Epiphany 3 | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 22 January 2023 | Isaiah 9:1-4 | Psalm 27:1, 5-13 | I Corinthians 1:10-18 | Matthew 4:12-23

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our light and our salvation, O God whose face we seek. Amen.

Good morning, friends. Welcome to the Third Sunday After Epiphany; we’re still in the season of light and revelations. Today we continue to hear about the dazzling light of God in the prophet Isaiah and in the Gospel. Our Psalmist today says, “The Lord is might light and our salvation.” We have words of hope, joy, and liberation.

And then we get our friend St. Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians talking about divisions in the church. It’s a bit jarring. It seems like for all the confidence and joy of the Psalm, for all the hope of Isaiah and the Gospel in the light God brings, something has gone wrong in the church in Corinth. This community of believers on the ground is not, in fact, bathed in a holy radiance that sets their hearts at peace and dissolves all their problems into stardust.

The church in Corinth has separated into bickering factions instead of following Christ together as one body. Baptism, which can be a sacrament of unity and purpose, gets twisted into something that divides and distracts. There’s a tension between what is and what could be in this church.

There is so much potential in this church for mission and hope and joy, and yet people are spending their energy on unnecessary conflicts. What’s happened in the church in Corinth is disappointing, and St. Paul is disappointed.  

So we’ll take some time today to talk about how we deal with disappointments like this in the church. What do we make of it when communities that come together to follow Christ are not as Christlike as they could be? What do we do about it when church does not seem to live up to the Gospel’s shining promises? We’ll spend some time with the disappointment we see in Corinthians, turn to Psalm 27, and see how we might seek God’s face even in the midst of that tension between what the church is and what it could be.

As we reflect on this tension in the church, I remember a meeting I attended when I first started hearing a call to become a priest. In the Episcopal Church there’s a pretty lengthy discernment process that usually happens even before the three years of priest grad school. There’s a lot of deeply meaningful prayer and conversation, and also so much paperwork. (My process was some years ago now, and in our diocese it’s much more nurturing now than it was back then.)

So anyway, here I am at the very first meeting in the process, carrying my little seed of hope and curiosity for what might become a new vocation, and the very first speech in that very first meeting was all about how the church will disappoint you. I think there was a good intent in starting that way; I think they meant to give a healthy reality check and spare people painful revelations later on. And I also think it is a totally true statement that the church will disappoint, as we see in Corinthians and as many of us have seen in the churches we know. It is true.

And at the same time, hearing that truth in that context it didn’t sit well with me. Maybe it landed differently for other people, but I felt confused and disappointed in that moment. It felt like a kind of a damage control approach. For me, it did not live up to this moment’s full potential to nourish hope and make space for curiosity to unfold.

So at the time I’m sitting here like, what do you mean the church will disappoint me—the church is disappointing me right now, friend! I came in here with a seed of hope, and I get a giant pile of checklists to do and a warning label about the church’s flaws as if I don’t know. This disappointment in the church you speak of is not some future hypothetical.

And yet (thanks be to God), I had great mentors I could debrief with on the way back. Despite the disappointments of that particular encounter with the church, I did find what I needed. I found the nourishment to discern my next steps wisely. I found space for some humor and some compassion and a whole lot of hope in the church.

The disappointment of the church—the disappointment I felt at that meeting, the disappointment Paul expresses in our Epistle today—it’s very real; and it’s also not the whole story.

We have faith and hope and love in the church; we have something beautiful to offer to the world and to sustain ourselves. The light of the Gospel leads us. We learn to love our neighbors and ourselves well as we let God love us, and we come to love God more and more deeply. Like the church in Corinth, we are holy and beloved, walking in the strength that Christ gives us.

And at the same time, we’re a mess. Like the church in Corinth, we can also be God’s beloved disaster church. We get distracted from the good news, and we fail in our love for each other. Sometimes we hurt each other because we don’t know how to handle the hurts we carry. Sometimes we get stuck in the details of what needs to get done, and we lose sight of our joy and our unity and our light and our salvation.

And I want to note that we have different perceptions of what our church is like, and that’s normal. The church is holy and beautiful and joyous, and it’s also broken and disappointing; these are true at the same time, both for the whole Church and for us at St. Paul’s. So we will have different experiences that are all rooted in reality.

If you are new or visiting at St. Paul’s, of course we hope you have not yet experienced disappointment. But at the same time, we hope that if you are so called you do stay long enough to see the mess and then to see the holiness and the beauty and the face of God amid the mess.

And some of y’all, no matter how long you’ve been here, are gifted at gratitude; you mostly see the good that happens in this community and the many ways we give each other life and the many ways God’s grace moves among us. And you give so much life when you speak those truths aloud. Holly will teach you that we grow better by embracing our strengths than by critiquing our failings, and she’s right.

And at the same time, most of us will eventually experience some kind of disappointment in the church. Like St. Paul in today’s epistle, we’ll notice something that’s not in line with our calling, someplace we’ve lost sight of the light we follow. And then we’ll have to figure out how to handle that sinking feeling and what to do next.

I find church disappointments extra painful because we’re aiming so high in our faith. In the church, there’s space for a lot of tension between the aspiration and the reality. With a small goal like “exercise every day this week” or “keep this bread from sticking to the pan,” then there’s a limited gap between what it looks like to do well and what it looks like to be disappointed in what we’re trying to do.

But if the goal is something like “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (which is what the Prayer Book says the mission of the church is), then there is room for a lot more tension. The good news asks a lot of us; these are world-transforming aspirations.

We are trying to follow Jesus and do justice and love each other and be part of remaking the world and seek the very face of God. That means there is is room for a very big gap between what we long for and what is actually happening. And when we deal with the disappointment, what we have to deal with is that wide space between what we hope for and what we see.   

And to do that, we’re going to try a counterintuitive move today. This is the kind of leap that St. Paul likes to call the wisdom of the cross that looks like foolishness. So, normal wisdom would tell us to stop trying for the impossible; to find more manageable goals to shrink the gap.

This world’s wisdom says maybe instead of reconciling the cosmos, we could just try getting along a little bit better. Maybe instead of transforming the world toward justice, we could get out our box of band-aids. Maybe instead of building a beloved community where all people flourish in the joy God gives, we could settle for a copier that works.

But in the wisdom of the cross that looks like foolishness will tell us to do the opposite of that. The wisdom of the cross tells us to hope for the impossible because it is God, and not us, who carries the church onward. So we’re not going to shrink our longings down and focus on details that are doable. Don’t get me wrong, I like it when details go right. I like when people get along, and I always have a band-aid in my bag, and I’m really glad we’ve got a copier that works. Small goals are worth something, sometimes a lot.

But normal wisdom to focus on small goals doesn’t apply here. If we’re trying to deal with disappointments by setting our expectations for the church lower, then we’re judging the church’s mission by our own abilities and not by God’s calling. We’re losing sight again of the one who is our light and our salvation. The wisdom of the cross, which looks like foolishness, is that what we hope to do is impossible and that by God’s help, we’re going to do it anyway. The wisdom here is that God gives us the grace to carry impossible hopes.

The hopes we carry can create painful tension. We cannot do what the church is trying to do. We cannot reconcile our own selves, let alone the whole world. We cannot become one body. These are impossible things.

But maybe we can hold onto the hope God gives us, persisting past disappointments. Maybe we can think of that gap between reality and longing as a wide-open space where God’s grace is already moving. Maybe in God’s grace we can find grace for each other. Maybe instead of thinking smaller, we can seek God’s face in the embrace of impossibilities.

The Psalmist says, “You speak in my heart and say, ‘Seek my face.’ Your face, Lord, I will seek.” And we are still in Epiphany, friends, the season of light and revelations, seeking dazzling glimpses of God’s love. Whatever messes, whatever disappointments might be weighing us down in this season, inside the church or out of it, we have this call to seek God’s face. We cling to the Psalmist’s hope in God as light and salvation, God as strength and shelter.

Today gives us St. Paul’s disappointments with the church, and at the same time the Psalmist’s longing to dwell in the house of God forever. We have Paul’s urgent plea that the folks in Corinth would please figure out how to be on the same team even though different people baptized them; and we have the Psalmist’s confidence and joy in beholding the beauty of God in God’s temple. Paul’s letter and the Psalmist’s singing strike very different tones, and yet they’re both true parts of the life we share together.

The church will disappoint us, and yet the church is where we seek God’s face together as we are called to the impossible. We are sinful and holy at the same time. We are not able to do the things that we’re called to do—and yet, with God’s help, we are doing them anyway.

By God’s grace, we are reconciling ourselves and the world. We are becoming one body. We are building God’s dream for joy and flourishing. We are doing justice. We are living in God’s love for us and for all creation.

We sometimes get lost and divided, and we sometimes forget the love that binds us and the lights that guide us. And yet we are here to remind each other, and the saints and the prophets and the psalmists lend us their lights. Each one of us is a part of God’s grace for all of us together.

God who is our light and our salvation guides us and saves us in and through and with one another in our messy wholeness; that’s part of how we seek and find the beauty of God in God’s temple. God our light and our salvation has called us to hold impossible hopes, and God has not revealed any other way toward these hopes but together and by grace.

And so, friends, let us seek the face of God in one another in this season. Let us hold onto the high hopes entrusted to us by our baptism. Together in prayer and in action and in love, let us call out for the grace that saves us and follow the light that God gives us.

O God, you are out light and our salvation. Your face, O Lord, will we seek. Amen.

One of Albrecht Durer’s engravings of St. Paul, featuring St. Paul’s disappointed face. Image is in the Public Domain and accessed through the Met Galleries online.