Sunday, January 22, 2017

Whom Then Shall We Fear?

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
January 22, 2017

Year A: The Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 5-13
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

Whom Then Shall We Fear?
            Well, that was quite a week, huh?
            And now, here we are.
            The dramatic transition from one administration to another got me thinking about how every once in a while some historians will rank US presidents. Who have been our best presidents? Who’s been the worst? And, who’s somewhere in the middle?
            It’s a fun and interesting exercise, though also usually pretty predictable.
            Most historians rank Lincoln as our greatest president, with Franklin Roosevelt and George Washington usually with him in the top tier.
            The bottom is usually predictable, too, but I won’t go into that - since I don’t want to upset… all of the James Buchanan fans out there.
            It’s fun and interesting to rank the presidents, but, the truth is that even our greatest presidents have been flawed human beings, right?
            George Washington, the “Father of Our Country,” was one of the biggest slave-owners of his day.
            Abraham Lincoln, the “Great Emancipator,” was bigoted like just about every white person of his time, and frequently told racist jokes.
            And Franklin Roosevelt, who led the battle against the great evil of Fascism, chose to do little or nothing to rescue or welcome the Jews who were being annihilated by Hitler.
            Yes, all of our presidents have been flawed human beings, though, it has to be said, some have been more flawed than others!
            Well, in today’s Old Testament lesson, the Prophet Isaiah offers a beautiful and profound message of hope, declaring,
            “There will be no gloom for those in anguish.”
            And, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”
            It seems that Isaiah is writing about either the birth or the rise to power of a new king of Judah, and most scholars think he’s writing about King Hezekiah who ruled back around the year 700 B.C.
            And, it’s true that Hezekiah is remembered as an exceptionally righteous and faithful king, but, no surprise, he also was a flawed human being who made mistakes, who got Judah into a disastrous war with the much more powerful Assyrian Empire.
            Later, some will remember him up as a great leader, while others will blame him for setting the stage for more war, defeat, and exile.
            But, many centuries later the early Christians will read Isaiah’s words, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined,” - the early Christians read those words and they won’t think about Hezekiah or some other human king.
            No, when they hear Isaiah’s words, when they reflect on light in the darkness, they think: Jesus.
            We followers of Jesus have seen a great light – it’s the Great Light we can see each time we come here and listen to God’s Word, each time we extend a hand in peace or forgiveness – each time we wash a brother or sister in the Baptism water, and each time take the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and into our souls.
            We’ve seen a great light – it’s the Great Light we can see each time we give to somebody who can never pay us back, the Great Light we can see each time we love someone who the world considers unlovable, the Great Light we see each time we unite to resist and fight cruelty and injustice, sometimes while wearing pink hats.
            Yes, we have seen a great light.
            So, together with the psalmist, we can say:
            “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?”
            Whom then shall we fear?
            One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how most of the people of the Bible lived during terrible times, times of bloody warfare, brutal occupation, relentless persecution, terrifying exile.
            That gloom is often in the background, but in today’s Gospel lesson, we’re reminded that Jesus entered a world where a holy man like John the Baptist could be arrested and later brutally executed – which reminds us that Jesus and most of his first followers will also die violently.
            Yes, most of the people of the Old and New Testaments lived during terrible times, times when fear and death were all around, and yet, even in the midst of all that pain and sorrow, they were so often still able to see the light – able to put their trust in God.
            Now, being human, of course, our ancestors in faith didn’t see and trust perfectly.
            The Bible is full of stories of Israel straying from God, right?
            Jesus’ first disciples were an often faithless and unreliable lot, right?
            And, as we heard in today’s second lesson, in places like the diverse Greek port city of Corinth, there were already divisions in the early church, with the followers of Jesus split into factions, identifying with various apostles and teachers, some following Paul, some following Apollos, some following Cephas, who was Peter.
            And yet, despite all of those flaws and all of those mistakes, through the centuries the people of faith held on, the people of God saw the Great Light shining.
            “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?”
            Whom then shall we fear?
            So, here we are.
            In our lives, and maybe even just this past week, we’ve experienced fear, anguish and gloom, haven’t we?
            We’ve walked in darkness, haven’t we?
            We’ve lived in – and maybe are living in - a land of shadows, right?
            Yet, even in, especially in, a time of anxiety and outright fear, that same Great Light is shining, right here, right now.
            You know, Paul’s description of the divided churches in Corinth reminds me of Jersey City, another diverse port city, another city where the church is divided into so many different factions, following so many different teachers and leaders.
            Whenever I walk around the city, I’m struck by just how many churches there are, so much competition! There are so many churches, everything from grand old monuments that look like they were built in medieval Europe to modest storefronts with shuttered gates.
            These divisions are truly sad and wasteful, but, have you noticed what’s been happening for the past couple of years?
            Have you noticed what’s been happening here in Jersey City, especially lately?
            First of all, even before the election, throughout our city, clergy and lay people, Jews, Christians, and Muslims and others, have been setting aside our differences and have begun to see more clearly our common humanity, our truest identity as beloved children of God, and through Jersey City Together and in other ways, we’ve begun to work as one for the common good.
            And, secondly, throughout our city, we Christians, so long divided into our little competing and mistrustful factions and churches, have finally remembered that we’re not saved by our church or by our denomination. 
            We’ve finally remembered that our truest identity isn’t Episcopal or Catholic or Lutheran or Baptist or whatever, but we are first of all Christians, disciples of Jesus, followers of the One who shines God’s light most brightly.
            One example: you may not have noticed it, but at our rockin’ Martin Luther King service on Sunday night, there were a lot of clergy and lay people from other churches and denominations here – some were maybe a little unfamiliar with - and puzzled by - our way of doing things, but nevertheless they were here, praying and singing with us, and many even receiving communion with us.
            That night, we were, as St. Paul writes, “united in the same mind and the same purpose.”
            It was beautiful. It was the way things are meant to be.
            We were – and, more and more often, are - one.
            So, here we are.
            Just like our ancestors in faith, just like John the Baptist and just like Jesus himself, we may find ourselves walking in the shadows, living during gloomy, dangerous, frightening, and difficult times.
            But, you and I, we’ve seen the light – and the light wasn’t flawed Hezekiah or flawed Lincoln and the light wasn’t flawed Obama and it isn’t flawed Trump.
            No, you and I, we’ve seen the light, we’ve seen the Great Light of Christ shining, right here and now.
            And, so, together, we Christians are called to put our trust in God, to hold on, to unite, to pray, to serve, to work, to fight for justice, and, most of all, to love – to let God’s Great Light shine through us.
            “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?”
            Whom then shall we fear?