I entered Thursday confident that I would be preaching on our reading from 1 Corinthians. I say that cognizant that the REAL miracle is from our Old Testament reading this week. Can you imagine people hungering and thirsting for the word of God as described in Nehemiah? Can you imagine ½, ¼ of us turning out for Bible studies? I know, there’s an edge to the question. But that is an amazing story, is it not. Nevertheless, I felt called to preach on 1 Corinthians until convention conversations rolled around.
I discovered I was well sought out by folks wanting to use National Human Trafficking Awareness month and the Gospel reading in their sermons. All they needed was a great story to tie it all together. Do you have a story that speaks to . . . ? I’m preaching on the Gospel like _____, can you give me a story from your work that supports my sermon? As a result, I found myself recollecting and retelling too many stories, and, as Convention worked its way through the weekend, I found myself called to remind you of your anointing, your jobs as heralds, your jobs as those who proclaims the Jubilee year.
The story I shared the most this past weekend was the story of how I met Christi for the first time. It was Ash Wednesday 7-8 years ago. She had a lady who wanted to be rescued from her enslavement. She had called Christi begging for help. Unfortunately for this enslaved lady, Christi was in Tennessee and she was in Wisconsin. Christi either called or e-mailed first, thanks to a mutual friend, and she gave me the information. The freedom seeking lady was in Milwaukee. She wanted out. Did I know anybody that could help? I told her I would see what I could do.
I promptly called the local Roman bishop, Bishop Amos, and left him a message asking if he could help. He was still out doing Ash Wednesday services in his diocese. When he got back home, though, he called. I shared the particulars. A few minutes after I hung up, he called back telling me to be ready for a conference call early the next morning.
I think my cell went off at just a couple minutes after 7am that next morning. Bishop Amos informed me I was on a conference call with the Archbishop of Chicago, maybe the Archbishop of Dubuque, the head of Catholic Relief Services in both Chicago and Milwaukee, a medical health professional of some sort, a pro bono lawyer, and maybe one or two other folks who I forget over time. I was asked to share the particulars, which I did, and the Archbishop of Chicago got the ball rolling, as they say.
The end result was that the lady in question was freed. Actually she was much more than freed. The Roman church provided her with a social worker, a lawyer, and a medical doctor to help her with various needs. She was taken to a secure location, treated medically and emotionally and given space to heal. The lawyers worked to expunge her record. The Church was really living out a great example of what Paul describes in his letter this morning. A Christian woman in Tennessee had spread the seed of hope and freedom, a priest in Iowa went to the best and quickest resource he could. The Roman Church, new to the care of trafficked or enslaved individuals responded with its institutional weight and support. It remains to this day one of the best examples in my life of God using so many individuals across three denominational expressions in the Church to free someone.
For several months I thought it cool to have been a part. Then we received a card with a letter in the mail some six, eight, maybe nine months later. The letter in the card was handwritten. The lady spoke of her feelings of hopelessness and failure. She had been tricked into slavery and could not escape. She worried that her daughters would grow up convinced she had abandoned them. Men had used her basically as a blow up sex doll. She’d been used and done things that would make her filthy in the eyes of others and disgust in the eyes of her daughters when they grew up. All she could offer the good folks at my parish was a thank you. We had given her back her life, we had restored her to her daughters, we had gotten her help. And all she could offer was a thank you. It seemed massively insignificant to her, but it was all she had to offer. The thought that people were looking for men and women like her, imploring the world to look for men and women like her, who were willing to do their best to move heaven and earth for men and women like her, as well as some wonderful conversations with those involved in her direct rescue, had given her a hope she did not know she needed.
Now, y’all know the other side of the story. I took an e-mail and couple calls. I made a call. That was “my parish’s contribution” to her freedom and her hope. My Vestry had given me the rope to leave the parish a few hours every week and put up with the grumbling that invariably came from the fact that the “priest was never there.” Members of the church and wider community had contributed financially so that we could had out hundreds of thousands of those cards with the Human Trafficking Hotline on them. And all of that was clearly of God. Had Christi’s friend not known of me or my work, what would the lady have done? Had not Bishop Amos had been supporting my parish’s work prior to that night, would he have returned my call? It is and was the single best illustration of the bodies in the Church becoming the mystical Body of Christ as described by Paul.
Of course, sometimes as we are feeding or helping others, God is helping and feeding us. Now, I confess to more than one or two grumbles about the fact I was having those conversations. It sure was nice of God to have the reading from Luke come up this week and me gathered at convention to share some great illustrations of proclaiming freedom and release. Those visiting are wondering why some of you just laughed out loud. Suffice it to say, they know me.
In any event, we were joined at convention by the now retired bishop of Mozambique, Bishop Mark. Mark left Mozambique for the land of Almost heaven as an assisting bishop in West Virginia, and now he serves as the Provisional Bishop of our neighbors to the north in the diocese of Kentucky. Bishop Mark gave what would be a fantastic Prodigal Son illustration. Bishop Mark shared with us a story of how a teen in one of his villages on a lake, I did not hear his answer whether it was Lake Chilwa or Lake Chiuta, began to pester his family to go to the big city. Like his father before him and his father before him and his father before him, Pedro was a fisherman. Just once, he pleaded with his parents, he wanted to see the vibrancy of the city, the lights that keep the darkness at bay, and the markets where one could purchase anything. His nagging paid off. He was a good boy. His parents decided to fulfil this request. They gave him money for the bus to the city.
Days passed, and young Pedro did not return. After a couple days, the parents went to see the village priest who counselled them to be patient. After Pedro had been gone more than a week, the parents were frantic. The village priest wracked his brain trying to think of a solution to their problem. He reached out to a priest he knew in the city, who counseled they put an advertisement on public radio. SO that’s what the family did. The did a PSA of sorts. The told Pedro they missed him, they loved him, that they wanted him to come home. They told Pedro that there was nothing that could not be forgiven. They would meet him that next Saturday in the city square at noon. They hoped and prayed to God he would meet them there and that Pedro would choose to come home.
Saturday rolled around and the village gathered to pray over the family. The priest pronounced a blessing, and those who could afford a ticked went to the city on the bus. Mother, father, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins—families are important in smaller villages. The family got to the city square well ahead of time and waited for the noon hour to arrive. When the bells began to ring signifying it was noon, 22 men of varying ages came into the city square seeking their families. Every one of them was named Pedro.
As we took the obligatory picture after the Convention Eucharist, everyone asked Bishop Mark if “the” Pedro had come home. Bishop Mark told us sadly that the Pedro for whom the family had been looking did not enter the square that morning. Like you, there was some sadness in the expressions of the clergy. We long for happy endings. It kills many of us a bit on the inside when the story does not end the way that it should. Bishop Mark, as he did during the sermon with the diocese present, reminded us that 22 Pedro’s had sought forgiveness, were seeking their families, and were desperate to know they were loved. There were 22 Pedro’s alone in the city. How many other names were there? How many other people in the city had that same yearning? That same longing? That same desperate sense to know that they were loved?
I share these two stories with you today to remind you of the urgency of our calling, to exhort you to do the jobs that Christ has given to each of us to do. As we read Luke’s account of Jesus reading from the scroll of Isaiah in synagogue, we are witnessing two important events. The first is, in simple terms, messianic. Luke shares this story at the beginning of Jesus ministry, right after the Temptations in the Wilderness, to show us that Jesus is the Messiah. There is a lot going on in the passage. The Holy Spirit has anointed Jesus, reminding Jesus’ audience, no doubt, of God’s activity among David and Solomon and Josiah. To Jesus specifically, it has been given by God the responsibility, the calling, to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Absent the work and person of Christ, absent His obedience even unto death on that Cross, you and I could never do the things we do to God’s honor and glory. So, the initial work, the heavy lifting, if you will, falls to Jesus, who, in the sight of those who knew Him best, pronounced to them that the calling of Isaiah was being fulfilled in their healing. Jesus had come to free God’s people from their sins, to remind them that God loved them, to teach them that salvation was His mission. To put it in a language we might better understand, Jesus comes to bring them liberty. He does not “just proclaim” it. Jesus brings about the new era, the prophetic era described in the passage of Isaiah, through His ministry.
The truth of His claim will be supported by the ministry Jesus does. At first, He will restore sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the mute, freedom to those possessed, healing to those wracked by disease, food to those who hunger. Chances are, one of those initial signs will be one of those things that drew you to Him in the beginning. More significantly, though, He will make it possible for us to be restored to right relationship with God and with each other through His death and Resurrection.
Did the story end there, that would be marvelous enough. God, of course, has other ideas. Who else do you know that has been anointed by the Holy Spirit for such work? C’mon, this is not a trick question. Who do you know? I heard a whisper; let’s be bold! Who else? That’s right! Each one of us! Think back to your baptism. How was it done? Either you were dunked in water or water was sprinkled over you. Then what happened? You were anointed with oil and sealed as Christ’s own forever. Sound familiar? I know. Some of us were too young or too old to remember that being done for us, but we have all witnessed a number of baptisms, right? If you think I am making this up, or you are really bored, you can turn to 308 in your BCP and read.
But what about those of us baptized elsewhere, Father? Somebody is thinking that, right? What if you were? Whether baptism in your prior denominational tradition from the Apostolic tradition is really of no consequence. What happened at your confirmation or reception into this church. A bishop laid hands upon you, called the Holy Spirit to strengthen you, to empower you for service and to sustain you all the days of your life. In fact, all of us give thanks to God on such occasions for sealing us all by His Holy Spirit and bounding us to His service.
That’s right! You and I have a share in Christ’s ministry. Make no mistake, our ministry is not messianic, the role of the Savior has already been fulfilled by Jesus. But you and I are called to pick up crosses that He gives us and follow in His footsteps, dead to our former bodies and alive in Him. We are called to represent Him to the world. When we do a good job, our Father in heaven is glorified. When we do a bad job, our Father in heaven is dishonored. When we try and fail, we know His redemptive grace is at work in and around and through us, and so we look expectantly for Him to be glorified even in our failures, just as our Lord Christ was glorified in His death and Resurrection!
I know! It’s heady stuff. Most of us would rather plod through the world, like apes on a treadmill, just grinding out life. But God, by virtue of our baptism, calls us to His work. And the work to which He calls us is best summed up by this little passage in Luke which recalls our Lord citing the prophet Isaiah. You and I live in the hope to which our ancestors longed. When Isaiah and others prophesized God’s Suffering Servant, His Messiah, they had no idea what they were doing. God coming down from heaven fully human? Preposterous. The Messiah dying? Are you nuts? People being freed once and for all from sin and shame and guilt? Now you are just plain crazy.
Yet think of the two stories which I shared this morning. At our deepest levels, what is it for which we all long? Even before we even know God is out there and loves us we desire to be loved, we desire to belong. And God loved us so much He offered those things, as Paul will later say, while we were still rebellion against Him, in fact, while we were still in the crowds yelling “crucify Him! Crucify Him.” The idea of forgiveness, the idea of trust, the idea of belonging—we long for them at our deepest levels, but we cannot accept them. Both the freed slave and the 22 Pedro’s remind us this morning of the longing of those in the world. And it is you and me, going about our daily life, to whom it has been given to proclaim freedom, to restore sight, to announce the Jubilee year of God in their midst! What a glorious opportunity given to each of us!
You may be wondering, what is the year of the Jubilee? Every seventh year, Israel was supposed to reset all their economics and relationships. When folks indentured themselves, it was done with the understanding that every seventh year celebration by Israel, those indentured would go free. In fact, every seventh year was meant to be a year of vacation. Israel was supposed to work six years and then consecrate the seventh to the Lord. I know, it sounds nuts. I can’t get six weeks away from Advent in a year; many of you are lucky to get four away from your places of work. That was normal life. Here’s where it got nuts—the 49th and 50th year. The 49th year served as a Sabbath year, a seventh year. The math makes sense, right? Well, embedded in God’s economic instructions was the command to take off the 50th year as a Year of Jubilee. That meant, were Israel going to honor God as He commanded them, they would have a Sabbath year during the 49th year and a Jubilee year the 50th year, back to back. Put in modern language, the people of God would have had to store up enough of everything the first 48 years to be able to take two full years off and celebrate what God had done for them. Can you imagine how countercultural it would be were we to be taking two full years off every 49 years? How many in the world would want that?
I share that all as it should be the goal of all our ministries. You and I are proclaiming to the folks we meet in our life and work and play and exercise and whatever that God loves them, that God wants them to choose Him, and that God truly does want to bless them. Whether we are providing space for 12 step recovery folks or classrooms for children or meeting spaces for brothers and sisters in other denominations, our end goal should be the proclamations described by Jesus in our lesson today! The world and its siren song blinds people to God’s presence around them and binds them to the belief that this is all that there is. The world whispers, and sometimes shouts, over and over again that we are the measure of what we have, that love is best expressed by possessions. To us has been given the better Word, the better song, the whisper of Truth, and the true example of love. And, rather than the world would act and try and hoard such wonderful knowledge, we are called to share it, share it in everything that we do. No matter how significant we think the work is, we are called to share His love and His provision, confident that He, through His anointing and His providence, provide the significance, confident that the world wants to hear His offer at their deepest levels.
I could end this sermon right here, and you all would cluck that it was a good one. As you filed out some of you would share it’s a good one, one of my best ever, and certainly inspiring. I see your faces and know most of you pretty well. The great news, the Gospel news for us at Advent this day, is that the weekend was not yet over. God had the best illustration ever for your pastor and priest.
As some of you know, the bishop’s wife hosts a meal for all the clergy spouses on the Saturday of every convention weekend. Caroline tries to introduce the spouses to one another and help them find partners in ministry. It is no secret that clergy spouses have a particular cross to bear. Parishioners expect them to be part church secretary, part clergy motivator, part parish lay leader, part supermom or superdad, always smiling, always having a good day. Clergy spouses need fellowship as the burdens they bear are rather unique. Their failures can causes pastors to be run out of churches. This is important work. As is her wont, Caroline invited the spouses to a nice restaurant in Clarkesville. They had a great meal, some good talk, and mostly just had time to let their guard down among others who walk the same difficult path. As they broke up, there were leftovers. Salmon, lemon chicken, roasted vegetables, potatoes, and other goodies.
Her initial intent was to take the leftovers to the diocesan house. I won’t go into all the mechanics, but after a bit of talking with diocesan staff, listening to Gregg keep his pledge to the Wrestling with Faith group, and hearing some of Karen’s stories about our new ministry, she asked if we could disburse it to those who are hungry. I am quick to say that Hilary and Nancy and now Pam can do anything, so I said yes! See, y’all are laughing but Hilary, Nancy, and Pam know better. I really do volunteer them a bit. They decided on very short notice to break all the leftovers down into meals and package them in the kitchen. Today I am tasking each of you to live into this Gospel lesson, live into your baptism, and take that food to someone in your life who needs to know that God loves them, that God is calling them home, that God wants them to share with us in His eternal kingdom, and that we are heralds of His favor which is marching inexorably closer day by day. Maybe you know someone too poor to be able to afford such luxuries. Maybe you know someone who has been suffering from a long illness? From isolation and loneliness? Maybe you know someone thinks the news you proclaim is too fanciful, meant for anyone but them. Maybe that person you know is really you? Today, you have the opportunity in a real and tangible way to proclaim that the year of His favor is upon them. As good as that salmon or fish or other foods are in the meal that you have to offer, it pales, it is as bland as bland can be, when compared to what God has in store for those who choose Him and He calls us home. As much as a wafer and a sip of wine is but a shadowy representative of the feast you can offer others today, so does that feast pale in comparison to what God intends when He consummates the Marriage Feast to which we all looked last week!
Of course, once the need of others has been met, Adventers are invited to take some for yourselves. There is a certain time urgency in what we do. Salmon and chicken don’t last forever. But then again, there should always be urgency in all our ministries as God patience will one day end as well. By way of thanks, Hilary and Nancy and Pam would appreciate that those who can offer some money in exchange for the meal. In that way, even more folks might be fed as this event goes forward.
I started out Thursday expecting to preach on the body and the various opportunities to serve at Advent. Along the way, of course, I was able to share some wonderful memories with men and women in the diocese charged with empowering and encouraging their congregations to love the Lord their God with everything and to love their neighbors as themselves. Along the way, as is so often the case, God ministered to me and to you. I think, in the end, I was pushed to an even better sermon, if your faces truly reveal your own thoughts. But as great as those two moves were, functioning as a priest in the diocese and preacher and teacher among God’s people at Advent, we have all received an added blessing, one which should help us relate better to our brothers and sisters in a synagogue in Nazareth nearly 2000 years ago. Today, that Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing and your seeing. Today, He has blessed you and appointed you to herald His love and His redeeming power to those around you. What will you do? How will you respond?
In Christ’s Peace,