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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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The Turning Point

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: faith, change, choice, decision

January 23, 2022    hird Sunday after the Epiphany

Mission Church of Saint James the Less, Nuremberg, Germany

Text: Luke 4:21: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

There is a moment of drama in the synagogue in Nazareth today. People have been worried about one of their neighbors. He had been part of the community as he grew from a boy into maturity, learning his father’s trade. He was quiet. People liked him. He kept to himself quite a bit, and people wondered that he hadn’t gotten himself married. Maybe his parents couldn’t find a match for him? Maybe something was wrong with him?

He was a regular at the synagogue, and had learned how to read the scriptures there. He did more listening than talking when the debates started. But otherwise he was not all that remarkable. He was just one of the neighbors. A very likable neighbor.

A little while ago, though, something had happened. Without a lot of warning, he had just disappeared from town. Word came back that he had gone down toward Bethany and Jericho, down toward the other end of the Jordan River. People said he had gone to join the baptismal movement, people coming out to prepare themselves for something they sensed God was about to do to liberate Israel from Roman power. Most people in Nazareth thought it was all a little odd.

He had been gone quite a long time. People had said that on his way back he had disappeared in the wilderness for a while. He hadn’t really seemed like someone who would go camping for no reason. And then, instead of coming home where he belonged, he had started showing up in other synagogues in the neighboring towns. Word started filtering back to Nazareth. Apparently that trip south had made him quite a preacher. Could it seriously be the same quiet neighbor who had gone missing? 

What had happened?

One morning, without anyone even knowing he was back in town, he walks into the synagogue. Takes his same old place, just like nothing had ever happened. And when he stands up to read, he is handed the scroll of the Nevi’im, the readings appointed for that day from the prophets. It’s from Isaiah—and it is all about liberation, and the restoration of dignity for the downtrodden.

It’s a thrilling moment. A familiar face has returned, having in the meantime gone from obscurity to notice. He just happens to be asked to read a record of God’s promise that the people long to see fulfilled. They’ve been hearing he’s become a preacher—what will he say about this? Does he have some new wisdom? Is he a new prophet?

And instead, he just sits down.

What happens next is a turning point of immense significance, one we do well to consider deeply. Because it teaches us not only something about Jesus, but about our task as disciples.

We are in the midst of Epiphany. Up to this point, everything has been a fairly happy story. The church gives us this season to set before us a sequence of stories about the way in which Jesus is revealed to be the promised Messiah, in a kind of stepwise fashion. The wise seekers find him. John the Baptist proclaims that he is in the midst of his very own time. There is suddenly a lot more wine at the wedding feast in Cana. 

All of those are pleasant stories. The culture around us can come with us this far. Seekers following a star—oh, I’m really into astronomy. John the Baptist—oh, I’m really interested in living off the grid someday, just really reconnecting with the wilderness. Wine at the wedding feast—well, I mean, who could object to that, huh?

But today is where we part ways with the Christmas afterglow. Because today is where the story starts demanding to make a difference in the world. And that absolutely causes division, and disagreement.

People around you might know, somehow, that you are Christian. They might know you come to this church. They might even dare to ask you questions about it. Oh, that’s nice—you go to an English-speaking church? Oh. Did you grow up speaking English? I mean I like the idea of faith and everything, but churches seem so old-fashioned and out of date... I’m really very spiritual, but I don’t want to belong to a religion.... 

Which, of course, is a lot like saying—I like football, but I don’t really like belonging to teams....

You can have that conversation with your friend and it can all be quite open and pleasant, until the moment comes when your faith demands something of you—demands that you stand for something, or question something, or refuse to go along with the crowd. And then you, too, are the one sitting in a hushed room and saying—“today—today—this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Today I am no longer willing to be silent as the easy hatred of refugees and migrants among us normalizes racism. Today I am joining those who find some way to care for people who are trafficked, or sold into the sex trade, or caught up in addiction. Today I am deciding that my decisions as a citizen and my contributions to the public debate will be based on the claims of my beliefs—I won’t set them politely outside the room anymore.

Today I am deciding that the faith God has in me means that I will not compartmentalize my life of faith and keep it separate from all the rest of my life.

Jesus shocked people when he said those words. They loved the idea of liberation coming. But they did not love his view that God’s promise and God’s purpose was not their exclusive possession—that God meant to act in faith with all humanity. In fact, they hated that idea so much that within the next eight verses that community happy to see their neighbor back in church is dragging him out of town to throw him off a cliff. 

But that is for next week. For now, there are two things for us to meditate on across the week ahead.

The first is, if we are faithful followers of that teacher, if we are disciples of that Lord and members of the Body of Christ, then every one of us will come, somehow, to our own turning point—that moment when we have to speak a costly truth, a truth that may cost us friends, or respect, or reputation, or worse. 

That is unavoidable, for the simple reason that God is not finished with this world yet, and is still working to make it the merciful, just, compassionate, beloved community God intended it to be. When we call it out as less than it should be, we will get people yelling at us.

The second is something difficult for a bishop to grapple with, but that doesn’t mean it should not be said: Remember that once this episode happens, once this uproar in the synagogue ends out at the edge of the cliff, we never again ever see Jesus back at church. We never see John the Baptist there, either. 

My colleague Rob Wright, the bishop of Atlanta, has written about this. He points out that Jesus was deeply involved with the life of the synagogue as a young man, but because separated from it over time. That may be because Jesus had found all the formation he needed in those years. Maybe. 

But Wright has another idea. Here’s what he writes: “It is also possible—and I think more likely—that the reason was a different one; it was because [both John and Jesus] were so dissatisfied with the spiritual inertia of the temple that they sensed God’s mission was better sought outside its structures, practices, and traditions. They went outside. And, wouldn’t you just know it—that meant the answers faithful people were asking to the question of where God was calling them into the future was found outside, too.”

I am a person who has dedicated my life to the idea that we cannot fully develop the gift that God gives us in our faith on our own; that we must be in community with other believers. But I recognize in my colleague’s words a challenge—not just to me, but to all of us.

You and I both share in the responsibility of making certain our church never falls prey to that spiritual inertia. We must never allow our church to become so deaf and blind to God’s purpose in the world that we imagine that the mission of the church is what we decide, instead of what God calls us to do. 

I have been saying to the whole Convocation that we must now become more and more a missional church—a church ready to risk responding to God’s call in mission through the communities we have created, no matter what that demands of us. And you—you are a mission church. You are a model of that way of living in readiness to respond that we need to pay attention to, and model our whole church after.

So, the turning point will come. It may already have come for you, and maybe more than once. It will surely come again—that moment when staying faithful to God’s call causes us to speak costly truths. 

But doing that will assure that we remain the church we are meant to be. Doing that will assure that we remain faithful to the call God gives us to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, freedom to the oppressed, and the enduring reality of God’s favor, God’s blessing, God’s mercy, in this world. Because God knows there are poor, and imprisoned, and oppressed, and despairing people all around us—some of them among our friends—who are desperate to know that truth. Amen.