Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, Trinity Church Mt. Vernon, January 27, 2013
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
If we look at the Gospel of Luke, today’s Gospel lesson occupies a very important place: Up until this point, we have what you might call background—things having to do with Jesus’ birth and childhood, John the Baptist and Jesus’ relationship with him. John baptized Jesus and Jesus was taken into the desert and tempted by the devil.
Jesus emerges from temptation and this lesson is the first thing that happens, it is the beginning of his ministry, the life that people came to know, that transformed the world. The centerpiece of this is quite simple: this young man returns to his home town and reads a lesson in his home congregation. Most congregations have an experience like that from time to time, a former youngster returns for a visit. Now this lesson is really only the first half of the story—you have to come next week for the second half—where we get a peek at how those kids feel when they come back…
This lesson is about Jesus’ character and his ministry.
“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.”
That is Jesus’ life—his ministry. Good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind—What do those things refer to? They refer to people, often like you and me, whose lives involve sometimes being on the outside; not in positions of wealth and power; sometimes really suffering; perhaps even oppressed by the structures of society. Jesus has come to bring healing and freedom to all these people. But who are they? It is a mistake to regard these people as a small group that can be taken care of by alms and handouts, or on the other hand, to think that Jesus is bringing this good news to just us, and perhaps some others like us. Jesus is here for us, to lead us out of our blindness, to see ALL of his people.
You can see in the stories about Jesus that he was always extending the definition of WHO God’s people are—‘Who is my neighbor?’ Could it really be that man who is a Samaritan—a group known to be dirty, impure and our enemies? Tax collectors and other collaborators with the Roman occupying government? The Good News that Jesus brings stretches way beyond most people’s range of comfort. As soon as we accept that Jesus has brought good news for us, we are challenged because he is bringing Good News to those that we regard as outside.
I ran across an article by Derek Penwell, a minister and teacher from Kentucky—he’s reflecting on a phenomenon which he describes this way: “The fastest growing religious designation in America over the past five years, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, is ‘None.’” Recently the noun “Nones” (not Nuns, who are women who live in religious communities) has entered the vocabulary, at least of those who analyze contemporary religion—to refer to those who just don’t care about religion—they aren’t necessarily atheist or agnostic, but would prefer not to be associated with any religious beliefs or practices. The article is worth reading, but I want to quote one passage that really struck me:
“Think about this for a minute, though: What if part of the reason the “Nones” are so underwhelmed by organized religion isn’t because they don’t find Jesus interesting, but because it appears to them that Christians don’t find him sufficiently interesting enough to take seriously?”
Taking Jesus seriously is less a matter of what we think, or of what we say, than of how we live our lives. Are we interested in living our lives along with this guy who brings Good News to the poor, release to captives? Are we interested in having our blindness turned to sight? Over the years, the Episcopal Church has sometimes been more interested its own internal vocabulary and self-congratulation than in welcoming anyone who doesn’t exactly match—Jesus, of course doesn’t exactly match much of anybody. His reputation was for dining with sinners, defending the oppressed, extending the love of the God of Israel to all peoples.
At some important point in our lives, most of us know this—that is really why we keep coming back, because Jesus loved us and accepted us, even when we felt rejected, even unacceptable. He invites us to a life, along with him, of Good News, of the hard work of reaching out and opening ourselves and our church to the people that he invites.
The Gospel for next week is a dose of the real world. When Jesus announced this Good News in his home town, the congregation rejected him and tried to throw him off a cliff. That’s the ordinary reaction, and we sometimes see it in the church. But I encourage you to be interested in Jesus and his life. It is not always comfortable to make common cause with this Galilean when all the culture around is interested in any other kind of life but his. He is inviting us all to live a life of welcome—to see clearly who is our neighbor—and to proclaim the year of our Lord’s favor.