Epiphany 3C Sermon (2022)

3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Luke 4:14-21;
1 Cor 12:12-31a; Neh 8

YouTube version: https://youtu.be/gyfEyzPz4co?t=1080


I’d like to begin this morning’s sermon in an unusual way: by thanking you for the positive feedback from last week’s sermon. Feedback, whether positive or critical, is helpful to me as a preacher. I’m truly trying to do my best to share God’s word in a helpful way, even when that word is challenging to us. What I hear about last week’s sermon is your being able to relate to my personal stories of growing up in the church, recalling the changes we’ve experienced in our practice of something most precious to us, Holy Communion.

Even though some of those changes may have been difficult at the time — change usually is, right? — overall, I think we’ve experienced them as needed and important changes. We sense how becoming increasingly inclusive is in the Spirit of this sacrament that Christ instituted for us. And, hopefully, the revitalized Gospel message that I’ve been supporting makes those changes even more understandable meaningful. Let me put it this way: If the core of the church’s Gospel message involves God creating one new humanity in Jesus Christ, then our practice of the sacraments needs to help us live into that healing oneness. We need to increasingly leave behind our divisions. As we’ve opened the sacrament first to all Christians, and then to all ages, and now even to all people, including the unbaptized, we are meaningfully leaving behind our typical Us-vs-Them-thinking as human beings. We’re beginning to live into the one new humanity of a united human family. In such a broken world, we obviously have a long way to go. But as followers of Jesus, we need to begin somewhere, and that ‘somewhere’ is appropriately with our practice of the sacraments.

But there’s another change to our practice of Holy Communion that may take us into less comfortable territory. It’s more subtle. Perhaps you’ve hardly noticed it. Here it is: We’ve changed what we call the beginning and ending of our worship service. Dramatic, huh? We no longer have the “Opening” and “Closing” hymns, for example; we have the “Gathering Hymn” and the “Sending Hymn.” Think how this subtle change can make a significant difference. When we label the beginning and ending of our worship service simply as the opening and closing, it implies that the worship stands on its own. It is simply its own end, its own goal, rather than the means to another end.

On the other hand, to name the beginning and end of our worship as a gathering and a sending, this does imply that worship is a means to a larger goal. We gather for worship and then we are sent out for a larger purpose. We don’t worship here for an hour each Sunday just for worship’s sake. No, we worship in order to be sent out to live into God’s creating one new humanity out in the world, too. It is essential that we practice the oneness of Holy Communion more inclusively when we gather for worship here. But its essentiality is for the sake of being ready to live that oneness in the world when we are sent out! The love and grace and forgiveness which makes for our oneness here in this worship space is something we are called to take out into the world as a healing balm to all God’s children.

Our Gospel Reading this morning takes place in a worship space, a Jewish synagogue. Jesus reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, a proclamation of good news to the poor and oppressed, good news to all who live on the margins of empire. And when he finishes, he doesn’t just say something like we say, “This is the word of the Lord.” To which we respond, “Thanks be to God!” No, Jesus says something much more dramatic: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Wow! How did his hometown crowd respond to that?! Strangely, in our lectionary, we have to wait until next week to hear their response. Let me give you a hint: it ends up being about as far from “Thanks be to God!” as you can get. We’ll see next week.

So the peculiar lectionary decision for us to pause in the middle of this particular story, it gives us the opportunity today to first of all consider how we might respond. Do we hear the Good News this week and proclaim, “Praise to you, O Christ!”? Well, we did, because it’s part of the liturgy to do so. But we can pause now for a few moments and consider how we might really mean it. Do you count yourself as poor or oppressed? How about captive or blind? I know I don’t. If we don’t count ourselves as any of these, is this good news for us, too?

The answer is, It depends. It depends on whether we are truly ready to leave behind our Us-vs-Them-thinking — which is so hard to do. It’s often part of the Confession and Forgiveness liturgy in our worship. Did you notice this morning, for example, that we confessed, “We have rejected your word when it made us confront ourselves.” Seeing good news for the poor and oppressed as good news for us depends on our embracing the good news of one new humanity. Because the Way that Jesus gives us to leave such thinking behind to embrace unity is for all of us to prioritize the least in the human family — people who are poor and oppressed, captive and blind. Taking care of the most vulnerable is the surest way to making sure everyone is cared for.

That isn’t the general rule for most human cultures. In Jesus’ own context of the Roman Empire, the priority was on serving the emperor, serving the most powerful. Everything is oriented to the people at the top. Isn’t this the way of our politics and economics right now? Oriented toward giving the rich people the breaks and hoping some of their wealth trickles down? So Jesus’s Way of caring for the least is the opposite of our most common human way of serving those at the top. It won’t be good news for us unless we flip things upside down and follow his way of caring for those at the bottom. And his way becomes good news for everyone precisely because it’s the only way to ensure that everyone has enough. On this week that we’ve celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr., he began his ministry in the Civil Rights movement, but in the final years he broadened it to the Poor People’s Campaign. He came to express Jesus’ same wisdom of taking care of the least in the human family with saying like, “I don’t have enough until everyone has enough.” Or, “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.”

St. Paul has another way of expressing this same truth through his metaphor of the body of Christ. It is a metaphor, of course, that points to the deep interconnectedness of the human family. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” But notice, too, the same prioritizing of the most vulnerable members of the body, the least of the human family:

On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body [no more division, no more Us-vs-Them-thinking!], but the members may have the same care for one another.

“But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member” — that means that God has setup creation such that the way to care for all is to prioritize caring for least. This is truly good news for the poor and oppressed, the captive and the blind. And with his message of forgiveness, it can become good news for all us, too.

And God sent Jesus to launch this way of being human — that one new humanity comes into being as we learn to care for the least in the human family. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Again, the emphasis on “today” reminds us of that aspect of revitalizing our Gospel message that our focus on the afterlife recedes to the background. The comfort of life after death is certainly important, but it still takes a backseat to the message that God in Jesus Christ is saving the entire creation. Jesus isn’t talking about something that happens down the road in the afterlife. He says, “Today!” God’s reign has been launched into this world and shows itself wherever people are doing justice and caring for the least.

So now does the emphasis on being sent out from worship each week make more sense? Sometimes, we say it straight out. We are dismissed with the words, “Go in peace. Remember the poor.” And we say, “Thanks be to God!” But, again, we might pause to ask ourselves if we really mean it. If I’m honest, there’s plenty of times when those are just words I say because they’re part of the liturgy. The real struggle is to make them have meaning comes in the rest of the week as I’m sent forth. Do I work for greater economic justice? Not just through charity but through the workings of the body politic, realizing how interconnected we all are? Do I become more aware of my white privilege and work for greater racial justice and equity? Do I recognize how our poor earth home has become something for human beings, acting out of our Us-vs-Them-thinking, just something to exploit for our own gain? Do I then work for greater justice for our ecology, especially to reverse the effects of global warming? These are some of the real questions we face today as we’re sent forth each week — sent forth with the grace of forgiveness so that we can truly find this way of justice to be a blessing and a joy.

Taking my cue from last week, it would be more effective for me to share my personal story, or to have other share their personal stories on being engaged with these issues of our time: economic justice, racial justice, and eco-justice. But I hope you will forgive that it would take too long — with the promise that I will try to do so in the future.

So let me conclude this morning with two basic questions. The first comes from my own personal experience with my children, their friends, and the others I know in their generation. It’s basically the question I ask every week. I find our children’s and grandchildren’s generations to have great awareness about the critical nature of these issues. They are growing up with economic inequality, continued racial disparity, and the threat of global warming. As I listen to them, there is even often an air of resignation or even despair. In the current climate of Us-vs-Them-thinking, they don’t feel like anything real can get done. So here’s my first question: can you see how a revitalized Gospel message that lays out a vision of one new humanity working to solve our problems by caring for the least might be good news for our children and grandchildren?

But today is the time to truly press ourselves and ask this question for ourselves. We can look back over the changes in Communion practices that helps us live into the reality one new humanity, a united human family. But today we are emphasizing that the purpose of our worship is to be sent out into the world each week to find ways of living into that new way of being human throughout the rest of our lives. Jesus proclaims good news to the poor and oppressed, the captive and the blind. Even though that may not be us, can we find the good news in the Way that God has made humankind to truly succeed by caring for the least? When Jesus proclaims, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” can we understand that we are being sent out to continue his work? Can we find ways of fulfilling this scripture by how we live into it this week? Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethel/Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, January 23, 2022

YouTube version: https://youtu.be/gyfEyzPz4co?t=1080

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