A Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Chelsea, Alabama
Sunday, January 22, 2017

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

+ Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak through them; take our minds and think through them; take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

washington-national-cathedral-copyI have something that I’d like to share with you that I’ve been struggling with for the past couple of weeks, something about our beloved Episcopal Church. Really, it’s about a certain group of people within our church.

But, before I explain to you what I’ve been struggling with, let me first talk to you about why I love the Episcopal Church and about why our church is such a good fit for so many people.

I love the Episcopal Church because we have such a wide diversity of opinions. We are a church that welcomes all people, no matter where they come from or what they look like. We welcome all people, regardless of their political points of view. We welcome all people, regardless of what they might believe about God, and in my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful things about our tradition. One of the things that I treasure most about being an Episcopalian is that we can all come together. No matter how different we are and no matter our difference of opinions, we can all come together and worship God in the same place, under the same roof, and at the same Altar.

This is one of the things about our church that attracted me to it in the first place- our hospitality, our warmth and generosity, and our inclusiveness. It’s what makes the Episcopal Church what it is, and it’s what makes the Episcopal Church so appealing for a lot of people, including people who may have been turned off by the church or hurt in some way. We don’t judge people because of what they believe because we realize that all of us are on this journey together. We’re all pilgrims, trying to find our way and trying to lead lives worthy of the Gospel.

Some of you may have actually already heard about this, but if you haven’t, let me fill you in on what’s happened within our church in the last couple of weeks. Recently, there was some controversy about whether or not the Washington National Cathedral, which also happens to be the Episcopal cathedral for the Diocese of Washington, should have extended an invitation to the new President to host the Inaugural Prayer Service on the day after the inauguration.

Now, I can’t say for sure, but I would imagine that the process of trying to decide whether or not to extend the invitation took quite some time, and, knowing Marianne Budde, the Bishop of Washington, I would also imagine that there was a lot of prayer and discernment that went into the process. But, regardless of what actually happened, the invitation was made.

When it was announced that the National Cathedral was going to host the prayer service, there were quite a few people within our church, including people who have a prominent voice, who were very public about how disappointed and ashamed they were with the decision.

I have to admit that this is something that I’ve really struggled with- not because of my own political opinions or where other people within the church stand politically- but because we would actually entertain the notion that we should turn away people from the church with whom we disagree.

With regard to prayer, it doesn’t really matter whether or not we agree with what our new President has said in the past or whether or not we agree with his position on social and economic issues. What matters is that we remain faithful to who we are as Christians. What matters is that we remain obedient to the one who calls us to love all people- including our enemies and those who may have hurt us- to pray for them and to ask God’s blessing upon them. The idea that we shouldn’t pray for people because of what they’ve said or what they’ve done or that we should refuse to ask God’s blessing upon them- as if it were ours to withhold in the first place- goes against everything that we’re called to do as followers of Jesus.

To me, this issue really begins with our understanding of prayer and what we’re actually doing when we pray for someone. My understanding is that when we pray for someone or when we ask for God’s blessing upon someone, it’s not the same as endorsing that person or even agreeing with that person. What it means to me is that we’re asking for God’s grace. It means that we’re asking for God to be in the midst of us and present with us in our limited understanding of God’s perfect love. We believe in a God who is capable of transforming our lives, a God whose dream for us and for all people is reconciliation, and if we truly believe these things about God- if we truly believe that God is capable of transforming us and inspiring us to do good work in the world- how can we possibly say that we shouldn’t invite someone into our church? How can we possibly say that someone, even someone that we might disagree with, is not worthy of our prayers?

In a statement that he released a couple of weeks ago, our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, wrote about this issue with the National Cathedral, and in his statement, he addressed these questions about prayer. What is it that we accomplish when we pray? Why should we pray for our civic leaders, and what good does that do? In his statement, the Presiding Bishop also described what it was like as a child growing up in a historically black, Episcopal parish during the Civil Rights Movement. He explained what it was like to pray for leaders at the time who were often opposed to civil rights. In his statement, he wrote, “We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we marched on Washington. Following the way of Jesus, we prayed and protested at the same time. We prayed for our leaders who were fighting for our civil rights, we prayed for those with whom we disagreed, and we even prayed for those who hated us. And we did so following the Jesus, whose way is the way of unselfish, sacrificial love. And that way is the way that can set us all free.”

My friends, this is why we must pray for our President and all of our leaders. To do so is to follow in the way of Jesus. Prayer is not so much about the person for whom we offer it, although I do believe that God hears our prayers and that God works in the lives of those for whom we pray. But, I also believe that prayer transforms us as well. How we pray affects us. It affects our relationship with God, and it affects our relationship with other people as well. Praying for other people, as difficult and uncomfortable as it may be sometimes, is one way that we manifest God’s love. It’s one way that we’re able to make the light of Christ known to the world.

Throughout Christmastide and in this season after the Epiphany, we’ve been talking a lot about how God’s love is made manifest, beginning with the nativity of our Lord and the revelation of his birth to the Gentiles, his baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, and his calling of the first disciples, like we hear in today’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus calls out to Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” and without delay, they leave everything behind and follow Jesus. Likewise, Jesus calls to James and John, the sons of Zebedee, and they do the same. Immediately, they drop what they’re doing and follow Jesus. Every time I come upon this story in the Gospels, I am struck by how quickly the first disciples of Jesus respond to his call. It makes me wonder if the Gospel writers might have been trying to tell us something. It makes me wonder if we might be called to do the same thing in our own lives- to drop what we’re doing, to leave behind what feels familiar and comfortable in order to follow Jesus- the one whose path is the only way that leads to eternal life. Amen.


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