Holy Trinity Episcopal Church

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    Jan 26, 2020

    The 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany

    Passage: Matthew 4:12-23

    Preacher: The Rev. Sarah Carver

    Series: Year A 2020-2021

    Category: Epiphany

    Detail:

    I was about midway through my time at Alma College when this spectacle appeared—and it is one I’ve since seen on other college campuses, and you may have too: The pop-up preacher. That guy who finds the centermost spot on campus and spends a day or two condemning every student who walks by with his threats of eternal damnation as he names the assumed sins of the entire campus community. Our particular pop-up preacher had an enormous sign. It was so big he needed one of those special belts to help him hold it up and so you couldn’t miss the bold red lettering on the white backdrop that told all who read it to repent or die. And like all campus pop-up preachers, he attracted an audience. Most of the people gathered around him were there to heckle, or argue, or simply amuse themselves—a few found it a good time to have a cigarette break as smoking was also on his no-no list. At one point, in the midst of a rant, he asked how many had committed the particularly offensive sin of fornication. When most people raised their hands, he quipped: “well, at least you’re honest fornicators.” In the two days he was with us, I never saw his interactions with anyone go beyond accusation and condemnation. I don’t think anyone came to Jesus through him that particular fall either. And when he was gone, nothing had really changed.

                Today we hear Jesus issue his first call to come and follow him. Matthew’s gospel shows us a Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, he has returned from the desert, returned from his time being tempted, and he hears about John the Baptist being arrested by Herod. Jesus response is to withdraw. Now, Jesus is not running away, he goes to Galilee to fulfill the scriptures, which we have heard today in the Prophet Isaiah:

    “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—

    the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,

    and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

    Isaiah is telling Israel about a messianic King that God will send to this oppressed and downtrodden people. He is promising them a king who will usher in righteousness and justice. Now, Isaiah is not talking about a spiritual king, but an actual flesh and blood king, and this kingdom is not spiritual, or a place in the afterlife, but an actual kingdom where God’s people are free to be God’s people. Likewise, Jesus’ ministry begins in a similar context—the region he is in has been sitting in the shadow of the Roman empire and being crushed by its deadly economic and political practices. To come and proclaim that the Kingdom of God has come near is to challenge the earthly roman kingdom, and to stand up to Herod and Caesar. Jesus begins by calling people to be a part of that kingdom by saying to them: follow me. Follow me in standing up to tyranny and abuse, follow me in rejecting the world’s idea of who is worthy and who is not, follow me into welcoming sinners and saints alike, the oppressed and suffering, reminding the world that all are beloved. Follow me and you will find God. Jesus’ invitation is one that leads all who follow into a life of justice, of righteousness, of eternal life.

                You may have noticed the difference between Jesus’ invitation in our scriptures today and the man with the sign. Guess which one most people think about when they think of Church. You see, the church has an image problem and one that it has earned. There are a lot of people who see the church, and indeed all religion, as being just like the angry man with the sign and a lot of time on his hands: judgmental, hate-filled, and oppressive. And their response is generally to reject faith of all kinds. Which is why I had conversation after conversation this past week with numerous people, both in and outside of the church, about the whole concept of people being spiritual but not religious. It even popped up on Facebook. Krista Tippet, the creator and host of public radio’s On Being, who explores these kinds of questions of faith and spirituality, recently began conversing with folks who identify as “nones” or people who have never been religious. They talked about their not having a concept of God or any kind of religious framework out of which to work, but feeling very much that they still had a spiritual life that they wanted to nurture.

    Now, it is true that we are hard-wired to have spiritual experiences. We were built to experience love, awe, gratitude, to be able to become more contemplative, to be able to reflect on ourselves and on the world around us. When we are having a spiritual moment, parts of our brain lights up. Yes, our spirituality is a gift that belongs to us and to every human being on the planet. And yet, it is not enough. As powerful as our spirituality is, it alone is not enough. Left by itself our spirituality cannot tell us what is right and good, it cannot tell us how to value our fellow human beings. When I am reading the comment section of any social media, my spiritual practices may give me the tools to not rail against the most offensive comment I read, but they also will not tell me why responding in such a way fits into my values. By itself spirituality can easily become another commodity, another self-help sort of thing that comes as goes as is fashionable and is available only to those privileged enough to have time and resources to devote to it. Spirituality alone cannot save us. But you know what? Neither will religion. We can be religious and be so without love or spirit. We could attend every worship service would could find, give all our money to the church, pray daily and never be changed.

    We need something more. The Rev. William Barber, leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, preached at a recent Episcopal event entitled Rooted In Jesus. There he said we “cannot worship God without a Holy Ghost shaped conscience.” We cannot worship God if we ignore the impoverished, the marginalized, the downtrodden. But the church has struggled to follow Jesus into Galilee. The church has feared following Jesus in challenging structures of power that are unjust, structures that benefit some at the expense of so many more. The Church has not always remembered the poor. I recently attended a Racial Equity Institute training. And over two days I learned about the economic and social policies within this country that have served to impoverish, terrorize, diminish and destroy people of color. I learned how things like the GI Bill, which benefitted so many soldiers returning from WWII was often not available to soldiers of color, or how access to home ownership was made far more difficult for families of color. I learned as a person for whom the system has helped to thrive, there are so many others for whom it is set up to fail, just as it was in the world Jesus lived. At the end of my time I left feeling as if Herod were still very much alive and well. But I don’t remember being told about these stories in church, or anywhere else, frankly. For the churches of my childhood, righteousness was personal—it was not swearing, it was being nice, remaining chaste, not listening to secular music, and if you were poor, or struggling, it was because you failed at righteous living. But for Jesus, the emphasis isn’t really on personal righteousness, it is about righting injustice. This is what all our faith and our spirituality needs to be bending toward. The Rev. Barber, quotes his professor of pneumatology, Bill Turner who said: Whatever you call yourself, born again, changed, blessed, delivered…baptized…what ever you call it, if it does not produce a quarrel with the world’s injustices…then your claim to being spiritual is seriously suspect…” Our faith, our spirituality, everything we do as Christians needs to bring us to following Jesus into that quarrel.

    Jesus came to shine a light into that darkness, to lift the poor out of their poverty, to set free those who are imprisoned by an unjust and indifferent society. And for those of us who profess to follow Jesus, this is our work as well. We need Jesus to show us how to go forward, we need Jesus to guide us into Galilee, we need Jesus to remind us that God has a dream for this world and we are being invited into it; we need our faith, our spirituality, our religion to be grounded in Jesus and in the Spirit of God that is moving over the face of the earth making all things new. Last week a large and lovely group of us from Holy Trinity went to Center City Park to have communion and distribute warm clothes like socks, hats and gloves. Our nurse was also able to provide flu shots and information on where to get dental care. It was a good thing to go into the park last Sunday and be out in the community because the people there, the people who are hidden in shelters or under bridges, people who can’t access medical care, who don’t have a voice in our democracy, these are the people Jesus is leading us to serve. I look forward to us doing more of that sort of thing. The world is unjust, and we are called to follow Jesus into it if we want to abide in the Kingdom of heaven. Amen.