Sermons That Work

On His Way, Epiphany 4 (C) – 2007

January 28, 2007

“But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Luke 4:30

Most Episcopalians know that when a rector leaves a parish to accept another call or perhaps to retire, the parish itself, with the assistance of the bishop, must find a new rector. Most folks also know that this can be a long and sometimes arduous process for the parish community. Because of this, the bishop will often send a seasoned priest to serve as interim rector or pastor during the transition, providing reassurance and continuity, and preparing the parish for new pastoral leadership and the changes that it will inevitably bring.

The Church has come to recognize the value of interim ministry as well as the difficulty and challenge faced by clergy who engage in it. After all, the interim rector does not stay in one place long enough to form the kinds of lifelong relationships most people cherish in their churches and communities. In interim ministry, no one church is home for long. Sometimes jokingly referred to as faster pastors, interim clergy are seemingly always on the move. Pastoral relationships are telescoped in time, and priests and people are constantly aware of the fleeting nature of their work and task. But in that, they are also reminded of the transitory nature of life itself.

A skilled interim rector can help parishes achieve things they might never accomplish on their own. An honest look at the parish’s history, for example, can reveal its strengths over the decades as well as its vulnerabilities. Likewise, opportunities for mission and ministry may be discovered in places long overlooked or never before explored. Pastoral transitions also provide an excellent opportunity to challenge old ways of thinking that may no longer work and to reaffirm the parish’s commitment to the ministry of the wider Church beyond its own parish boundaries.

Of course, some people resist change no matter how sorely needed. They feel threatened by innovations and new ideas, while tradition and long-standing custom provide them comfort in a world of constant flux and instability. Newcomers and strangers — including interim rectors — may end up disrupting decades of routine in a particularly close-knit and enmeshed community.

Today’s account from the Gospel of Luke continues last Sunday’s story of Jesus’ sermon preached in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth. Jesus starts out just fine. “All spoke well of him,” we are told, “and were amazed at his gracious words.” But it is not long before he gets himself into trouble. His references to the widow at Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian, both foreigners and gentiles, serve to infuriate Jesus’ townsfolk. For these episodes imply to them the need for a change of attitude and an acceptance of those who are different. And the people of Nazareth are emphatically not ready for that. We read that they “drove him out of the town.” Jesus barely escapes with his life and sums up, “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

Rebuffed at Nazareth, Jesus hits the road, traversing ancient Palestine and preaching a Gospel of repentance and forgiveness to anyone who will listen. Some settled pastors and rectors might well identify with Jesus’ frustration as they minister year after year to people who have perhaps become inured or even oblivious to the Gospel message of mission and proclamation. The temptation might be to move on. After all, Jesus himself seems happier in itinerant ministry than in the settled life of a long-term pastor.

Following Jesus requires changes in accustomed ways of thinking about the world and about home. It requires a readiness for transformation and a new Spirit that embraces the exile and the outcast as cherished members of the family. Jesus himself was homeless — exiled from his own land. As he says in another Gospel passage, “Foxes have holes, and the birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Home is an elusive concept, of course. After all, it is hard to think of the people of Jesus’ village as the sort one would really want to be at home with in the first place. Their self-serving expediency is not a family value anyone would cherish, then or now. No wonder Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

Most of us readily identify with the sentiment expressed in proverbs and sayings such as “there’s no place like home,” and “home, sweet home.” But amid an epidemic of violence at home and in the streets of our towns and cities, we also recognize that for many people nowadays there is nothing at all sweet about that place called home. Even poets and writers of our own age are ambivalent on the subject. “Home is the place,” Robert Frost tells us with a note of irony, “where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Thomas Wolfe, the great American novelist of the last century, says simply, “You can’t go home again.”

The old expression, “home is where the heart is,” perhaps best expresses a Gospel outlook, for it recognizes that our true home is not a house or a town or a dot on the map, but a dwelling and abode found only in our hearts. No matter our connections to our place of origin or current physical surroundings, it is only the geography of the human heart that matters. As Jesus reminds us, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Ultimately for followers of Christ, anyplace and everyplace can be home. The early Christians sensed this as they referred to their newly embraced faith not as home or shelter or even castle but as the way or the path. As Christians, we are all spiritual nomads, bathed in baptism at the Jordan, making our way out across the desert of the soul, and seeking acceptance and welcome at the nearest oasis or village. We offer in return the Gospel message of life and freedom.

Presiding bishops, rectors, interims, and priests-in-charge come and go. But as our children grow up and move out, as jobs and other commitments take loved ones far away, and as our friends depart from us, we remember where home really is. We remember that we are still people of the way. Even if we never leave home, we are all interim lay people, wayfarers who have come together for a while in the Lord’s presence to be nourished for our journey.

And because we are all guests, we must learn, in turn, to welcome others as we ourselves would wish to be welcomed. Together, let us now strike camp and set out yet again on our journey, seeking our true home with the God and Father of us all.


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Christopher Sikkema


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