Fr. Bill Carroll – The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 30, 2022

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

As many of you know, I grew up in a nominally Christian home in Southern California.  And, when we were kids, the only time we went to church was when I was about five years old.  My best friend and his little sister had died in a horrible fire—and someone invited us to church.  

By the time I went away to college, I was looking for something.  I wasn’t sure what it was, but I was looking.  I started going to church, reading the Bible, and learning to pray.  And then, one night, I found myself kneeling in the snow in the street, in front of a crucifix outside a local church.  I was giving my life to Jesus.

After college, I found my way into the Episcopal Church and was baptized with the service in our Prayer Book.  And, what I remember most about that day were the words the priest spoke to me:  “Bill,” he said, “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”  Brothers and sisters, we’ve been claimed by the boundless love of Jesus Christ.  And he calls us to share that love with all the people he puts into our lives.

At the beginning of Jesus’ sermon in Luke 4, which we heard last Sunday, the congregation rejoices, when he promises to set them free.  Jesus is drawing on Old Testament traditions about the jubilee year, when debts are canceled, and slaves set free:  

The Spirit of the LORD is upon me (he says), because the Spirit 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.

Then, he goes on to say “Today (Today) this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  And, at first, the crowd goes wild.  Jesus is reminding them of the great, liberator God of the Exodus.  At long last, he is saying, God has come among us to deliver his People.  

They don’t take any offense at this part of his message.  Quite the contrary.  We are told that they are amazed by the gracious words of Jesus.  Based on their response, we can guess that many of these folks were poor and oppressed themselves. 

But then comes the part that offends them.  That’s the part we hear today.  Jesus observes that they’re probably expecting him to work miracles like he has done in other places.  But he says that he can’t do that much for them, because “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.”  “There were many widows in Israel,” he says, “in the time of Elijah, but Elijah was sent only to the widow at Zarephath in Sidon.”  And “There were many lepers in Israel,” he goes on to say, “in the time of the prophet Elisha, yet none was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”  Here, Jesus is deliberately provoking his audience.  Sidon is a city of the Canaanites, idolatrous worshipers of Baal.  Naaman is not only a foreigner; he is a general in the Syrian army.  

No wonder the crowd gets angry.  Jesus won’t allow them to exploit their ties of blood and friendship with him.  In fact, he has made their enemies their equals. And so, they drive him out of town and try to throw him off a cliff.  

The wideness in God’s mercy is still a scandal to us. It is so hard for us to accept that the Lord doesn’t divide the world up the ways we do—into enemies and friends.  Indeed, as Pope Francis once said, “God has no enemies, only children.”  

Often, it’s true, we struggle with loving each other. We are just as flawed as other people.  We are just as selfish, just as controlling, just as afraid.  The difference is this:  By the love of Jesus, we’ve all been washed in the same water, and we feed on the same Body and Blood.

Our Baptism is the defining moment of our lives.  Baptism gives us new values, new priorities, and a new direction.  And so, no matter what we have suffered or done, God offers us a fresh start.  The Eucharist is where God gathers us together, week after week, so that we can be renewed in his ways and catch the vision of his Kingdom.

But what does that mean here at Trinity?  In part, it means putting behind us a culture that we are tempted to share with many other mainline congregations.  Since 1964, the mainline churches in our country have experienced declining numbers, infighting over internal issues, anxiety about money, and a kind of collective depression.  Although Trinity peaked somewhat later—and, increasingly, our evangelical brothers and sisters are experiencing the same thing—like many of our brothers and sisters in other branches of the Christian family, we are struggling against the tide of the present historical moment.

But we know (and the research shows) that congregations can thrive in this environment, if we are focused on growing spiritually, serving our neighbors, and sharing the Good News of Jesus.  Therefore, here at Trinity, we have developed a Christ-centered, Gospel-based vision for ministry.  We have sought to catch the faith that once won the world for Christ.

Our rule of life, printed on the front of every bulletin, calls us to seven specific forms of spiritual practice. These are intended to help us “follow in the steps of Jesus and put him first in our lives.”  We begin with weekly public worship and daily personal prayer, as well as lifelong formation and study of the Word.  For we cannot grow spiritually without this foundation.  

The parish profile that helped lead me to accept the call to serve God with you here spoke about Trinity’s deep need to create “an environment where Christian love and care flow through each one of us.”  We do this through each point of our rule of life, especially by promoting “love, respect, and accountability in our common life, staying open to the Spirit.”  The responsibility for this lies with all of us, especially with our clergy and our elected and appointed lay leaders.  We are called to live out this “love and care,” to model it and to hold each other accountable, even when that’s very, very hard to do. 

Recently, a team chaired by Blake Scott, in consultation with dozens of members of Trinity, representing a variety of ministry groups, conducted what is called a “mutual ministry review.”  At our annual retreat this year, your Vestry will be working with me to set goals for those who are charged with carrying out its recommendations.  This coming month, I will be meeting with committee chairs and individual staff members, as we seek to implement the initiatives called for in that review, in ways consistent with our overall vision.

The essence of the report is a longing for normalcy and increased morale, as well as several new steps forward.  This year, we want to see one or two community-wide outreach events, in which everyone can get involved.  Within two or three years, we want to see attendance return to pre-Covid levels—and we want to keep on growing from there.  We would like to see a full calendar of fellowship events, and we need to promote everything that we do to the wider community.  We have already restarted our dinner fellowships. We need to develop other small group ministries and formation opportunities.  

Our highest mission priority remains renewed ministry with the Trinity School of Texas and with other new members and their children.  To this end, we now have a fully-renovated nursery, with paid, trained staff, in a location closer to the Nave.  Fr. Andrew’s ministry at TST and elsewhere is bearing amazing fruit.  He has helped us assemble the core of our youth group for several successful events.  In addition, now, a search committee is starting to discern God’s will with two candidates for a full-time lay youth and children’s ministry position.  Everything is flowing from a sound financial base, with help from your generous stewardship and the faithful ministry of your Vestry and the Endowment Board.  I’d like to say a special word of thank you to the Endowment Boar, especially Trudy Godsey and Dickens Wilkinson, who helped close the sale on the endowment property.  Those resources will be here to benefit the church in perpetuity and help us move forward together.

Here at Trinity, we are striving to welcome the Kingdom of God.  Often, if the ministry of Jesus is any clue, that Kingdom comes in unexpected ways and from unexpected people.  We are committed, therefore, to “staying open to the Spirit” and listening, listening, always listening, both to God and to each other.  The past two years have been incredibly difficult for all of us.  But what has kept us moving forward has been our faith in Jesus, the Lord of this church, and our Gospel-based vision for the future.  This vision was developed and refined over several different Vestries.  It is still a work in progress.  We developed it with public forums and listening groups.  And we have the leadership and the structures in place to carry it out.  

What we need more than anything now is to open ourselves, day by day, to the love and Spirit of Jesus.  That’s how God gives his Church the Mind of Christ, in ways we can’t anticipate or control.  And so, we pray, we plan, and we act.  And we revise our plans, as we keep on listening and keep on loving together.  

Jesus and his love in action.  That’s what we want for Trinity.  His love “is patient.  It is kind.  It is not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude. It does not insist on its own way.  It is not irritable or resentful.  It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”  That’s the love that flows through us.  It is a humble, Christ-shaped love.  It is a mighty, life-changing love.

For God so loved the world.