sermon preached by the Reverend Deacon Jason A Burns
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on Epiphany 3: 23 January 2022:
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21; Psalm 19.
The first thing I was taught about preaching is always look at what comes before and after the passage designated as the reading for the week. The reason for that is the lectionary is designed to be thematic, but this often leads to things being taken a little out of context. In Paul’s letter he is continuing to talk about the importance of the Holy Spirit, the gifts we receive from it, and how our use of those gifts, when combined with the gifts given to everyone else constitutes the body of Christ, working as one to bring about the kingdom of God. So, by ignoring our gifts we are in fact handicapping that process.
The passage from Luke has Jesus voicing that the Spirit is with him and that he has been sent from God. This is certainly not news to us, but what comes after is. If you continue reading, you will find that Jesus tells the people that “no prophet is accepted in his hometown”, and that because of this known fact, Elijah and Elisha were not sent to save the people in their hometowns. This is his way of saying; I am not here specifically and just for you; God needs me elsewhere, in fact God needs me everywhere. This news is so shocking that they run Jesus out of town and attempt to throw him off a cliff, but he is able to calmly walk through the crowd before they can do so. Let’s think about that, the people who knew Jesus, who knew his parents, and his siblings. People who watched him grow up were ready to kill him rather than accept what he had said as truth. This is a common phenomenon, when children grow up and come into their own as leaders, it can be difficult for the people who have known them to accept their new role and status, especially as they seek to make changes. This is the very reason clergy do not serve in the parish who supports them for ordination, and it is why deacons do not serve in one place for an extended period.
One of the primary roles of a deacon is to speak with a prophetic voice, which means we are charged with speaking the truth about the world and the presence or lack of presence of the church in it. In the past three years I have preached on racism, suicide, poverty, prejudice, the pandemic, gun violence, the future of Saint Philip’s and other topics I can’t remember because I do this quite a bit. The purpose of the prophetic voice is to get the listener to think deeply and critically about a topic, frankly it is meant to make the listener a little uncomfortable, which is why prophets are often run out of town. No one wants to hear that they may need to change their thinking on something or that they may have played a role in something unpleasant, but if we don’t face the truth then we cannot be the body of Christ that will bring about the kingdom of God, we will simply be going through the motions without any awareness of how our actions may be sustaining a cycle of sin, a cycle in which our energy goes into carrying out our desires instead of using our God given gifts to expand and sustain the kingdom on earth.
A good example of humanities inability to focus on the kingdom is the mere existence of poverty. Poverty is not a state of being, it is an institution, and it is also one that has been built over many centuries. If a person is born into poverty in this country there is a 96% chance that they will never make it out, to be clear that basically means they will never reach a point in their life that will allow them the freedom to not worry about whether they can pay their bills or feed their families. They may have the appearance of success, but they are living a life that balances on the edge of a knife; one illness, too many missed days of work and over the edge they go. And if you think the federal “safety net” will save them, forget it. Over the past thirty years the federal safety net programs have become so strict and outdated that they have become an unreliable source of support. The red tape and income guidelines, which have not been updated for decades, make getting a useful amount of heating assistance in time for winter virtually impossible, the same is true for rent and food assistance, and the second a families income increases even a dollar their assistance is removed as if their situation has magically improved, starting the vicious cycle all over again.
It is these realities that make the ministries of St. Philip’s so important. The food and other support you provide to people who find it difficult to make ends meet; the food you provide to children whose families can’t guarantee meals when schools are closed is vital to the survival of so many people. It is how you, the Easthampton branch of the body of Christ, use your God given gifts; it is how you spread the kingdom of God.
A few months ago, I asked you a tough question, one that I said would be difficult to hear, one that you would likely want to ignore. I asked it because it needed to be asked, because asking tough questions is my diaconal role and because I know that St. Philip’s is in a time of transition. My question was, if you had a choose between keeping the building known as St. Philip’s or ensuring the financial continuation of your ministries for an additional 150 years, which would you choose?
This question is not hypothetical. It is the question I believe this, and every episcopal congregation is faced with. There is just not enough money to sustain the current system. There is not enough money to care for aging buildings and sustain worldly ministry and attempting to recruit new members and hold fundraisers is not going to the solve the problem. All congregations must begin the process of prayerfully discerning their future and face the truth that they cannot sustain themselves in their current form and if serious discussions about the future don’t take place, both the buildings and the ministries, which many people rely on, are not going to survive in any form. These conversations will be difficult and even scary, it will feel much like the disciples, who when faced with the arrest and execution of their friend and teacher denied the truth and hid. Their feelings of sorrow, however, were turned into Joy, and hope was renewed because three days later, Jesus returned. We are a resurrection people, but before we can experience the resurrection, we must experience the pain of loss with open eyes. The church will not survive in its current form, we have known this for a long time, and the truth is that St. Philip’s cannot survive in its current form for very much longer, but there is hope because we know that if we embrace the Holy Spirit, we will find a way forward, a way that will energize us, a way that will bring new life to the church, to St. Philip’s and to Easthampton. The path will not be smooth, it may even feel like your best friend is awaiting execution, but unlike the disciples we know what is on the other side, we know that from death comes new life, so no matter how hard it gets, no matter how painful it may be, we must have the hard conversations, we must answer the hard questions, and then embrace the Holy Spirit, comfort one another and find the path forward, the path that leads to a new life. Amen