Sunday, January 27, 2019

3 Epiphany

Annual Meeting Sunday

January 27, 2019

Luke 4.14-21

+Today is, of course, our Annual Meeting Sunday. And it’s the Sunday when I usually preach a sermon about the uniqueness of this place we call St. Stephen’s. And I will do it again today.

We ARE, as you all know, a unique place. There are not many church congregations like us. 

We are a blend of all the things that makes the Church what it is.  But our uniqueness is not just in our blending of Protestant and Catholic, in Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic, in Broad Church and High Church—all of which make us truly and totally Anglican.  We are, after all,  Episcopalians within the Anglican tradition. And this is Anglicanism.

 Our uniqueness is not just in the fact that we honor Scripture and the saints and social justice and the worth and dignity of all human beings all at once.  There are other congregations like that in the Episcopal Church

Our uniqueness is just in who we are. Our uniqueness is in the fact that we are not a highly polished church with matching pews.
 Our uniqueness is in the fact that when it seems the odds were against us, we find they have actually been with us.

We are a little church building, far off the beaten trek. We are here, tucked away in the far corner of northeast Fargo, in the shadow of the much larger Messiah Lutheran.

If we brought one of those experts on church growth in, they would tell us this: sell this building, move into a storefront or into some more visible place with much better foot traffic; conform a bit more to the Diocesan standards of what a congregation should be; don’t be so radial in what you do; choose one Christian expression and stick with it; if you’re evangelical, then go with it, if you’re Anglo-Catholic, then go with it. Advertise! And please, don’t be so liberal! Otherwise, they’ll never find you. And you’ll never grow.

And, of course:  progressive congregations don’t grow!

I know that’s what they say, because I’ve heard it again and again.

But not us. Not the rebels that make up St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.  Not this Island of Misfit Toys that we are!

And yet, when I tell people about St. Stephen’s, when I tell them about the amazing growth and vitality here, when I tell them about the diversity and the unique blend of people and spiritual expressions we have here, they are amazed by it.

Inevitably, I am asked, again and again, what is the secret of St. Stephen’s success. And what do I always answer?

The Holy Spirit.

Actually, no secret at all. And that is what it all comes down to. It is our total and complete surrender to God’s Spirit, working in our midst that is our success.

Well, that, and the hard work we are compelled by the Spirit to do here and in the world.

That’s it, in a nutshell.

Now, in our Gospel reading for today, we find a seed for all we do here at St. Stephen’s.  We find this story of Jesus, standing up and reading this amazing scripture from 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.’

He then, after rolling up the scroll, says,

‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

Those words echo in our midst, here at St. Stephen’s this morning.

Do you hear it?


‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

Because, yes, today, that scripture from Isaiah has been fulfilled in our hearing.

By Jesus standing and proclaiming who is and what he has come to do, he really sets the standard for us here at St. Stephen’s on this Annual Meeting Sunday in 2019 as well.  We too should proclaim our faith in Jesus in the same way.

Now, as I say that I pause.

Most Christians take that to mean something I did not intend it to mean.  When I say “faith in Jesus,” I don’t mean we should be obnoxious and fundamentalist or bullies in our views.  You have heard me say a million times from this pulpit that I think way too many Christians proclaim themselves as Christians with their lips, but certainly don’t live it out in their lives and by example (and I am guilty of this myself).

As the great theologian Richard Rohr famously says,

“We worship Jesus more than we follow Jesus.”

And the longer I am in the Church, the more I see this to be true. And the more I rebel against this traditional view of worship of over following Jesus. 

I see so many people in the larger Church staying safety in their church buildings, safely worshipping Jesus, but not going out into the world and living the Gospel of Jesus in their lives. To me, that is a classic example of Jesusolatry. That dangerous “me and Jesus” attitude is rampant in the Church. And all it is does is make Jesus into an idol, and it makes the Church an angry, exclusive country club.  And it is something at which I bristle again and again.

But for us, this Gospel reading for today speaks loudly to us and what we do as Christians, as followers of Jesus, as members of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.  Because the Spirit of God was upon Jesus, and because he was appointed to bring good news to the poor, that truly becomes our mission as well because we follow Jesus and the Spirit of God rests upon each of us as well.  Because Jesus breathes God’s Spirit upon us, that same mission that the Spirit worked in Jesus is working in us as well.  

And we should, like Jesus, stand up and proclaim that mission to others. We, like Jesus, should breathe God’s Spirit on others.  That is our mission as followers of Jesus.

How do we do that?

Jesus has empowered us to do what he says in that reading from Isaiah:

We are to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of the sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Well, that sounds great. But…how do I do that in my life? It’s easy for priests and poets to say that, you might say. But how do I do that in my own life?  What does that mean to us—to us who are here, in this place, in these mismatched pews, who may be quietly judging this sermon with arms crossed?

It means that we are not to go about with blinders on regarding those with whom we live and work.  

It means that we are surrounded by a whole range of captives—people who are captive to their own prisons of depression and alcohol and drugs and conforming to society or whatever.

People who are captive to their grief or their pain or their own cemented views of what they feel the Church—or this congregation of St., Stephen’s—SHOULD be.  Our job in the face of that captivity it to help them in any way we can to be released.

It means that we are not to go about blind and not to ignore those who are blinded by their own selfishness and self-centeredness.

I am still so amazed by how many people (especially in the Church, amazingly enough) are so caught up in themselves.  I really think self-centered is a kind of blindness.  And Jesusolatry—me and Jesus—only feeds that self-centeredness.  

One of the greatest sins in the Church today is not all the things Bishops and church leaders say is dividing the Church. The greatest sin in the Church today:





That “me and Jesus” attitude that essentially throws everyone else to wayside.  Hubris causes us to look so strongly at ourselves (and at a false projection of ourselves) that we see nothing else but ourselves.

By reaching out to others, by becoming aware of what others are dealing with, by helping others, we truly open our eyes and see beyond ourselves.

When we do these things, we are essentially letting the oppressed go free.

Finally, we are called to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.  This is simply the icing on the cake.  Once we have proclaimed that God favors us—all of us—not just the single me—that God loves us—not just me—we must then proclaim God’s blessings on us and the work we are called to do.  And by doing so, we truly become liberated.

God favors a liberated people.  God does so because God can only effectively work through a people who have been liberated from captivity, blindness and oppression.

This to me is where the heart of all we do here at St. Stephen’s lies. It is not in our blind faithfulness to the letter of scripture. It is not in our incense and beautiful altar frontals and our stained glass windows and what hangs on our walls. (If you are caught up in those things, then there is blindness in that as well).   It is not in our smugness that I—the great and wonderful singular me—somehow knows more than the priest or the Church or the Bishops or our elders.

It is in our humility and the love of God that dwells within each of us.  It is the Spirit of the living God that is present with us, here, right now, in this church.  It is in the fact that even if this church building gets blown away, or even if we gloss ourselves up and match our pews and spit-shine our processional cross and preach sermons based squarely on the correct interpretation of scripture (whatever that might be) , we would still be who we are, no matter what.

We need to be aware that the poor and oppressed of our world—here and now—are not only those who are poor financially.  The poor and oppressed of our world are those who are morally, spiritually and emotionally poor. The oppressed are still women and LGBTQ people in the Church and in the world, or simply those who don’t fit the social structures of our society.  They are the elderly and the lonely.  They are those who mourn deeply for those they love and miss who are no longer with us.  They are the criminals trying to reform their lives, and for those who are just leading quietly desperate lives in our very midst.

We, as Christians, as followers of Jesus, are to proclaim freedom to all those people who are on the margins of our lives both personally and collectively.  And often those poor oppressed people are the ones to whom we need to be proclaiming this year of the Lord’s Favor, even if those people might be our own very selves.

This is the year of the Lord’s favor.

I am not talking this particular Year of Our Lord. I am not talking about this year until our next Annual Meeting.

I am talking about this holy moment and all moments in which we, anointed and filled with God’s Spirit, go out to share God’s good news by word and example.  This moment we have been given is holy. And it is our job is to proclaim the holiness of this moment.

When we do so, we are making that year of the Lord’s favor a reality again and again.  This is what we are called to do on this Annual Meeting Sunday.

And always.

So, let us proclaim the good news.  

Let us bring sight to the blind, and hope to those who are oppressed and hopeless.  

Let us bring true hope in our deeds to those who are crying out (in various ways) for hope, which only Jesus and his followers can bring.

And when we do, we will find the message of Jesus being fulfilled in our very midst.

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