Rector’s 2016 Annual Address
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
January 31, 2016

Last April, while on our parish pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I remember visiting the town of Nazareth and, after visiting the town itself and the usual pilgrimage sites there, we were taken to one of the cliffs on the outer edge of the town. It was pretty high up. It was high up and the wind was fierce. (In fact some of our traveling companions tried to capture everything on video, but in the footage of this place you can hear the roaring wind.) As we stood at the edge of this cliff, you could see the mountain tops off in the distance and look down, far down, the steep ledge on all the low valleys around.

It was here that we read today’s gospel lesson (Luke 4:21-30) and prayed together. It was at this place that this scene from Jesus life’ took place. It was here that some of the townspeople take Jesus to try and throw him off a cliff.

It’s not completely surprising. Jesus has just begun his public ministry. He’s been preaching and teaching, and now he’s come to his hometown–to the place of worship. And, he’s just been openly saying that he has been sent by God to bring about change. He has been sent to transform things from the way they are into the way God wants them to be.

Some of the people, undoubtedly, were filled with hope at those words.

But, others were angered, threatened by the thought of everything changing.

Life was not easy for most in Nazareth at that time, but it was predictable. The people knew what to expect from the religious institution and from headquarters in Jerusalem. The people knew what to expect from the Roman Empire that controlled their world. The people knew what to expect from the
client rulers the Romans had set up around them.

Life was not ideal, but life was predictable. And many of them had learned to do the best they could under those circumstances and to make a comfortable enough life for themselves. Changing things would mean starting over, not being able to predict what was going to happen, and would mean not
knowing how to manage things in their lives. That thought can be very scary and threatening. And, rather than risk life as they know it and follow
Jesus in his vision for the world, some of them grab him and take him to Mt. Precipice to throw him to his death. But, of course, the Spirit is active around Jesus and he slips through the crowd and goes on about his ministry.

But, perhaps that mob was on to something: Following Jesus can be unsettling, because following and becoming a part of the Kingdom he offers means changing everything you know and trust and take for granted. In some cases, you might even say, ‘Following Jesus can be hazardous to your health.’

Canon Andrew White tried to remind people of that. Canon White was the “Vicar of Baghdad”, sent from the Church of England to minister to people living and serving in Iraq. Even after the toppling of Saddam Hussein and even in the chaos and war‐torn environment that followed, Canon White continued to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ in the Red Zone. Despite ISIS taking hold and spreading and threatening the lives of any who would not submit to them, Canon White remained steady, staying in Baghdad, ministering to the people.

Still, amazingly, people heard the gospel story and decided to follow Jesus and be baptized. Apparently Canon White even warned them that by being baptized, by publicly committing themselves to Jesus they could be risking their very lives. Still, they felt it was worth it.

Canon White tells the story of baptizing one family, a mother and four young children, and afterwards one of the children, a 10‐year‐old boy, came up to him and said, “I feel all new now. I am all different.” Baptism was something that even these children came to recognize as life‐changing.

Over the past year, our congregation has continued to be engaged in ministry to our community around us. We’ve continued to provide opportunities for formation, for young people and for adults. Things are going well and St. Stephen’s is healthy and vibrant.

At this point in our journey together, the Vestry has been discerning where God is leading us as a parish. Part of those conversations have led us to the conviction that our parish family needs to grow even closer to God, to deepen our understanding and appreciation of the faith we share, and to find ways of allowing our common baptism to change our lives.

That covenant, that sacred agreement, we make at Baptism and renew at every Baptism we attend, has profound implications for how we live our lives. It prompts us to reconsider what we value in our lives, to what we invest our time and energy and hearts into, and to engage with others and the community in a new and profound way.

As one person once said to me, “If we really believed what we’re asked to promise in those baptismal vows, we might not be so quick to say, ‘I will.’” And that’s very true. The baptismal covenant, the way of life that God invites us to live as followers of Jesus, challenges us out of comfort zones, turns our outlook on the world on its head, and makes us reconsider and risk everything for the sake of the Kingdom.

A primary part of the challenge for Christianity in the Western World today, for Episcopalians in Massachusetts, for the People of God here at St. Stephen’s is find ways of making connections between the story we tell and our own stories. Our baptismal faith should has implications on everything in our lives. We need to find a way to translate the things we hear and read and experience here on Sunday morning into the real world, in our lives as people when we’re apart from this gathering. Because the Good News of Christ has meaning for us to unpack, not just on Sunday morning, but on Monday morning, on Tuesday afternoon, on Wednesday evening…

As you look to the year ahead, you will see opportunities to re‐examine the Baptismal Covenant, to really stop and explore what it is that God is calling us to do when we follow Jesus. That will begin in Lent when our sermons will be talking about the baptismal promises we make and what they mean for
us in real life. In the Wednesday Lenten Program, you will hear from fellow parishioners how their faith translates into the daily lives and work.

So I have a special invitation for you: Join us in this journey. Risk life as you know it. Come and explore the baptismal faith we share and then watch how it changes everything.