Jesus is in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. He has just read verses from the prophet Isaiah. Now, Jesus says, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The hometown folks are impressed. Jesus has read with confidence and authority. Some are skeptical: “Is not this Joseph’s son?” Others are just proud. Word has spread that Jesus has been all over Galilee, teaching in other synagogues and doing wonderful things. Now he has come home. They hope Jesus will do some of those wonderful things with them.
Jesus disabuses them of this quickly when he uses two examples he knows will not go over well. Jesus reminds his listeners that back in Elijah’s time, when there was a severe famine, there were lots of widows in Israel. Yet Elijah did not knock on any of their doors. Instead, he went to a widow in Sidon—a foreigner who was not a Jewish believer. Elijah’s successor, Elisha, ministered to foreigners as well. Jesus reminds his hometown listeners that there were many lepers in Israel. Yet God did not heal them. Instead, God sent Namaan, a Syrian commander, to Elisha, to be healed. Within a couple of minutes, a group of people who had been so proud of their hometown son is enraged. How dare Jesus have the nerve to tell them that “they [will] not be vessels for the unfolding of God’s new narrative!” Instead, Jesus is saying is that God’s narrative includes foreigners. . .people who do not keep the law and traditions. . .indeed, hated Syrians who have persecuted the Jewish people!
At first, the hometown folks are stunned. This is not the boy they had watched grow up in the village. Something has changed him, and not for the better. Suddenly, hostility fills the room. Crowd mentality takes over. The people who have known and loved Jesus the boy now drive him out of town and try to throw him off a cliff. But somehow Jesus passes through the crowd and leaves town.
God’s story rarely unfolds the way human beings think it should. In every century, God has continued to delight, to surprise, to disturb, to frighten, to anger people. We human beings like order, not chaos. Our lives are full of uncertainty, chaos and upheaval. We want our houses of worship to be orderly with a dependable routine. Episcopalians specialize in this. We like liturgy that is done decently and in good order. We love our historic buildings and stained glass windows. We want the kind of worship we want—music and liturgy that feeds us—maybe the kind of worship we remember as children. Yet the gospel this morning reminds us that God’s story will not be contained within our perceptions and expectations. As one writer has noted, “the God we proclaim and worship will not be domesticated, ‘homebound,’ shut in, confined by our temples, and stagnated by our stories.”
God’s narrative may be spoken, sung and prayed in a particular worship space. Yet if we expect that narrative to stay within the walls of historic worship space, in a predictable pattern, or if we expect the narrative to continue to be “the way we’ve always done it,” we are going to be disappointed, maybe even angry.
Recently, there have been a lot of articles and public radio programs about people—especially young people—who are spiritual but not religious (SBNR). According to Pew Research, “One fifth of American adults have no religious affiliation” and “one third of adults under thirty have no religious affiliation.” Some of these young adults grew up in homes where a faith tradition was practiced, but have left the Church because they do not see its relevance in their daily lives. Many of them had parents who practiced no formal faith tradition.
Yet human beings are always trying to make sense of their lives. While some insist that there is no God, no higher being, others hope that there is something larger than ourselves—even when we are not sure what that higher being is. God may no longer be an old man with a white beard who scowls, tells us we’ve been bad and sends us to a corner for Time Out. Yet who, or what, is God? We have no clue. And the minute we think we do, God surprises us and changes. God is always doing a new thing among us. The more we resist it, the more it seems to happen anyway.
Today is our Annual Parish Meeting. As I have reflected on the past several years of our ministry together, I decided to go back and re-read the St. Philip’s Parish Profile that was put together in 2006. Where are we now vis-à-vis what you all said you wanted to accomplish and be as a parish? Bearing in mind that these things will be the stuff of reflection with the Vestry soon, I will just note a few things this morning.
You acknowledged your diversity on a number of levels. Yet you said this: “We wish to become an even more inviting and inclusive place for diversity to flourish and find unity as we learn to grow into the fullness of Christ’s love.” I think that has continued to happen.
In 2006, you had implemented “a multi-tiered newcomer response and incorporation system, which we want to continue and strengthen.” This framework has not been continued. It is an area which we need to address more intentionally again.
“Our parishioners have a diverse range of worship style preferences that effectively engage and inspire them, and reducing to two services has made it difficult to accommodate everyone. We want to continue working to maximize our ability to meet those needs, and hope to grow sufficiently to support the addition of a third worship service in the near future.” As I have thought about this and the recent articles on Spiritual but Not Religious folks, worship at a third service might very well be something you’ve never had or never considered before.
Your parish profile spoke of a passion for outreach, youth programs and Christian education, saying that you wanted to revitalize these by allocating more resources to them—this included non-financial ways to strengthen them. Slowly, we are making progress with these.
You said “As St. Philip’s grows, we need to expand parish-wide fellowship activities outside of worship. . .We also wish to offer more events that invite members of the surrounding community to be with us.” This, of course, requires more intentionality and publicity—whether that is on our website, on Facebook, a banner hung out front, a newspaper ad, or through neighborhood e-mail listserves.
The parish profile noted that the lower level of Wyatt Ministry Center is unfinished, and that this project “has remained on hold pending resolution of long-standing water issues. These issues are actively being addressed, and past plans for finishing the lower level are being reviewed and updated as needed.” For those who have forgotten, the basement of Wyatt will not just have much-needed space for Sunday School. It will have space where adults will gather for study and meetings. An elevator will provide a way for mature people to access the meeting rooms in the basement. It will be a warm and welcoming space for God’s children of all ages in a variety of ways.
As I re-read this profile, through the lens of today’s gospel, I have wondered what God’s new narrative might be in this parish. The Lord may be saying something new to us—something that pushes us beyond our comfort zones. This new story of God may delight us. It may surprise us. It may frighten us. It may anger us. Yet God is who God is, and God will be who God will be. This is not about you and me. It is about God. You and I have a part to play in God’s story.
When we hear that new story, will we throw the possibilities off a cliff? Or will we—in faith—go down the road with Jesus?
© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton
 David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 310.
 Heidi Glenn, “Losing Our Religion: The Growth of the Nones” on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” January 13, 2013. Accessed at http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/01/14/169164840/losing-our-religion-the-growth-of-the-nones.
 From St. Philip’s Parish Profile 2006, 20.