Epiphany 3C

by Matthew Harper

January 24th, 2106

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

What does it mean to be The Body of Christ? What does it mean to love one another and still welcome into our midst the stranger? When Jesus announces Himself amongst us, will we be able to receive Him?

One beautiful gift of a prison church is its diversity. Prison is full of men of every age, race, and background. Some have grown up here, some have grown old. we have doctors, the mentally disabled, and everyone in-between. Our church has the most diverse congregation I have ever heard of.

But our diversity isn’t a magic cure-all for sin. Into this community each individual brings their own gifts, and the baggage of their own sin. We judge, we gossip, and struggle. We are a holy work-in-progress. As much as we learn from one another, and as deeply as we love, we also wound.

I am blessed to be a part of another congregation, at Saint David’s Episcopal. They befriended and welcomed me, even though it hasn’t always been easy.

Several years ago Saint David’s, as a congregation, identified and named the core values of their community. Among those values was “inclusion.” That is a good Christian value, one comfortable to proclaim but often uncomfortable to live. When questions about my joining the community were raised, they challenged them to live out this value. They choose to include me. I believe it has enriched all of us.

Diversity and inclusion are hallmarks of a Christian community, but they can be a challenge we struggle with. In his first letter to the church at Corinth Paul taught about the struggle. Chastising jealousy and envy Paul reminded them, and us, that our unity is as The Body of Christ, and it is a unity that requires and honors a diversity of individual identities and gifts.

Finding community with someone different from ourselves takes work. honoring each others’ gifts demands humility. Living in a prison cell with another person demands accommodation. Often I have worked to find a cell-mate similar to me, but over the years I have also had many cell-mates far different. When I was young, some were old; I am white, some have been black; I am a Christian, some have been Muslim; and as I grow older, some are now young. To find our common identity demands that we see with more than our eyes and hear with more than our ears. It demands the faith to look and listen to one another with our hearts.

Honoring Christian community in the face of disagreements on challenging social issues can be even more difficult. Recently an international prison ministry to which I have devoted 16 years of love, prayers, and service faced this very question. Challenged with how to move forward and honor our diversity, they retreated. Struggling to be The Body of Christ, they chose amputation.

Doing so they rejected not only me, but my entire faith community and denomination. They did this because we chose to stand beside and honor the work of God in and through a member of our community who is a married lesbian.

Amputation. After 15 years of war in the Middle East we don’t have to look very far to see wounded bodies. Heroes like my step-brother are the wounded warriors in our midst and show us the challenges. What if The Body of Christ looked like that? How would we walk with no legs, hug with no arms, or love with only half a heart? Who would we be?

Luke’s Gospel shows us Jesus returning to the place he grew up, ready to begin His incarnate ministry. With the words of Isaiah He proclaims God’s work. The results are…. underwhelming. The community chooses to retreat into familiarity, and it blinds them to Christ’s identity and mission.

Familiarity can be a gift, but it can blind us to the presence of God. We cannot always retreat to what is comfortable. Our diversity is what keeps us open to the new works God is doing. Only when familiarity and diversity balance and challenge one another can our communities flourish. Together we grow, together we hear God. We must be ecumenical; we must be inter-denominational. We must honor and welcome the unique gifts we bring. We must welcome the stranger in our midst. We can’t just say we are The Body of Christ. We have to live it.

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