The Adventurous Lectionary – Third Sunday after the Epiphany – January 22, 2017

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany – January 22, 2017

This Sunday, we will gather for worship in the wake of the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States and the Women’s Marches throughout the country. The nation remains divided and while politicians can cling to illusions regarding their election, no politician has a mandate to govern at this time. Read in light of the passing of the office from one President to his successor, today’s passages have a political feeling tone. Indeed, given the realities of the composition of the Hebraic Scriptures/Old Testament, we can’t help being political.

The First Testament/Hebraic Scriptures were written from the perspective of a theocratic or semi-theocratic government in which the “wall of separation” between temple and king, or church and state, was thin at best. Prophets speak primarily to kings and power brokers, to wealthy decision-makers, and only secondarily to common folk. Their writings are aimed at the religious, political, and business elite – at Congress and Wall Street. Their messages are about how business and government should be run in light of God’s sovereign love and deliverance of Israel from captivity, and the danger of trusting our power and policies instead of God’s vision. While we cannot apply them without nuance to our situation, these prophetic writings have inspired progressive social activists in their quest to abolish slavery, raise the living standards of workers, create public schools, challenge the hard-heartedness of the wealthy and powerful, seek civil rights and human rights, and protect the planet. Although the New Testament appears to be less political given the marginalized and oppressed status of the early Christian movement, the New Testament witness affirms rather than denies the prophetic witness, especially in terms of Jesus’ ministry of hospitality and inclusion and the explicit safety net – dare we say, socialism – of the early church.

The prophet Isaiah speaks of freedom. The days of oppression are over. Hope abounds for a new national order. Rejoice, your light has come. Wake up, rise up, and get to work, for God’s light is guiding us toward a promising future.

“God is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” The Psalmist’s words are important counsel today, especially to those filled with anxiety as a new president takes office. God will outlast every national leader, and of this we can be sure. While national leaders can seek to turn back the clock, God’s clock goes by another time and it arcs toward justice, beauty, and welcome. Without fear, we can creatively respond to our anxieties, praying always and when it is appropriate, including for leaders whose programs we oppose, as well as protesting against the powers and principalities.

In a divided community, Paul seeks unity. This is not the unity of homogeneity. Paul recognizes different viewpoints and perspectives, but reminds his readers to focus on what joins us. This is good advice in the wake of the inauguration. We need to listen to one another, sharing our aspirations and fears, and in the process look for common ground for the common good. Ideologies destroy, whether from the left or right. Grace and listening heal, and help us find the best possible course in our particular family, congregational, community, or national situation. Black and white approaches to abortion, economics, gun violence, and human rights, lead to more division and less action. Finding a path forward, grounded in the recognition that Truth and Grace have many manifestations, is the only hope for realizing the Beloved Community.

The Gospel reading has several entry points, all key to the Christian way of life: 1) repentance, confessing the limits and dangers of our current path, and finding a new path; 2) the nearness of God’s realm, the vision of Shalom right here in our lives; 3) following Christ’s way, taking the first steps to discipleship in our place and time; and 4) commitment to embodying Jesus’ ministry of healing, liberating, and welcoming. All of them involve humility, placing God’s vision ahead of our own and shaping our lives in terms of God’s will rather than our self-interest. What does repentance mean for churchgoers in 2017? What does the reality of God as intimate mean for our citizenship and national priorities? What does the quest for healing mean individually and corporately?

Today’s scriptures don’t give us a political or congregational agenda but they point us in the direction of solidarity with the marginalized, political and personal humility, appreciation of diverse viewpoints, and humility in light of God’s reign.

About Bruce Epperly

Rev. Bruce Epperly, Ph.D., serves as Pastor at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA. Prior to coming to Cape Cod in 2013, he served on the faculties and often in administrative and chaplaincy roles at Georgetown University, Claremont School of Theology, Wesley Theological Seminary, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. Bruce is currently a professor in spirituality, ministry, and theology in the doctoral program at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C. He has served as pastor or interim pastor of congregations in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. He is the author or co-author of over 35 books in the areas of theology, spirituality, ministerial excellence and spiritual formation, scripture, and healing and wholeness, including Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job; From Here to Eternity: Preparing for the Next Adventure; and A Center in the Cyclone: Clergy Self-care in the 21st Century.