…”bring good news to the poor”, “proclaim release to the captives”, “recovery of sight”, “let the oppressed go free” and finally,
an allusion to the Hebraic concept of the Year of Jubilee, which would free slaves and cancel debts. This seems like it would be good news.  Jesus says, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” which could also be interpreted as, “I am the one who is here to do these things.”

And yet, the part of this story that is not included in the lectionary is the part where people in Jesus’ hometown are “filled with rage” (verse 28) and “led him to the brow of the hill…so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” (verse 29)  What is so controversial about these words?  What could possibly be bad about freeing those in captivity and oppression? 

I think the friction lies in what we would want and what God wants for us.  We would like to grasp firmly onto any semblance of control of our own lives and destiny.  And we really do not have that much control at all.  I am reminded of this on a regular basis by trauma and illness and death.  We do not want a God, no matter how merciful, setting us free from anything, because that means that we are ultimately not in charge of determining our own destiny.  The promise of freedom from captivity and oppression, even if we are our own jailers, means acknowledging that we do not control everything. With that comes fear.

I meet a surprising number of families who do not want the word “hospice” mentioned to their loved one who has a terminal diagnosis. That if by controlling the mention of that word, they might hold at bay what is coming as a result of aging or illness. I met a patient recently from a family who has chosen not to use the word hospice who asked me, “Am I dying?”  And I asked her, “What do you think?”  She responded, “I think I am. God told me not to be afraid.  Soon I’ll be free from this old body. That sounds nice.”    But this patient could not talk about her joy because of her family’s fear of her death. Fear is a powerful oppressor.  What joy might we find if we approach the dying process as a year of Jubilee?  It is a time of being freed from bondage of ill health and a clearing of sight to see what matters and ultimately, letting the oppressed go free from broken bodies.

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.
 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
“Indeed, the body does not consist of one member, but of many.”

We’ve all heard that it takes a village to raise a child. But it also takes a village to help one person leave this world in peace. Whether at home, with relatives attending to basic physical needs and providing comfort, or in a nursing facility or hospital with a rotating group of nurses, aides, housekeepers, social workers, chaplains, and others providing care and comfort, someone nearing the end of their life needs a village.  We belong to each other. 

“There are many members, yet one body.” 

I recently was blessed to witness an extraordinary example of community and belonging.  A patient who has lived over a century, was admitted to hospice care. This patient far out-lived her friends and even distant relatives. Her primary caretaker is a neighbor who cares tenderly for her and brings her soup and cries beautiful tears of love for her. We truly belong to each other.

“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.”

To be part of the Body of Christ, it costs us something.  It costs us our hard shells of self-reliance and opens up our mushy insides so that we are open to feeling the pain of others. I think the greatest gift of being human is being in relationship with others.

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”

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