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Sermon/Rector's Report for January 23, 2022: Jesus's Agenda (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White )

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.

Once a year in Jewish communities around the world, people gather to sing, dance, and feast together for the day of Simchat Torah, the Celebration of the Law. Now, prior to the pandemic we used to have snacks at our Annual Meeting, and I do know a few people (who we call “Canon Wonks”) who like to read our church rules, but I can’t actually imagine any one of you singing or dancing when we read our bylaws. We simply don’t have this kind of excitement for the rules. Which is fair, since watching court television or a few hours of CSPAN suggests that the people charged with making and protecting our laws don’t have a lot of interest in them either. I had a conversation with one of our local police officers recently and I asked him about pursuing someone who had stolen something from our property, and he said, “We hardly bother anymore because we know that even if we catch them the DA won’t charge them.”

Of course, the laws he was talking about are the laws of human beings. The law that is celebrated in Simchat Torah is the law of God- and today’s first reading is the story of the origin of that celebration. Surprisingly, perhaps, the people who gathered that day were not so different from Christians today: their community was shrunken and divided – far from the strong, united people it had been. In their case this was because they had only recently returned from a long exile and could not agree on how they should rebuild their community now that they were back in their homeland. “The future of the people [was] in serious doubt. Enemies [were attacking] from the outside, but even more disruptively internal disagreements threaten[ed] to undermine the community’s future. The people form[ed] factions, arguing about who [was] in and who [was] out…their identity [came] unraveled.”[1] They needed to find something to agree on, something to bring them together. They needed to hear some scripture – and it worked. Standing together and hearing God’s law reminded them of who they were. It brought them joy.

This is both inspiring and ironic, given that one of the things that divides many of us who claim allegiance to Jesus the Christ is the way in which we read and interpret scripture. I am astounded by how Bible passages are used to justify violence, hatred, exclusion, bigotry, and other values that Jesus condemned. One wonders how, if we are reading the same texts, our beliefs can vary so significantly.

The answer is that we are not reading them in the same way. Our scriptures cover a span of twelve hundred years and have at least 44 authors. They contain inconsistent histories and different versions of the same stories. Our formal tales of Jesus come from the letters of one person and four gospel writers, but we know that those texts were chosen from among many for inclusion in the New Testament canon by a group of politicians at a conference. We know, then, that the Bible is a human creation and is therefore flawed, making it is easy, if it is your goal, to pick out phrases from it that seem to support whatever idea you wish to argue. Individual words and phrases in a vast sea of authors and eras, however, have little meaning and are easy to misconstrue.

Episcopalians believe that the Bible was inspired by God and contains all things necessary for salvation. It is to be read and considered in its entirety. It has a pattern, and that pattern is the story of the relationship between God and humanity – and, like the story of any relationship, it’s complicated. Think of the box under your bed or the scrapbook in your attic that chronicles your true love. There are shared poems and songs. Memories of people getting emotional and doing stupid things. Each partner remembers it differently, and our human memory fails us when it comes to accuracy – but the important parts – the truth of how you fell in love and fought and made up and fell in love again and, in God’s case, was willing to risk anything to be together forever are all there and completely consistent. Every word does not have to be accurate for the reality of God’s love to be true. God is – and God’s law is a sign of God’s love.

When we read scripture this way, we understand that God’s law was never meant to be hurt or exclude or to justify hatred or violence. God’s laws have always existed to help creation not to sever us from one another. From the very beginning, God has tried to protect us from our own worst instincts - and we have resisted. Scripture tells us that God keeps trying to help us find our way, to teach us how to live with one another in peace and with love. That is why at the gathering now celebrated as Simchat Torah the people cheered when Ezra read the Torah to them, because it reminded them of how they were supposed to live and how they could live in harmony with one another.

It is why we should cheer that The Episcopal Church asks us to have Annual Meetings, because it is by gathering togethering for worship and taking counsel that we remember who we are and what God has called us to do. We may follow what appears to be a mundane human agenda for our Annual Meeting, but our overall agenda is to follow the way of Jesus. Today’s scriptures -and, I would argue, all our scriptures, serve as the basis for that agenda.

Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the people in Corinth reminds us that we are all one body. We need each other. Without everyone one of us doing our part – even those of us who think we have nothing to contribute – this parish will not survive. This has never been truer for God’s church – for Grace Church – than it is now. Our mutual survival depends on our willingness to share our gifts with one another and with the world. We are in this together. As faith communities across the world decline, we can and will survive, but only if we remain united, and only if we are inclusive and mission focused.

This might necessitate thinking in new ways. Welcoming, supporting, and serving all God’s people may require us to let go of certain things, including our ideas of what “church” looks like. Grace in the 21st century must be a place whose mission statement is truly consistent with the way of Jesus, quoted from the prophet Isaiah to the people of his own faith community, “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” These are the items on Jesus’s agenda, and these must be the items on ours. My siblings in Christ, I firmly believe that this is the message that our scriptures have for us today on the day we gather to worship and find inspiration together: be a community of Grace; share your gifts; follow the way of Jesus, and the joy of the Lord will be our strength. AMEN

[1] Kathleen M. O’Connor, (2009), inFeasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 267.

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