Annual Meeting Sermon and Report
In the Gospel lesson today we hear St. Luke’s account of how Jesus returns home to begin his earthly ministry. Remember that two weeks ago we heard of his baptism and how the Spirit of God came upon him at that time. Last week we heard the story of the wedding feast at Cana and of Jesus reluctance to take action because “his time had not yet come”. This week then, we see him at the beginning of his earthly time. In a real way, today’s story represents the formal announcing of his Messianic presence here on Earth.
Notice how this proclamation is done. Jesus comes to the community as it gathers to worship God on the Sabbath. Jesus takes up the Holy Scriptures, reads aloud from a passage of Isaiah, and sits to preach. In one of the shortest sermons ever recorded he makes plain what is going on. “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” We don’t know if he said anymore – but whether he did or not, there really was no need – this was the line that people were supposed to and did remember.
What verse does Jesus choose? It’s a part of a larger vision of the promised Kingdom of God that is found in the poetic prophetic writings of Isaiah. Specifically Jesus chooses the verses that say:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
?to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
Jesus is announcing the Kingdom of God by highlighting that fact that God has love for all of God’s creatures – both of high and low estate. Notice that the verses say nothing about the wealthy and the powerful and there’s no mention of the military or business class. Instead Jesus reminds the people of his small rural community what the Kingdom of God will mean for them: the poor, the descendents of slaves, immigrants, nomads, the wanders, God’s chosen people.
What I find most striking about this amazing announcement is the backdrop that Jesus chooses to use. We’re more aware of the importance of good backdrops these days – especially in these years of professional political spin-masters. People who have something important to say make sure to leave nothing to chance. They carefully choose the time and place of their announcement – generally choosing photogenic locations that somehow add an important subliminal message to the actual message spoken aloud.
So where does Jesus choose to announce? He chooses the Synagogue in Nazareth. We know today where the Nazareth of Jesus day was, and something of the size and nature of the community. It was a small farming village of a few hundred people at most, well off the main road that was chiefly remarkable by the fact that it was so incredibly non-descript. Today we would think of it as average “Any-town” USA – except that it was probably smaller and poorer than a typical American village. Think of some small hamlet in the mountains of Appalachia not too far from here and you probably get the picture. It’s a totally unremarkable place – interesting only in that it is common and not in the least exotic.
Why does Jesus choose to start and base his early ministry in this area? Most likely the reason is because it was where he was raised. Jesus never travels very far from home during his entire life. The grandest place we know of him visiting was the city of Jerusalem, and the most fitting stage for his life would have been the newly constructed Temple of Herod. Jesus didn’t choose to travel to Jerusalem to make this announcement of his messiahship in the sacred precincts of the temple. He chooses his home. He chooses his own neighborhood. And most likely not because some political consultant told him that it was important to present himself as man of the people in order to curry favor with the proletariat voters – but instead because Jesus was living out a profound truth (as he does with so many of the events of his life.)
So what is going on here? It seems to me that Jesus choice of Nazareth to proclaim the long awaited news is a pointer to the fact that the Kingdom of God, of whose arrival Jesus speaks, is all around us – and not bound to a single place or time. Nazareth seen as Anytown USA reminds us that the Kingdom of God is here with us in Bethlehem on Market Street just as much as it exists in the midst of Berninni’s Colonade in the heart of the Vatican City, or in the Royal tombs of Westminster Abbey or in center of Paris, Beijing, Capetown or even Jerusalem. The Kingdom of God and its promise can be found here, there and everywhere.
Given this then, let’s look a little more closely then at what Jesus actually says in Nazareth, and knowing that it applies equally to us here in Bethlehem, how we might need to respond.
Jesus uses phrases such as: “Good news to the poor” “Release to the Captive” “Sight for the blind” “Year of the Lord’s favor”.
What might these words mean, and how are we called to respond here in Bethlehem in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Four?
Let me tell you a story. On Thursday of this week, while I was walking into lunch in our Soup Kitchen with the Director of the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, I heard people calling “the Ambulance is on the way.” Donna Lawerence, who was in the office covering for Sara Creech who has bro
ken her ankle, looked at me and asked for something warm for the person lying in the snow outside. Apparently someone coming to the church for lunch had a seizure or diabetic shock of some sort just as they were coming up the steps. They fell “like a ton of wood” onto the snow and the guests and staff of the Soup Kitchen were scrambling to respond. (The person is fine now I understand and is getting some tests done to see what happened.) What’s remarkable about this incident is that it is getting less and less remarkable. We are seeing sicker and sicker people coming to the Soup Kitchen to eat – mostly because they don’t have health insurance and are not able to stay in the hospital long enough to recover, and having little or no family have no way to feed themselves when they are ill. So they come here to Trinity, and at some point, fall over, faint, have a seizure, etc. We are quick becoming a place not just for the hungry but for the physically and mentally ill as well, and providing the sorts of convalescent care that people used to be able to get in the hospital.
The Soup Kitchen was founded years ago as a response to need in our city and since its founding it has grown and continued. Over the course of a single year the Soup Kitchen feeds tens of thousands of people, and over its total history I imagine it has served something on the order of a quarter million meals. The community’s need of the Soup Kitchen is increasing and what it needs from the Soup Kitchen is changing – especially in that the need is becoming more and more urgent. Because of changes in the welfare law, in the amount of aid available to poor and underemployed families and the rise of young mothers having more children than they can care for, what has been a small and successful effort in past years needs to increase in the coming future.
I would like us to think carefully in this coming year about the possibility of establishing an internal support committee for the Soup Kitchen. The needs of the Soup Kitchen are increasing and it is unrealistic to expect Deacon Elizabeth to be able to fully respond on her own. We know that we need to raise money for another freezer, our refrigerator is on its last legs, we need new carpeting and drapes and the need for emergency assistance increases every year. I am concerned that at the moment there is only one agency outside of this parish that is acting to fund this ministry, and while we are grateful for their support, a pragmatic person does not put all of their eggs into one basket. I believe it is soon time for us to begin to investigate additional revenue sources for the ministry done in this place.
Secondly – taking our lead from the Gospel lesson today, I would like to challenge us to find ways to reach out more effectively to our church neighborhood. What do I mean by that? I mean the people living and working from Stefko Blvd. to 378, from Washington Ave to Lehigh River. Our neighborhood is changing. There are new people moving in, and older residents are having to move out. Moravian Village and the new towers complex are being built at the end of our street. People 4 blocks from here speak Spanish as their first language. There are thousands of college students living within our neighborhood, and other than a few notable exceptions, we’ve not really connected with them.
In a few months the local Center City Ministerium is going to organize a town meeting. Years ago it was the Ministerium that organized the Soup Kitchen, that helped to found Victory House, and that most recently started an after school program. These have all been successful programs, and most of them have now gone off on their own. In conversations with other clergy here in town, we believe it is time for us to invite the neighborhood to sit down with representatives of the local churches and to see what the real needs of our neighborhood are at the moment. And then, having identified the needs, we intend to ask the churches of this neighborhood to consider how God is calling us and empowering us to respond to that need.
I believe that Churches are meant to be outposts of the kingdom of God wherever they are found. I believe Trinity Church has been, and continues to be an effective witness to that truth. And I believe today that God is calling us to proclaim the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus in the place where we live, among the people of our daily life – just as he himself did so many years ago.