Friday, January 26, 2007

Sermon for Third Sunday after Epiphany Year C, first at All Saints delivered on Anniversary of my ordination

“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

I speak with you today in the name of the ever present God. Amen!

In the spring of 1996, I made an important phone call to my father. Now, let me give you a little history as to why this phone call is important. My father is a retired Southern Baptist pastor, which means I have been in church since 9 months before I was born. The spring of 96 found me wrapping up my second year of college at Middle Tennessee State University in Murphreesboro, Tennessee. Since leaving my parents house and my home town two years prior I had maintained a very consistent church attendance practice. I consistently didn’t go! In my first year and a half or so, I think I might have been in a church maybe once, and it definitely was not a Baptist church. I called my father that day to tell him I had started going to church.
At first my father was very excited. He had been praying for me to find my own church home literally everyday since I had moved out. However, his excitement was tempered by the news that I wasn’t attending a Baptist church. It I turns out, I had been going to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and attending their campus ministry for about a month and a half. My father was still happy with this news but a little dubious since he had extremely little knowledge about the Episcopal Church, it practices, and its beliefs. He immediately wanted to know what was different about St. Paul’s. I told him, “Well, pop (pop is a southern expression for father not for a flavored soda drink) they serve communion every week.” He replied, “Every week? Doesn’t it lose its special-ness having it every week?” I said, “No, it’s the most important part of the service instead of the sermon.” Now, my father is an old school preacher. He can bring it from the pulpit week in and week out, and is very studious and dedicated to the craft of preaching. So, I think I got a snort in response to that statement.
Now, you need a little bit more background, a little bit more information about my father to understand the next part of our conversation. See, my father is not just a Baptist; he is not just a Southern Baptist; nor is he just a Southern Baptist Pastor. He is a Tea-totaling Southern Baptist Pastor. He comes from a tradition in the Baptist church extending from the temperance movement that considers all alcohol consumption, no matter how small an amount, to be a grave sin—not merely a sin, and definitely not a minor infraction, but a grave sin. So, yall can probably guess what the next difference of Episcopal practice I had to report. I told my father, “Now pop, they use real wine in the communion.” There was a long pause on the other end of the line. A weighted pause—if you will—that made me wonder if I was still part of the Emerson family. Finally, my father replied, “Well, maybe that little bit won’t hurt you.” And we moved on to other conversations.
Over the years both of my parents have come to appreciate and maybe even love the Episcopal worship service, and I am proud that both my parents not only attended my ordination and received communion, but my mother was one of my presenters and my father was one of the clergy that laid hands on me this weekend just one year ago.
I have told the humorous story of this phone call many, many times. However, the important part is not its entertainment value. The important part is at the beginning. I had returned to church. More importantly, I had returned to trying to live a life of faith. See, I had left thinking there were greener pastures and more harrowing adventures outside the church. But something called me back. There were things both internally and externally that compelled me to return to the faith.
In our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures today, the people of Israel are culminating a return of their own. They had been in exile, the city of Jerusalem in ruins and their existence as a race and culture in danger of extinction. Our reading today is a culmination of the near century long restoration of the temple, the Law of Moses, and the walls of Jerusalem that occurred after a 50 year exile. But their time away from God preceded their physical removal. See, the history of the kingdom of Israel from Solomon on is a time when the people had forgotten the graciousness of God. The times were marked with a widening gap between the rich and the poor, conscripted military and public service, burdensome tax laws, and no respect or provision for the alien, the widow, or the orphan. All these things were against the Law of God given to Moses, against the society that God had called for and created in the Exodus.
Our reading from Nehemiah today is the culmination of their return to the community, to the societal structure, the urban planning, to the political constitution that God intended. And what did they do to mark their return? What did they do to guide their return back to God, to make sure they headed back in the proper direction? They read the scriptures, the holy story; the account of God’s graciousness that, not only created them as individuals, but also created their community. God says, “Here Oh, Israel. I am your Lord, the one who brought you out of Egypt and made you a great nation.” They are returning to their story, to their God, to who they were intended to be.
We all experience times in our live when we go astray; times when we individually, as congregation, as a community, society, and world head in a “non-God-ward” direction; times when we are not becoming what God has intended us to be. We know this. We can feel it “deep in our bones” as they say that something just isn’t right. This ingrained notion is also the roots of our longing for God. We instinctively look for the source of who we are to make things right. Somewhere within us we long for justice and that justice comes from God. The prominent English Bishop, scholar, and author, N.T. Wright in his book Simply Christian, argues that longing for Justice is the root of the Christian faith.
Our Gospel reading today, backs up the good Bishop. Jesus is returning as well. He has spent forty days in desert resisting temptation and discerning his ministry and has returned to his childhood region and begun to preach and teach in the synagogues. Our Gospel today is his first sermon back in his home town of Nazareth where he lays out his mission statement for his ministry, where he tells them what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen now that he is in the game. Jesus unrolls the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah and reads,
“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.”

Then Jesus does the craziest thing. Jesus has the gumption to sit in that room with the people who taught him how to read, with the people who probably caught him skipping his chores to go fishing when he was a kid, and say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The year of the Lord’s Favor, the year of jubilee when all debts are forgiven, land is returned to ancestral owners, when wealth is redistributed and everyone is given a clean slate, Jesus proclaims that day has come.
Now we don’t have to look a newspaper for very long at all to think Jesus is crazy when he says this. We the human race still fight for food, energy, resources, and sometimes just plain power. But while I can empathize with the other people in the synagogue who might have been thinking Jesus had spent a little too much time in the Sun, I’m going to err on the side of Jesus. I don’t know about you, but I think when Jesus says he is here to “bring good news to the poor” to “let the oppressed go free”, and to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” he means it.
So, how come we still have all this pain and suffering in the world? And when I say all, I mean all. From our internal demons be they alcoholism, drug addiction, anger, depression, selfishness and greed, to our external family struggles and physical illness; from our battles over education to violence in the streets; from wars, famine, and oppression, to hurricanes, tsunami’s and ice storms; I want to know, “How long oh Lord, how long?”
Now, yall, you will never hear me claim to have all the answers. However, if I may be so bold, I think the apostle Paul offers us some insight today. Paul writes that we are all part of the body of Christ. We are the physical manifestation of Christ in the world.
Paul goes on to write that we each have a role, a function within the body of Christ. We have been given spiritual gifts for ministry in the world. Paul lifts up three of these gifts as goals that each and everyone of us can strive for: apostle, prophet, and teacher. As I meditated with these scriptures this week I realized that all these gifts are outward focused. Apostle means sent out to tell the good news; a prophet is one who cries out against injustice; and a teacher guides the way for others. Each of these ministries can be lived out in a myriad of ways by anyone. They have nothing to do with ordinations or professions. Paul writes that we are all to strive to live out these greater gifts regardless of our age, our career, our gender, our race, or our status. Just as Christ, God in human flesh, took the sufferings of the world upon his shoulders, we are called to bring joy where there is pain, forgiveness where there is guilt, light where there is darkness. These are not merely descriptive metaphors but calls to concrete action.
So what are we to do, and how are we to do it? One of the best parts of my job is that I get to meet and know new people. I been getting to know a few people here at All Saints and I have many, many more to get to know. But I can tell you this, in the few people I have met so far, the Spirit of Baptism, the force that empowers us as the Body of Christ is alive in All Saints Episcopal church. Gifts for ministry are being discovered and applied. I have heard stories of love and compassion, growth and grace over and over again. I am excited to get to know more of you, but I suspect there are more movings of the spirit occurring within us that will be carried to this world. The potential for good from All Saints is unlimited for indeed we can do all things through Christ who strengthens. Moreover, we not only can do good, we must. For as the Apostle Paul writes, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
But we must journey in a God-ward direction. To do that we must stay connected to that divine story salvation. We must come here to this house of God, hear the word of God, pray for ourselves and others, confess our sins, and most importantly we must come this table. We must come to this table and receive the bread and wine. We must receive the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood broken and poured out for us. We must receive the body of Christ so that we can then go and be the body of Christ in the world. Amen!

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