Epiphany III – January 22, 2017
A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Marlene Kropf (Mennonite) at
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
Isaiah 9.1-4; Psalm 27.1, 5-13; I Corinthians 1.10-18; Matthew 4.12-23
On the day before Christmas I suddenly realized that I would be preaching on the Sunday following the inauguration of a new president. The event would still be fresh in our minds. I wondered how we would be feeling. Would we be able to worship without being totally distracted?
After all, it had been a very contentious election. Not that there haven’t been contentious elections before, but this one tore open hearts and tore apart relationships in ways many people had not known so painfully before.
So I turned to our texts for the day –
- a beautiful poem from the prophet Isaiah about light appearing in great darkness;
- Psalm 27 — one of my favorites, an outpouring of love and devotion to the God of light;
- a familiar gospel reading about ordinary fishermen who saw such a compelling light in Jesus’ face that they left their nets to follow him;
- and a letter to the contentious church at Corinth.
Well, this could work. I thought. More good news than bad.
During the short days and long nights of winter, we long for light. Every morning when I wake, I hurry to our front windows to see the light on our landscape, a little more light each day.
Isaiah’s words must have been just as eagerly welcomed in his day when the people of Judah were digging out from the chaos of war. They had been threatened by an invasion, but escaped, with the help of their neighbors, the Assyrians – and now they were greatly relieved, able to breathe again.
When we hear the text that begins:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light… many of us hear the bass solo of Handel’s Messiah, and then we hear the chorus that immediately comes next:
For unto us a child is born …
In our imaginations, the light that shone upon Judah becomes the light of Christ. In fact, we often read this Isaiah text on Christmas Day. It’s what seems to be on Matthew’s mind as well because he quotes Isaiah when he describes the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee.
That parallel may not be what Isaiah had in mind – but still there is an important connection here. In a time of political crisis and transition, Isaiah wants his people to remember the resources of their faith:
that even in dark times, they can trust God; they can still hope in God’s good purposes because there is no darkness so deep
that God’s light cannot shine there.
That same trust is the focus of the psalm we sang today. It begins so confidently:
God is my light and salvation; whom then shall I fear?
God is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?
Whether we’re troubled or confused or facing economic challenges or health threats, or whether we’re struggling in a relationship or a job, we all want to stand strong. We want the simple clarity of the Psalmist:
One thing I ask; one thing I seek:
that I may dwell in God’s house all the days of my life; to behold God’s beauty,
to see God’s face.
Somehow we know that is the answer to our fears: seeking God’s face; gazing on God – then nothing can unsettle us.
That must be what those first disciples recognized in Jesus when he came strolling along the beach and stopped at their boat. Two fishermen, Simon and Andrew, were at work, making a living, casting a net into the Sea of Galilee.
When Jesus called to them, “Follow me,” they heard a voice that resonated so deeply within them that they walked away from their livelihood – on the spot.
And then it happened again – James and John were mending their nets on the same lakeshore, and when they heard that siren voice, they too walked away from their jobs to follow.
Can you imagine that?
Can you imagine anyone’s voice being so resonant and powerful – as to call us away from our research station in Antarctica or from our bakery or our classroom or the nurse’s station or our comfortable retirement?
I think Simon and Andrew and James and John must have heard great love in that voice, infinite hope, and a tender assurance that touched and healed their deepest fears. The light of Christ shone into their world, and they became such courageous followers that later they would change the world.
So that’s three of today’s readings. How does the fourth one, the epistle, fit into our reflections – the text about the quarreling folks at Corinth, the church that was unraveling at the seams? What that reading reveals is what happens when we ignore the light, when we forget that our center is Christ.
It can happen here too – or anywhere. If we forget our center, whether individually or corporately, we too will fall apart. And fear will overwhelm us.
We are gathered here this morning in a time of great uncertainty – not just because of a transfer of power in Washington DC, but because there is much darkness in our world: refugees continue to risk their lives as they flee from war; climate change threatens all creation; our nation seems deeply unsettled as policemen and teachers and baristas in coffee express shops fear going to work each day.
In such a time, it’s easy to feel off-center. Isaiah could have been writing to us:
The people who walk in darkness…
But Isaiah would also want us to remember:
There is a great light shining among us.
How can we remember the confidence of the Psalmist’s affirmation tomorrow in our ordinary lives? How can we see God’s face in moments of shadow and terror – whether during Inauguration Week or any other week?
In the past several years I have learned and practiced a prayer that helps me regain my footing and come back to the Center. It’s a very simple prayer, but one that I return to again and again.
This prayer is called the Welcoming Prayer; it gives us a way to re-connect with God’s love and grace whenever we lose our peace — and it transforms us, from the inside out.
Let me tell you about one of the times recently when I needed this prayer.
Throughout the election season, there were very few political signs posted in Cape George, where we live. I was glad of that. It made our streets feel more peaceful.
On the road to town, however, not far from us, a campaign sign was posted in front of a house and business. The sign was for another candidate — not one I would support.
Before the election I passed the sign many times – and was mildly curious. I wondered why the people who lived there were committed to that candidate.
But after the election, the sign didn’t come down. It stayed there – for weeks. And every time I drove by, I became more irritated.
Finally, I realized that the sign was destroying my peace. I had lost my footing.
It’s so easy to focus on the negative and slide into dualism – us and them. But that doesn’t solve anything – for me or for anyone else..
For any lasting change to happen, we need the mind of Christ — a nondual consciousness, one that sees how we are all connected, how we are one –
gay or straight, Democrat or Republican, Christian or Muslim –
old or young —
whatever the divisions we create. We need the mind of Christ, who receives all of us with open arms – no matter whom we vote for.
And so — a prayer that jumpstarts that transformation.
This prayer recognizes that in times of conflict or stress, we tend to brace ourselves against the threat. Our shoulders tighten and our breathing becomes shallow. Fear dominates our thoughts, and our emotions get muddled. We find it hard to pray. So the prayer invites us first to tend our bodies – and then to open our hearts.
Whatever distresses us, whatever frightens us, whatever robs us of peace,
can be brought before God in this prayer – and then the transformation begins.
I invite you to join me in praying this prayer.
- Take a few deep breaths. As you breathe, notice any tightness in your body; consciously relax.
- Then call to mind some distressing or anxious situation you face. What are the thoughts that swirl around in your mind – or the panic that you feel in your gut? What are you afraid of?
Stay with those physical symptoms a moment. Don’t try to banish them. Let them be.
- Then instead of fighting or resisting the fear or anxiety, welcome it. Embrace it. Don’t judge or blame or analyze or resist.
Just let it be what it is – something human.
- Then slowly and gently let go of the tension – in your body, your mind, your heart. Imagine that you are giving what you fear to God, releasing it into God’s hands.
If you want to do so, you can open your hands in front of you and repeat to yourself:Into your hands … Into your hands …
- Don’t hurry – just let the fear or distress float away, like a feather on the wind.
- Thenwaitamomentinthatpeaceful,restfulplace:God is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?
God is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?
- Rest in the light.God of light,
we long for your light to transform usand everything in our world. Bless us with your peace,make us strong people of peace,
and send us out to bring peace to your world. In Jesus’ name, AMEN.