Listening for God, Last Epiphany (C) – 2016

[RCL] Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]; Psalm 99

In the coming week, churches around the world will undergo a transformation of sorts, as the liturgical calendar moves from the season after Epiphany to the season of Lent. Our praise-filled shouts of “Alleluia!” will give way to Lent’s solemn petition, “Lord have mercy.” Many churches will retire their finest brass and festive hangings in favor of simpler and more contemplative fixtures. And the lectionary will lead us down from the mountaintop where the transfigured Christ is revealed in glory, through the valley of the shadow of death, and ultimately to Jerusalem where the cross and tomb await.

Lent weighs heavily on us. It urges us to recall the suffering and death of our Lord. So, in many ways, we arrive at this final Sunday before Lent with a mix of anticipation and anxiety, a combination of joy and dread. It is no accident, then, that every year on this Sunday, we hear again the story of Christ’s transfiguration on the mountaintop because, at the heart of this story, we find these all-too-familiar feelings: anticipation diluted by anxiety and joy thinned by dread.

Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus summons Peter, James, and John to the mountaintop. Without getting our contextual bearings, we may be tempted to believe that the chosen disciples happily agreed and gleefully followed Jesus without reservation. However, we must recall that just a few verses earlier in chapter 9, Jesus tells the disciples that he must undergo great suffering, be rejected, killed, and then rise from the dead.

“If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” As Peter, James, and John journey with Jesus to the mountaintop, they are forced to come to grips with the horrifying truth that Jesus, their beloved friend and leader, must suffer and die!

When they reach the top of the mountain, the Gospel tells us that Jesus was transfigured before them and Moses and Elijah appeared. As the disciples beheld their Lord, they realized that they were in the very presence of God. But even in this incredible moment of divine transfiguration, Peter could not forget what Jesus had told them before they came to the mountain.

“Master, it is good for us to be here,” Peter petitions, “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

At some level, most of us can’t help but sympathize with Peter. Who among us would knowingly submit our self or our loved ones to pain and suffering? Peter’s efforts to protect Jesus are undoubtedly acts of love and devotion – but they are also acts couched in Peter and the disciples’ need for safety and security. They had seen a glimpse of God’s glory in the face of Jesus, and they wanted desperately to hold onto it, to protect it.

But the moment that Peter gets into cahoots with James and John to try and hold onto and protect Jesus, is the moment that a voice from above breaks in, proclaiming: “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!”

And notice what happens next: As the disciples came down from the mountaintop, they didn’t rush into the closest town and tell the first person they saw about what they had just witnessed. They didn’t wait until Jesus wasn’t looking to talk about it. And they didn’t take to Social Media with the news. Luke’s Gospel tells us that they “told no one any of the things they had seen.”

Although most biblical scholars interpret the disciples’ silence as a mark of fear over what they had seen and heard—which is certainly a plausible explanation—perhaps there’s more than one dimension here. What if the disciples’ silence allowed them to be obedient to God’s command?

The disciples had heard God say, “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!” So instead of running and telling the world what they had seen on the mountain, what if they chose instead to obey; to be silent so they could listen?

In a world bustling with noise and chaos, where words and rhetoric are shouted with impunity, stirring up fear and angst, perhaps this is the word from the Lord that we need to hear.

Amidst all of the joys and heartbreaks of the world; in the face of all of the delight and despair that surrounds us; and despite all of the things we know and can never know, God beckons us, ever so gently: Listen.

Imagine for a moment, what the world might look like if we listened—not in preparation to respond, but in order to understand.

What might our politics look like if we listened more and argued less? What might our schools look like if we taught our children how to listen as intently and deliberately as we taught them how to speak and to write? And what might our churches look like if we listened intently for the voice of God from those who differ from us?

In his book, Bread for the Journey, the Catholic priest and theologian Henri J.M. Nouwen writes:

“To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept… The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”[1]

As our Lenten journey approaches, and the chaos of the world presses in with voices of despair clanging in our ears, may we remember how to listen. For it is in listening that we truly hear one another.

And it is in listening that we hear the voice of God.

Amen.

Download the sermon for the Last Sunday of Epiphany.

Written by The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina (Diocese of Western North Carolina). A native of Paris, Kentucky, he earned a BA in American studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. His published work includes essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching, appearing most recently in the Journal of Appalachian Studies and the Anglican Theological Review. 


[1] Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith (HarperOne, 1997).

Living Eucharistically, Epiphany 4(C) – 2016

[RCL] Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

Baptism is an amazing gift and an awesome responsibility. We Christians are set apart, commissioned, and ordained to boldly confess Jesus as Savior, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to seek and serve the Christ in everyone we meet.

And we can see this theme reflected in today’s gospel passage and Old Testament passage . Jesus picks up a scroll in the synagogue and reads from the Prophet Jeremiah:

“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”

Now, that is living baptismally! As one whose job it is to help put the world to right.

Jesus, of course, will go on to preach good news to the poor, to heal the blind, to set many of the oppressed free, and to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of righteousness. He understood what it is to live baptismally. There’s also another big piece of the journey for sacramental Christians: living eucharistically.

Living eucharistically means much, much more than coming to church and receiving communion. That’s how we gain the sustenance to live eucharistically, but it is not living eucharistically. Living eucharistically is to live a life of gratitude. That’s what “eucharistic” means. Living a life of thanks, appreciation and positive reception to the world around us.

It’s really difficult to do this. We live in a world that is full of suspicion, full of hatred, and full of fear. And don’t be confused: there are things of which we by rights are suspicious, things we should hate, and things we must fear. But there are also times when our blindness to the truth prevents us from seeing the good in everyone and causes us instead to seek out what we see as evil.

We are not alone in this. We humans have been doing it for centuries. Like in today’s gospel. Jesus proclaims what must seem like a pretty harsh truth to the people in that synagogue. They don’t like it, they don’t agree with it, and they don’t want to hear it. And so they become filled with rage and they drive him out of the town, prepared to hurl him off a cliff. They are not living eucharistically. Instead, they are seeking to sort out the things that trouble them, the concepts that offend them, the words that they consider an affront. They had a choice, and they chose a path of destruction.

Living eucharistically, on the other hand, would call for them to look for the signs of the coming of the kingdom of heaven, the concepts that inspire them, and the words that give them hope. Living eucharistically would call for us to listen carefully for what resonates with us in a sermon, in a hymn, in a scripture reading—and then living into that truth from God. Living eucharistically means putting aside our critical nature, leaving behind the things that upset us, and finding a way to be grateful.

This life of gratitude begins with a shift in how we see ourselves, others, and the world around us. It means no longer being content with fast-food spirituality that makes us feel good in the moment but leads only to chronic disease, discontent, and disappointment.

Instead, living eucharistically means investing ourselves in the sustained bread breaking of authentic and attentive prayer, mindful and deliberate service, and careful and sensitive listening. As the late Alex Haley, the author of Roots, once said, he strove to live his life by these six words: “find the good and praise it.”[1]

“Find the good and praise it.” And, sometimes, what is good for us, what we really need, what we have to confront: sometimes, this is something painful. Paraphrasing Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance, racial justice requires the complete transformation of social institutions and a dramatic restricting of our economy, not superficial changes that can be purchased on the cheap. That is a truth that hurts. But accepting that basic tenet leads to something quite wonderful: coming even closer to the bringing of that promised kingdom of God here on earth. “Find the good and praise it.” Just as we cannot find buried treasure without doing the hard work of digging a hole, we cannot grow spiritually if we are unwilling to confront our own stumbling blocks.

Perhaps it is helpful to remember that the gospel writers were not like us. They were not interested in facts, exactly, although very much interested in truth, and not much interested in details, really. This is especially helpful to remember this as we read the gospel narrative on Sundays. It probably never occurred to them that we would add chapter and verse numbers and divide their narrative into little snippets and read just a bit here and there. So it may be well to remind ourselves of just what scripture, exactly, Jesus is claiming is fulfilled in their hearing in that synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. We heard it just last week, you may recall. From the book of the Prophet Isaiah:

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Now the Nazarenes may well be astounded that this young man they knew as Joshua, could read at all. It was not the usual thing, of course, for people to read, let alone the children of menial workers — isn’t this Joseph’s son, they ask. But, we imagine they are also astounded at what he chose to read: the very promises of salvation. Is Jesus proclaiming himself as a prophet, as great as Isaiah and Elijah? Is Jesus bringing the ancient Israelite prophet’s words into that first-century assembly? Or, is Jesus announcing that the kingdom of God has come very near? Well, perhaps all three. And even more.

By choosing to read from the prophet, rather than the law, Jesus has already aligned himself with a particular party within Judaism. We know, over time, he will continue to distance himself from the lawgivers: the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees, to be more precise. And he has also chosen to align himself with a particular wing of the prophetic party — for he has not chosen to lament, with Jonah, or to chide, with Jeremiah. He has chosen to proclaim hope for a better tomorrow. He has chosen to find the good and praise it. He has chosen to live eucharistically. And he does so using an ancient text. He does not need to be inspired by the Spirit to create it; he needs not compose the words; he is simply the living, breathing mechanism for proclaiming God’s word. He finds the words on the page and reads them aloud:

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And in this act, he breathes new life into that text. You can almost imagine the bated breath, the hair standing up on the back of someone’s neck, the racing heartbeat—as if to say, “Wow, that’s part of our scripture? Our tradition says that?”

So, Jesus reads these words, proclaiming himself as a prophet, as great as Isaiah and Elijah, bringing the ancient Israelite prophet’s words into that first-century assembly, and announcing that the kingdom of God has come very near. With these words Jesus is calling us to be prophets ourselves. To live eucharistically, a life of gratitude and thanksgiving. To breathe new life into the ancient words of Scripture. To “find the good and praise it.”

Download the sermon for Epiphany 4C.

Written By The Rev. J. Barrington Bates, Ph.D.

The Rev. Dr. J. Barrington Bates currently serves as interim rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Essex Fells, New Jersey. He is also Church Review Editor for the journal “Anglican and Episcopal History.”

 


[1] http://www.alexhaley.com

Parts of the whole, Epiphany 3 (C) – 2016

[RCL] Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21; Psalm 19

In many dioceses, this month marks an important time for annual meetings in congregations. At these times, we necessarily focus on “the Church” – how things have been going for the last year and what we plan for the next year. But at such meetings, we also often pause to remind ourselves about what the Church is and what it is not.

A usual starting point is to declare that the place where we worship is not the Church. Rather, this building is a structure in which the Church gathers for solace and pardon and strength and renewal and for inspiration to become more fully what the Church is – the body of Christ.

In today’s Epistle, we received a reminder from St. Paul that all together we, the Church, are, in fact, “the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

We remember, too, that the clergy and the vestry are not the Church. Sunday School teachers are not the Church. Outreach ministers are not the Church. The altar guild, acolytes, and lay readers are not the Church. No one person, no one group, and no one activity can become the Church for us. The Church IS the body of Christ.

The Church is NOT something to belong to. Nevertheless, sometimes people talk about joining the Church like they do about joining the Rotary Club or the PTA or the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts. Those who do affiliate with such organizations pay dues to them, attend meetings when they feel like it, and turn in their membership cards when they grow tired of the organization’s activities or become angry at what it does or the changes it makes. The Church, committed to God, is very different, of course. It is – we are – the body of Christ.

Neither is the Church something to watch on television as interested spectators. For us, the Church is participatory. We are necessarily partakers and contributors. We are not like the audience at a concert, but we are like members of the orchestra making the music – God’s music to which we dance in our daily lives, following our Christian values.

We are the body of Christ, and each of us individually is a member of it. But we are not individuals WITHOUT the body – only WITHIN it. In a way, our faith and tradition create a certain conflict with the rugged and independent-minded individualism that has formed so much of the American culture. We are not Christians alone; we are not separate actors choosing our own views without reference to the faith. Always, we are together – parts of the whole. And our congregations, the Church, are part of the body of Christ.

St. Paul drives home this point as he expands his view of the body of Christ by using the image of a human body. He enlightens us with telling examples of its parts – hand, ear, eye, nose, feet, and head. Each has its special function. As we consider what we are as the Church, we do well to remember this. As different parts of a human body make their contributions, each of us finds a particular contribution to the Church, finding a ministry that suits us and complements the others.

And, we expand these ministries beyond the confines of the congregation as we all apply our ministries in making the work of Christ effective in our daily lives for the sake of all around us.

But, we dare not forget to balance these individual roles following another aspect of St. Paul’s analogy. It takes all parts of a human body working together to produce the functioning of a healthy one. We must work together, recognizing the equal importance of all ministries and all members and all people. St. Paul illustrates this in language we can never forget. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” Each, he insists, is equally indispensable. All of us, doing our parts, are indispensable.

And, we must also expand this view beyond the confines of the Church. In the broken and fearful and often desperate world in which we live, conflict and contention and extremism and lack of civility on many sides seem to have become the rule instead of the exception. Far too often, people in all sections of our country and of the world choose sides, ascribe to an “us versus them” mentality, and draw lines in the sand. How can we take Paul’s wisdom that no one can say “I have no need of you” and extend it to all people and all places to make this sense of Christ-like unity understood and accepted?

As the body of Christ, we are the activity and the continuing presence of Jesus in the world. We become the Resurrection. The Church is the means by which Christ remains involved in the world. So, we, his body, are Christ’s representatives on earth.

We, the Church, are Christ for others – at work, at home, at school, in the community, and in the life of our congregations.

It might help today to remind ourselves of a teaching from the Outline of Faith, the Catechism, on page 555 of the Prayer Book:

“What is the mission of the Church,” we ask. And we learn that the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

When we ask, “How does the Church pursue its mission?” We learn that, “the Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships and proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace and love.”

And finally, we ask, “Through who does the Church carry out its mission?” And we are reminded that, “The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.”

The various ministries that we employ as part of the Church allow us to engage in the great mission of the body of Christ, following the challenges that Jesus lays before us. They represent how we actively serve as Christ’s continuing presence in the world.

What our world needs is for us to be the body of Christ. And how we begin to do that might well be found in today’s Gospel. The very first thing Jesus did as he began his ministry was to go into the midst of the community in which he had lived his entire life and declare what the world needed. He did so by reading from the Prophet Isaiah.

How do we, as the continuing body of Christ, in our time and our places do what Jesus read about? How, in word and in action, do we “bring good news to the poor?” How do we, in word and in action, “proclaim relief to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind?” How do we, in word and in action, “let the oppressed go free?”

How do we, in the expression of the catechism, “proclaim the Gospel, and promote justice, peace and love?”

A fearful and anxious world, filled with far too many people who are hungry and oppressed, wounded and hopeless, await an answer from the Church – from us – the body of Christ.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 3C.

Written by The Rev. Ken Kesselus

The Rev. Ken Kesselus is a retired priest living with his wife Toni in his native home of Bastrop, Texas, where he serves as the mayor and writes history book and a column in the local newspaper. He is a former member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church and author John E. Hines: Granite on Fire.

Come and Dine, Epiphany 2(C) – 2016

[RCL] Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

On the third day, there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee. How many weddings have you been to in your life? Can you remember what all those brides wore, the music that was played, the songs you danced to at the reception? Whether you enjoy weddings or dread them, they make an impression. You can recall details of a wedding many years after they happen. How the light caught her eyes. How the champagne tasted. Who caught the bouquet. It’s not just any day. It’s a day that strives for goodwill, for abundance and joy. Despite the fact that every wedding is a cliché — how could it be otherwise? — and despite the army of wedding professionals waiting to capitalize on your special day, a wedding remains the basic metaphor we have for things turning out right in the end.

Which is exactly why this wedding, with its water-to-wine miracle, marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in the Gospel of John. John is setting the scene for everything that comes after, and telling us what he thinks life as a follower of Jesus is really about. As Marcus Borg writes in his book titled simply Jesus, “The story of Jesus is about a wedding. And more: it is a wedding at which the wine never runs out. More: it is a wedding at which the best wine is saved for last.”

John is an odd duck. He clearly thinks this is a very important story for understanding who Jesus is, and yet this is a story that occurs only in his Gospel. The other Gospels make no mention of Jesus turning water into wine. Our lectionary runs in a 3-year cycle — one year each for Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John doesn’t get a year to himself: instead we get little bits and pieces of John in each of the three years. Where Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell variations of the same basic story about Jesus, John goes off in his own direction. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are more narrative, sticking to the facts of Jesus’ life and inserting Jesus’ teaching as it was preserved in early manuscripts. John is different: more interpretive and intellectual.  John wants to show us not just what Jesus says and does, but what Jesus means. And what Jesus means is life, joy, abundance, and peace. John is convinced that the Christian life is meant to be a comedy, not a tragedy. Despite how dark things might seem out there in the world, despite the fact that the path to life will lead Jesus — and us — through death, despite all of this: things will turn out right in the end. God is in control, leading us to light and life in Jesus.

John drops a hint about the meaning of Jesus in the way he begins the Cana story: “On the third day.” Important things happen in the Bible on the third day — most notably Jesus’ resurrection. In the same way that the first line of the first chapter of John, “In the beginning was the Word,” calls to mind the beginning of everything in the book of Genesis, “on the third day” points to the climax and resolution of Jesus’ story. On the third day is life, and that is where we are called to live.

Then John goes on to tell us about a wedding. Marriage as a metaphor for the union of God and humankind runs throughout the Bible.  In the passage from Isaiah that we heard today, God is the bridegroom joined in union to God’s people Israel:

“You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”

A wedding in the ancient world was an unparalleled feast. Celebrations continued for days on end. For the poor people Jesus grew up among, a wedding meant a pause from seemingly endless labor and a chance to eat and drink abundant food and wine, in stark contrast to the meager rations that made up their typical daily fare.  The life that God intends for us is a life where there is enough: an abundance that springs from God’s own abundance.

But God intends more for us than mere sustenance. There should be enough wine, and it should be good wine, the finest wine. The marriage supper God invites us to is meant to bring us pleasure and joy. The life God intends for us is one filled with beauty and contentment and all good things. It is a lie to think of pleasure as immoral. As we see at this wedding feast where Jesus reveals himself, the day of banquet and feasting is also the day of reconciliation, joy, and peace. Only when there is enough to go around, plenty to be shared freely, can old resentments be washed away and new companionship begin to grow.

Despite John’s tendency to show us the otherworldly, mysterious and ethereal side of Jesus, this miracle makes a strong case that the Christian life is grounded in simple, daily pleasures like good food and wine: following Jesus is more about earth than heaven. God became incarnate not to pull us out of our bodies and into heaven, but rather to bring heaven down to us, to bring the peace and abundance that is God’s intention for all people and places into every corner of human life.  We are blessed with this feast at the Eucharistic table week-by-week and day-by-day, blessed with enough and more left over to share. And in our joy we are called to go out into God’s world and share God’s invitation: the table is set for all! Come and dine.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 2C.

Written by The Rev. Jason Cox

The Rev. Jason Cox has served as associate rector for Youth Ministries at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row

Manifesting God’s Love, Epiphany 1(C) – 2016

[RCL] Isaiah 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22; Psalm 29

As long as most of us have been able to remember, modern day so-called prophets have been crying that Jesus is coming sometime soon in our lifetime. For that matter, any quick glance at Church history reveals that generations of folks have been anticipating the Second Coming. Even St. Paul thought that Jesus was going to return during his generation. But here we are 2,000 years later still awaiting the coming of our Lord. The Church continues to be filled with expectation, not unlike those who listened to John the Baptist, wondering if the coming of the Messiah is nigh. It seems humanity has a deep-seated longing for someone to come and deliver us from all that is wrong with the world. The world’s three great monotheistic faith traditions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – all eagerly await the coming of the One who will rectify the world’s wrongs, set the record straight, and establish a reign of righteousness.

It’s easy to see why the people gathered around John mistook him for being the long-awaited Messiah. He was a mighty preacher, boldly proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God, and warning people to repent of their sins in preparation for the coming of the Christ. John, like Jesus, challenged the status quo of his day. He called the leaders vipers when they came seeking baptism from this man in the wilderness. John didn’t pull any punches, and in the end, it proved to be his undoing. Nevertheless, Jesus proclaimed that John was the greatest among all prophets. John baptized with water, but he prepared the way for the one who would baptize with fire.

On this day, the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we are still waiting for the Messiah to return. Many are busy trying in vain to interpret the signs of the times in order to determine when the Christ will return as promised. The world has become a very scary place for many of us. Terrorist attacks are happening around the globe, wars and rumors of war fill the airwaves and electronic media, natural disasters seem to be on the rise with ever increasing ferocity, and governments struggle to find solutions to what ails their countries. Each generation sees their time as being worse the any other time in history with fear and foreboding. People are divided over what is the best approach to solving all that is wrong in our world. Even in the Church, Christ’s followers cannot find consensus. Division is rampant and faith seems to be replaced with fear.

In light of all that burdens our souls in today’s world we are called to remember that Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire. The Paraclete comes not to only provide us with comfort, but to empower us to carry out the work of the Lord in a world that is desperate for answers for what ails it. God is separating the wheat and the chaff. Despite all the disorder in the world, God is still firmly in control of the situation. Nothing is happening that God is not aware of. God’s Beloved Son has already won the victory for us, we only have to learn to walk in that victory as we face all the challenges that lay ahead.

It helps to keep in mind that the world has always faced great adversity. When the Mongols invaded the Roman Empire the Church was convinced that was the end. When the Norsemen invaded Europe, wreaking havoc wherever they landed, the Church was certain that was the end. And when the Ottoman Empire was at the gates of Vienna, once again the Church was prepared for the end to come. No generation has lived that hasn’t witnessed great social upheaval, indescribable suffering, or cataclysmic disasters. But the world continues to spin, history rolls on, and the Church must learn to rise to the occasion and proclaim that God’s love knows no boundaries. The end may be near, but we are called to be overcomers in Christ, not merely survivors who are barely hanging on until the Lord returns.

Today’s Gospel states that Jesus will separate the wheat from the chaff, but how do we know the difference? What separates the wheat from the chaff? Fear. When we allow fear to rule our decision-making process we give into irrational thinking and actions. Fear tells us to shut the alien out, to deny mercy to those seeking asylum, and to hoard our resources out of fear that there won’t be enough. Fear compels us to distrust our neighbors, and arm ourselves before we leave the relative safety of our homes as if we are going out for battle and not just a simple trip to the store or movie theater. Fear, if given into, can become our prison master that prevents us from living our lives to the fullest as intended by God.

Those who have been empowered by the Holy Spirit have nothing to fear. As Scripture reminds us, “If Christ be for us, who can be against us?” Fear is the opposite of faith. Fear tells us that God isn’t big enough to handle our problems. Faith, on the other hand, says that God is bigger than all our problems combined. Jesus, the one God calls his beloved, conquered fear on the cross and He is coming back. But until that day comes, we are called to occupy the land (spiritually speaking). Perfect love casts out all fear, and love is perfected a little more in us each time we face a fearful situation and declare God’s victory over the situation.

The love that gives us power over fear is rooted in God’s beloved – Jesus. Just as God is well pleased with the Son, so too is God pleased with all his children who put their trust in His grace. This is the central message of baptism; the old being has been buried with Christ in baptism and the new creation has been resurrected. This is a spiritual truth that must be worked out during our lifetime; nevertheless, we can be assured that God’s love for us is eternal and trustworthy. No trial or tribulation we may face can separate us from the love of God.

Christ has come into the world to set us free from fear and spiritual oppression. He will come again as he promised. Until that day comes, let us continue to manifest God’s love for all His creation as we continue to love and serve Christ in all people. Amen.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 1C.

Written by The Rev. Deacon Timothy G. Warren

The Rev. Deacon Timothy G. Warren is a 26-year retired Air Force veteran with more than 15 years’ experience as an educator in the private and public sector. Deacon Warren is the founder of Trinity Victorville Outreach, an emergent ministry in the High Desert Region, Calif., and founder/president of Lifeskills Development, a newly formed nonprofit dedicated to providing assistance to at-risk young adults.

Seeking God’s Light, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2015

January 6, 2015

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

In the reading from Isaiah, we are called to “arise” and “shine”; we are called to get up and be in relationship with this light that is God’s love breaking into a world that has been covered in darkness. This darkness has covered the earth, this thick darkness that the Magi walk through; we have been promised that it will vanish in the dawn of this new light that is the Glory of the Lord.

Isaiah says that the nations shall come to this light and the kings to the brightness of this dawn. And then in the gospel reading this morning we see the nations streaming to this light. We see these kings on a long journey through the dark. Weighed down with their gifts and riches as they seek. These treasure chests they have brought with them from the East.

Exactly who they are is difficult to discern. Are they wise men? Kings? Persian magicians? The text says “Magi,” and our tradition of song and story has overlaid a multitude of meanings – for example, that there were three of them, and what their names were.

But in the text, there are not three men, but three gifts. The Bible does not say how many Magi there were; there could have been three – or 30.

There is room in this magical caravan for all of us.

What is clear is that they are other definitely otherworldly, mysterious. These travellers are not part of the Jewish world. They come from far away. They are the world flocking to the light of God.

These Magi have been traveling in the dark, following a star; we don’t know for how long they have been seeking any more than we know where they started,or how many of them there are.

But as they get close, they seek council from Herod. We in the audience want to shout “No! Don’t ask him!” Herod is afraid of the child, and we all know there is nothing more dangerous than a powerful man when he is afraid.

From the text, we know that when they find this child with his mother, they pay him homage. The word that gets translated as “homage” is a wonderful combination of the Greek words for “to fall down” and “to kiss.” This is worship at its most pure. They find this child, which is the goal of their journey, and they fall down in praise. And then, of course, they offer the gifts.

These wise men, these kings, these magicians from a far-off land offer the baby three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There is tradition, too, around the meaning of these gifts.

The gold is because the baby is a king, and they say just this to Herod and all of Jerusalem – that they are looking for the child who has been born the King of the Jews.

They offer the baby frankincense because he is God, and the incense symbolizes prayer rising to the heavens like smoke.

And they offer the baby myrrh, which was often used for burials and symbolized death, because even here at the beginning of this story about Jesus as a baby, we remember that this story goes to the cross and beyond.

We are all on our own journeys through the dark, carrying our own gifts within us. We, too, seek to find the truth of love in this world of darkness. We, too, bear our gifts and are seeking the right place to lay them down.

We come bearing gold, our gift for our king. To whom and to what do we owe our allegiance? Who is our king? What orients our lives in the political spectrum, and how do we work together? There are any number of authorities who would eagerly have our obedience and fealty. How do we know which loud voice in the clamor of the world should be obeyed?

We come bearing frankincense and seeking what is holy in this world. We are looking for the thin space, the gap between this world that we see and touch and the other world that we long for and know to be true. Is it our selves, our families, our nation? Is it our ideologies, our own opinions? Is it personal growth? Is there anything that makes you fall on your knees in honor of something greater than yourself?

We come bearing myrrh, in all that we mourn. We are all bearing grief in this world, and we are looking for a place to lay it down. What is it that makes you weep? What do you do with the grief in your life? Myrrh was used for the anointing of a dead body. What are you ready to bury? What do you need to let go of and mourn the loss of?

Whom do we obey? What do we worship? Where can we lay our broken hearts? The answer is: the Kingdom of Love that Jesus preaches about.

This new kingdom is the Light that illuminates the deep darkness. This new kingdom has broken into and shattered all we thought we knew about the way the world works.

If we obey the Kingdom of Love, we will find ourselves overflowing with compassion, and forgiving our enemies, and giving away all we had thought was “ours.”

If we worship in the Kingdom of Love, we find ourselves falling down at the feet of Love and joining with angels and archangels and breaking bread with God’s beloved.

If we allow the Kingdom of Love to break our hearts, we will realize that all the world’s children are our children, and that the heart of God is overflowing with gracious compassion for everyone.

It sounds like loss – the loss of being the center, the loss of “treasure.” But in this loss there is overwhelming joy. That is what is said of these Magi: that in their encounter with this infant incarnation of Love, they were overwhelmed with joy.

There is something out there that is so bright and beautiful that it draws the shepherds, and the Magi and us. This is what we look for in the dark, burdened by our treasure, longing to lay down our obedience, our worship and our grief.

And so we walk through the dark, our eyes eagerly seeing a speck of light – a star we can follow. That is what Epiphany is about – it is a time to look for the light of God shining in unexpected places. And it is a time to fall down and kiss the light when we do find it.

 

— The Rev. Kerlin Richter is the founding priest of Bushwick Abbey, a creative new Episcopal church plant in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Were the Magi real?, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2014

January 6, 2014

Isaiah 60:1-6Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14Ephesians 3:1-12Matthew 2:1-12

Were the Magi real? Did they actually make their way from a distant land in the East some 2,000 years ago, following a mysterious star all the way to Bethlehem? And did they really bring the Child Jesus those gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh?

Good questions.

Every year around this time of course, astronomers, both amateur and professional, offer some innovative scientific – skeptics might say “pseudo-scientific” – explanation for the appearance of the star. An unusual conjunction of planets, they most often explain. And reputable historians will be happy to tell you that soothsayers and traveling shamans were undoubtedly a colorful and important element of the ancient world. Then as now, people wanted to understand the deeper meanings of life.

So it all could have been just as related to us in the Gospel of Matthew. The gifts of precious metal and aromatic resins are perhaps a bit more problematical – not exactly what you might think to get a little boy for his birthday these days. Evidence perhaps – as some commentators and parents puckishly suggest – that the wise men did not have children of their own.

Still, whether the Magi and their star and gifts were real or not remains anybody’s guess. Many reputable Scripture scholars, in fact, question their actual existence. They remind us that much in Scripture was never intended to be taken literally. The stories of Jesus’ birth, they go on to say – the so-called Infancy Narratives – are simply parts of an ancient midrashic, or interpretive, genre of biblical narrative, not intended as strictly factual accounts.

So, were the Magi real?

Hard to say. Maybe – just maybe – we should give them the benefit of the doubt.

What does it mean to be “real” anyway? Perhaps the Magi are as real as real gets. After all, when you stop to think about it, there are a lot of people in our contemporary world who could stand to get real. We meet them at work and at the mall, sometimes even in our own families. And most of us, if we look at our own lives, would have to admit that they are filled with the unreal and with our own fair share of improbabilities – events and happenstances that we could hardly have predicted before their occurrence. Yet, here we are – in the flesh, with our all-too-real contradictions and accumulated paradoxes.

So, perhaps a small troop of mystics or sages arriving from the East – note, by the way, that Matthew does not mention the number three – are not so odd or implausible as we might at first think. The Magi were, to be sure, outsiders in most every sense of the word – gentiles after all, surely as incongruous and out-of-place as anything or anyone could be in the heartland of the ancient Jewish world. And most likely, if we read between the lines, they were clairvoyants and prestidigitators of sorts – practitioners of the occult arts, if you will – and filthy rich. How else explain those gifts, costly in any age? For all we know, the Magi may well have been the David Copperfields of their day.

Yet for all that, their agenda was deceptively simple and straightforward: to find the King of the Jews, to worship him and to bring him their gifts. And it is this simple agenda that leads them from their own far-off land to King Herod and beyond on an unlikely journey of discovery and epiphany.

What could be more real than that?

Epiphany remains for us in our own age an astonishing sign or manifestation of the hardly believable yet very much real – God’s wisdom masquerading as human weakness and folly. For as we readily see, God’s eternal wisdom is found not at King Herod’s magnificent court, but rather in the humble village home of a small and vulnerable child and his parents. Perhaps it does take show-business-like conjurers – themselves no doubt masters of surprise and the unexpected – to recognize the real in the impossible.

There is, of course, always a fine line between the real and the impossible. All too often it is indeed the impossible that inevitably comes to pass: An obscure South American cardinal with a heart for the poor is elected pope; a former rising oil executive known for the gift of reconciliation is appointed archbishop; and a humble man at long last unites the peoples of his native land after decades of Apartheid and rigid racial segregation.

There are wise men – and women – among us still.

But if there is a fine line between the real and the impossible, there is sometimes an even finer distinction to be drawn between true wisdom and our own self-deceptions and doubts. We must admire the perspicacity and persistence of the Magi making their way methodically and sure-footedly across wilderness and desert, seeking an out-of-the-question reality they were certain had come to pass. Few of us are so sure of ourselves and our paths. Too many among us never even dare leave home.

But the Magi, their task accomplished, return home from their journey “by another road” as the gospel tells us, and have not been heard from since. For all we know, they may still be on their way. For all we know, they may be journeying among us here and now in our congregations and communities, bequeathing to us from time to time their precious gifts of wisdom, knowledge and understanding – gifts that remain as rare today as gold, frankincense and myrrh in any age.

Perhaps that is why the church has given us this special festival day of Epiphany, to celebrate the wondrous and amazing things in our own lives. And to give us courage to follow, in our day, the star of the Magi as it leads us – just as it did them – to Bethlehem and the Child Jesus.

If the Magi are not real, who is?

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is currently chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, a ministry of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” Saint Margaret’s Facebook page at www.anglicanbudapest.com. Isten hozott!

To be sent out, Last Sunday After the Epiphany / World Mission Sunday (C) – 2013

February 10, 2013

Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)

Today, the last Sunday of Epiphany, is recognized every year as World Mission Sunday around the Episcopal Church.

The word “mission” comes from the Latin verb mittere “to be sent out”; mission is about being sent out. But what are we being sent out to do, and where are we expected to go?

The mission that we are all called into as Christians is the mission of God. This mission is most succinctly articulated in our Baptismal Covenant and in particular the last two questions of the covenant:

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

To which we declare, “I will, with God’s help.”

These two simple promises are excellent guides as we reflect upon what God is calling us to do, and how we should faithfully respond.

We are an incarnational church. When we internalize the understanding that God has created all humanity in God’s image and that we are all sisters and brothers in Christ, it is impossible to pass by somebody in need without feeling the call to respond. It is much easier to ignore suffering around the world when it is happening far away and when we do not feel connected to the people who are suffering. But when we sense a connection, when we realize that the person who is suffering is part of who we are, flesh of our own flesh, bone of our own bone, then the visceral desire to respond is much greater.

And yet we are all connected. At the beginning of time and from the beginning of scripture, we were all created from the same single point, which is God’s love. We are all children of God, and we are all created in God’s image.

Within all of scripture, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, there is a thread that describes how humanity has separated itself from God and from one another, and at various times in our history how humanity has moved back toward God and to one another through the witness of prophets and later through the incarnation of the Son of God into this world. The mission of God is fundamentally about this journey of reconciliation; the mission into which we are called to participate is God’s mission of reconciliation, reconciliation with God and reconciliation with one another. This is the essence of God’s call for us.

In the book “Les Miserables,” Victor Hugo writes, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” One could add that when we look into the eyes of another, especially one who is suffering, we also see the face of God. When we interact with others, when we honesty desire to nurture a relationship with another, then we feel an imperative to respond to their needs as they are drawn to respond to our needs. An important aspect in our response to God’s mission is that we are called to be in a mutual relationship with one another. Remember that in our baptismal vows we declare that we will strive to respect the dignity of every human being. We cannot respect the dignity of another if the relationship is one sided.

Since the beginning of time, people have responded to God’s love in different ways. Missionaries have travelled to all corners of the earth sharing the Good News of Christ to those who had not heard. Missionaries brought education and healthcare, they have healed the sick, clothed the naked, visited the prisoners, fed the hungry and built homes for those without shelter.

There have been those throughout history who have sacrificed good-paying jobs, a comfortable lifestyle and even their lives as they respond to God’s call to seek and serve Christ in all people. There still continues to be people who respond to God’s call by living across cultural, linguistic and economic boundaries as missionaries of the church.

We have young adults who give a year of their lives to work around the world in service. They work in the mountain province of the Philippines; they work with migrant workers in Hong Kong; they support a mission hospital in rural Lesotho, Africa; they are teaching music in Haiti; they are providing support for the social outreach of the Church of Southern Africa. Our missionaries in the Young Adult Service Corps program are making a real difference in the regions where they work.

We also have missionaries that serve for longer periods of time, developing programs and gaining a deep understanding of the language and culture as they share their gifts and skills to support our partners in the Anglican Communion around the world as doctors and nurses, as educators, as accountants and web designers, as administrators and advocates.

In more recent years we have seen the growth of short-term mission, with parishes and dioceses across the Episcopal Church engaging in mission and developing and nurturing relationships with sisters and brothers around the Anglican Communion. This development has provided an opportunity for many people to learn more about our neighbors far away, to learn how God is working in their lives and to respond to human need in a meaningful way.

Responding to people’s physical needs is very natural, and Jesus calls us to do it. But we should never forget that our first call is to be in relationship with others and to respond to God’s call for reconciliation. We are called to listen to one another’s stories.

After the terrible devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in the New York area at the end of October 2012, many church groups sent teams to help clean up. One particular group worked hard all day, cleaning houses, washing down fungus-encrusted walls and throwing out trash. An elderly woman who was helped was so proud of her neighborhood that she insisted the mission team should come and see the local park. Perhaps one of the most meaningful encounters of the day was when one of the group, a young teenager, went with this woman to visit the park and to listen to her story. For 15 minutes he gave her his full attention, a time for her to share her joy amidst the sadness of the loss of her home, and time for both of them to see Christ in the other.

We are not all called to travel across continents or to visit prisoners, but we are all called to love our neighbor as ourselves. Having faith in our own faith, trusting in God, as Paul states in Corinthians, “We have such a hope, we act with great boldness.” We should have that boldness that comes from the realization that we are all children of God and that God loves us all more than we can ask or imagine. Whatever we do, God will always be there with us, God will always love us and God’s arms are wrapped tightly around us.

“Doing” is important, but “being” is the very essence of mission. We are called to share the physical gifts that we have with others, and the disparity of wealth in this country and around the world is a tragedy that we should be addressing unceasingly. However, reminding others that they are loved and that they are not forgotten is also important and reaches to the very core of what God is calling us to do.

Whether we are helping in a food pantry in our local community, participating in mission trips across the world, or living amongst another culture for many years, it is the love for the other that is at the very core mission.

One missionary said that the best advice he ever received as a young priest was that he should always “love the people”; and that is what we are all called to do.

What are we sent out to do, and where do we go?

As Christians we are sent out to love God and to love one another, and we are sent out to the whole world. We are sent out to be with our neighbor down the street and our neighbor around the world.

 

— The Rev. David Copley is the Episcopal Church’s officer for Mission Personnel and team leader for the Global Partnerships Office. He was a missionary in Liberia and Bolivia and priest in the Diocese of Southern Virginia before accepting his current position.

Putting God’s expectations above our own, 4 Epiphany (C) – 2013

February 3, 2013

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 12:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

Lottery winners. Have you ever met one? It is quite an exciting thing when a lottery winner is from your hometown, bought his ticket from your favorite corner store, or is a member of your family. It’s as if you get to share in their good fortune just by being near them. Of course they would want to give away some of their substantial blessing to you because you went to high school together or opened the door of a restaurant for them once or are their cousin. You are proud of this person until you find out that they aren’t planning on sharing anything with you. Or maybe they are sharing a little bit, but are giving more to another person or charity. Then what?

A March 30, 2012 online article from the publication International Business Times provides two cautionary tales about people who struck it rich: Jack Whittaker of West Virginia won the lottery and then had two relatives and his daughter’s boyfriend die. He also had a number of lawsuits filed against him and blames it all on the win. Another winner, Jeffrey Dampier, was 26 years old when he won the Illinois lottery. He was then kidnapped and murdered by his sister-in-law and her boyfriend in hopes that they would receive the winnings after his death.

One person’s fortune can turn another into a jealous, scheming, sometimes tortured mess. This doesn’t just go for lottery winners, but also for any kind of joy that another has. Your co-worker gets the promotion you’ve been striving for. The couple next door has no trouble getting pregnant while you and your spouse have been trying for years. Your friend gets on the varsity team that you desperately wanted to be on to and you didn’t. We can’t help but berate the other person in our minds and close our hearts off to shared joy or a widened vision of blessing. It’s human nature and it is difficult to combat.

When Jesus came to his hometown of Nazareth and began to teach, the local Jewish community was quite proud of him. After all, they had heard of the things that he had done at Capernaum and were convinced that he was some sort of prophet from God. They believed that Jesus had just won the lottery, so to speak, and was about to shower them with God’s favor because, after all, he was one of them, so of course that is what he would do. Besides, they agreed with what he was saying – at least at first. But as long as they were pleased, they were proud and they wanted to preen in the light of special favor from God.

Then Jesus starts talking about the blessing going not to those in his midst, but further abroad, to gentiles. He uses stories of Elijah and Elisha where God healed and included people that were not part of the usual fold. He teaches that God’s liberation is more inclusive and abundant than the exclusive covenant that the people in the synagogue believed God had with them. With this, everything changes.

It is interesting how the mind can turn quickly when we do not agree with someone. We may feel that a priest, a CEO, a political leader, a teacher or a friend is wonderful until they say or do something that isn’t exactly what we believe. Then we are shocked or angry. After all, we like to congregate with like-minded people because it feels good to be part of a group that we understand and that we think understands us as well. When someone who we feel belongs to us says something contrary or challenges the current status, we are often quick to turn on him or her. It is one thing for an outsider to say or do something divergent, but a whole other game when it is one of our own.

This is where we find Jesus in our gospel story today. When the unheard-of inclusiveness of Jesus’ message became clear to those in his home congregation, their commitment to their own community and the boundaries they erected overtook the joy that they initially had in receiving a prophet of God in their midst. They were blinded by indignation and did not want to believe that God’s grace is not subject to our lists of who is in and who is out. It cannot be tamed by our human desire to be special. Often, this very grace scandalizes us so much that we are simply unable to receive it for ourselves. Thus begins a vicious cycle: if we are unable to receive such grace, how, then, can we share it with others? We cannot.

This is the cautionary tale that we receive from those at Jesus’ hometown synagogue. They were so focused on what they believed God’s blessing should look like – just for them – that they missed the opportunity of grace that Jesus was bearing. The gospel says that they “were filled with rage” and “drove him out of town.” How dare Jesus tell them who should be included? How dare Jesus tell us?

Part of becoming a maturing Christian is learning how to put our boundaries and expectations aside in order to listen to what God’s are. This is difficult work and it is lifelong. In our epistle reading today, the Apostle Paul is encouraging the churches in Corinth to love in the radical way that Jesus teaches. They are enmeshed in conflict around what spiritual gifts are the greatest. To help them understand, Paul writes to them of love and spiritual maturity. He likens the growth of our hearts to the growth in our life cycle, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” We know that when we are children, we have a narrow view of the world. It is always about us and what is in our immediate vicinity. As we grow into adulthood and experience more of life, we understand how big the world is. As we mature as Christians, we understand more fully what grace is, and it continues to widen our hearts through love.

Being a Christian isn’t easy. Neither Jesus nor Paul ever tell us that it is. It requires things of us, as it says in our Book of Common Prayer’s Catechism: “The duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.” This is a full-time job that shapes our lives. It calls us to live, to die to ourselves and be resurrected with Jesus over and over and over again. With each time, our hearts get a little wider, we know grace that much more deeply, and we are able to follow Jesus a little bit more down the road of love.

When Jesus speaks to his hometown synagogue, he’s speaking to our hometown church, too. Paul echoes Jesus’ message, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” What does God’s love look like in your church? Open the ears of your heart to listen for it, and walk in grace to find out.

 

— The Rev. Danáe Ashley is priest-in-charge of St. Edward the Confessor Episcopal Church in Wayzata, Minn.

Jesus’ mission statement, 3 Epiphany (C) – 2013

January 27, 2013

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

Today’s gospel presents us with Jesus’ first act of public ministry, described for us in Luke’s gospel. Following his river baptism and his long wilderness fast and temptation, Jesus returns to his home country, Galilee. Reports about him have been spreading through the population, probably the result of his healing miracles and his synagogue teaching.

So when he comes back home, it’s quite a big day in the synagogue. Everybody’s there, eager to hear the local boy who’s making such a name for himself.

Jesus enters the synagogue on that Sabbath morning. It seems smaller than it looked when he was a child, but otherwise nothing about this familiar place has changed.

Joseph and Mary prepared him well for life. They raised him faithfully in their ancestral religion. He regularly attended Sabbath school and youth group; they brought him to the synagogue every week – as a baby, a child, a teenager.

It wasn’t always easy, especially when he was a baby. And so Joseph and Mary must be patron saints for all the parents now who bring their babies to worship, who make sure their children get to church school, who see their sons and daughters belong to youth group. It’s not easy. But these parents know that the child who participates regularly in the community of God’s people is likely to have a strong faith in adulthood and a firm foundation during every crisis of life.

So Jesus returns to the Nazareth synagogue, thankful for the upbringing he received there. He is asked to read the lesson from the prophets. There is no lectionary to consult to determine this reading; the choice is up to him. Nor is there a book to flip through. Instead, a bulky scroll is brought to him and placed upon the lectern. Jesus, searching for a familiar text, unrolls it to a place near the end of the scroll. In a voice strong with anticipation, he reads aloud these words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Finished with this brief passage, Jesus rolls up the scroll, returns it to the attendant, and takes his seat.

It is the custom for teachers to sit, rather than to stand, so when Jesus sits, everyone looks at him, expecting some commentary, some explication of this text, a text well known to many of them.

There are no professional clergy. The synagogue president can invite any appropriate person to comment on the text. Often these remarks are less than inspiring. While the people are biblically literate, commentary on scripture by such speakers is often no more than rote recitation of lessons all of them learned at an early age. So the congregation usually knows what will be said before it is said, and the only question is whether it will be said correctly or not.

Not so today when Jesus sits down. The people are all looking at him. He looks around at them, those familiar faces from his early years, older in appearance than before: his childhood friends, now present with their children; the parents of his friends, now senior citizens.

He begins with a zinger, and something much more than a zinger – a sentence that remains fresh and provocative down to our own time. Jesus sets free the scripture passage he has just read; he lets the lion out of its cage; he overthrows the ho-hum expectations of the people around him. Here is what he says: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

Jesus does the unexpected, the unimaginable, on that memorable Sabbath morning in Nazareth. In today’s jargon, he claims those ancient prophetic words as his own personal mission statement. The reason God’s Spirit came crashing down on him at his baptism was to empower him to do precisely this: bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind; let all the oppressed go free; announce the sweet Jubilee Year when God’s justice will reshape society.

Jesus takes all this as his mission statement, and he is not content to leave it as only a string of high-sounding words. Everything that follows in his life, as presented to us in the gospel, amounts to the living out of the prophecy he claims for himself that Sabbath morning in Nazareth.

He keeps doing these things every chance he gets, every time he turns around, until finally it kills him. Some people welcome what Jesus does, but others do not because it upsets their unfair advantage, questions their complacency, and pushes them to recognize their habitual infidelity to God. They find their discomfort increasingly intolerable and think that his judicial murder will bring an end to the matter. They are wrong, of course. Jesus rises alive from the dead and continues today to do what he talked about that Sabbath morning long ago.

Now the way he works is through his mystical body, the church. Through each of us and all who are baptized into his body, Jesus strives still to live out his mission statement, bringing good news to those who don’t have any, setting free those chained in captivity, opening blind eyes, helping the oppressed and exploited find a life, and unrolling the floor plan that sets out God’s reign where justice and peace prevail.

Jesus still does these things, because his church does them. The poor gain hope, whether it’s their souls or their bodies that are starved. The captives experience freedom, whether they are prisoners in a jail or prisoners in a mansion. The blind receive sight, whether it’s cataract surgery at the church hospital or the scales of prejudice falling off the eyes of a bigot. The oppressed are set free, whether oppression is a political regime or a chemical dependence. When Jesus reads that passage in the Nazareth synagogue, he announces a mission statement for himself and for his body, the church.

Today’s reading from First Corinthians is another important passage about how the Body of Christ, the church, is to live out the mission statement of Jesus. As we strive to keep faithful to those words Jesus read aloud and lived out, we can pay attention to three points that St. Paul insists on in that passage.

Number One: All members of the church have gifts for ministry.

Number Two. The members of the church have different gifts for ministry; we are not clones of each other.

Number Three. The different gifts come to life in the context of the whole.

Jesus read the old words from Isaiah and claimed them for his own. We can do the same. Please stand and repeat after me, sentence by sentence:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon us.

The Spirit of the Lord has anointed us to bring good news to the poor.
The Spirit of the Lord has sent us to proclaim release to the captives.
The Spirit of the Lord has sent us to help the blind recover their sight.
The Spirit of the Lord has sent us to free the oppressed.
The Spirit of the Lord has sent us to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing. Amen.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals“ (Cowley Publications, 2003).