Sermon, January 22, 2017

One Thing I Asked
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
January 22, 2017, Third Sunday after Epiphany
Psalm 27; I Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

We tend to glide over the opening words of today’s gospel passage, and that is a huge mistake. It leads to a misunderstanding of the entire life and teaching of Jesus. We cannot comprehend what his call to discipleship involves if we do not pause and consider that it was “when Jesus heard that John had been arrested” that he launched his public ministry.

John was leading a mass movement, a populist uprising, with the slogan, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The kingdom of Herod found John’s call to allegiance to the kingdom of heaven revolutionary and treasonous. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, “Herod, who feared that the great influence John had over the masses might put them into his power and enable him to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best to put him to death.”

Jesus heard John had been arrested and went back home, not to hide in safety, but to pick up where John left off, using the exact same slogan and recruiting a mass movement of his own.

Three years later Herod, the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman Empire joined together to execute Jesus as a revolutionary.

The crucial thing to realize is that everything Jesus did from his first day to his last was in this context where John had been arrested for doing and saying the same kinds of things that Jesus went on to do, critiquing the practices of society and its rulers and offering an alternative vision of how the nation could be run. Jesus knew that he was engaging in a political confrontation and that the government would see it as an attempt to undermine its authority and stir up opposition and possibly lead to the overthrow and establishment of a new government. Jesus knew his message was as political as it was spiritual and practical.

We do not know whether those first disciples knew what Jesus knew when they dropped everything and followed. It would not have taken long, though. “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Jesus had the power of the Holy Spirit in him. Great crowds were gathering. He called people to change allegiance to a different kingdom. And John had just been arrested for doing the same thing.

Those first disciples might not have known what they were getting into, but we know, if we read the gospel carefully. We know that Jesus is recruiting us into controversy and conflict with any government, institution, corporation or leader that does not operate by the laws of God’s realm.

We know Jesus calls us to follow him, we know that he promises us the same power of the Holy Spirit to make us far more effective than we could be on our own, so we should know that if we are not living in tension with the way our society operates, if we are not pushing to the point of being seen as a threat by those who do the kinds of things Jesus opposed, if we are not causing trouble for them and getting in trouble with them, then we have to question if we are really following Jesus.

As an English bishop said, “Everywhere Jesus went there was revolution; everywhere I go they serve tea.”

Or as one vision has it, we will arrive at the pearly gates and St. Peter will ask us to show him our wounds. If we have none he will ask us, was nothing worth fighting for, were there no outcasts or oppressed or poor people within your society to defend and liberate, no violence or abuse to stop, no rapacious grabbing of resources to block, no people acting out of hate or fear or greed who needed someone to oppose them fiercely with God’s love?

Maybe what I am saying is making you feel tense. That is exactly my point. We cannot understand the full meaning of the gospel unless we feel the tension in which Jesus lived every day of his ministry and that he called his disciples to share.

We cannot understand the overpowering love, comfort and joy that those disciples felt if we do not first understand the dangerous confrontation they were helping Jesus carry out. We cannot feel fully all the love, comfort and joy available to us here in this church unless we have looked honestly at the confrontations Jesus is calling us to wage in our day.

Because if we see how far the world has strayed from God’s realm of justice, mercy and peace, it feels so good to have someone come along and say, all you need to do is repent, undergo metanoia, turn your heart, mind, soul and body to love God with all you have in you and love your neighbor as your very self, and you can live in that beautiful realm of God right here and now, you can be free from the tyranny of that unfair, cruel world that you see in the news every day.

It feels so good to know there is something you can do that is meaningful and powerful, that you are not helpless, that you are part of a movement that has overturned empires before with no weapon but the nonviolent love of Christ.

It feels so good to come out of the raging storms into a safe place where you know that all are welcome, where you are affirmed just as you are, flaws and faults and failures and all, where you are given an honored and equal place along side all the other flawed humans here. It feels so good to come into this place and savor its beauties and delights, and cry or laugh together as we share our struggles and triumphs, our wounds and our healing, our losses and the gifts we have been given beyond what we ever imagined.

And it feels so good to turn around and call to our neighbors and family and friends as Jesus called to us, saying here is a place of healing and hope, here is a place of meaningful actions to make life better for all, here we stand up to what is wrong in our world, here we are establishing a new government, the beloved community of God’s realm, under the very nose of the other powers that rule the world.

This congregation’s Identity and Aspiration Statement says, “We aspire to grow in numbers.” This is how you can grow. Live up to the beauty of your dreams. Be increasingly welcoming, loving and helpful. Become ever more skilled in healthy, caring communication, as befits God’s realm on earth. Deepen your Christ-like love and faithfulness by being courageous, taking risks for love whether by opening your heart wide to someone you don’t know well after worship or by making this church a beacon for social justice. Shine the love and comfort and joy within these walls like a lighted window. Tell every person you hear complaining about the world today the good news of this congregation, and believe me, it will grow.

People are longing for a daring, exciting place that is in tension and conflict with the very things they want to see change in the world. People are longing for the good feeling of belonging to such a place.

Not a Republican or Democratic place, not conservative or progressive, not Calvinist or charismatic—as Paul said, we do not say here “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Peter” or “I belong to Christ.” We are not a source of comfort and joy because we are divided from others and segregated with like-minded people, but because we have found unity in our diversity. We have the same mind and the same purpose underlying all our differences. We have the mind of Christ, the mind of the Holy Spirit as it works through us all together to guide and empower us to establish the beloved community of God’s realm in our own unique way in the political, spiritual and practical context of our lives.

This will sound like foolishness to some, as Paul warns us, but to us who feel ourselves being saved every day from the despair of hopelessness in today’s world, it is the wisdom of God and the power of God, and we want to share it far and wide even if people think we are crazy.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent: he will set me high on a rock.”

One thing I asked: just let me in. Just let me come into this beloved community where I am loved so deeply and unconditionally. Just let me come into this place that operates the way the world should, by the laws of God’s realm. Just let me ride out the days of trouble around me here, and give me a meaningful way to respond, give me a way to change the world. One thing I asked: just, please, answer my longing for you, God.

One thing I asked, and oh, the joy in the answer I found!

Let us pray together in silence, asking our one thing, and letting God show us how we have been answered…

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