Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sermon for Epiphany III

St Luke's, Springfield--Luke 4:14-21

Of all the jobs around a parish church that have to be filled by a lay volunteer, the most challenging has got to be that of Junior Warden, or, as we say in the Diocese of Springfield, Parish Warden or Mission Warden. This person’s area of oversight is usually the physical plant, so he or she gets the phone call when the basement floods or there's a fire in the kitchen or the furnace won't come on. I've known many Junior Wardens who have performed in an exemplary fashion—and are even still Christians when their term expires!—but I would guess that even those good ones have embraced the position more as an opportunity to serve than for the inherent rewards of the job itself. It is a daunting responsibility.

Not all of us will get to put in time as a Junior Warden. I, for one, have gone so far as to get ordained so as to be permanently disqualified! But many, if not most, of us have had the experience of taking on a leadership position in a volunteer organization—a service club, the PTA, organizing an office event, a birthday or anniversary celebration, a bridal or baby shower, or the like.  Sometimes we take on such a job because we really expect to find some joy in it.  Other times we take it on, even when we'd rather not, because, by some combination of circumstances, it just falls in our lap. We throw ourselves into the task, and for a time—it may be a very brief time, it may be longer—for a time all goes well. But, sooner or later, something doesn't go quite right. We meet resistance, or lack of cooperation, or clashing expectations. If we're lucky, the grumblers and complainers confront us directly—that is, if we're lucky. More often, unfortunately, the grumbling and complaining takes place behind our back, and all we hear are rumors and gossip. The next act in this drama is some sort of outburst on the part of the dumped-on leader. It may be private, it may be public, but it usually contains some version of "I don't need to be doing this" ... often with the added implication: "...for such ungrateful wretches." Sometimes this outburst makes us feel better, and we re-commit to the task. But it might also be a parting shot, as we walk out in a huff. And even if we don't walk out in a huff, we are surely tempted . . . we are surely tempted.

You may remember a movie from about 25 years ago now called The Last Temptation of Christ. If so, you may also remember that it was just a little bit controversial. Why was that? We are familiar, of course, with the temptation of Christ in the wilderness prior to the commencement of his public ministry; it’s going to be our gospel reading three weeks from now. The devil tempted Jesus to turn his back on his vocation, his mission, on the Father's will for him. In the film, there is a fourth temptation, only it doesn't take place in the desert, it takes place on the cross. Jesus is hanging on the cross, at the age of 33, his bodily systems slowly beginning to shut down. Suddenly he has an apparition of a sweet young child. The viewer is led to understand that this sweet young child is the devil in disguise, but she looks anything but devilish. This attractive devil invites Jesus to consider throwing in the towel on this whole messiah thing, coming down from the cross, and leading a normal life.

The next big chunk of the movie depicts an elaborate fantasy that is attributed to Jesus as he struggles with the temptation to accept the devil's invitation. It shows him miraculously escaping from his ordeal, settling down with a nice Jewish girl, buying a house, raising a family, growing old, playing with his grandchildren, and preparing to die peacefully in his bed of natural causes at an advanced age. In case you're wondering, at the end of this fantasy, Jesus rejects the temptation, and we see him back on the cross, completing the sacrifice that the son of God had become one of us to offer.

But the story asks an important and intriguing "What if?" question. What if Jesus had come to the conclusion, "I don't need to be doing this . . . especially for these ungrateful wretches." What if Jesus had reached the red zone of his frustration level, and walked out in a huff? Well, who can say? But it's a pretty good bet that you and I would still be slaves to the power of sin and death, and devoid of hope for any lasting happiness. I don't know what demons Jesus wrestled with during his hours on the cross, but I do know that he stayed on the cross, that he finished what he started.

We can only speculate, of course, about what Jesus knew and when he knew it. When did he realize he wasn't just like all the other kids in the neighborhood? When did he begin to understand his mission on this earth? When did he know that he was born precisely to die? Nobody can answer these questions. All the New Testament tells us is that he did accept his divine vocation. St Luke's gospel gives us the dramatic story of his public acknowledgement and proclamation of his messiah-ship. He attends the synagogue service in his hometown of Nazareth. It's apparently his turn to read the lesson and make some comments on it. The master-of- ceremonies hands him the scroll that contains the writings of the prophet Isaiah, and he finds the passage appointed in the lectionary:
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 recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
Nothing out of the ordinary to that point. Jesus was simply performing the normal duty of an observant Jewish male. What happened next, though, was not quite so ordinary. He handed the scroll back to the attendant, sat down, got everybody's attention, and made a fantastic claim: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." He just comes right out and says that he is the anointed servant of the Lord in the book of Isaiah. That means that he clearly saw two important things: First, that he was called by his Father, called by God, to his ministry. It wasn't something he chose, like a college student deciding what to major in, or a professional deciding whether to join this firm or that one. Second, that he was equipped by the Holy Spirit for the work to which he was called. It wasn't a matter of wondering whether he would have the ability to preach good news to the poor and proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind and set at liberty those who are oppressed. He spoke in the confidence of his faith that the Holy Spirit had gifted him for these tasks.

And in recognizing that he was both divinely called and divinely gifted, Jesus serves as an example to us. I don't believe that anyone here is called to be the savior of the world (!), but we are all—those of us who are baptized, at any rate—we are all called by God. We are called generally in the covenant we make at our baptism and/or confirmation. We are called specifically in our ongoing relationship with God in the church. More to the point, each and every baptized Christian is called to ministry. We are all called to be a minister in some way.

Now, obviously, I do not mean that all Christians are supposed to spend three years in seminary, get hands laid on them by a bishop, and wear collars that fasten in the back.  A minister is simply anyone who is performing ministry, whether that person is lay or ordained. And ministry takes a literally countless number of forms and shapes. Today, in this very liturgy, we are experiencing the ministry of lectors, acolytes, musicians, intercessors, and altar guild members, as well as the ministry of a priest and a bishop. But Christian ministry is much larger than liturgical ministry alone.  Serving on the vestry, teaching Sunday School, helping out with Vacation Bible School, organizing and cleaning up after special events—these are all valid and vital ministries. But we are still only nibbling around the edges of Christian ministry, because the real substance and heart of Christian ministry takes place beyond the walls of the buildings at the corner of South Grand and Loveland Avenue on the east side of Springfield. The ministry of the church takes place in the world: in homes, schools, shops, factories, offices, prisons, hospitals, nursing homes—anywhere that one human life can touch another. Every baptized Christian is called to ministry, and every baptized Christian has the raw equipment for that ministry.

So, how will each of us deal with our own "last temptation?" How will we respond to that beautiful, cherubic devil who appears to us and tempts us? "Don't worry about taking up your cross. You don't really have to do that. Put that thing down and enjoy what pleasures your life may yet hold for you." None of us, you know, none of us who bear the mark of baptism, none of us who have been marked as Christ's own forever, have the luxury of leading a "normal" life anymore than Jesus did! Whatever ministry we may be called to, it involves being a witness, a martyr, living on the edge, trusting God to meet our needs, not necessarily being prudent, but always being faithful. The last temptation of Christ is our last temptation too. It is the temptation to walk away and say, "I don't need to be doing this." But it's just that—a temptation—and you know where temptations come from. Resist him, firm in your faith. Let the intention of your heart for this very celebration of the Mass be that the grace of Holy Communion strengthen your resolve to hear and respond to God's call, confident that you are equipped to fulfill that call. Amen.

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