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January 23rd, 2022

Who has the right to flourish? As Jesus announces his mission in Nazareth, this question is put to us in our second lesson. In modern society, we often play the zero-sum game – someone must lose for another to win. For the rich to get wealthier, the poor must get poorer. For one worker to get promoted, another must be diminished. For one to gain, someone else must give up. Life in the zero-sum game is an exhausting competition. We adopt this stance often in our families, to our great unhappiness, competing for the love of our parents, as if that love were finite; so a sister’s achievements are a threat to our standing, not something to be elevated. We see it in the world, to our detriment: by stockpiling vaccines, we appeared to be winning. Instead we lost: a new variant emerged in Africa, where vaccines are scarce. Our second lesson challenges us to think differently, approaching it in the way we can best understand, referring to the community of faith as one body. Can our eyes say to our hands: I don’t need you? Or our head to our feet? On the contrary, even if we care more about how our heads look, we certainly give equal value to our feet. In fact, our second lesson says, 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.” God, in fact, has cancelled the zero-sum game. The body cannot function optimally if all its parts don’t have value; the body cannot succeed if all parts don’t see that they benefit from the success of the others. How can the body flourish if all parts do not flourish? Flourishing is very different from living – it is a higher bar. In health care, it means not just curing disease, but considering how well the patient thrives. Flourishing doesn’t mean just feeling well; it means experiencing joy. Yet we often decide who gets to flourish by the systems we create, the judgement we pass, the competitions we join. In the zero-sum game, after all, for someone to flourish, someone else must flounder. But yet again, our lessons this week and last week, challenges this idea for us. Indeed, the gospel releases us from it; we are no longer enslaved, we are set free. Our flourishing depends on ourselves and on God – it is not at the expense of another, because God does not elevate one part of the body above another; rather, God lifts up the weaker parts, so they are on a level with the stronger parts. Anyone who says they never needed that lift is only fooling themselves; the open secret of the gospel is that we are all at one time or another in need of the lift. Only hubris makes us think otherwise. But then, as the psalmist writes, “ Who can detect one’s own defenses?” We often fall into the zero-sum games because we are blind to them. We don’t see when we are being selfish, or petty, or vain. Indeed, these are often the most difficult faults to see, because they make us feel good in the moment. And yet, the psalmist pleads with God: “Cleanse me from my secret faults.” And of the sins of which I am aware,” the psalmist says, “do not let them get dominion over me.” For sometimes, in life and in society, we know exactly when we are treading on another, and we don’t get caught; those sins are terrible indeed. How does God answer the Psalmist? God answers with the gospel, and in that gospel with Jesus. For what is the mission of Jesus, laid out so clearly for us? “To bring good news to the poor; to bring sight to the blind, to free the oppressed.” We may understand that literally: in a calling to help those with less than us, to heal those who are sick, and to fight for justice for those who are wronged. But it also speaks to each of us personally. To each of us Jesus says, when you feel poor – in life, in love, in luck – I am here for you; when you have lost your way and cannot see, I will lead you; when you feel trapped, I will free you to something better. Nothing must be traded in return; no price must be paid, beyond what we choose to give out of gratitude for what we have received. This is how to live not playing the zero-sum game, Jesus says. Here is new set of directions; follow them and flourish. To each one of us, that same set of directions is given. Freed from competing, we are meant to see the truth – the key to a flourishing society. When one member suffers, we all suffer. When one member succeeds, we all rejoice in that success. This is not easy: we are trained to compete, to care about scores, to be obsessed with rank; indeed, modern life primes us to behave that way. If we are not competitive enough, we are weak. But God says strength is standing on the side to let someone else win when a victory matters so much more to them. Strength is being able to rejoice in another’s accomplishment. Strength means making room for someone else to flourish. This is how a community thrives; this is how the whole body achieves true happiness. These lessons in our gospel this month are so important; they challenge not only how we walk in the world as individuals, but also call us to question what we need to change in the world as people. What do we replace with the zero-sum game if we choose not play? We choose to strive for the greater good. Amen

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