The Third Sunday After Epiphany
After his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus begins to move about Galilee and his reputation grows quickly. When he returns to his hometown, Nazareth, he is invited to give the reading from the prophets which was a custom in the synagogues. Whenever well-known Rabbi was present, he would be invited to choose a reading from the prophets and then comment upon it. Jesus chooses a passage from the Prophet Isaiah which summarizes the intent of his mission. He has been anointed by the Spirit to bring good news to the poor; to announce freedom to captives; to proclaim release from prisoners and sight to the blind. In the opening of his comments, he declares that he is the one who is the fulfillment of that text.
In each of the scriptures this week we see the importance of memory. In the first lesson we hear the story of Ezra of reading the book of the law to the people who have forgotten their heritage. The Apostle Paul offers insights about the church as the body of Christ. It is memory which enables us to recall that each part of the body is important. The body is designed to be a unity, and when we forget that, we imperil our health.
Luke recounts the story of Jesus reading from the scroll of Isaiah. We need to remember that we are the object of God’s redeeming love and call to be the instruments of that love in the world. When Jesus reads the specific Isaiah passage to the people in the synagogue at Nazareth, this action tells us to look for God where people hurt. The Gospel happens most powerfully when the Spirit of the Lord, dwelling in God’s people, is brought to bear on human suffering.
In 2002, I attended a conference at St. Bart’s in Manhattan called. “Reinventing Church.” Father Bill Tully was rector and chief presenter. Early in his arrival at St. Bart’s, whose congregation had declined greatly since the 1950’s, the vestry had a retreat led by a consultant in congregational development. He helped them articulate who they were as a church. At the conclusion of the retreat, he told them, “You must listen to the pain of the city. No matter what city or town you are in, how large or how small, you will find people who are in pain, people who have been deeply hurt by institutions in our society, even by, especially by the church.”
I have been binging on a BBC series Call the Midwife which is about an order of Anglican nuns who are nurse midwives ministering to the poorest residents in East London in the 1950’s and 60’s. I think the acting is superb and the series covers contemporary social, cultural and economic issues. You name it, and this series deals with it. Some aspect of love is explored in every episode. Too, the interesting interpersonal dynamic of religious sisters living in community is amusing. These sisters and the young nurses who live with them are primarily ministers of healing. They are engaged daily in s a dynamic, powerful, transformative ministry.
The counsel given by the consultant to the vestry at St. Bart’s years ago and which was the genesis of a powerful healing ministry for that church and eventually at St. Paul’s and the stories that unfold in Call the Midwife bring me to something I have been giving much thought to with respect to this faith community of St. Andrew’s. I’m always wondering what the special calling or “niche” of any parish might be. What sets it apart in some way?
Over the past two years that I’ve been your priest, I’ve heard several stories about the profound loss that a good number of you have experienced in your lives. I won’t go into specifics, but I will say that I’ve wondered how some have gotten through all that. And I realized that it was mainly through the way you experienced God’s redeeming love expressed through the life and ministry of this congregation. So, when I opine about the ‘niche’ to which God had called this community I immediately go the work of healing that has happened here and I think that this may be what God calls us to be as we approach 100 years of Episcopal presence in Milford and even beyond. How will we continue to look for God where the people hurt? The dynamic, powerful, transformative ministry of healing is here. You don’t have to reinvent that. I have seen the evidence of the power of healing in this community. The immediate response to requests to the Prayer Chain is just one example. The residual impact of COVID that we will continue to see has created a vineyard ripe for ministry of healing.
Maybe our challenge will be to make that known as we listen to the pain of the city and use whatever means that is available to bring our message to those not here—spreading the mighty word. And maybe it will be technology that becomes the way we do that. You may recall that great line from the movie Field of Dreams – “If you build it they will come.” Fr. Bill Tully used it during that 2002 conference at St. Bart’s but added. “but they won’t come unless they know about it.”
So, I offer all this today as food for thought. Perhaps it becomes fodder for conversations with the vestry, with small groups like our Bible Study, even in your homes at the dinner table. And I leave you with a wonderful Hasidic tale about an elderly rabbi, renowned for his purity, who was unexpectedly of approached by a youthful disciple. The impetuous seeker fell at the feet of the rabbi and exclaimed: “My Master, I love you!”
The old teacher looked up from his books and asked the fervent disciple: “Do you know what hurts me, my son?” The young men looked puzzled, but composed himself and replied: “I don’t understand your question, rabbi. I’m trying to tell you how much and mean to me, and you confuse me with the irrelevant questions.”
The rabbi rejoined, “My question is neither confusing north irrelevant, or if you do not know what hurts me, how can you truly love me?”
The episode in Nazareth reveals to us that God is found in our daily lives, in the communities where we live and move and have our being. The Gospel happens most powerfully when the Spirit of the Lord, dwelling in God’s people, is brought to bear on human suffering. That Spirit is alive in this faith community.