Creating the Common Good: A prophetic topic for our time

display of wealth

For the 44th year Trinity (Episcopal) Church in New York hosts Trinity Institute/National Theological Conference Thursday January 23 – Saturday January 24. This year’s topic is Creating the Common with lectures, panel and small group discussions on two themes: “Is Inequality Sinful?” and “Class Matters”.

As in past years the conference was streamed to partner sites around the world and Christ Church Cathedral was one of those partner sites. Questions and comments were shared as far and wide as London School of Economics via Skype and e-mail.

The conference opened on Thursday evening with evensong and a sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby who spoke on the issue of inequality. He noted that the topic was timely and that it is drawing attention in current media including prominent papers like Financial Times and The Economist.

Prof. Cornel West followed him on the podium with the keynote address, which fired up emotions and passions as expected especially on the issues of love and social justice.

Friday’s sessions began with Archbishop Welby pointing out that from the very beginning in Genesis, the intent is equality and actually the Levitical Code prohibits inequality. Throughout the bible, although wealth is a blessing it is also in danger of corrupting the wealthy. The New Testament shows the early church (in Acts) practicing common ownership of wealth.

The panel discussion that followed was particularly informative especially when Rachel Held Evans responded to a question about Evangelical Christians and social justice. True, she noted, there is the accepted perception that Evangelicals emphasize personal responsibility while mainline churches see systems. However, Evangelicals are very passionate – be it personal salvation or mission. They can bring in the same passion for social justice.

In small group discussions, participants were advised to brainstorm for possibilities first – not problems – and ask, “What is God calling you to do, be, or change?” I was personally moved by Rachel’s remarks that each one of us begin with ourselves. There is a call for repentance, especially when we are complicit with the systems that are at the root of what is wrong.

The point was aptly emphasized by Rev. Yamily Bass-Choate when she gave the example of the food we eat without the slightest idea of the workers who daily face dangers to produce it. Our consumerism, Rachel noted, often takes over our souls.

At Christ Church Cathedral there was also a screening of Robert Reich’s new film, Inequality for All.

These have, no doubt, been three thought-provoking days. It is a call for every Christian, indeed every person of faith, to move from the comfort zone and take up the cross. The summons is summarized in St. Francis’ words: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible”.

When I shared this with my friend Steve he reminded of Ezra’s words in Ezra 10:4: “Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it”.

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We are called in different ways if we are listening

Samuel

Something is revealed when it is recognized. That is what revelation is: recognition and acceptance that it is. John C. Schroeder in the Interpreter’s Bible gives the example of Isaac Newton to illustrate the point. “Many apples had fallen from trees. But when Newton saw it! In that simple occurrence there was not only discerned the relation between the apple and the earth, but that between the earth and the moon, between the earth and the sun. All the motions of the universe are expressed in the formula that bodies attract each other in proportion to their masses and inversely as the square of the distance between them”

One of the lessons we learn in the story of Samuel and God calling him in the First Reading for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (1 Sam. 3:1-10; 11-20) is that God calls us in many different ways. There is not one way for all. Indeed, if we look at Isaiah’s call (Isa.6), or Jeremiah, or Ezekiel, we see that they were called in different ways.

That is also the lesson in the Gospel Reading in John 1:43-51.

Often we miss to hear God’s call because we are either preoccupied or we are expecting a particular means for the call to come. When it does not come that way we miss it though it is there.

The call needs to be heeded. In other words, we need to respond when we are called. This is the second lesson. Samuel responded – three times in mistake, but that is all right. It is all right to make a mistake because the next time, like Samuel, we get it!

The third lesson: Answering the call can be costly. Samuel’s immediate problem after his call was to tell his mentor the bad news. Yet, that is why we are called. We are not called for our own sakes but to be God’s instruments. We are called for a vocation and a mission, which may entail suffering. Most of Jesus’ disciples suffered martyrdom.

Still, we are not afraid because the Lord has promised to be there to the end of time.

How are we reflecting Jesus in the world today?

Catholic pilgrims attend mass at the baptism site on Jordan River

On the First Sunday after the Epiphany we reflect on the baptism of our Lord by John the Baptizer,  the Gospel Reading from Mark 1:4-11. We begin this reflection with the Collect praying that God will “grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior…”

In baptism, we are drawn into unity with Christ, in a covenant relationship. More than anything, it is an invitation to come and experience union with Christ. In this Christian experience, the Holy Spirit transforms and energizes us to reflect Jesus in the world.

Baptism in the Jordan

“Bold confession”, as in the Collect, takes place in the world, where we live now, in the present. While John’s baptism was for repentance, in anticipation of judgment, Christian baptism is itself a confession of Christ in the world, not so much by creeds and proclamations but through Christian living and witness.

So, the question today is: How are we reflecting Jesus in the world we live in?

As I am writing, we are troubled by the terror and carnage in Paris this week. There is the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East. We are surrounded by despair and lack of purpose in the midst of prosperity and abundance. How are Christians reflecting Christ in this world?

In the gospel, after Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit, like a dove, descended on him. The dove symbolizes innocence, gentleness, peace, humility and moral purity. Being baptized in Christ embodies those attributes in daily life and interactions with one another.

Chrisitian orthodox priests baptize a pi

When Jesus left Nazareth of Galilee he accepted a call, a vocation. Indeed, his baptism marks the beginning of his ministry. In baptism, we too accept a vocation. Again so we are further challenged: How faithful and bold have we been in our various vocations?

Being Christian is a gift and our vocation begins with the invitation to come and receive, only then are we enabled to go and do.

It is always a new beginning with the Lord

Aligin with the elements of nature

Today, January 4 is the Second Sunday after Christmas and on Tuesday, January 6 is the Epiphany. From very early on, Epiphany has been one of the cycles of the church calendar, along with Easter and Pentecost. Although we have different lectionary readings for the Second Sunday after Christmas and for the Epiphany, many churches observe Epiphany on this Sunday.

In Greek, epiphany essentially means “manifestation”, or, in everyday language, a moment when suddenly one sees or understands something. In its ecclesiastic usage, Epiphany is the manifestation of God in Jesus. Western Christianity sees the beginning of this manifestation in the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus. Thus, one of the alternative Gospel readings for this Sunday is Matthew 2:1‑12 which is an account of the magi, their conference with Herod the Great, and their offering of gifts to the child in the manger.

For Eastern Christianity, epiphany is more commonly called Theophany, which literally translates to “vision of God”, not at all different from the manifestation of God. Nevertheless, Eastern Christianity associates this vision of God, not with the visit of the magi but with Jesus’ baptism when a voice from heaven declared him to be “God’s beloved son”. And while in the West, Epiphany is thus observed on January 6, in the East (because they follow the Julian calendar) Theophany is observed two weeks later.

On this Sunday, therefore, and the next eight Sundays, our meditation will center on the epiphany, or the theophany. – the manifestation of God in Jesus Christ.

In the First Reading from Jeremiah 31:7-14 the Lord declares, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock. For the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him”. It is the dawn on things new; no longer the gloom and sorrow of bondage, but redemption and freedom.

We can also see the same picture in the First Reading for the Epiphany (Isaiah 60:1-6): “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you, and the Lord’s glory will appear over you”.

Our world is very dark today when citizens cannot trust those in law enforcement and elected officials are seen as pursuing their personal goals rather than the common good. Many are in bondage especially because of systems. But the message today is that all the setbacks notwithstanding, the Lord shines far beyond. The Lord is not hidden even in the midst of darkness, hardship and injustice.

The Lord was revealed to the magi while they were going about their business. They were not even from the “chosen people” of God and they were led to the manifestation of the Lord by stars. Clouds, rain or snow could have served just as well – the manger and animals, God’s glory can be seen everywhere and anywhere.

This is consolation to everyone. We should not be afraid of the darkness because the Light is here now. The question and challenge is: Are we finding God in our every moment of life and in every situation? Are focused on the darkness and fail to see the Light?

When we are fixed on the Light, as Isaiah 60:5 promises, “Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice”.