Feast of St. Luke
I just got back from a week at the beach. It wasn’t all fun and games, it was actually a little soul-wrenching and head-checking because I was there for the Credo Conference. Credo is a ministry of the Episcopal Church, namely the Church Pension group. The idea of Credo is to assess the health and vitality of your life in the areas of spirituality, mental and physical health, vocation, and financial. I was there with 22 complete strangers, all of whom are now friends. We came from all over the church with all kinds of interesting and creative ministries. I’m happy to report that the Episcopal Church cares very much for her priests.
You see, being ordained, being a deacon or a priest, or a bishop, is strange work. It is so integrated that sometimes us collared folk lose sight of where we end and the church begins. It’s tough work. Like the bishop says in Les Misarable, the novel, which is actually a wonderful piece of Christian literature, he says, “Just as the coal miner emerges from the mine covered in the soot and grime of his work so too does the priest.” This happens to everyone of course, but priests get an especially high dose of the highs and lows of human experience, and it can be jarring spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
So this Credo conference is all about best practices for living a healthy life and they offer desert at every meal and late night snacks. I actually think that the folks who run Credo just put this stuff out and when they clean up they take note of what is left to gauge whether we are all listening to the health recommendations. On one of the final nights I was staying up late with several of my new friends playing a game. As we played we were all in close proximity of a tray of cookies. Now, I’m no bastion of self-control obviously, in fact I had had two cookies already, but as the game went on the chocolate and toffee in these cookies were assaulting me. Others made mention of the wonderful cookies. Finally, I reached over, grabbed the tray, and offered them to everyone. One person said, “No! Get behind me Satan! I a planned the work and I’m working the plan! No thank you!” Others chimed in too that they were trying to be healthier. Encouraged by their self-control, I abstained and the desire for cookie goodness evaporated. It passed.
Temptation. It’s tough. But having others around to help you through it, that’s the key. Have you had that, have you had a moment of temptation and then just the smallest of nudges from someone else brought you on the right path immediately? Perhaps for you it was a time that you were about to bad-mouth someone and throw them under the bus and then the person you were with said something good about the one you were about to malign; and you stood down. Perhaps you were about to break your sobriety but chose a meeting instead. Maybe you were tempted to cheat at school but decided to just do your best and let the chips fall where they may.
I’m talking about this because today’s gospel reading, chosen for the feast of St. Luke could not be better for this occasion, and it has something to do with temptation. It’s the story of Jesus going home to Nazareth and reading in the synagogue. He reads this passage from Isaiah. “The spirit is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, release to the prisoners, give sight to the blind, liberate the oppressed and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then Jesus says, “This scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He is saying that what Isaiah was talking about 250 or more years before Jesus was born is happening right then and there in that synagogue and it is centered on him.
And for us, since it is centered on Jesus, that means through our baptisms that this activity, these reversals: sight to the blind, freedom to prisoners and oppressed, and good news to the poor, since we are baptized into Jesus, this is our life and work too. Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Israel, he is the Year of the Lord’s favor he is the release to prisoners and he is the sight of the blind.
That’s us, that’s our work. And on this occasion tonight, where we celebrate the beginning of a new relationship between a priest and a parish, I cannot think of a better choice of a person to continue to lead you into the work and life of Jesus. Suz, who I have known for about 8 years, is a person who walks closely with Jesus taking her cues from him and not much else. This is who the church needs, a person dedicated to Jesus Christ to the exclusion of all. That doesn’t mean she won’t care for you and the various ministries of this parish, it actually means that she will love you and the ministries of the parish more deeply than she could have on her own. But it also means that with her powerful commitment to Jesus she will sometimes be critical of the activities of this parish. She will ask good questions. She will call attention to every elephant that a room can hold. And it will be uncomfortable. But it’s good because she is, in her questions and her leading, bringing you closer to Jesus who brings good news to the poor and release to the oppressed, and then you will do that work too.
Which brings me back to the temptation. You see, this passage where Jesus asserts that God’s way of doing things has been most revealed in him comes right after Jesus’ time in the desert, where he is tempted by the Devil. So this great revelation, this wonderful expression of what we are about, about our work and mission comes right after temptation. Now, what follows tonight’s passage is a scene where Jesus criticizes some of those in the synagogue and they get angry, real angry, like run-out-of-town-on-a-rail-and-they-tried-to-throw-him-off-a-cliff angry.
Revelation of God and the purpose of our life and work sits right between temptation and anger. It’s a narrow way too. In Luke there is more room and real estate given to the temptation story and the part about Jesus making everyone mad than to this great proclamation that God has come powerfully in Jesus. The work we do and the abiding presence of Jesus sits cozily between temptation and anger.
Here’s what I mean: I will now talk just to this congregation. Suz, plug your ears.
Friends. She’s the real deal. That’s really good. But it will sometimes get on your nerves. She will poke you where it hurts, where you are tender. She will be looking for Jesus in the most unlikely places and you need to join her in this. But sometimes you will be tempted to hold on to your pet project, your little fiefdom. Don’t fall into that temptation. Sometimes you will though, and you’ll go right from temptation into full on anger because this Jesus is threatening the way things have always been done.
Now, Suz. I want to talk to just Suz, so you all plug your ears. These folks are the real deal. And that’s really good. But it will sometimes get on your nerves. They will squeal when you poke them where it is tender. But they will also show you where Jesus is in this place and in this city. But sometimes you will be tempted to start your own pet project, or not listen very deeply. Don’t fall into that temptation. But sometimes you will, you’ll go from temptation into full on anger because Jesus is threatening the way you think things ought to be.
Ok, ears unplugged. I said ears unplugged!!
Here’s the thing. You have each other to help you through temptation and anger to keep on that narrow path between them, staying with Jesus and his work of release and Good News.
Just like my new friends were able help to be strong against the temptation to stuff my face with cookies, so too will all of you together be able to see temptation and anger when they arise, confront and deal with it in love, head-on so that this community can become more true to God’s call in this city.
The good relationship between a rector and her parish is a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t just happen. A healthy church is one where people realize and own their strong feelings of involvement and mission. I’m not telling you to become indifferent to your projects and missions, to the way things are done here, that is all important, vital even, but it must be tempered with the fact of Jesus Christ: that God’s favor has come powerfully among you all and that you have work to do, work with each other and work with those who you haven’t met yet.
As this church that has been walking with Jesus all along joins hands with Suz who has been walking with Jesus as well; my hope and prayer is that each of you will allow the God of release, sight, liberation, and Good News to anoint you for the work of God. And when you receive that anointing anew, well: brace yourselves.