Epiphany 3C 1/24/16
All Saints, Brookline
Nehemiah 8.1-3,5-6,8-10 Psalm 19 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a
Just over two years ago, I moved into the guesthouse of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. I remember the day distinctly- not because I was excited, overwhelmed, and wondering what I had gotten myself into- though all of these were true. Mostly what I remember is a question:
“What are you becoming?”
This question was asked of me by one of the brothers’ staff members over a bowl of soup that first evening. Cheeky person that I am, I quickly came back with a snarky reply:
“We just heard the invitation ‘Behold what you are’ and responded ‘May we become what we receive’ at the Eucharist, so, obviously, I’m becoming Jesus!”
Although, I laughed off his question in the moment, it has haunted me ever since.
In the story we just heard from Luke’s Gospel, we are given a rare glimpse of Jesus becoming. He has just overcome his forty days of temptation in the wilderness and, led by the Holy Spirit, he returns home. There, he does what he might usually do- goes to the synagogue on the sabbath. He reads a selection from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and sits down to offer his teaching. Jesus is someone who participates regularly in the religious life of his community. He is a reader and a teacher.
It is there, in his hometown, in the midst of his community, that he announces his ministry. The selection he chooses from the scroll handed to him is a manifesto for the work he is beginning to embark upon. The Spirit led Jesus home to answer the question ‘what am I becoming?’.
We know very little about the first 30 years of Jesus’ life. Just a few quick snapshots between his birth story and the beginning of his public ministry. In going home to announce his vocation, Jesus grounds himself in the community that knows him best. In Nazareth, he’s not the hero who just crushed the devil or the miraculous healer or the celebrity preacher. Here, he’s not a public figure. Here, he’s simply Jesus, the carpenter’s kid. Here is where people watched him grow up- the cute phases and the awkward ones, his triumphs and his shenanigans. It’s within this community, that Jesus roots himself and his ministry.
When I hear a story like this, of Jesus becoming wise and loving, of his mission to the poor and the needy, I often have (and perhaps you’ve experienced this, too) an immediate desire to be just as wise, to teach and to heal and to open my heart just like Jesus. It’s hard to hear a story about someone great, even a simple story about his beginning, without aspiring to be like him- whether it’s Jesus, or another inspirational figure. I often find myself seeking to become that person.
As I’ve sought an answer to ‘What are you becoming?’ over the past few years, this story about Rabbi Zusya seems to pop up over and over again:
One day he stood before his congregation and said, “When I die and have to present myself before the celestial tribunal, they will not ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not Moses?’ because I would say, ‘Moses was a prophet and I am not.’
They would not say, ‘Why were you not Jeremiah?’ for I would say ‘Jeremiah was a writer and I am not.’
And they would not say, ‘Why were you not Rabbi Akiba?’ for I would tell them, ‘Rabbi Akiba was a great teacher and scholar and I am not.’
But then they will say, ‘Zusya, why were you not Zusya?’ and to this I will have no answer.”
In this story, Rabbi Zusya offers the same warning as Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. It is tempting to look at the lives of those we deem to be great- people like Jesus or Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela or a favorite athlete or actor or personal hero- and try to be that person. But, that is a road to becoming that can only end in failure and despair. Not only do we inevitably fail to become our hero, we also fail to honor our own gifts. In doing so, we deprive ourselves and the world of all we have to offer.
But, Paul doesn’t simply issue a warning against trying to become someone else, he emphasizes the importance of honoring all members of our community equally. Just as each part of our body is necessary so is each member of the community. And, together, each part enriches the community. And, this is why it’s significant that Jesus begins his mission at home. He weaves himself, first, into the fabric of his community, where he was nourished, grew, and discovered his gifts, before heading out to share himself with the world.
As I’ve sought an authentic answer to the question ‘What are you becoming?’ over the past two years, I’ve discovered that home- my family and church community- is also my grounding for discovering my own gifts. And, it’s my home in the Episcopal Church that has led me to the answer. I am becoming me.
What about you? Where or who in your life has challenged you to grow and develop the unique gifts you’ve been given? Where do you feel encouraged to become you?
SPOILERS! The road to becoming is often a difficult one, both for Jesus as we’ll here next week, and for us. We are met with praise and adversity alike. But, it’s also a rewarding journey. One that allows us to offer ourselves to the world and to better appreciate the value of the gifts of those who we meet along the way. But, in the end, the journey is worth it. You are worth it. For, in the words of Frederick Buechner, “Whatever you do with your life – whatever you end up achieving or not achieving – the great gift you have in you to give to the world is the gift of who you alone are; your way of seeing things, and saying things, and feeling about things, that is like nobody else’s. If so much as a single one of you were missing, there would be an empty place at the great feast of life that nobody else in all of creation could fill.”1
1 Frederick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry – Writings on Faith and Fiction.