1 Cor 3:16-23 and Matthew 5:38-48
This is my second time living in Pennsylvania. A few months before I turned three, my family moved from Philadelphia to a 7-acre farm in Indiana to live communally with some other simple Brethren. We all shared the farmhouse for a while, then spread out. Now there are two houses, a trailer, until recently a yurt, a big old barn, lots of chickens and cats, so many worms and bees and veggies and herbs and berries... There’s also an old windmill on the farm; tall and sturdy amidst hundred-year old buildings, without any blades or function left.
Except one. When I was three years old, I used to climb to the top of that windmill, look around while my stomach flipped, then climb back down. I don’t remember the first time I climbed up. I don’t remember the first few years of climbing up actually – like probably most of you, I really don’t have any clear memories before age 5. I definitely don’t remember that my dad followed me up to protect me. I wouldn’t have believed he did this if there wasn’t photographic evidence. I thought that windmill was my private playground.
Physically, I was a bold kid – climbing not just windmills, but trees too, wrestling, doing flips off the bed or through the banister.
Socially, I was timid. One of my earliest memories is eating at a restaurant with my extended family and playing with the ice and straw in my water glass – novelty items that I never enjoyed at home. My aunt scolded me (reasonably, I’m sure). I hid under the table for the rest of dinner.
I hated – still hate – being yelled at, criticized, talked down to. Obviously, no one likes being criticized. But I never got over wanting to hide under the table; I never got used to being called out. It didn’t happen much in my childhood, since my parents weren’t the scolding type.
I’ve always known myself to be accommodating, insecure, and inclined to give in or hide to escape trouble as quickly as possible.
But that probably doesn’t sound like the person you’ve known me to be, does it?
Before moving to the Indiana countryside where I could climb windmills to celebrate my newly acquired walking skills, in Philadelphia I expressed my physical freedom by running into the busy street outside our Germantown apartment – not once, over and over. My parents panicked and tried spanking me to teach my barely verbal brain the danger of toddling into traffic. But I just did it more. Same with turning on the stove; once I learned that it bothered my mom, I did it even more. They gave up on spanking pretty fast.
I don’t remember any of this, but my parents tell me the stories. Apparently my grandma, my dad’s mom, thought that my parents should discipline this wild child differently, and she still believed in spanking. Once, again around age 5, I crossed the country road that ran between her house and her barn without her accompanying me. This was against the rules, so when she found me she said, “If you do that again, I’ll spank you.” I told her, “If you spank me, I’ll do it again.” My grandma was a smart woman, and quickly ate her words of parenting advice.
I don’t know how to jive my 5-year-old self hiding under the dinner table with the one defying my grandma. I know a big part of it is that I felt very comfortable with my grandma, and was shy with my aunt. But when I think back on these stories I feel like they must be about two different girls.
Working as a hospital chaplain for the first time brought the shy girl out of me again – I was intimidated by the lingo, the lab coats, the hierarchy, the haughtiness. It took me a long time to find my voice, and I was rather miserable while I was at work, and often still miserable at home in the evenings, because I let myself be so small.
I came to recognize the disconnect between my hospital self and my familiar self as the same gap between the girl hiding under the table and the girl telling grandma what’s what. I decided to be more strategic about how I tell the story of who I am. That starts with getting smart about how I tell the story of who I’ve been. And all of this shapes the story of who I’m becoming.
We have a wealth of stories in scripture, and the ways we share these stories shape who we understand ourselves to be as people of faith. When we read today’s passage from 1 Corinthians we hear that our own bodies, our very beings, are God’s temple, filled with God’s Holy Spirit. Scripture is full of stories and statements that teach us we are blessed, beloved!
But plenty of people read the same bible and instead of telling stories of being blessed and beloved, tell stories of being wretched and terrible! And you can find it all in scripture, there are seeds for all sorts of stories in our scriptures – so we should be serious about the stories we choose to tell.
Does your family have favorite stories that you hear year after year at the Thanksgiving table, or sitting around the living room on Christmas morning? My family’s favorite stories are either funny or poignant. We either laugh, or get a little teary. There are infinite true stories we could tell, but we tell those stories, they are our favorite stories, because they serve our coming together. By laughing together at Uncle Gary losing those two toes, or getting a lump in our throats about what Grandma used to say, we get closer as a family.
So as a church family, we have infinite stories we could tell, stories that are true! But true isn’t enough – which are the stories that serve us? That serve our coming closer to each other, and closer to God?
Hearing Paul’s words that we are God’s temple – our very beings and bodies are filled with the Holy Spirit – draws us close to God by reminding us who we are, and whose we are. And it’s not just feel-good, warm fuzzy, easy theology – this is challenging! To be so utterly beloved and blessed challenges us to live as God’s temples and treat ourselves with such deep respect that we honor God, and honor that of God within us.
Jesus says the greatest command is to love God, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. This letter from Paul reminds me that if we aren’t loving ourselves well, we won’t be loving our neighbors well, either.
Our stories shape us, shape everything about us and how we see the world.
We can only tell stories about the past, but we tell them with the perspective we hold in the present. We change our stories as we change, when we see different shades of them and ourselves.
Isaiah 58, Psalm 112 and Matthew 5
(see slides in the middle of this post, or download the ppt at the bottom)
This winter has been mild in central Pennsylvania, but it has been seriously gray. Gloomy, to match many of our moods.
So today’s scriptures are a gift in the gloom of winter because they all bring us light!
From Isaiah 58:
Is this not the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to free the oppressed, to break every yoke?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…
(Isaiah 58:6, 8, NRSV and the Message)
From Psalm 112:
Blessed are the gracious, merciful, and righteous,
they rise in the darkness to light the way for one another.
From Matthew 5:
You are the light of the world!
Jesus goes on to compare this light to a lamp, which we shouldn’t hide under a bushel. Both Isaiah and the Psalmist are talking about the light of dawn, of sunrise, when light breaks into darkness.
In these short days of February, in the gray of mid-winter, in the gloom of cruelty and conflict all around us – we hear these sacred promises together, light breaking forth like the dawn, lighting our way for this journey, being light for one another.
It’s almost like someone planned it! And, of course, they did. These are the lectionary texts for this Sunday, for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, which means these scriptures are always read together in early February (every three years) and the people listening are probably living in gloomy winter with gray skies and short days.
(Unless you’re one of millions of church-goers in the southern hemisphere, where it’s summer right now – but we use the Revised Common Lectionary which was developed by North Americans.)
The gift of sunrise was chosen for us through these scriptures for today to give us hope. Sun and light are literally and metaphorically hopeful because all life on our planet depends on sunlight. And sun and light are hopeful in a unique way for Christians who celebrate the star in the night sky that guides us toward the light of God, the Son of God, in late December as the days are as short as ever.
As I’ve contemplated these passages through the week I’ve found all sorts of wisdom in the light of dawn.
In fact I’m so moved by the power of these scriptures for us in these times, I think the metaphors are so rich, that I’m going to try to share it in a way you’ll be able to remember. I’ll read everything that I’ve put on these slides, but if you can see them to read along I hope they’ll engage you in this wisdom of sunrise and scripture. I’ll tell you all five, then talk about each more.
1. Sunrise is dependable – even though we don’t always see the sun itself
2. Sunrise is universal – it happens everywhere on earth
3. Sunrise is particular – it happens differently in different places
4. Sunrise shakes up our perspective since we’re the ones moving around the sun
5. Sunrise calls us to balance as it is always balanced with sunset
Okay, back to the first.
Even on the grayest day when we never see the sun itself, daytime has returned. It will take a lot longer to get a sunburn and tomatoes won’t ripen, but even cloudy days are daytime. We have sunlight without seeing the sun.
Can we find hope without seeing good news splashed across newspaper headlines?
Can we find hope without any comforting words on the lips of our leaders?
It doesn’t feel as good! Yesterday I turned my face right into the morning sun and basked it in, I felt more alive, more energy, than I had in days. Sunshine is powerful, joyful.
And still: as people of faith, as people of perseverance, we must find hope on gray days and sunny days. With or without sunshine on our shoulders, with or without the warm sun kissing our cheeks, with or without Pennsylvania senators voting how we want them to.
We are strengthened not only by sunlight. Paul writes to the Colossians, you are “strengthened with God’s glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need. May you be filled with joy, always thanking the One who has enabled you to share in the inheritance that belongs to God’s people, who live in the light.” (Colossians 1:11 and 12, NLT, inclusified)