A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Chelsea, Alabama
Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany + Year A
First Lesson: Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
Second Lesson: I Corinthians 1:18-31
Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12

+ 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.

SYRIAN REFUGEES USARecently, I finished reading a book called Tribe, by Sebastian Junger. This really was a wonderful book, one that I would highly recommend to anyone who’s interested in learning more about the importance of community, what draws people together and unifies them, and why people feel the need to belong to something greater than themselves.

In his book, the author writes about this in great detail and provides several examples throughout history, beginning with the American Indians who, over the course of about three hundred years, fought to hold onto the land that they and their ancestors had occupied for thousands of years. One thing that I found so interesting in the book is that, by the end of the nineteenth century and the height of the Industrial Revolution, a surprising number of Americans, mostly men, ended up leaving their own people to join Indian society. They adopted their clothing. They married them, and they even fought beside them. There was something that caused them to reject their own society in order to take on the Indian way of life, one that could be described as very simple but also very appealing. As tribes of Indians were overrun and eventually resettled, people in their communities were drawn together because of what they had to endure and because they depended on one another for their survival.

In his book, the author also writes about veterans who served in times of war overseas and what it was like for them to come back home. Specifically, he writes about post-traumatic stress disorder. In his research, he found that instances of long-term post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans were caused not only by the experience of the war itself but also by coming back and trying to re-enter normal society, only to realize that normal society doesn’t value that same sense of closeness and community that one usually depends on in times of war.

Our society values the individual. We’re a society where the abundance of our resources and our love of wealth seem to actually pull us apart and cause us to feel isolated rather than draw us together. He explained that, for soldiers returning home, it can be difficult to go from having a close community to rely on to all of a sudden being in a place where you feel completely alienated and abandoned. The author suggests that this is really at the core of what people deal with when they come home from war. His point is this: human beings were created to live together in community, and it’s only when we feel like we truly belong that we are able to thrive. The author backs up his claim by drawing evidence from data that suggests that when our country goes through difficult times, when we are most unified, rates of suicide and depression actually seem to go down.

Now, Sebastian Junger’s book is not particularly religious. In fact, he makes no reference to God, Christianity, or any other faith tradition for that matter. But, it is a reflection on the human experience, and what I draw from it is further understanding of what it means to be created in God’s image. What I draw from it is a reminder that we weren’t created to live on our own or to isolate ourselves but to live and grow together in community with other people. Community is where we find meaning, and it’s what connects us with who we were created to be. We may not always realize that we need community in our lives, but it affects us when we live without it. The Anglican poet and priest, John Donne, famously once wrote, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” But, this is something that we really struggle with as a society, especially when there seems to be such a growing emphasis on individual achievement and the need to accomplish self-serving goals, when it seems like we no longer need to take care of each other in order to survive.

I think this is why so many people are drawn to the Church- especially the Episcopal Church. As Episcopalians, we understand that our faith is not our own. We understand that it isn’t just about us as individuals, and our focus is placed on more than just cultivating a personal relationship with God. Certainly, that’s an important part of our faith, but ultimately, we understand that our faith is a shared experience, one that we cultivate together in community, and that our journeys with Christ and in Christ depend on one another. We recall this every time we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Baptism, when we begin the service by saying, “There is one Body and one Spirit; There is one hope in God’s call to us; One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism; One God and Father of all.” We are many members but one Body, drawn together through the sacrament of Baptism to serve as Christ’s Body in the world, and this is such a radical departure from what our society tells us. Society tells us that we only need to be worried about taking care of our selves and that our first priority should be to do what’s best for us rather than caring for the other. This seems to be especially true when it comes to caring for those on the margins of society- the poor and the hungry, those who seek shelter from violence and oppression in war-torn countries around the world, and those who are discriminated against because of their religion or the color of their skin.

In the Gospel lesson for today, we hear the exact opposite in our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount as he draws the crowd together and begins teaching them, saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” This lesson should give us pause every time we hear it and inspire us to really think about what it means to be “blessed.” The Beatitudes of Jesus teach us that what we think we know about God and God’s Kingdom pales in comparison to the fullness of God and God’s Kingdom. The Beatitudes teach us that our wisdom is foolishness compared to God’s wisdom. Jesus also says to the crowd, “Blessed are those who thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” To be blessed, according to Jesus, is to not only endure suffering but to turn away from what society would have us believe, to work for the building up of God’s Kingdom on earth, and to serve those in need.

This can be difficult to hear and even more difficult to follow, especially when it seems like we’re constantly surrounded by temptations to do the exact opposite, to strive for external things that we think will make us happy when what will really bring us joy is what we have right in front of our eyes. What we need is each other. What we need is to belong, to share our lives with one another, to celebrate life’s greatest joys and to mourn life’s greatest tragedies together. It’s how God created us to live our lives, but it doesn’t stop there. The love that draws us together in community is the same love that constantly pushes us out into the world to love others as Christ taught us to love.

I want to leave you with a thought, and throughout the week, I invite you to return to this thought- to dwell on it and to think about what it means for you and what it might mean for our parish as we continue in our journey together.

William Temple, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 until 1944, once wrote, “The church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” This is another one of those statements, like the Beatitudes in our Gospel lesson for today, that calls us to really think about who we are and what we were created to do. “The church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”

My friends, you belong here at St. Catherine’s. You belong in this tribe, this community of God’s faithful people, drawn together to share the love of Christ with all people. So, let us put the hand to the plough and get to work. Amen.


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