THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
Prayer of the Day: Lord God, your loving kindness 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.
“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” Matthew 4:17.
“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” I Corinthians 1:18.
“The kingdom of heaven has come near,” says Jesus. Yet as we will learn as Matthew’s gospel unfolds, that kingdom takes the shape of the cross in a world determined to reject it. The cross, Saint Paul tells us, is “foolishness” to those who are perishing. And, truth be told, it does sound foolish to insist that the earth belongs to the marginalized rather than to the nation states claiming sovereignty over it. It does seem foolish to claim blessedness for the hungry, the poor and the persecuted. More foolish still is the way of love for enemies, forgiveness for wrongs done and the refusal to take up the sword-no matter how just the cause. The reign of God resembles nothing so much as a kingdom of fools.
In the days ahead, we will be graced with gospel readings from the Sermon on the Mount, teachings that, if followed, seem destined to ruin us. For that reason, the church has struggled mightily with them. In the early period of imperial Christianity, the Sermon was deemed suitable only for monastic communities set apart from the commercial, social and geopolitical pressures of the world where the rest of us live. Protestant theologians have sought to distinguish the Sermon, which governs only one’s own personal morality, from the duties of public life that require a different ethic. For example, my own Lutheran tradition espouses the “Two Kingdoms Doctrine” under which it is understood that God works in two distinct ways. Under God’s right hand are the preaching and practice of the church through which people are led to faith in Jesus Christ and trained in personal righteousness. God’s left hand works through the institutions of government, education and commerce to maintain a semblance of order in a sinful and broken world. Thus, if my neighbor strikes, defrauds or otherwise harms me, my response is turning the other cheek, refraining from seeking restitution and forgiving the wrongs against me. However, if I happen to be a soldier, police officer or judge, it is my duty to use force and inflict even death on my neighbor to further the cause of justice. Only our anabaptist siblings have taken the extreme and “foolish” view that Jesus meant what he said in the Sermon.
In this instance, I lean toward the anabaptist reading. I do not believe the Sermon on the Mount represents only a personal morality divorced from the rough and tumble realities of the world. Nor do I believe it is an unachievable ideal, the function of which is merely to show us how sinful we are and how much we need forgiveness. The Sermon is not a goal to be achieved, an ideal to which one should aspire or a tool for spiritual introspection. It is rather a blueprint for the life Jesus actually lived, a life which brought him ultimately to the cross and to which he invites his disciples to participate.
For much of our existence in the United States of America, our churches have been prominent institutions. We have seen our role largely as a supportive one. Along with the local school board, the chamber of commerce and the various lodges and civic organizations, we made our contribution to the public good. Sometimes we served as the conscience of the community. Sometimes we lent our support to upholding the community’s public values and mores-which were not always in sync with the priorities of God’s reign. We offered invocations and benedictions at civic events, blessed everything from babies to battleships and gave our tacit support to the nation’s wars with memorial gardens and participation in military funeral rites. I do not mean to suggest that the contributions made by the church in America over the centuries were without value or that congregations were not doing faithful ministry for Christ and the kingdom he proclaims. But I think it is fair to say that we have often confused the life of discipleship to which Jesus calls us with the duties, privileges and loyalties imposed on us as the nation’s dominant, if not official, religion. We have often lived more by the wisdom of the world than the foolishness of the cross. Now that our dominant role is slipping away, we find ourselves wondering who we are and what to do next.
Institutional religion has been in decline throughout my years of ministry. I have been asked many times whether I believe that the church is dying. My response is always the same: Of course the church is dying. How else can it be resurrected? Behind what you might consider a glib response is a truth as old as the church itself. Jesus told his disciples that following him meant taking up the cross and that all who seek to save their lives will lose them. The flip side is that all who lose their lives for Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims will save it. That is true both individually and communally.
Much of what Jesus has to say in the Sermon on the Mount sounds foolish on its face. But perhaps not as foolish as the pervasive belief that free access to fire arms is the only way to keep us safe and free, even as six-year-olds gun down their teachers. Maybe the way of Jesus is not as foolish as the proxy war between two global powers systematically destroying the nation they both claim to be saving. Maybe the way of Jesus is not as foolish as sheepish faith in political strong men promising “make America great again-” whatever that means. Maybe the way of Jesus is not as foolish as the ancient creed of nation, blood and soil that gave us the carnage of two world wars, the greatest genocidal program of the Twentieth Century and promises the same for the Twenty-first. Perhaps, like alcoholics who finally hit rock bottom, we are ready to acknowledge our toxic and symbiotic relationship with a world that is perishing. Maybe once the haze of our intoxication with privilege has worn off, we will be able with new eyes to see the kingdom of heaven which, Jesus tells us, has drawn near.
How much longer will this trend of ecclesiastical decline continue? How much smaller will the American church become? Perhaps we will become so small that our voice will no longer carry any weight in the halls of power and we will have been consigned to the margins of society-only to discover that this is precisely where we should have been all along. Perhaps we will become so small that we can no longer allow our cultural, historical, doctrinal and denominational differences to divide us-because we need each other too much. Perhaps we will become so poor that we have nothing left but the Word of God-which is really all we ever had to begin with. Perhaps we will become so marginalized, so weak and so impoverished that God can finally make good use of us again. Maybe our decline isn’t decline at all, but simply our being “prune[d] to make [us] bear more fruit.” John 15:2. Maybe we are losing our life only to gain it. Maybe we are dying only to be reborn. Maybe the old is perishing only to make way for the new. Maybe the reign of God has drawn near. Or maybe I am just being foolish.
Here is a poem by Amanda Gorman sounding a hopeful note for dark times. Foolish? Maybe. But perhaps Ms. Gorman is giving us a glimpse of what God’s dawning reign looks like.
New Day’s Lyric
May this be the day
We come together.
Mourning, we come to mend,
Withered, we come to weather,
Torn, we come to tend,
Battered, we come to better.
Tethered by this year of yearning,
We are learning
That though we weren’t ready for this,
We have been readied by it.
We steadily vow that no matter
How we are weighed down,
We must always pave a way forward.
This hope is our door, our portal.
Even if we never get back to normal,
Someday we can venture beyond it,
To leave the known and take the first steps.
So let us not return to what was normal,
But reach toward what is next.
What was cursed, we will cure.
What was plagued, we will prove pure.
Where we tend to argue, we will try to agree,
Those fortunes we forswore, now the future we foresee,
Where we weren’t aware, we’re now awake;
Those moments we missed
Are now these moments we make,
The moments we meet,
And our hearts, once all together beaten,
Now all together beat.
Come, look up with kindness yet,
For even solace can be sourced from sorrow.
We remember, not just for the sake of yesterday,
But to take on tomorrow.
We heed this old spirit,
In a new day’s lyric,
In our hearts, we hear it:
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
Be bold, sang Time this year,
Be bold, sang Time,
For when you honor yesterday,
Tomorrow ye will find.
Know what we’ve fought
Need not be forgot nor for none.
It defines us, binds us as one,
Come over, join this day just begun.
For wherever we come together,
We will forever overcome.
Source: “Amanda Gorman Releases a Brand New Poem,” Eyewitness News, January 3, 2022. Amanda Gorman (b. 1998) is an American poet and activist. Her work focuses on issues of oppression, feminism, race, and marginalization, as well as the African diaspora. She was born in Los Angeles, California and was raised by her single mother, a 6th-grade English teacher. Her twin sister, Gabrielle, is an activist and filmmaker. Gorman has said she grew up in an environment with limited television access, describing her young self as a “weird” child who enjoyed reading and writing. She was the first person to be named National Youth Poet Laureate. She published the poetry book The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough in 2015. In 2021 she delivered her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden. You can read more about Amanda Gorman at the Poetry Foundation website.
 Though, of course, it might function that way.