“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.”
The season of Epiphany has been all about God revealing himself to his people. In Advent we await the coming King. At Christmastide we stand awestruck as God enters our filth. In Epiphany we see the perfect revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Epiphany drives us to contemplate what it means for Divinity to fully intersect with fallen humanity. Jesus stands wrapped in common cloth with dirt-caked feet on a hill and yet reveals himself to glow brighter than the sun and converse with the prophets. Jesus crosses the surface of the waters like they are streets of glass only to enter a smelly fishing boat full of peasants.
Our bishops have declared this Sunday, World Mission Sunday. In our fallen world, there is opportunity to love and serve others in the name of Christ at every turn. Our Province and our Communion partners are doing great work. I encourage you to pray for Anglican ministries and missionaries around world — the prayers for missions in the Daily Office are a great place to start — and to seek out ministries God would have you support financially. Today, however, I’m going to take world missions in a slightly more personal direction.
From our comfortable seats in front of our many screens the pain and destruction of the world are clear to see. Babies are born for death, and their murderers celebrated. War, famine, rape, and all kinds of violence flood our eyes as we see the forces of evil seemingly unrestrained in the world. These problems, though, seem far away. We are safe in our little East Nashville community. From our car windows we see the lights and glisten of a growing, successful, progressive, modern metropolitan.
From May to December, I was graced with the opportunity to spend every Thursday evening and some Saturday mornings with the men incarcerated in Nashville’s Offender Reentry Center, the ORC. To say this experience was life-changing, would be an understatement. Spending time with the “least of these” has opened my eyes to the hidden world around me. From my car windows I can now see past the lights to the city of tents and tarps on either side of Ellington Parkway. On 14th Street I see past the new façades and feel the pain of addiction. I see past the chipped paint and sagging gutters and know of the lonely people inside. At Five-Points I sense the longing for something more, something alive, something real behind the flannel and sunglasses.
Today, I’d like to share with you some of the stories from my friends in the ORC. Names and some details have been changed to protect the very often guilty and yet always beloved. My hope is to open your eyes to the neighbors God has given us here in East Nashville and, with our eyes opened, to explore where Jesus might be revealing himself in our midst.
Stories of guys from ORC here. Listen to sermon audio as I didn’t write this part down.
These stories are not unique and I could continue for hours with them. The ORC is a transient place with men generally only staying for 8 to 10 weeks before they are released or sentenced and move to another facility. Of the thirty or so men at worship each week, around three were visiting for the first time. There was never a time in my months of service that there wasn’t at least one man from East Nashville.
Hidden behind the trendy murals, hip restaurants, and cute homes there is a mission field in East Nashville as broad and as deep as anywhere in the world. Addiction, fear, loneliness, and self-hate surround us. But, unlike the visible ills of war and extreme poverty, the needs of our community sit hidden behind the façades of the modern city. Sin is no respecter of people. I’ve met lawyers, musicians, gangsters, car sales men, retired veterans, and everything in between in jail.
Our secular world is obsessed with the particular. The world sees only the multiplicity of intersecting systems of sin. Do this for the effects of a bad father. Do this for the effects of low self-esteem. Do this to overcome your addiction. As in all things, there is nuance, and we should not entirely dismiss the secular. This is our Father’s world, after all, and his light often appears in the most unexpected places.
But, I am here to tell you that there is a balm in Gilead that can heal East Nashville. There is a remedy for sin. There is a counter to fear. There is one who heals. Jesus Christ.
God became forever human when he entered his creation through Mary’s womb. Forever God has a human body. Forever he has connected himself with us. In the waters of baptism, God adopts us as his own beloved children and grafts us eternally into the Living Body of his Son. Each week at this table we experience an Epiphany as God reveals himself as bread and wine and is fully present with us. Eating the bread and drinking the wine, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ mingles with our bodies. Digested, the bread and wine we partake today become part of the very cells of our bodies. Our blood, becomes his. Week after week we literally take the Body of Christ with us as we leave this place and return to the world. We in a very small but very real way, are an Epiphany of the true Living God in East Nashville.
I love this parish. Since I moved here in 2011 and came to know this community, my heart longed for God to do a marvelous work here. When I am still I can feel the hurt of our community, I can hear the cries for deliverance.
Epiphany is a parish unlike any other in Nashville. When I look out into the pews, I see an unlikely gathering.
“The Lord is with you, O mighty [people] of valor.”
We are small. We have small children and complicated lives. I know it often feels like we don’t have much to give. We’re tired. We’re overextended. How can we uncover what is hidden?
But, what have fishermen to do with the Incarnate Lord?
Jesus says, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Notice Jesus doesn’t say “should” or “can”, he says “will.” God will make this possible for us.
Over the coming months I invite you to pray with Fr. Justin, the Vestry, and myself as we seek God’s guidance for our parish. Pray that we will be ready to listen. Pray that we will be brave enough to step into discomfort. Pray that God will bring us into situations where he can reveal the Body we are living members of.
Eat this bread. Drink this wine. At this table God gives himself to us week after week and fills us with the grace sufficient to go into the world as his people.
Let us pray:
“Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.”