3rd Sun.Epiphany-Emily Krudys Preaching
I. Opening Prayer
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, God our Hope and our Redeemer.
Today’s gospel from Matthew begins with a news report.
-John the Baptist has been arrested.
And now, the landscape is changing.
Responding to this news, Jesus leaves his home in Nazareth and travels 50 miles northeast to Capernaum, near the sea of Galilee.
This move to Galilee is a key turning point in Jesus’ life and ministry.
What a shift from just two weeks ago when we heard the report of Jesus’ Baptism where John was by his side.
What a glorious day that was, as Jesus splashed up from the water, and the heavens were opened to him, and the Spirit of God comes down like a dove upon Jesus, and the voice from heaven says, “This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Everything seems so clear, so promising, so hopeful, as if our dreams were coming true.
But now John has been arrested, and the landscape is changing.
This isn’t the first, or the last, time in Matthew’s gospel that the landscape changes.
Right after Jesus’ Baptism the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness.
There Jesus fasts and is tempted by the devil to perform miracles.
In resisting the devil, Jesus turns to the teachings from the Hebrew scriptures that he knew in his heart. Jesus finally dismisses the devil with the words, “Worship the Lord Your God, and serve only him.”
Yesterday, during the interfaith service held at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., these words were echoed when chanted in the essential Jewish prayer known as the Shema. As stated in the book of Deuteronomy, the prayer begins with the words:
Hear Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words, with which I am commanding you this day, shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them deeply to your children . . .
In the gospels accounts, Jesus adds to that command, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love of God and love of neighbor are intertwined.
Back in the wilderness story in Matthew’s gospel, we see that it is love, this faithfulness, to God’s command that empowers Jesus to resist the temptations and dismiss this devil. It is at that point when the angels come to wait on Jesus in the wilderness.
But then, beginning at verse 12, which we read this morning, Matthew tells us that John has been arrested, and hope seems to be in jeopardy again.
Eight years ago, I was one of the audaciously hopeful as I stood with my family on that January day on the National Mall, in Washington D.C. to celebrate the first inauguration of President Barack Obama. Years before, I had lived in the D.C. area, and I had attended the inaugurations of the first President Bush and President Clinton. But that year, we drove from Richmond, so that my girls, then ages 13 and 15, could be a part of this historic event, when an African American would become President of the United States. I hoped that they would remember that day for the rest of their lives.
Today, I remember it with a bit of nostalgia. Despite the bitter cold temperature, it was calm as the people moved about the Mall in masses. I saw no one was pushing, shouting or shoving. And I especially felt the hope from the old and young African American faces and voices that surrounded my family, as we all huddled together to resist the cold.
About four years after that day, my girls and I drove from Virginia to Texas, in what I call our “Civil Rights Road trip.” On that trip, I was hoping to teach my children about the cost and sacrifices people had taken to get to that point in our history. We started in Memphis where we visited the National Civil Rights Museum and the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. We continued our civil rights lesson in Little Rock, Arkansas, at Little Rock Central High, the site of force school desegregation after the 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education. There we saw the photographs of the young African American boys and girls, known as the Little Rock Nine. They were trying to go into the school, but they were surrounded by mobs of whites who were jeering and throwing things at them. The Arkansas National Guard stood on the side of the white separatists and carried rifles in hand to intimidate and prevent the Black students from entering the school. The young Blacks in the photograph look brave, especially the young girl with the sunglasses who was holding her book and walking forward. My girls were the same age as that girl. My girls, like most white middle class girls their age, did not understood what that kind of bravery meant. The kind of bravery that means being criticized by everyone around you and facing physical harm. We did not live in that world, and up until that point, it was unimaginable to them, or to me. As we were leaving the museum, one of my girls said, “That girl in the picture just wanted to go to a high school, like I do every day.”
These last two days we have seen millions of people coming together in Washington, D.C. and across the world to act upon their hopes. Some have come in celebration, while some have come in protest. And some, including many of our Episcopal brothers and sisters have come in prayer. Explaining why we Episcopalians are praying in Washington and all across the country this weekend, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Michael Curry reminds us that praying for our leaders is deep in our Episcopal tradition. Prayer is both “contemplative and active.” In prayer, we listen to God, and we also serve and witness in the name of Jesus who taught us to love one another. So, we come together to pray, not because our hope is in any person or political agenda, but because our hope is in the reconciling, restoring, and redeeming work of God. The God who is revealed to us in Christ Jesus who mirrored to us justice, compassion, and wholeness for all of creation.
During this election season, we heard a lot of talk of tribalism, yet in today’s gospel Jesus devalues that status. James and John, the sons of Zebedee leave their father, their family heritage, to follow Jesus. Also, this gospel reading begins with Jesus going to Capernaum where he preaches, teaches, and heals to Gentiles, people outside of the Jewish tradition. As Jesus’s landscape continues to change in Matthew’s gospel, the emphasis changes from membership to message.
This movement from membership to message continues to be a challenge for some of us today as we speak of unity. Among other reasons, our memberships are a part of, and reflect, our message -Who we stand with, says something about what we are standing for. As Paul’s letter to the Corinthians tells us, this is not a new problem in the church.
Yesterday, many of us heard distinct and diverse voices in the prayers at the Washington Cathedral and in the speeches from the Women’s March. Within these expressions was a call for unity towards a common good. I could almost hear in those appeals, the words of Paul to the Corinthians that we read this morning, put down your differences and “be united in the same mind for the same purpose.”
Unity is beyond my thinking right now, but I can image, Hope.
The Hope I am imagining is not wishful-thinking, backward-looking nostalgia, or a future happiness plan. Instead I turn to the wise words of Professor Dumbledore (for those Harry Potter fans and those who will be joining us in the confirmation class this week). As Dumbledore encourages Harry to leave the Mirror of Erised, the enchanting mirror that shows Harry his deepest desire to see his parents who have died, Dumbledore tells Harry, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.”
Consistent with Dumbledore’s advice, Matthew’s gospel tells us that Hope involves forward movement and action, not backward-looking desires.
Jesus begins his proclamation with the word, “Repent,” which translated from the Greek means “to turn,” or “to change paths.”
As we talked about last week in coffee and conversation, this is not about New Year’s resolutions or intentions like the Happiness Project and other hope-filled therapies. I am not knocking these. I have a lavender-colored “Happiness Planner.” It inspires me, gives me focus and goals. But unlike those motivational goals, Hope is not about what we do to fix problems or self-improvement. As explained by the scholar Jonathan Pennington, Hope is about “faithful endurance.”
Hope is what enables Simon and Andrew, James and John to immediately answer Jesus’ call to follow. And it is because of Hope that they become disciples, working and standing beside, Jesus as he goes throughout Galilee teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
Most importantly, Hope is God- centered and future-oriented. As the theologian Juergen Moltman says, Christian Hope creates in the believer, “a passion for the possible.” Hope is active and imaginative. It is moving and looking forward, but also transforming the present in revolutionary ways.
As we keep reading in the gospel of Matthew, we see this Hope beginning to take shape. Immediately after today’s verse, Jesus is surrounded by the crowd where he delivers the sermon on the mount, beginning with, “blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” These are present and future-oriented, revolutionary, statements of hope.
Last night, after I had finished writing this sermon and was on my way to bed. My door bell rang. It was the five students from Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina who were staying with me for the weekend. They were returning after their 17-hour day at the Women’s March in D.C. Rain was dripping off their hair and coats, and they could barely stand. When I asked them about their experience. They noted that they felt safe despite the crowds, and that what was clear is that everyone had come for different reasons and with different priorities, but still with some common purpose. Then one of the young women said, “I felt hope, something I hadn’t felt for a while.”
So today, as we confront individually and collectively our changing landscapes, and any uneasiness and disruptions these changes might bring, the gospel of Matthew reminds us that Hope has come near. And we are invited to turn, listen and follow, confident not in our own abilities or visions, but in that Hope. A Hope that is so beautifully shown to us each Sunday here at St. Thomas, in the work of this community, and in the imagine of the audacious, empty cross that hangs over the Altar.