This morning we’re beginning a series of three testimonies by members of the congregation loosely organized around the theme “Refugees, Immigrants, Aliens and Foreigners,” that takes the Epiphany theme of God’s light to the nations and intentionally flips the script so that we don’t always imagine that it is we ourselves who bear the light of Christ as we move out into the world — but that we also have experiences to share with one another about what it has felt like to be the foreigners, the strangers, the sojourners whom God has reached out to through others.
It’s also the end of series of three scenes from scripture that encompass the festival of Epiphany: the visit of the magi, the baptism of our Lord and, finally today, the wedding at Cana. Each of these stories is told as a way of unfolding the meaning of God’s revelation in the person of Jesus. He is the infant sovereign whom other nations come to bow before. He is the beloved child of God, revealed in the waters of the river Jordan. He is the miracle worker who gladdens the feast, bringing joy at long last.
There’s one other series of three mixed in with the rest, a less symbolic one that owes its length to other features of the liturgical calendar. This year, beginning this morning, we read three consecutive passages from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that make up the 12th and 13th chapters. It’s helpful to note that while the lectionary generally assigns readings from the epistles intended to deepen our interpretation of the gospel passage, for these three weeks during the Time after Epiphany the passages stand independent of the gospel. I share this with you because I’ll be preaching on First Corinthians for the next three weeks, and so that your overworked subconscious minds can take a rest from trying to force a correspondence. There are, I’m sure, points of theological and poetic resonance between Paul’s meditation on the gifts of the spirit and John’s story of the wedding at Cana … but I’m not looking for them.
I’ve actually been eager to get to these chapters of First Corinthians for a while, since last fall even. As we prepared to take leave of our historic home, we all were filled with questions about what might come next for our community. Who would we be, who would we become, once we were no longer defined by the parameters of the building that had shaped our life together for over a century? Which of the gifts God has planted in us were actually planted in that soil, and which could be transported and repotted? How would we order our life together to reflect our sense of God’s vision for this congregation, and for the wider community in which we’re situated? How would we align our assets with our values?
But we needed a rest. After months and years of difficult conversations and hard work, we needed a break from one-on-ones and straw polls and town halls. We needed to let our minds and our spirits catch up with what our bodies were already experiencing as the nights stretched out to their absolute longest. We needed to rest in worship that assured us that God, Emmanuel, is with us; that there is light that is not overcome; that God’s dwelling place is among God’s people, wherever they are.
Now we are coming to the end of that rest. It has been almost three months since we moved into this first interim location, and already for many people it is beginning to feel quite comfortable (which is a great relief), but this is not our permanent home. This is more like a laboratory for those who think like scientists, or a practice room for those who’ve studied music. This is our black box theatre for those who dabbled in drama. This is a place to study and learn, like a high school or a college — a place you invest in and even come to love, always knowing that one day you will leave.
Those metaphors of lab rooms, practice rooms and experimental theatre may be more readily relatable for younger members of the congregation, recent graduates, of which St. Luke’s enjoys a larger share than is usual for Lutheran congregations where the median age of churchgoers is 58. This, the presence of so many young adults, is a great gift for so many reasons, but for one reason in particular: young adults are at a stage in life during which it is completely natural, even essential, to be asking the question we all spend the rest of our lives trying to answer: what’s next?
After years of having parents or other caring adults on hand to wake us up, drive us to school, stock the refrigerator, and listen to our stories: what’s next? After years of classwork, hundreds of books read, tests taken, papers written: what’s next? After internships and externships, practicums and placements, what’s next? As the poet Mary Oliver puts it in her poem “The Summer Day” — “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
It’s the question that irritates graduates and those about to graduate with its frequency, even as it makes them sweat with uncertainty. It is the question of purpose that requires each of us to take stock of our gifts and aptitudes and then to make a public declaration about what we intend to do with them. Only the truly audacious or the foolish say too much, because what might happen if we put it out there for the world to hear that we aim to write the great American novel, or finally find the cure, or take public office, or right the enduring wrong … and then fail? Or worse yet, what if we simply don’t know?
I wonder sometimes if we don’t treat our churches, our congregations, like little schools because we don’t want to face another graduation. We don’t know how we would answer the question, if anyone were to ask, “what is it you plan to do with the wild and precious community you have created here?” So instead we imagine it to be school without end. Faith formation without Christian vocation.
At the time when Paul was writing to the community in Corinth, they were struggling with great conflict and deep divisions in the congregation, so his words were intended to remind them that though they each were significantly different from each other, the source of their different gifts is the same God and the purpose of those gifts is the common good (1 Cor. 12:7). We are blessed in that, for now, we aren’t struggling with the same struggles as the Corinthians. There is a spirit of hard won unity, confidence and pride in our congregation that is, itself, a gift of the Spirit.
But, like all gifts, that one comes with its own difficulties. It is too easy, when things are going well, to make the preservation of that experience the highest concern. Whether it be fear of falling back into a more difficult past, or anxiety about an unknown future, the instinct to preserve what we have is one of the greatest impediments to establishing a vision for mission, a direction for the future. The value of our relationships here can’t be hoarded, it has to be spent on projects that are worthy of our faith and costly in their commitments.
So, as I said, I’ve been itching for this conversation to begin, and it is almost time. We have put major projects to rest, and now there are new conversations to be had. For a while I’ve been imagining that this year would be a year of strategic planning — though I’ve been told that term feels too corporate. So, let me suggest another one which is rooted in scripture and the sacraments: vocational discernment.
In our baptism, each of us is called into lives of Christian discipleship for the sake of the common good. Baptism also creates a new, “corporate” reality, in which we come to realize that our lives are lived together, not in isolation. This means we work out the answers to Mary Oliver’s question together. “What is it you plan to do…” becomes “what is is we plan to do” with these gifts of life, and friendship, the gospel of freedom of liberation, and the means of grace?
Now is not the time to mumble some half-shaped answer about life after graduation. Now is the time for a clear-eyed assessment of the gifts God has given into our care for the sake of the common good and bold action taken together.