Sunday, January 23, 2022
Third Sunday after Epiphany / Lectionary 3, Year C

Prayer of the Day
Blessed Lord God, you have caused the holy scriptures to be written for the nourishment of your people. Grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, comforted by your promises, we may embrace and forever hold fast to the hope of eternal life, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Readings and Psalm
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 Ezra reads the law of Moses before the people
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a You are the body of Christ
Luke 4:14-21 Jesus reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah

Sermon

Title:  Returning to Be

The people of Jerusalem have returned from 50 years of exile in Babylon.  Jesus has returned from 40 days of temptation in the wilderness.  Paul is coaxing the Corinthians to return to their unity in Christ. And here we are, longing to return to some sense of normalcy.  And while return is more of a word for the season of Lent’s penitent pilgrimage than for this season of Epiphany with its awe-filled Aha’s;  perhaps – in the words of the psalmist who witnesses that that 2One day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another – perhaps thesereturnees found in today’s readings have something to say to us in our waiting.  Their days of restoration can inspire us, their trust during nights of challenge can shine lights of encouragement.

While much attention is placed on the story of the Exodus – the Hebrew slaves, led by Moses Aaron and Miriam, out of Egyptian bondage and into the freedom of the promised land; sometimes I think the lesser told story that happens about 900 years later – the fall of Jerusalem and kingdom of Judah that results in the Babylonian exile – can offer more insight and relevance into our own exile. For we live, exiles in this world, waiting for restoration, for the returning to the fullness and perfection of God’s reign restored for us through Jesus Christ, foretastes revealed through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.

But back to the exiles of former days.  Returning home and being reminded of what they had forgotten and neglected.  They had failed to listen to what the past days had to say to them in their present.  They had forgotten the promises of God and neglected to see God at work in their midst.  They had forgotten their call to be God’s people, neglecting to love mercy, to do justice and to walk humbly with their Creator and God. And yet God did not forget them nor neglect them.  God showed them mercy, practiced restorative justice that did not demand retribution, and assured them that they had not been abandoned.  And so their leaders, both political and religious, invited them to rise up out of their despair and celebrate.  Celebrate with finer things.  Not fasting.  No sack cloth and ashes.  (Maybe this is one place where we see that it is Epiphany and not Lent.)  The people were graciously invited to open their eyes to the joy that was theirs through the strength of God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s peace. They had returned indeed.  More importantly than returning to their homeland, they had returned to God who was there along.

And here is Jesus, returning to Nazareth.  He has been baptized by John in the Jordan.  Declared God’s beloved.  Led by the Spirit out into the wilderness where he was tempted. And now the power of that same Spirit is filling him and leading him into the ministry for which he – the incarnate Word of God – had come into the world.  Word was spreading,  and without the help of social media, I might add.  And while we are told that he was being praised, I’m guessing there were a lot, maybe even the majority, who were still asking:  but who is this guy?

There in his hometown Jesus claims his identity.  He declares his purpose.  He reveals his mission. Rather than quoting that old adage – Jesus came to die; we can look to this moment in the Nazareth synagogue and see that Jesus came to live.  Not just to live a life of faith and love modeled for us, but came so that we might live.  He comes bringing good news to we who are poor, poor because we possess nothing that counts of value in the realm of God.  He comes proclaiming release to those of us who are held captive to sin and death.  Jesus the Christ comes opening our eyes to see that God is with us and in us even while we are exiled and sojourning back to God.  Jesus invites us to live free of that which oppresses us.  And, to top it all off, all this comes to us with that Spirit of joy that Nehemiah and Ezra invited the exiles to partake in.  In Jesus the waiting is over, the return is happening, foretastes and signs are now, its coming fulness and totality are the strength of our hope.

And so it is with this understanding and this hope that Paul travels the Roman world.  Proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.  Among other places, a church is established in that Greek cosmopolitan trading center – Corinth. Paul departs to continue his travels but keeps in touch with the folks of the new congregation.  And no surprise for any flawed folks striving to live in community, (mindful that we are all flawed folks) some problems arise. And Paul addresses these challenges in letters.  We only have one side of the correspondence, but from what Paul writes, we can put together some pictures of their struggles.  And one of the big issues is unity.  There has even been disunity when they gather for worship.  But in today’s second reading, we see that there is probably some elitism going on based on what gifts members of the community are displaying and employing.  We are one body, Paul tells them.  Different parts, different abilities, but mysteriously and intimately joined together in Christ.  A body that must work together not just for the body’s sake, but because the body has work to be done, a life to live, a mission to engage.  And since we are the body of Christ, we can look back to what Christ’s mission was as it was revealed in that Nazareth Synagogue.  For though the earthly empire may be different, the religious expression evolved, the specific contexts of challenge changed, our loving Creator and God is still speaking to people who are hungering to hear good news.  Freedom is a gift that continues to be ours through Christ’s victory over the sin and death.  While there are new insights to be embraced, there are also new oppressions to be confronted.  And in light of all this and so much more, there is always joy and hope to be lived through the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Of course, sometimes it is we ourselves who need to hear all this again and again.  And so, the body of Christ is essential, its work is essential, its unity is essential.

Today we again gather and rejoice for what God is doing in and through this part of Christ’s body that we call St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on Christopher Street in Manhattan New York.  As part of Christ’s body, we are this diverse community of faith that strives to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with all creation.  Today, we return again to meet as a congregation, though not in person, we certainly meet in the Spirit that makes us one.  Rejoicing for what God has done through us this past year, even in the midst of facing ever-changing challenges and obstacles.  We also gather looking with hope for what God will do through us (and in spite of us) in the coming year and years.

I rejoice for the gifts endowed to members of this body that, in faithfulness, have been so generously shared for the sake of ministry. We have much to celebrate, much to be thankful for.

But that last line of that second reading leaves us with a bit of a cliff hanger.  “But strive for the greater gifts…”  And they would be? The second half of the verse that got cut off does not answer our question but does form a bridge to the 13th chapter – a reading you have probably heard at a wedding or two. “And I will show you a still more excellent way” is the phrase that finishes that 31st verse.  And with a preview to coming readings, that more excellent way is the way of love.

God’s love restored the exiles – all of them. God’s love in Christ brings to us good news, release, insight, freedom and joy beyond measure.  God’s love present in the Holy Spirit inspires us to live as the body of Christ united in love, and with love do the work of Christ proclaiming the Lord’s favor – this year and every year.

The Rev. Mark Erson,
Pastor

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