To hear this sermon as preached from the back of a pickup truck in the UCJ parking lot, please press play below:
Something happened last week…
Something that none of us could imagine happening in the United States of America.
Something happened last week…
Something that felt like an earthquake, shaking the very foundations of our shared public life.
Something happened last week…
Wednesday January 6th, was not only the day that the United States Capital was surrounded and attacked by people intent on violence and the subversion of our democracy.
Wednesday January 6th was also the feast of the Epiphany.
When the House of Representatives reconvened after the chaos, Nancy Pelosi reminded the lawmakers gathered there, that it was Epiphany, and she recited the prayer of St Francis — the prayer that we recited as the call to prayer this morning — make me an instrument of thy peace…
Make me an instrument of thy peace…
Something that revealed an uncomfortable truth — that our republic — our democratic system of governance, is fragile…and that chaos and anarchy are much closer to us than we ever imagined.
Something happened last week…
The season of Epiphany is based on the story of the wise men. You know the story. It is a familiar one from our childhood. There are Christmas carols about it — we three kings.
Wise men come from a distant country.
They follow a star.
They give gifts to the newborn Jesus, who they find in Bethlehem.
This staple of our childhood is a lovely story of faith.
The wise men follow a star.
They are guided by the star — and by their faith.
There’s more to this story. There is a story within this story. It is not just a nice tale about faith.
It is also a story of political intrigue.
Built into this story are two lies.
Before the wise men get to Jesus, they encounter the King — King Herod himself — who has gotten wind of their pilgrimage. Herod is spooked by what he hears because he is the king in Jerusalem. He doesn’t want another “king of the Jews” to be born…
So Herod waylays the wise men. He tells them a lie…
“Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
You and I know that Herod does not want to pay homage to Jesus. He wants to get rid of Jesus.
Surely the wise men — if indeed they are so wise — must also have a feeling in their gut that Herod was up to no good.
The story, though, does not let on one way or the other about whether the wise men were wise to Herod’s dire purposes.
The story does suggest, however, that God intervenes.
having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The wise men went back by another road.
By taking “another road” and eluding King Herod, the wise men, in their turn, perpetrated a lie.
They had agreed to cooperate with Herod.
But they did not cooperate.
By taking another road, they took an action that was contrary to what they said they would do.
And yet, there is clearly a difference between the two lies, isn’t there?
Something happened last week.
Something that, among many other things, forces me to address an important question in the life of our beloved community…
There is a crucial question that I have never fully addressed in my time as your pastor here at UCJ. This is a fundamental question that defines the nature of our church as a community. If this question remains unanswered — if we are unsure of where we stand on this question, our life as a church is unbalanced.
I once received an anonymous letter from a person who visited our church. The person said that they were really enjoying the service, but then, when I brought a political concern into my sermon they were deeply offended. The person believed that I was doing something terribly sacreligious — that I was staining the sanctity of the church by bringing politics into worship. Worship is about God, the person wrote. Worship and politics do not mix.
Is it appropriate to address political concerns from the pulpit?
The events of last week bring this question into high relief…
I suppose there may be a handful of churches out there that will endeavor to ignore what happened last Wednesday in favor of focussing on worshipping God. Somehow, I can’t imagine that this church would follow that path.
We should worship God in church — yes. But does that mean we should ignore what is going on in the world?
Surely God is interested in what’s going on in the world!
Would God — or Jesus — want us to follow a kind of ostrich-theology — a religious belief that willfully hides its head in the sand?
It seems to me that worshipping God would lose much of its value and meaning, if we did it without trying our best to work out how God would respond to the events that shape our identities…
We do not exist in a void.
Neither does God.
If God is interested in who we are, and what shapes us, shouldn’t we be interested too?
That said, however, I do place limits on how politics should be spoken of from the pulpit.
My job, as a Christian minister, is to serve God, and to serve my congregation. It is not my job to serve a particular political party.
Some of you, who have been paying attention, may be thinking to yourself — “wait a second Rev. Mark… Didn’t you recently celebrate Joe Biden’s electoral victory over email chat? That sounds pretty much like you were serving a certain political party…”
If you are thinking that, then I want to acknowledge that you are right.
I shouldn’t have done that…
I made a mistake, and I don’t mind apologizing for that.
If you were put off by that email, I want you to know that I have thought about it a lot in the time since, and I hope that I learned my lesson…
I’m not a politician… so I shouldn’t tell you who to vote for, or who to celebrate.
It’s not my job.
I’m a minister, so my job is to serve God, and to serve you,
not a specific political party or ideology.
So I place a limit — a boundary — around the discussion of politics from the pulpit: I won’t serve a specific party.
But this limit — this boundary — while it helps, it doesn’t solve the problem of politics and the pulpit…
The anonymous letter writer had a real point.
Political problems do confuse the purity of worship.
What’s more, political discussion is a minefield. People do not always agree!
If you disagree with your pastor’s politics, it can be a very unhappy thing.
You want to worship God, and instead you get harangued by someone you disagree with about something you feel strongly about.
That’s no fun.
I get it.
and yet, if I am God’s servant, my concern must be guided by the things that concern God, right?
As a Christian, the first person I turn to to help me figure out what God is concerned about, is Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ who said “Love your neighbor as yourself”
Jesus Christ who said: “give food to the hungry, visit the prisoner, and welcome the stranger.”
Jesus Christ who said “turn the other cheek.”
Jesus Christ who said “go and do likewise.”
When Jesus taught us about what God is concerned about, Jesus gave us ethical guidance — teachings that emphasized how we should treat each other in a loving and respectful way.
So, if I am to follow Jesus — and if I am tasked with the honor of trying to help you to do the same — it is my responsibility to consider the moral problems that confront us in our lives, and ask the crucial question of how we, as Christians, can be guided by Jesus.
Guided by the gospel.
Like it or not, many of the moral concerns that present themselves to us, in our modern lives — the events of last Wednesday being the most dramatic example imaginable — very often come to us in the guise of political problems or events.
The way I see it, in every sermon I have four elements that I am working with. The first element is God — who we glimpse through the gospel. The second element is current events. The third element is my personal life experience. The fourth and final element is the needs of the community.
A good sermon weaves the first three elements: gospel, current events, and personal experience into a message that serves the fourth element: the needs of the community.
If we were to leave out an element — if, for example, in an effort to retain the purity of worship, and shun politics, we eliminated our concern for current events, we would risk turning our worship into something wholly unrelated to our current lives.
This is the criticism that a growing number of atheists have of organized religion.
They claim that organized religion is just a bunch of folks desperately hanging on to a collection of archaic rituals that are obsolete.
By focusing on current events — by bringing politics into our worship — we do something very important. We not only make religion relevant to the modern world — we also bring ancient truth into our generation. We make the gospel, our gospel.
The second reading this morning is a famous line from the book of Deuteronomy. When God frees the Children of Israel from bondage in Egypt, God gives them the law, and says:
See I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.
In the story of Epiphany there are two roads. Herod’s road, and “another road.”
If the Wise men had taken Herod’s road, they would have chosen death.
But they took “another road” — a road that chose life.
Their lie served truth.
And so it was the road of truth.
The road that led to the life of the messiah. A road that gave us love.
A road that gave us — gave you and me hope for redemption.
Is this ancient story relevant to the events of last week?
Perhaps we should reverse the question, and ask if the events of last week measure up to this ancient story?
We do not need to point fingers at political parties — we need only notice where the lie leads.
In this story, just like last Wednesday, there is a lie that leads to death.
Lies lead to chaos,
Lies lead to instability, to violence. To death.
In the truth, there is hope, love, redemption.
What does belief serve?
Does it serve a lie?
Or does it serve truth?
Which road do we Christians travel?
or Another road?
God has given us a choice.
God has set before us life and death.