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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Epiphany 3 – Year C

Oh Lord, uphold Thou me, that I may uplift Thee. Amen.

St. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: “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 one Spirit … If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

Joyce was thirty-one and recently divorced. She had no children but she did have a new career in a new town. Joyce was shy, but she was also searching. She was in search of community, in search of a place where she could find support and a spot for herself in the midst of a new community. Joyce had never imagined that her marriage might end one day. But then again, she had never imagined that her husband might leave with another woman. Her emotions were raw, her self-esteem was at a low ebb and the fact that she was now alone frightened her a little.

When Joyce walked into St. Swithen’s, she was feeling very apprehensive. She knew no one, the church was a big place, and she did not know a Prayer Book from a phone book. Immediately, she was greeted by a warm smile and a pleasant hello from a gentleman holding a stack of bulletins. The man introduced himself and inquired if Joyce was new to St. Swithen’s. He then led her to a pew and quietly introduced her to several people sitting near by. During the service, an older woman seated next to Joyce repeatedly took the time to help her find her place in the hymnal and the Prayer Book. After the service, everyone around her spoke and invited Joyce to join them for coffee and Sunday school in the parish house. A nice couple in their fifties gave her a pew card to fill out and they personally took the time to escort Joyce to coffee hour. After Sunday school, Joyce was greeted by the clergy and invited to come back the next Sunday. Over the ensuing weeks and months Joyce was lovingly and gently incorporated into the life of the church. Every Sunday she met more and more people. Before long she was participating in a Bible study and making regular visits to the nursing homes with a team of volunteers from the church. She had a new job in a new city but she had found a place that felt like home. She had discovered a community where she was valued. She had been shown the love of God.

You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

James had been without a place to live for almost two years. Everything he owned he carried with him in three plastic shopping bags. During the day, he kept to himself wandering the neighborhoods looking for food, searching through dumpsters to find old clothing and the like. At night, if the weather was good, he slept under the overpass, sandwiched between two large cardboard refrigerator boxes. When it turned cold, he always reluctantly made his way to the city shelter. I say reluctantly, because James did not like being around a lot of people. The voices inside his head were just too loud and too all consuming. And when these voices were combined with those of the people around him the noise was more than he could stand. As a result, James liked to be left alone.

Once a week, James joined between 75 and 100 other homeless and hungry people at St. Swithen’s for a mid day meal. The people who volunteered there knew him. They didn’t know his name because he wouldn’t tell them, but they knew his face and they knew he liked his space. James would sit at one of the long folding tables and someone would always bring him a tray of food. With a smile they would bid him hello, put the tray in front of him and quietly retreat. It was the best meal James had all week. The food was simple, but there was plenty of it and he was always allowed to take with him anything he couldn’t eat. After supper, James would make his way into the sanctuary. The doors to the church were always unlocked and in the quiet of that space he could sometimes find a little peace, a little relief from all the commotion going on inside his mind. James didn’t really know it, but he was part of the community, part of the family of St. Swithen’s, part of the church. All he knew was that he had found a safe place in the midst of a very harsh world.

You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

Pat’s illness came out of the blue. She had never really been sick before and the reality of what was happening to her body seemed unbelievable. At first she only felt tired, weary – she thought the hectic pace of life, as the mother of small children, must have been catching up with her. But rest didn’t seem to help and within a few days Pat was too weak to carry the groceries, too tired to pay the bills. She was hospitalized, they poked and prodded her, running every test imaginable, but her illness proved illusive and the tests gave no definitive answers. Pat’s husband and family were distressed and overwhelmed. Something was wrong with the person who stood at the center of their lives and they struggled to cope. Her husband tried to be all things to all people, splitting his time between the hospital and the home, attempting to care for his sick wife and his children. His level of stress rose to the point of crisis, almost as if he were in the middle of a war and under the pressures of battle. Pat’s children were upset and confused. They did not understand what was happening to Mom and they were frightened.

The people of St. Swithen’s Church loved Pat and her family. When word got out that she was ill, a whole set of wheels were set in motion. The clergy made daily visits, praying with Pat and her family, offering comfort and support. Different people volunteered to provide meals on a rotating basis for as long as they were needed. Several families arranged to pick up Pat’s children from school and have them over to play in the afternoons. Another group in the parish took on the task of praying daily for Pat’s health and the well being of her family. Cards and letter began to arrive in the hospital from across the church community. Their ordeal was far from over, but Pat and her husband could feel themselves being uplifted by the power and love of God – a power and love so evident in the caring concern of the people of their church.

You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

WE are the body of Christ – you and I are the body of Christ. Christ has no hands and feet but ours. Christ has no eyes or ears but ours. Christ has no way to love and care for God’s children other than through us, all of us here in this place – WE are the body of Christ. St. Swithen’s is of course a mythical church. But St. Swithen’s sometimes is, and ought always to be, this church and every church. Stories like the ones told this morning and thousands of others like them, ought to be every story from every church that claims to be a community of Christians gathered together in the name of Jesus Christ.

The problem with our culture is that because we live in a consumer society we believe our primary job in life is to consume. We are always looking for goods and services that meet our consumer needs and we therefore sometimes go to church wanting only to consume, wanting only to have our needs met, wanting only to find the services we need for our families. But we were not baptized into a club; we were baptized into the living, changing body of Christ. And while we gather together to feed on Christ, we are called by our God not just to consume but also to give, to sacrifice – to love one another as Christ loves us.

One of my favorite things as I sit in my office is to hear the chimes of this church ring out everyday at twelve and six. Our bells have such a sweet sound and often I will stand on the fire escape outside my office and quietly sing along with the words of the hymn the chimes are playing that day. As I listen, I wonder how far our bells can be heard? I wonder who stops and pays attention to their song in the midst of a busy day? I wonder who takes some comfort from their daily persistence? In a similar way, in this season of Epiphany when we celebrate the “showing forth” of Christ to all the world, I wonder – how far abroad do we as the body of Christ, “show forth;” how far do we ring out the love of God from this place? How distantly can the echo of our faith be heard in the community and the wider world? Do people look at us and say – there is a safe place where I can go and be welcomed and valued for who I am? Do they say – St. James’s is a church where people are encouraged and empowered to know the love of Christ, to live out the love of Christ? Do they say – St. James’s is a place where all gifts are welcomed and valued, a place where anyone can discover and claim a ministry all their own?

I am extremely proud to be a part of this church. We do, in fact, do many things to build up the body of Christ. But there is much more to be done. I believe faith in Christ means always having to move forward, always having to step out in love and action, always having to grow and change. There is no place to stop; there is no time to rest. God calls us forward into the future and we must respond. In our Gospel for today Jesus co-opts the words of Isaiah as his own. As the body of Christ in this place we ought to do the same – The Spirit of the Lord is upon US, because he has anointed US to bring good news to the poor. He has sent US 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 favor. Let’s step out in faith together. Let’s let our love as the body of Christ ring out like the most beautiful of bells. Let’s proclaim to all the world that Christ is Lord and discover together what that means for our lives. Amen.

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