I have always been interested in the how the body works and fascinated by cellular biology in particular. Perhaps, if I were going to college now, I would study epigenetics, which looks at how life’s stressors change one’s DNA, altering what is passed down to subsequent generations. These are not changes to one’s actual DNA code, but rather they influence how our genetic material functions by triggering what part of one’s gene’s get activated or not to fight off physical or mental disease. For example, scientific evidence shows that people who have been subjected to trauma, like starvation, incur changes in their genetic material which is passed down to later generations, possibly causing obesity.
Instead of becoming a scientist I’ve spent most of my life as a parish priest. However, I think that in many ways this vocation is directly linked to my ancestors. Rooted, perhaps, in some spiritual transference of inspiration from my Mormon pioneer relatives who took great risks crossing oceans and prairies, leaving behind family and friends, to live a life of faith. Many of my great grands however ended up struggling with divorce, alcoholism and depression because they were isolated and cut off from their families of origin. Likewise, it may be no coincidence that I’ve become a parish priest who studies Murray Bowen’s Family Systems theory, which looks at the emotional processes of intergenerational families and how the stressors of one generation play out in the behavior and health of subsequent generations. One might say that I study an emotional and spiritual form of epigenetics.
One thing I have learned is that who one is and how one behaves is not predetermined by the past. One can decide how one lives and the influences on my physical and mental health. If I do the work to take care of my self, exercise, meditate and pray, eat well, and learn about the kinds of influences that trigger unhealthy reactions in me, I can find greater balance and not succumb to the impulsive remnants of my ancestors trauma that trigger disease.
All of this reminds me of a class I took in seminary called “The Plunge.” In this class groups of people went off to churches around the country, worshiped with them, studied their history and reflected on their current attitudes and behaviors and then reported back to the class as a whole. We were asked to think about and reflect on the idea that each parish has a “soul.” The parish’s soul reveals the defining character of the congregation, it’s practices and behavior, the stories it remembers about its history and the emotional tone of the congregation. Its kind of like looking at the epigenetics of a parish - how does the past influence the present?
Christ Church has a relatively long history, compared to other Episcopal Churches in this country, many of which were started in the 1950’s. With our long history we have lived through good times and challenges. In the first fifty years parishioners struggle to find a priest, to have enough families, to have enough money, to have a place to worship. Then we stabilized with the growth of the automobile industry and with an influx of people moving here for jobs. The 1950’s and 1960’s are seen as glory days, when the church was booming with people, when Christ Church was the center of the community. Here men came to help grow their careers by forming business relationships and working to literally build a church. Here women came to find social connections, joining committees, doing fundraising, making friendships that have lasted a lifetime. And children grew up here, serving as acolytes, attending dances and socials and making friends. Christ Church was the hub of community life.
Now Christ Church is smaller, like almost every other church in this country. But we are still a bustling community centered church with our doors open every day and our halls lively with people coming and going.
Through out our history our strength has always been feeding people. We are called Christ Church for a reason. We are part of the living body of Christ in our world today - doing the work that Jesus did to feed people in mind, body, and spirit. Jesus was always eating and feeding, he was always tending to the hunger’s of this world, the physical hungers and the spiritual hungers.
In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus calls the first of his disciples. These fishermen drop everything to come and follow him. Jesus speaks into their deepest spiritual hunger and invites them to consider what it will take for them to thrive. These fishermen know about hunger and feeding people. Because despite literally feeding people with fish, all of them are still hungry for something more. Jesus calls into that hunger within, into that deep place of yearning. Following Jesus is not a comfortable thing to do. Following him does not take these disciples into a place of ease and plenty. Following Jesus takes them, and us, into a place of risk and challenge, to break out of the patterns of the past that could determine one’s future and into a new place of hope and vitality.
Each of our readings this morning speak in a similar way - that following God takes one into a new place. Not an easy place, but even in the challenges, it is a place that feeds people with hope and light and life. Our outgoing President, a man who often leaned into his faith to guide his work, said, “Hope is not blind optimism. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, to work for it, and to fight for it.” (Barak Obama)
I think the primary DNA material of Christ Church, of this church, is hope. Its in our DNA because of our ancestors built this place to be big and strong so it could have a vibrant future. They were not deterred by the muddy roads and economic challenges of 19th century Dearborn. No, they had a vision.
Hope is in our spiritual bones and blood because of the name our ancestors chose for this church. We are Christ Church, the living hands and heart of Jesus, God’s hope for the world. We are not a people of blind optimism. We are a people of faith, built on the faith of our ancestors, built on the love of God in Jesus. Our heart beats with courage and vision and the willingness to work. We are Christ Church. It’s who we are because we are a community centered church. Its how we live because we feed people.
And as Christ Church we can be the light that forges into the darkness of uncertainty, leading the way once again, like our ancestors did, building a brighter future, while feeding the world with the love of God.
a reflection on the readings for Epiphany 3A