An occasional offering from Faith & Leadership, Duke Divinity School’s online magazine on the practice of Christian leadership.
My church has held four funerals in the past two months, all for older, longtime members. Because of chronic illness, most had not been as active in recent years as they once were, but as we celebrated their burial Eucharists, the impact of their years of ministry was obvious.
Young and old, friends and acquaintances — all came together to mourn the loss of our brothers and sisters and to confess our faith that as we have all been buried with Christ in his baptism, we will all be raised with him.
Burial is an Easter liturgy. But with these deaths coming as the year turned, Epiphany seems an appropriate season to remember these departed sisters and brothers. It seems a fitting time to contemplate the gifts that they offered to the church and to celebrate the ways in which they made God’s presence manifest among us.
One sister, for example, was the head of our parish altar guild for decades, preparing the holy table week after week with humility, care and great dignity. Years before women could preside there, she showed the rest of us that dishwashing and laundering can be Spirit-anointed work.
Another was a fervent steward of creation, modeling care for our nonhuman companions and for the air, water and earth that nurture and sustain us. Our church’s community garden and several land conservation projects around town are parts of her legacy.
But the departed one who is most on my mind in this season of incarnation is Clark. Unable to hear or to speak, Clark had more than his share of health problems. A long-ago bout with cancer of the head and neck had left obvious wounds on his body. The surgery destroyed his sense of taste and left him unable to eat any solid food — except for the crumb of communion wafer he received every Sunday.
Yet Clark had a great gift for hospitality. He prepared snacks for our fellowship hour after every Sunday Eucharist, cooked for funeral receptions and headed the supper team for last summer’s Vacation Bible School. I and many other canny gluttons learned to hang around the kitchen whenever Clark cooked. We knew that we would get early helpings of whatever treat he was concocting — tapenade, chili, spaghetti sauce — in exchange for advice about seasoning.
Being Clark’s taster was a joyful experience of oneness in the body of Christ. Clark’s willingness to ask for the help he needed in order to carry out his ministry was a grace-filled reminder of our mutual interdependence.
But it was in our Eucharist that Clark really taught me about incarnation. Every Sunday, for the Gospel reading, the deacon carries the Gospel book into the midst of the people, while the congregation stands and turns their bodies toward her, as our liturgy has trained us to do. Although Clark stood up along with everyone else, he didn’t turn toward the deacon but instead faced the friend who always sat by him to interpret the readings and sermon into American Sign Language.
Watching her retell the Gospel lesson, witnessing Clark’s deep focus upon her, was always moving. Their sharing of the Word was so different from how the rest of the congregation participated.
Throughout the nave, two hundred pairs of eyes would be fixed on the service leaflets, where the Gospel lesson was printed. Two hundred individuals would read the words for themselves, silently, in their heads. Some, perhaps, raced ahead of the deacon’s measured tone. Others fell behind. But unconsciously, all declined the liturgy’s invitation to simply listen as Jesus’ first hearers did.
Every Sunday, we are invited to open our ears — as Jesus kept exhorting his listeners — and to let the word of God come to us through someone else’s voice. We are asked to risk hearing the message incarnated in a way that surprises, disappoints or unexpectedly delights us.
Clark was deaf, not blind. He could easily have read along in the bulletin like everyone else. But he knew the gift of an incarnate faith. By freely offering what God had given him and accepting what others offered, Clark honored our mutual interdependence as the body of Christ.
His vulnerability became strength as it connected him to his friend and interpreter and, through her, to the Word and to disciples throughout time who have hearkened to Jesus with whatever ears God gave them. Their quiet performance of the Word, Sunday after Sunday, became an icon of God’s manifestation in human flesh.
I’m not putting down those who read along with the Gospel proclamation every Sunday. I love them, and I’m a lot like them: highly educated and used to doing things for myself. I spend a lot of time in my head. I feel safe there, where I can mull over Jesus’ words and decide at my own pace what I think of them.
Mainline churches are full of people like me, and God loves us dearly. But the season of Epiphany — when we’re reminded that God chose to enter this world as a helpless infant — challenges us to let go, just a little, of our sense of competence and self-reliance. It calls us to acknowledge our dependence on others and, ultimately, on God.
For a people obsessed with control and with competence, that can be a difficult challenge to accept, a hard call to answer.
But if we do, we may find that those whom the world has too often set apart, those whose vulnerability seems so obvious — the poor, the disabled, the sick and many others — give us glimpses of what human life looks like when it is suffused with the light of God’s presence.
Rhonda Mawhood Lee is associate rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C. She is the author of “Through With Kings and Armies: The Marriage of George and Jean Edwards” (Cascade Books, 2012).