Sermon at St. Mark's, Charleston
The Third Sunday After the Epiphany: January 27, 2019
So, why are you on the earth? Why are you here at St. Mark’s Church in Charleston? Why gather in this beautiful place to celebrate this meal of thanksgiving to God we call the Eucharist and confirm and receive three wonderful people of God? Today’s Gospel raises such crucial questions for all of us.
Make no mistake – here in Jesus’ first sermon as recounted by St. Luke, standing in the synagogue in Jesus’ home town, he identifies his reason for being on the planet, why he came to us as a babe in Bethlehem. He quotes from Isaiah 61 and says: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Wow. That’s quite an agenda. Here we have Jesus’ mission statement. If we are the Body of Christ as St. Paul so clearly indicates in today’s reading from his first letter to the Church in Corinth, then is this not our mission too, our primary reason to exist as a parish church and the primary ministry to which each of us is called through our baptism?
This past week Bonnie I attended a presentation at the Charleston Museum. It was an event to introduce the newly released book Unexampled Courage. It addresses the story of Sergeant Isaac Woodard, a young African-American soldier returning from World War II in 1946, who on the day after his discharge was taken off of a bus and brutally beaten by a Batesburg, South Carolina police chief to the point of blindness. This incident, long buried and untold in our history, served as a wake-up call to Judge Waties Waring of South Carolina as well as President Harry Truman, leading to the desegregation of the military as well as the grounding argument leading to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown versus Board of Education.
Sometimes in life, corporately and individually, we get wake-up calls, those times when we are awakened, even jolted out of our slumber to a new perspective. The light is shined on a moment in time exposing a truth, perhaps even confronting us in some significant way to ask of ourselves ultimate questions about purpose and meaning. They can come in many ways. Without getting caught up in any one political perspective, anyone paying attention can see that our country is now, as in other times in history, in the midst of a wake-up call. We are in the midst of a cultural struggle to define once again what we want to be and what we want to become. How does Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue form our answer as disciples?
So too for us in our parishes, we live in odd times in the life of the Church. The split in our life as an Episcopal Church in South Carolina is another kind of wake-up call. We, even as we wait (and wait and wait) for courts to move and make decisions, we get to decide what the quality of our waiting is going to be in faithfulness to Christ and the work we are given by the Spirit to do. Jesus’ sermon is not saying we sit idly by for others to act. There is Gospel work to do to set at liberty one another and the people we are called to serve.
Beyond our immediate particularities, the cultural realities around us are shifting faster than many might have ever imagined. By 2044 we reach a tipping point when minorities will make up the majority of people living in the United States. What will this mean for the mission of the Church? The old days of being church are gone forever, arguably for the good. Many of us are anxious, however, even fearful about our future. Yet we do have a choice. We can choose to live out of fear and hunker down to mere survival mode, or we can see this time as a call from the Holy Spirit to reorient, plant our feet once again deeply in God’s love and hear a call for us to re-awaken to our purpose for being as a community of faith in the discipleship of Jesus. What kind of church do we want to be?
This is the new thing being celebrated in Nehemiah today. Why were they weeping? They had been set free to the joy of God after they realized how far off they had wandered and were introduced afresh to the divine healing of their brokenness as a people. They heard once again the call of God on their life. They had forgotten their purpose for being and when they heard again that God was with them, had not abandoned them and would never abandon them, that God was in their midst and even had joy for them, they were stirred to new faithfulness and a new sense of purpose.
God, in Jesus, is always looking to restore his people, in every age, in every time. It is true today and right here at St. Mark’s Church. It may look different in every age, but what we do know is that God desires to be in relationship with us. Out of that relationship we are to take on God’s agenda of justice for the world which is one where all things are set right in our relationship with God, one another, and the entire creation. Perhaps we can even move from the mere tolerance of diversity to being able to celebrate the diversity with which God has endowed the creation.
If we are the Body of Christ, then our mission must be Jesus’ mission. We must not settle for the status quo. We must be a people of radical hospitality and generosity of spirit, known by a love of God and one another so deep, so significant, that through us everyone will see the beauty of the Way of Jesus. We are to be known by our revulsion at injustice and our committed attention to the most in need of our community. By this we will show our love of God as we identify with Jesus in the ministry he describes as the center of his mission, our mission, on earth. It is why we are here.
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Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.