Words and deeds: two whats, two hows, two whos
Ordinary Sunday 3, 24 January 2016
Stephen Duckett, parishioner, St Peter's Eastern Hill
Nehemiah 8:1-3; 1 Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Luke 4:14-21
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
The readings today tell a story about words and deeds — that the word leads to action. They are about how to worship, what to do after worship and dealing with people, or a 'who'.
Let's start at the beginning with Nehemiah. The story we heard today is set just after the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. The first thing the people want, is to hear a reading from the scriptures.
This little excerpt is the first description of what is involved in a public reading of scripture and it describes practices that continue today, such as standing in a high place and a blessing before the reading. After the reading they had what we would call a sermon, to give interpretation.
Then we are told: eat the fat and drink sweet wine. This must be one of the easiest bible verses to follow. But it's the second part that has the key message, to send portions ... to those for whom nothing is prepared. That's the what in this reading, it's about sharing with those in need.
Skip forward 4-500 years to the Gospel. Here we have another synagogue scene, another reading from the scriptures, this time with Jesus as the centre toward the beginning of His ministry. Jesus is in his local synagogue, reading from Isaiah, or more accurately as Fr Philip pointed out a couple of weeks ago, a paraphrased and reordered reading from Isaiah.
This was Jesus' summary of his mission or the what: to proclaim good news to the poor and to set the oppressed free. Worship and action are clearly linked in both of today's readings.
With all this talk of setting the oppressed free, no wonder many of His contemporaries thought He was going to lead a revolution against the oppression of the Roman Empire. Of course, in a sense He did lead a revolution. But it was a revolution that was about a change to each person who heard His message. It was about each person bringing justice into their relationships, and each person being concerned about the poor and the oppressed. Again word and deed linked together.
And now on to the Epistle which is just as radical.
One of Paul's key messages, woven through many of his letters, especially these early ones, is that the gift through Jesus is a universal one. It is a grace that is given to all of us. Most importantly for Paul, there was no need for any specific test or observance to gain access to that gracious gift.
But what this passage shows is that the universality of God's gift does not mean that we are mooshed into some homogenous blancmange. The body does not consist of one member but many. This passage celebrates difference. It celebrates diversity. As a church we celebrate and incorporate all sorts of people. Old and young (or should I rephrase that as somewhat older and somewhat younger), men and women, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans-sexual, intersex and straight, tall and short. This is the message of the who, the who is everyone, a truly inclusive who.
What I'm trying to draw out of today's readings is the commonality, the two parallel themes. One of them is about worship, how we worship. But importantly both worship stories were about what worship should lead to, and here is a message of justice. The How in two of the readings were explicitly about participating in liturgy, in the third it was about welcoming everyone.
But I want to turn now to a different set of parallel themes. Today's readings can be interpreted in two ways. First as lessons for each of us in our daily lives, and secondly as lessons for us as a church, what should we, the body of Christ which assembles here at St Peter's, do?
There are obviously clear messages to us as individuals. Look again at what Nehemiah said. Part of your daily thinking, as common as eating a meal, should be to send portions of your benefits to those for whom nothing is prepared.
It makes me think what am I doing about that? How do I incorporate into my life helping others who have nothing? Is it through giving money? Giving time? Holding up before God those with nothing? Or all of the above?
In today's gospel Jesus has His first task proclaiming good news to the poor. Just a couple of chapters later, Luke's version of the Beatitudes has the poor inheriting the Kingdom of God.
But Jesus was not just on about talk. He demonstrated what the Kingdom of God meant. He invited the reprobates and outcasts in for meals, He walked with them, and He valued them. In today's politics, He welcomed boat people.
The Roman Catholic Church has had a long tradition of teaching about social justice, and the current Pope has really brought that to the fore. A shorthand of that teaching is about 'the preferential option for the poor' — that the gospels especially teach us to think first about the poor in all we do. As some will know, I'm an economist, and before you make a sign to ward off the evil often inherent in that, I'd like to mention that it is easy for economics and Christianity to go together.
For me, economics is not only about efficiency, it is also about equity. The two go hand in hand. So in my work, I am often the one who talks about equity implications, about the distribution of resources and about, for example, the impact of co-payments. Here I think I'm helping, by my actions at a policy or political level, to meet the clear injunctions about the poor.
So it is for all of us, we are called to think about how we set the oppressed free or send portions to those without. The epistle has a clear message about welcoming. This time about how do we as individuals celebrate difference? How do we as individuals send signals about welcoming others who might dress differently, follow different paths to God, come from different lands, or have different sexuality.
Moving on from the what, look again at the how in these readings. How do we as individuals worship God and read the scriptures?
As you leave today I'd ask that you reflect on the implications of both the what and the how messages for you personally.
But as I mentioned, there is a second way of reading these texts, as lessons to us as the body of Christ. Sure, as the epistle puts it, we are individually members of the body of Christ, but collectively, in communion, we are more than just a group of individuals. We are able to do more as a church than each of us can do individually.
Again we can draw lessons both about what and about how.
I'm reminded here of part of the doxology that ends masses in Canada:
- Glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine
We can do so much more, together
There are two parts of our Mission Action Plan that I'd like to highlight as being relevant to today's readings. One goal speaks to social justice, about the what. It calls on us to advocate for justice and equity in our city and beyond.
For St Peter's the most obvious working out of that is through the Lazarus Centre and its breakfast program. That program provides direct and obvious help for homeless people.
We also need to step back and think about how do we get people out of the cycle of poverty, into jobs and earning an income? The Coffee cart is an example of that, helping to train people into new opportunities.
There is also a goal in our Mission Action Plan relevant to the how, specifically celebrating the beauty of our traditions and worship.
By acting together, we can do more than we can as individuals. As a parish, we can support other Anglo-catholic parishes by making it easier for them to get sacramental supplies, one of the missions of our Book Room.
So the readings speak to us as individuals and as a community about what our daily priorities should be and how we can worship God.
We used the Mission Action Planning process to reset our parish priorities, and hopefully to energise us as a community on both the what and the how fronts.
The How of liturgy leads to a What of doing something, individually and collectively.
But we also have a bit of who as well for us as a church.
As the epistle makes clear, we all have gifts, each of those gifts is different. Together we need all of those gifts to make a functioning world, and a functioning church here at St Peter's.
The message of the epistle is very clear, all the members of the body are important and the part of the body you think is most important is not. In fact, I would go so far as to say that your contribution, whatever it is, is the most important because without it, something would be left undone. We can't function without you, as every little bit helps. Every smile, every prayer, every word, every deed.
Everyone is a contributor. Collectively, we are the Body of Christ. His spirit is with us.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.