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Sermon for 1/22/23, 3 Epiphany, Year A: A little light fishing (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

About ten days ago we installed new lights in our parking lot. They had been out for a few weeks and there were concerns about safety for groups that meet at Grace after dark. Replacing the lights was complicated and it took us a while to get a handle on it. Then, even as we were trying desperately to negotiate a path that would get them up before our Christmas Eve services, we discovered that our thermostat was also broken. This kind of tsunami of buildings and grounds issues is not unusual because, of course, when it rains it pours – which it did, the very minute we attempted to rest from our Christmas labors- with rain, hail, winds, and flooding making an already complicated situation harder. In the end all was well (thanks to John Lee and Gary Spenik), that is until we got a complaint from a neighbor about how our wonderful new lights shine directly into her elderly Mom’s bedroom.

Sometimes bringing light into the dark isn’t easy - but that is what God does, and it is what we are asked to do on God’s behalf. At Grace, we try to do this in a variety of ways – buying Christmas gifts for those who otherwise wouldn’t have any, providing clothing for those who have little, sheltering families during the cold of winter, and sharing Thanksgiving with anyone who is lonely. We participate in the work of the greater church by contributing to deanery and diocesan projects. We send cards, write emails, and even, as we did for a few weeks this year, change the dressing on a fellow parishioner’s infected foot. The people of Grace demonstrate the joy of Christian community with breakfasts, dinners, and trivia nights. We paint, prune, and provide for the practical needs of the Church. Our members also learn together and share the responsibility of nurturing our youngest members. And we worship together. Grace now has services available six days per week, several of which are on Zoom, allowing people near and far to pray together. All these ministries, identified by the acronym SWEPPS – Service, Worship, Welcome, Education, Parish Life, Pastoral Care, and Stewardship – bring light into our shadowed world.

This is critical in the face of the increasing power of darkness in our society. The acceptance of vitriol and violence as ways to manage our differences is poisoning the waters of our common life. The waning of civic, community, and religious organizations is not surprising in a society in which distant communication and isolation have become the norm. And the increasing split between the super-rich and the poor strikes fear in our hearts and pushes us to keep our possessions – and our selves- close to home.

Remember though, that these conditions are no different than the ones of the people who first heard Isaiah’s prophecy 900 years before the birth of Christ. And it was the same for the first century Jews suffering under the yoke of Rome’s oppression who first recognized that light emanating from another prophet - Jesus. These people had no more reason than we do to trust in the promises of an unseen God, whose commands, spoken through flawed human translation, had been used to create rather than diminish inequities for thousands of years.

Yet, our forebearers recognized in Isaiah’s words and in Jesus’s actions the fulfillment of the deepest longings of their collective heart. They heard God’s desire not to punish but to free people. They were able to sift through the noise of their unjust, aggressive, and frightening surroundings and discern the opportunity that God was (once again) offering – a way to save ourselves from our basest instincts and restore our world to God’s abundant and peaceful creation. No wonder Simon, Andrew, James, and John left the only life they knew to follow him.

We follow him too, but not with the reckless, ecstatic abandon of those who were privileged to physically observe the light in his eyes. We are tentative in our commitment, fearful of losing what we have for something we cannot see. But we can see it if we look in the right places. We experience it all the time in one another. Jesus’s light is there when we deliver clothes, food, or gifts to people who need them. It is there when someone prays for us or puts a hand on our shoulder to comfort us in our grief. It is there when an unhoused friend of Grace faithfully gives ten percent of what little he has to help us in our mission. And that mission, lest we forget, is to welcome, support, and serve all God’s people.

This sermon also serves as my annual report to the congregation and, as you know from what I have already said, there is much to celebrate at Grace. But there are also challenges to face. While our Treasurer’s report is largely good news, it also demonstrates the undue burden placed on the few to support the work for the many. Our budget demonstrates how heavily we rely on donations and while I am sure everyone is giving what they can, this is not a sustainable path forward for the church. An aging church means that we are suffering terrible losses of very faithful and beloved friends, and the absence of the time, talent, and treasure each of them brought to Grace. This is not unique to us. If we expect the larger church to swoop in and save us, we might consider the opposite – that we need to help save the mother Church as it diminishes all over the world.

Our treasurer’s report makes it clear that we cannot combat our losses with budget cuts – and we must not even consider abandoning our mission because we think we do not have enough funding to perform it. The first disciples of Jesus gave up their livelihoods to follow a prophet who repeatedly asked them to give more. If that seems unfair, remember what our gospel tells us they received for their sacrifice: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching… and proclaiming the good news of the kind-dom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Imagine being part of that.

Well, you are - because as members of Grace we too have the ability -and the responsibility- to teach, to heal, and to proclaim. We too can change the world. But we’re going to need more help - because the only way for Grace to survive and thrive is by bringing more people into the church. We must do as Jesus commanded and fish for people. And one of the best ways to do that, as the first disciples discovered, is to help other people.

For many of us, “coming out” as faithful Christians is a terrifying prospect. What if we talk about our religion and we lose friends or clients? What if people think we are “those” Christians and think ill of us? What if people react hatefully or violently to our invitation to join us? I understand these fears - but we cannot allow them to paralyze us. We cannot allow them to kill the church of Christ. All the things that separate us from one another and push us toward only associating with those we already trust also existed when the church was founded. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth tells us that division, exclusivity, and elitism were present from the beginning of Christianity. The fact that it still exists is depressing, but it is not a reason to deny our faith – a faith which we affirm every week: we believe in one God and that God is available to all people.

That God is also powerful. Our God is not just the light-bringer. Our God is the light. If that is true, says the psalmist, what in the world do we have to be afraid of? Our world may be shadowed by darkness, but we have access to the greatest light of all. Do not be afraid to step into that light. Do not be afraid to bring that light to others. You may have to deal with a complaint or two, but what is that compared to sharing in the cross of Christ and dwelling in the house of God forever. AMEN.

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