Sunday Sermon

Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23


     God calls us like Father Abraham to Journey to that place that God will show us.  This journey is described with the phrase “Seeking God’s face” in the Psalm.  With Adam and Eve, chances are that we will begin our journey by heading out in the direction of what appeals to us.  Looking high and low for the Face of God is a commitment that could modify our search.  I meditated this week on seeing the Face of God in the faces of my family, in the lives of the people I love, the people I meet.  I have been searching for God sign.  

    God sign is grace that breaks the hold of our burdens in Isaiah, that raises us up and offers mercy in the Psalm, that settles disputes in 1 Corinthians, that calls us on the journey of discipleship in Matthew.  That call launched the discipleship of Peter, Andrew, James and John in today’s gospel.  As they follow Jesus, they will see God sign and witness to it.  The gospels will deliver that sign in multiple stories on the Journey of Jesus through this life.  Seekers will find the power of God’s love on the Way and become believers.  To recap, God sign is grace that breaks the hold of whatever enslaves us, that offers mercy, that raises us up, settles disputes, and that calls us to discipleship.  Seeking God sign will modify our search among all the ideas, opinions, ways of being in the world that appeal to us.  We are looking for forgiveness, mercy, what raises us up, settles disputes, calls us to discipleship.

     Forgiveness requires much of us, much of God.  It requires mercy, the will to see the hurt and the harm, and let it go. When I am sleeping and the bed gets too warm, I ease a foot and maybe my arms and shoulders out from underneath the covers to cool down gradually.  I recognize that I am hot and know what to do, even while I am sleeping.  As I attend to the climate of my soul, I notice that sin has a heat to it.  When I realize that I am warm, I extend mercy to bleed off the heat of sin.  I know when I need to do this whether waking or sleeping because I am feeling angry or hurt or annoyed.  It is time to let go of whatever offense is causing it.  I have mercy to give because mercy has been part of the legacy of God’s love.  Mercy is God sign.  In showing us mercy God teaches us the ways of mercy.  There is a graciousness to it that cannot be earned, can only be given away.

     I don’t give much thought or energy to how or why my feelings are rumpled anymore.  This learning has been coming together over the last 5 years.  Why and how are less important than letting go, learning whatever lesson I need and moving on.  Jesus let go of his life so that he was able to forgive from the cross. He has learned to let go in the process of being injured.  I have always had an intuition that forgiveness from the cross was important and didn’t know why until I was able to see it as an advanced example of God’s own mercy.  God’s mercy may move us to exercise our own.       

     Had the thief on the cross lived, he would have been faced with the task every follower of Jesus faces--how to live as a Christian.  We have apparently always disagreed on the details.  I get the impression from the Corinthian letter that the disagreement itself is a sign that they, that we are missing something important. Following Jesus is a way of being in the world surrendered to the will of God.  That posture is represented by the descriptive name, “Lamb of God”.  Through our sacrifice the grace of God flows into the world, streaming downhill.

     What are we sacrificing? Jesus surrendered his life.  Think of a surrender of control that shares control with God and with one another in love.  No one always wins or loses.  No point of view is always “right”. Children of God are due respect, a genuine care for what they want and need. This sacrifice does not mean forever going to your knees in a conflict.  As a Child of God who I am and what I want are important too.  St. Paul clearly demonstrates that to me.  He’s a scrapper.   He is willing to struggle with the community, to ably present a point of view.  Win some, lose some.  Because God supports our sacrifices, I may lose today in order to open the gate for a release of God’s grace.  This gift is particularly facilitated by a willing sacrifice.  When St. Paul takes up his pen, I hear the bell ring for the next round.  

      No one better demonstrates what the Psalmist describes as “Seeking God’s face” than St. Paul’s efforts to lead that are shown to us in his letters.  He fights strongly, make no mistake, but he also struggles to understand the problems and positions of others.  Metaphors are slippery, but if I am going to live in God’s house, I will have to live by God’s rules.  Perhaps we immediately imagine the rigid patriarchal Father figure who always gets his way.  I would ask you to think of God another way.  If God is willing to let go of something truly meaningful, like losing his only Son in death and then being merciful to sinners, God is yielding something important to us, for our sakes.  That yielding of something important is part of love.

     Let us return to the argument with the Corinthians.  Their conflict is a sign that they think someone in this argument is right and should win.  Corinth was a port city; it was multi-cultural.  There would be many “right” ways of thinking and doing that were current.  It was a pluralistic environment, very different from the Jewish one, so St. Paul’s response could be helpful to us.  Into this environment came a variety of Christian teachers from different backgrounds, and Church people probably gathered around the point of view that best accorded with their own. Their allegiances are shown by their identification of themselves as “for” Paul or Apollos, Cephas or Christ.  It is what we still do.  We divide into factions, opinions, parties. The Methodists are doing it right now along lines caused by what Methodists believe to be true about Gay relationships.  The need to have and hold the “correct” point of view continues to have the power to divide us.

       What if we can’t get to the point of understanding the positions of others without ongoing sacrifice?  Many ways of thinking, those that raise up the commandments of God and honor our sacrifices made in love, can be supported in a Christian community.  If we live in such a way that our sacrifices release grace into the community, we are following the example of Jesus.   

     It is necessary to the healthy growth of persons in leadership that what they want becomes and remains vitally important to those they must deal with regularly in community.  Our work here is not about winning.  No one person or point of view needs to win.  It is a strength in the Episcopal Church that there are broad allowances made for the toleration of difference.  As we extend tolerance, we are looking for God sign.  Do people with different points of view than our own seek to live faithful lives?  If we see God sign in their behaviors and in their treatment of others, chances are that the differences they represent are not deal breakers with respect to fellowship with other Christians.  If we stay in fellowship with them, we may learn things about their differences that help us to understand their points of view.  God’s salvation offers fellowship to many.  Differences present a challenge to us; those same differences do not seem to concern God.

      Because I want to show that I love and honor every person, I will do my best to continually arrange things so that each of you gets some of what you want. I am always negotiating and renegotiating, which is precisely what I see St. Paul doing in his letters.  To the best of my ability I will demonstrate that what you want is important to me in the way I respond to you.  It does not matter whether you are really put out with me. Lea’s new boss, Doug, calls this restraint that refuses to engage in conflict “hitting the pause button”.  In a conflict taking time out may de-escalate the conflict.  Jesus called it “turning the other cheek”.  Turning the other cheek is about allowing the conflict to lose momentum by sacrificing what I want in the moment.  Often what I want is to win.  By hitting the pause button or turning the other cheek, I let go of the need to win and may even open a way for God’s grace to manifest in the community.  The Romans expected to win in conflicts with the Jews.  They had the power.  The Jews were looking for a Messiah to beat the Romans.  Jesus refused to support either win.  He yielded his life so that he would not be made a pawn for either side.  The Romans and the Jews were both thwarted, and God used Jesus’ sacrifice as a conduit for a huge release of grace in the form of salvation for both Jews and Gentiles.

     Christianity never caught on among Jews. By the time the gospels were being written, the argument with the Jews had deepened.  Peter’s first sermon in Acts on Pentecost accuses the Jews of complicity with the Romans in Jesus’ death.  I don’t know how much that affected Christian-Jewish relations, but it couldn’t have helped.  They may have divided over the issue of salvation.  Jews who complied with the Law didn’t really need or want it.  Christianity made so much of the cross and its value to sinners that I think it may have thwarted relationships with Jews.     

    There is an issue I need to address.  Women have historically been asked to yield their lives to their families.  We were not allowed many other choices, even when we never married like my Aunt Rose.  She would never have made a nurse and she was too bossy to be a teacher or an effective secretary.  A town can only use a few librarians. She was forced into lifelong poverty by the limited choices available to her.  I cannot think of this as healthy.  Worth is grounded in the fact that what we want matters.  When what we want doesn’t matter to those we love, it is hard to develop a healthy sense of self-worth.  When we understand our own worth, we don’t need to have our way all the time to prove we are worthy. It especially helps when we know ourselves as beloved Children of God. This understanding has helped me to stand for what I believe without needing to take anything away from others who think differently.  

     Using the cross of Christ to keep Black or Female or Gay persons in their places, asking them to give up their lives for the sake of order or fellowship, is never going to be okay with me.  When I choose to surrender something I want, as a sacrifice to fellowship, that is my choice.  No one can require it of me.  St. Paul can ask Corinthians to surrender their need to win and argue for his position.  That is what he can do.  He cannot win by coercion.  Not in Christianity.  That cross stands there in defiance of the power to coerce by force.  It has stood in the way of power for millennia now.  It is the power of God to those who are being saved.  It is the sacrifice that thwarted the power of Romans and Jews alike.  Jesus did not have to be right; he did have to love. 

     Those of us who have suffered, who have had our freedom taken away from us by powerful others, look at the Cross and glimpse the possibility that God might be FOR us.  It is possible that our suffering does not demonstrate that we are separated from the love of God.  We may choose to suffer as Jesus did rather than consent to be used by the powerful.  The cross is taken many different ways by different people.  That is what St. Paul is saying with “the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” It is the sacrifice that released the grace of God to us who are being saved.

     The signs of that grace are the breaking of the chains that bind us, mercy for ourselves and others, power that raises us up and calls us to serve as disciples.  Where we see these signs, the sacrifice of Christ has the power to save.

Sermon for 3 Epiphany by the Rev. Deborah T. Rankin