Beyond a Fill-in-the-Blank-Faith

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This may be shocking to you, but I have never been described as an extremely athletic person—or even slightly athletic for that matter. At no point in my life has anyone assumed that I was a soccer star, wrestler, or even master croquet-player for that matter. I tried basketball and football in middle school, but out of a sense of mercy, my mother finally acquiesced to let me be the team manager rather than continue running aimlessly around whatever field or court I found myself on. Like I said, I know it’s shocking, but I felt I needed to be honest with you all.

God gives us all gifts, I believe, and my gifts seem to orbit around a more academic and reflective space. My favorite places are libraries, monasteries, churches, and my kitchen with my family.

As I child, I was particularly good at taking tests. I could figure out quite easily what the teacher was asking for, and I would give it to them and get good grades—a simple economy, really. One of my favorite tests as a child was the old, standard “fill in the blank.” You know the scenario, a paragraph of some sort with blanks in key places, next to a box with a list of vocabulary words. Usually there were as many words as blanks, so I could simply fill in the blank with the right word, and voila! I got an A.

Nehemiah and Ezra gathered the people around them in the square, and they began reading the book of the law. The backstory around this was that they had “discovered” the scroll of the Torah during the reign of King Josiah when they rebuild the destroyed temple after the exile. So, to give you an analogy, it was like someone “discovered” the Constitution in the rubble of the capitol after the United States had been conquered. And, the people returning (the children of those who were taken away) were so excited to learn again who they were—understand more deeply—after returning from exile in Babylon…to step into a space of reorientation after a period of such disorientation.

So, the people gathered around and the prophets read the book of the law….with interpretation, the text says. They gave a sense, so that the people understood the reading. Notice what it says: with interpretation, giving a sense…so that the people understood the reading. Hold on to that for a minute, if you will.

Now, Jesus returned to Galilee and began teaching in the synagogues there. On one occasion in Nazareth, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me… he reads. And notice what the text says, And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.

And, if Jesus had just stopped right there, he would have been a remarkable rabbinical student, so to speak. But, after that crucial pause, he looks at them and says, Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

If he had only been quiet and simply read the words on the page… But, he stepped into a space of interpretation and discernment that put him at risk—a risk that opened up a new possibility of life and fulfillment for us all. Interpretation…

St. Paul, three or four decades later, wrote a letter to the church in Corinth—a community that was known for its inhospitable attitude toward those who were “different.” This is why St. Paul wrote to them about love being so self-giving, not puffed up or proud or rude. He was reminding them of the radical call of community.

So, in this reading, St. Paul writes to them and shares his thoughts on what the complexity of community looks like. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many, he says. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need for you.’

St. Paul sees the growing threat in that community—the threat that comes from a pressure toward a warped sense of uniformity rather than true spiritual unity. He argues that God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. When St. Paul speaks here of dissension, the word he uses is schisma. Schism.

It is crucial to see that St. Paul links the threat of schism within community with a failure to see the richness of diversity and the call to a greater awareness of our mutual dependence on each other. When you have a lack of appreciation for the different gifts within the community, the threat of schism becomes very real. When anyone is isolated from the community—when anyone’s gifts are suppressed—the community starves from the absence of those crucial people.

Today’s readings are powerful ones. The image we’re given during this season between Epiphany and Lent is one that calls us to explore the dynamic of interpretation and discernment within community. Ezra and Nehemiah knew that they were going to have to do more work with the people than simply giving them a religious “fill-in-the-blank” sheet. Jesus didn’t stop with just the typical answer that had always been given when He read the scroll. St. Paul knew that the call to community is a complex one, that spiritual unity is much more than mere uniformity—that no one body part can claim a monopoly of being within the system, so to speak.

We find ourselves in interesting days as followers of Jesus. Schisms and threats of schisms always make good headlines. People like scandals: who and what is breaking up. But the real scandal of Jesus is that he calls us to a radical holiness within community—as William Porcher DuBose described, to complete the incarnation in the world by being His body today…alive….He alive in us and we in Him, and us together. This call to holiness within community—to embody the love of Christ and to “grow into the full stature of Christ” as our Baptismal Covenant says—asks everything of us.   Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all…

While the scandal of Jesus is this call to radical holiness, the scandal of the church is that we too often reduce the practice of faith down to a mere fill-in-the-blank quiz. We approach our religious life though, one, there is a test that must be passed, and, two, that there is some limited, approved vocabulary list that we merely have to insert in the proper places in order to get the good grade. We act as though there are only about eight answers to however many questions come our way. It is, literally, an elementary-approach to the practice of faith that starves the community of the richness of the diversity of gifts and experiences within the lives of our fellow brothers and sisters. It is a perspective that starves our souls.

We must move beyond the easy approach of “I don’t know what the question is—I don’t understand it—or, worse, I don’t want to talk about it—but the answer is Jesus.” Much to our chagrin, “Jesus” is never an easy answer to any question. Nothing about following Jesus is easy; St. Paul tries to remind us of that with his reflection on the interconnectedness within community. Jesus himself shows us that we are called to embody the reality of faith and love and hope within our lives. Like I said, if he had simply stopped talking after giving the scroll back, all would have been fine. But, he paused, and he claimed the dynamic of faith for himself…

Interpretation, discernment….and the dynamic of community.

There are different approaches to practicing Christianity, to be sure. Many days, it seems that the tension is between a theocratic and a theopoetic perspective: one approaches faith in terms of concrete definitions, with limitations and a clear sense of who is in charge to grade those answers. The other tries to create a space where the rich dynamism of true spiritual unity can be experienced within a community. One is static, the other dynamic. One is definitive, the other is imaginative and poetic. One feels safe—and is—while the other feels risky bordering—sometimes—on reckless, BUT—and here’s where I am always pinched—which space offers room for the Spirit to come in and wake us up in our present reality, to lead us into the fullness of life that is promised in our life in Christ.

Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
and lighten with celestial fire,
though the anointing Spirit art,
who dost thy seven-fold gifts impart,
thy blessed unction from above
is comfort, life, and fire of love….
Praise to thy eternal merit,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Epiphany III, Year C
Nehemiah 8:1-10; I Corinthians 12:12-31; St. Luke 4:14-21
January 24, 2016

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