Sermon January 22

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh

St. Luke’s Cathedral, Portland

February 22, 2017; Epiphany 3A: Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 ; Matthew 4:12-23

“It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.” Paul is warning about division, something very clear on a National level, something also right here at home. On a pastoral level, the last few weeks have been some of the most challenging I have ever seen. In these very anxious times,  relationships are more tenuous, the fragile are more fragile, the needy are more needy, and those who have emotional or physical challenges are more vulnerable to being sick and having old unhealed wounds open again.

In my office this was made manifest not in political but in personal ways, in marriages falling apart, in people overreacting and attacking one another over the most innocuous of things. It all makes sense. Anger and depression are part of the grief process. Fear shuts down our ability to think and reason clearly. Pain tends to draw us inward and take over everything else. It’s all made worse when some are celebrating while others feel that everything is falling apart.

This is nothing new. In Isaiah’s time, Babylon was on the rise and the nation of Israel was in a downward spiral. As Paul was writing, the city of Corinth was thriving but the church there was split over issues and Christians themselves were being persecuted. Jesus began his ministry around the sea of Galilee, where local fishermen were coerced into providing food for an occupying Roman army and suffering under Roman control.

Into these difficult times, each person proclaimed a message of hope. For Paul, that hope came from focusing on the gospel and the power of God revealed on the cross, that message that death was not the end but a new beginning. For Isaiah and for the Galilean fishermen, hope came from light shining in the darkness, light in the form of Jesus himself. Each encouraged their listeners to hold on, to not give into temptation or fear or grief, but rather to rise above it all, remembering that God was with them, that God is at work in the world, and that God’s kingdom will come.

Did you notice that when Jesus called James and John, they were mending their nets? How often do we get caught in repairing old nets, recycling old problems, replaying old conversations, trying to do things we have always done… and missing the fact that Jesus is asking us to do something completely new?

How can we move from being fishermen and women to being fishers of men and women? How can we move from going to church to being church ourselves? How can we as a church move from being about Jesus to being about what Jesus was about? How can we be a light that will shine in the darkness, and introduce people a Jesus they never knew? Answers to these questions have surrounded us this week.

Let me begin with the National Cathedral, the epicenter of an Episcopal Church controversy over the past several days. In defending the cathedral’s participation in the inauguration, the dean raised the bigger question of mission. He said: “At the Inauguration on Friday, our choir will sing “God Bless America,” among other pieces, not as a political endorsement, but as an affirmation that we are still one nation under God. Why are we going? … to honor our nation, to support our democracy, to promote the peaceful transition of power, to celebrate our aspirations and to lift up the values that have blessed this nation. Let me be clear:

We are not singing for the President. We are singing for God because that is what church choirs do, and we are singing for our country because that is what this Cathedral does at important moments in our national life. More importantly, we are engaged in this Inauguration to remind people, if even in a modest way, that God’s reconciling love is present and at work during this time of deep division and anxiety. How desperately we all need to be reminded of the God who loves every single one of us.” You may disagree with his decision but it is hard to disagree with his words. How desperately we – and our world — all need to be reminded of the God who loves every single one of us.

This week, I shared a review of our Christmas services with the vestry. I talked about numbers, what went well and what could be improved. I did not, however, have a chance to tell them what had happened to me. I didn’t tell them that at both Christmas Eve and Lessons and Carols I looked out over the congregation, saw your faces, heard you singing and found my heart filled with joy. I had to stop singing because my eyes were filled with tears. At those moments, I was overcome with an overwhelming sense of love – love for you and from you, love for God and from God – thanksgiving for all that God has done and hope for a future yet to come. I mention this because for many – for millions — of people the same kind of thing happened this week.

For some people it was during the inauguration on Friday. For others it was during the events on Monday and Saturday that framed it all. I can tell you that when I spoke to a packed ballroom at the Holiday Inn by the Bay at the Martin Luther King Dinner on Monday and when I joined 10,000 people in Portland marching on the streets of Portland on Saturday – and saw posts of millions around the world doing the same thing — I was filled, absolutely filled, love.

These were moments when I knew that the words of Isaiah were true, that the people who walked in darkness had seen a great light, that the yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor had been broken and there was hope. These were moments when I knew that Paul’s words to the Corinthians were true, that the cross’s power to transform death into life, pain into joy, and darkness in to light would bring us through. There were moments when I knew that the story of Andrew and Peter was our story, that it was time to stop mending old nets, and start fishing for people. The people are there. 10,000 marched in Portland yesterday.

We have a message and a home for them. Do they know they would be welcomed here? Do those who stayed home know the same thing? A few minutes ago, I shared the words of the Dean of the National Cathedral. I think he was right. We need to do what cathedrals do and I am glad that cathedral does what it does in Washington. I am even more glad that this cathedral does what it does right here. There were some snippy comments this week about privilege. I do have privilege.

If you are listening or reading this sermon, you have privilege as well. If you have three meals a day, clothes on your back, and a place to sleep at night, you have privilege. If you know you are loved and forgiven, if you know Jesus and know that you are empowered to be his hands and feet, you have the greatest privilege of all. The question is not if we have privilege but what we do with it, how we use it to be that light and share the message people so desperately need to hear.

This week showed just how important that work – our work – is. This week also showed that it is possible. Many might think this all is foolishness. We, however, know it is right. We know it is the power of God. Like Simon and Andrew and James and John, what happens next is up to us.

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