THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Lord God, your lovingkindness always goes before us and follows after us. Summon us into your light, and direct our steps in the ways of goodness that come through the cross of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The lessons for this Sunday all employ the metaphor of “light” against darkness in some way. Isaiah announces the light of God’s new day coming first to those sitting in the darkest of circumstances. Matthew the Evangelist employs this same passage to announce the opening of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. The psalmist addresses the Lord as “my light and my salvation.” This psalmist knows whereof s/he speaks. S/he is confronted by enemies who would inflict violence. S/he seeks refuge and safety from God because s/he feels threatened, vulnerable and at risk. I know that, since November 8, 2016, people of color, undocumented persons, young women working in male dominated professional environments, gay, lesbian and transgendered people are all feeling a lot less safe and a great deal more vulnerable than they were the Monday before.
I am writing these lines on January 16th, our national holiday honoring the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. whose life was dedicated and ultimately sacrificed in the struggle of African Americans and all people of color to win the justice, equality and protection from discrimination that ought to be every American’s birthright. This same week we will inaugurate as president of the United States a man who only last week spoke contemptuously of Representative John Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement that cost King his life. Lewis himself was severely beaten by Alabama State troopers as he marched, along with several other persons, on the way to a peaceful demonstration in Montgomery. Yet the president elect referred to Mr. Lewis as a man of “all talk” and no action. This is the same man whose housing facilities faced three lawsuits under the federal fair housing act for discriminatory conduct against African Americans. This is the same man who told us during his campaign that he did not believe an American born judge of Mexican ancestry is capable of presiding fairly over the case of a white man like him (though he has never questioned the competence of white judges who regularly preside over cases involving people of color). This is the man who famously bragged about groping women-then threatened with the power of the presidency those who identified themselves as his victims. Spin these facts however you will, they remain facts-and troubling facts at that.
I know that I am entering into dangerous territory here. Lutherans like me have always maintained that people of good will can disagree sharply over political philosophy, public policy and the merits of legislation governing our common life as a nation. The balance between state and federal power, the role of the judiciary, the scope of American foreign policy, the proper role of the military, the degree of government regulation of our economy-all of these issues have been debated from the founding of the republic. Where one stands on any of these questions is not a measure of one’s faith. I understand that many Christian people who voted for Mr. Trump deplore his racist and misogynist statements and opinions. They voted for him because they agree with his proposals for dealing with the pressing problems our country is facing or because they find him less offensive than his rival. I get that. But my question to all of my Christian friends who voted for Donald Trump is this: now that you have elected him to implement the measures you support, are you ready to stand against his bigotry and hateful speech? Are you ready to stand with the people he has ridiculed, insulted and marginalized?
Discipleship is radical obedience to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims. The kingdom of heaven is not an abstract notion or the promise of a better existence in the distant future. It occupies space in the here and now. Its sharp contours spelled out in Jesus’ life and teaching rub up against the regimes of principalities and powers that claim sovereignty over our lives. If the failure of Lutheranism under the Third Reich and the failure of the white protestant church during the civil rights movement teach us anything, it is that there are moments in history when the church cannot faithfully remain politically neutral. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. from 1963 are as timely and relevant for the American Church today as they were when he wrote them during his imprisonment in Birmingham, Alabama:
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Counselor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefers negative peace which is the absence of tension to justice; who consistently says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but cannot agree with your methods of direct action,’ who paternalistically believes that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who advises the Negro to ‘wait for a more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 1963 (c. Estate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.).
It is up to voters, the legislature and the judiciary to determine what sort of nation the United States will be in the coming decades. For the church, there is no decision to be made. “Where I am,” says Jesus, “there my servant will be also.” Jesus, we know, stands with the outcast, the judged, the oppressed and the neglected. We stand there with Jesus or side with his enemies. There is no middle ground. I hope and pray that we will not again fail Jesus and our neighbors in the facing of this hour. I hope that we will find the courage to speak up for those whose voices are being suppressed. I hope that those of us who know only the world of white, male privilege can yet learn to sing the laments of our oppressed neighbors and, more importantly, stand with them against the darkness of systemic injustice.
Here’s a poem by Maya Angelou about the song I believe God would teach the church to sing.
A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
Source: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou ( c. 1995 by Virago Press). Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was a multi-talented American poet, author, singer, dancer and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She is perhaps best known for her well known autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969. The book earned her the National Book Award. Angelou was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2010. You can read more about Maya Angelou and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
This reading comes to us from the prophet Isaiah who lived and prophesied to Judah and Jerusalem at the end of the 8th Century B.C.E. During this period the Northern Kingdom of Israel was annexed by the powerful Assyrian Empire bringing Assyrian tyranny to Judah’s very doorstep. The Kingdom of Judah, ruled by descendants of David, lived uneasily in the shadow of this super power as a tributary. Crushing tribute and political oppression tempted Judah on a number of occasions to rebel against Assyria in league with other local tributaries. The prophet warned Judah’s rulers against such reckless policies and counseled them instead to wait for Israel’s God to lift the yolk of oppression.
Today’s text will no doubt sound familiar as we routinely encounter it in Advent. If you were to read down to verse 6 you would hear the line so dear to us and to George Frederick Handel: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given…” This Sunday, however, the emphasis is on the opening prose in verse 1. To understand it properly, we need to go back to Isaiah 7-8. Isaiah has failed in his efforts to dissuade Judah’s King Ahaz from allying himself to Assyria in order to gain protection from local enemies. Ahaz will not be still and place his faith in the Lord. He is bound and determined to place his trust in Assyria-which will lead to hardships much worse. In despair, Isaiah calls his disciples to witness his written testimonial to God’s coming judgment upon the nation. As for the decision of King Ahaz, the prophet declares: “Surely for this word which they speak there is no dawn.” Isaiah 8:20. “They will pass through the land greatly distressed and hungry; and when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will curse their king and their God, and turn their faces upward; and they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness.” Isaiah 8:21-22.
Now our lesson for Sunday begins with a very different word, a message of hope so far at variance with the preceding verses that many scholars consider this to be an utterance much later in the career of the prophet or perhaps the word of another prophet altogether. Mauchline, John, Isaiah 1-39, Torch Bible Commentaries (c. SCM Press Ltd. 1962) p. 111. However that might be, the canonical arrangement of the oracles conveys a message entirely consistent with Isaiah’s call for Ahaz to place his trust solely in God’s promises. The people who have lived in the darkness of judgment will indeed see light again. The yolk of their oppression will be broken, the burdens removed from their shoulders and prosperity returned to their land. But this will not be the fruit of military maneuvers or foreign alliances. “The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this.” Isaiah 9:7.
Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel located in Galilee. The “way of the sea” refers to the highway from Damascus to the sea. It was likely the route for the Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom in 733 B.C.E. The peoples of this territory who first experienced the brunt of Assyrian aggression will also be first to witness the liberation of all Israel from Assyria. The prophet foresees the day when the people of the divided Kingdoms of Israel and Judah along with their territories will be reunited under a messianic king. The yolk of Assyria will be thrown off. “The day of Midian” refers to the victory of Gideon over the Midianites recounted in Judges 6-7. The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were significantly involved in this battle. Judges 6:35.
In order to understand this reading, it is important that we be aware of the prior words of judgment against Judah. Yet it is more important still to recognize that judgment is not the last word. In spite of Ahaz’ faithless refusal to trust in God’s promises and his resort to a shortsighted and disastrous policy for his people, God will nevertheless bring to fruition the peace and prosperity promised to Israel. God’s people cannot make a bigger mess of things than God is capable of cleaning up. That’s gospel.
The scholarly consensus seems to be that this psalm actually consists of two psalms, the first being a prayer of trust not unlike Psalm 23 including verses 1-6. The second is a lament consisting of verses 7-14. However that might be, I still believe the psalm fits together nicely as a unit. It is precisely because the psalmist has such great confidence in God’s willingness and power to give protection that s/he feels free to cry out for that very protection in times of danger. Though, as previously noted, the commentators characterize verses 7-14 as a lament, it concludes with an affirmation of confidence in God’s anticipated salvation and an admonition to “be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord.” Vs. 14. As usual, I am at a loss to understand the surgery performed on the psalm by the lectionary. Accordingly, I will deal with Psalm 27 in its entirety.
This psalm is focused on dangers posed by enemies. By enemies the psalmist does not mean people who are merely disagreeable or less than friendly. These are people who “breathe out violence.” Vs. 4. I suspect that most of you out there, like me, probably don’t have enemies like that. So what place does a psalm like this have in our lectionary? I suggest that one reason for praying these psalms is so that we can hear and join in the prayers of the whole Body of Christ which, of course, extends beyond our own congregation. The Coptic Christians in Egypt whose churches have been burned and looted know well enough what it is like to have enemies. So do the Christians of Iraq, two thirds of whom have fled their homeland fearing terrorist violence. The churches in Syria have been targeted for violence by both sides of the bloody civil war there. For millions of Christians around the world, the danger posed by enemies is real and often life threatening.
In a recent article published in the Christian Century Martin Tel, director of music at Princeton Theological Seminary, makes a strong case for congregational singing of the entire Psalter-the good, the bad and the ugly: “All the things of which the Psalter speaks, which individuals can never fully comprehend and call their own, live only in the whole Christ. That is why the prayer of the Psalms belongs in the community in a special way. Even if a verse or a psalm is not my own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the community; and it is quite certainly the prayer of the truly human Jesus Christ and his body on earth.” Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer cited in “Necessary Songs, The Christian Century, January 8, 2014 at p. 23. Our prayers are too often limited by the scope of our own experiences and frequently directed toward our own personal concerns and the concerns of those around us. The Psalter forces us to enter into the experiences and join the prayers of believers throughout the Body of Christ.
The last verse of the psalm is very telling. The psalmist encourages his hearers to “wait for the Lord.” The odd thing about the psalms is that, although they are prayers addressed to God, they often contain admonitions from God in the psalmists’ mouths. Sometimes the psalmists seem to be conscious of an audience listening in on their prayers. God hardly needs to be reminded to “wait on the Lord.” It is important to understand that biblical prayer is a dialogical process. The psalmists’ outpouring of prayer to God is only one side. God responds to the psalmists. Sometimes these responses are oracles delivered by a prophet or priest that have become imbedded in the psalm. See, e.g., Psalm 60:6-12. Often these prayers are sung as praises by the psalmist in corporate worship where they give encouragement to the assembly. See Psalm 27:6. For Israel, prayer was never an entirely personal matter. The confidence of this psalmist is drawn as much from God’s faithfulness to Israel throughout history as from his or her own experience. So also, the psalmists’ personal struggles become a public arena for God to demonstrate his compassion and salvation to Israel.
We began last week a journey into Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that will take us through Epiphany. Sunday’s reading reveals that this is a church divided by several warring factions, each fiercely loyal to its chosen church leaders. Some are fans of Peter. Others favor Apollos and some are partisans of Paul. Some scholars maintain that these divisions reflect strife among the apostles of the early church. That might be so, but I think it more likely that these factions were citing their favorite Apostles much the same way partisans fire proof texts at each other from the Bible to further their own agendas. The teachings of the various Apostles are used as ammunition in the same way biblical texts are so often wretched out of context and made to support some unrelated ideology. In any event, Paul refuses to arbitrate these disputes. He offers not a straw even to his own supporters in the congregation. Instead, he points all of them to Christ Jesus. At the end of the day, we are not disciples of Paul or Peter or Luther or any other human figure. We are all fellow disciples of Jesus. One Body animated by the same Spirit-whether we like it or not.
“Cephas,” as we learned in last Sunday’s gospel lesson, is the Greek translation of “Peter.” Apollos was a Jewish disciple from Alexandria. His understanding of the good news about Jesus was evidently deficient in some respect. The Book of Acts tells us only that he “knew only the baptism of John.” Acts 18:25. In Ephesus he met Paul’s associates, Priscilla and Aquila who took him under their wing and instructed him further. Acts 18:24-28.
We will need to wait until next week to find out more about the “folly” and “weakness” of the cross Paul mentions at the end of the reading. Stay tuned!
As we have seen, Matthew is keen to interpret the life and ministry of Jesus through the lens of the Hebrew Scriptures. Here he quotes our reading from Isaiah in which the prophet foretells the dawn of salvation under the messianic king beginning in Galilee. Not surprisingly, this is where Jesus’ ministry begins with the calling of his first disciples followed by a tour of preaching, healing and casting out demons. The long awaited day has dawned at last! No doubt Matthew’s Jewish audience was well aware that the verses cited by Matthew are a lead in for Isaiah’s announcement of the messianic king. Isaiah 9:6-7.
Jesus’ message is, on the surface, exactly the same as John’s: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Vs. 17 cf. Matthew 3:2. Yet unlike John whose baptism was anticipatory, Jesus’ ministry is accompanied by the healing power of God. What John foretold has now arrived. We can see in Jesus’ healing work echoes of Isaiah 35:5-6. Matthew means for us to understand that the advent of Jesus marks the beginning of a new era just as John marks the end of the old. He will elaborate further on this in Matthew 11:1-19.
The call of the disciples is related in a manner so brief that one could almost read over it. That would be a mistake. It is of profound significance that Jesus begins his ministry with the call of his first followers. Already the church is on the scene in embryotic form and its existence is presumed throughout the gospel narrative. It is important to keep that fact in mind, particularly as we enter into the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. They make no sense whatsoever unless we understand from the get go that they are intended to govern the living community of disciples who follow Jesus. They are not general ethical principles applicable to any individual or community. The Sermon is to be the shape of this newly birthed community which, in turn, is the shape of the kingdom of heaven drawing nigh.
The brevity of this account has always intrigued me. There is no indication that Jesus has ever met these four disciples before. Yet when he calls, they follow him without hesitation leaving all behind. I have heard more than a few preachers suggest that the four fishermen must have known Jesus beforehand, heard his preaching and been impressed with his message. That is why they jumped at the chance to follow him. But that isn’t how Matthew tells the story and I am always suspicious of attempts to read more into the text in order to make it easier to understand and digest. As Matthew tells it, there is something so interesting, so compelling and winsome about Jesus that you just can’t refuse his call. What was it? Or more to the point, what is it about Jesus that draws people and how does his church reflect it?
As much as I love every church I have ever belonged to, I am not sure we reflect that bold, exciting, interesting and controversial person that is Jesus. To children, we too often portray Jesus as a schoolmarm on steroids preaching morals and good behavior. To adults we portray him as, at worst, a stern moral judge. At best, we portray him as a sorrowful, soft eyed parent who, though forgiving, is nevertheless perpetually disappointed in our shortcomings. The church comes across as yet another civic organization making demands on our overloaded schedules and over extended finances. Is it any wonder nobody is interested?
Yes, I know. There is more to these churches than meets the eye. They are faith communities in which the Spirit is at work doing marvelous things. But for some reason, we are not getting that message across. We succumb to the consumer culture marketing church membership-a product nobody is looking for anymore. There is nothing you can get at church that somebody else can’t provide-except Jesus. So it looks as though we are going to have to speak less of our programs and activities and more about Jesus. That’s the only way people are going to be drawn into the net of God’s kingdom and caught up in the joy and excitement of discipleship.