Kelly’s sermon preached on Jan. 23, 2022

Posted by on Sun, Jan 23, 2022 in Epiphany, Sermons

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Jan. 23, 2022

In the last few weeks, I have heard from many of you how weary you feel.  You’ve referenced the unending surges of the pandemic, the loss of any predictability in your lives, grief over yet another family gathering or travel plan canceled, and the way all of these uncertainties are straining your work and your family life. I have felt it, too.  When we envisioned our post-pandemic lives in January 2022, even as late as this past November and December, we envisioned something other than Omicron, didn’t we? Over the summer, I recall Brene Brown saying that we all had this expectation that once a critical mass of us was vaccinated, we would run out into the streets joyously celebrating that the pandemic was defeated. Over.  But that day never came– not in the summer, not in the fall when Delta surged, and not now, either.  On NPR last week, Dr. Hillary McBride said “this is now year two of feeling like people have to set their hopes and their dreams and their aspirations or measures of success on the shelf again. And there’s almost an element of learned helplessness. If we feel defeated in our efforts to pursue freedom or creativity or expression or change enough times, at some point, our nervous system says, I just can’t keep doing this anymore. So we learn, in a way, to be helpless. We learn to be defeated. We learn to stay stuck.”

I don’t know if you resonate with that, but I do.  Maybe more than the loss of certainty or control, I think we are all suffering from a parched hope.  We don’t know how to keep hoping in this environment, or  what timeline to put on our hopes.  That can be a hard place from which to live indefinitely.  Each of our losses in this pandemic have been different, but we have all experienced anxiety and uncertainty in the past two or three years.

And so the question I pose to you in the third January of this virus is this: how do we pivot from being people who place our hope primarily in our own power to predict and control outcomes in this world…to people who primarily place our hope in God? 

I want to be clear in saying that I am not asking how you minimize your losses to others, nor am I inviting you to prematurely leap into expressions of gratitude for the good gifts in your lives in an attempt to keep things positive.  I am asking you to wonder with me what it means to embody hope in God in the midst of real and undeniable suffering, pain and loss.

Today in Nehemiah we read that the word of the Lord was brought out into the public square before the assembly, and that the assembly was “both men and women, and all who could hear with understanding.”  Not just the priests and scribes who had studied it for years or those allowed into the inner courts — but men and women and common people of all ages were included.  We tend to knock the Old Testament for being exclusive and weirdly violent, but this story is neither of those things.

Let me give you a quick orientation to the book of Nehemiah: The book is named for the governor of Judea during the 500s BCE.  The area was under Persian rule at the time, and the Hebrew people had recently been released from exile in Babylon, some 700 miles away.  Remember that the Hebrew people had not always called Judea home.  They were gathered by Joseph in Egypt during a famine, enslaved there until Moses led them out, and had wandered in the wilderness for 40 years until Joshua led them to claim the promised land, including Judea, as their own.  Eventually they built the Temple in Jerusalem under the kingship of David and Solomon. It was during this period of stability and kingship that they had established a seven day feast called Sukkot. During the festival, people from all the surrounding towns were invited to make a pilgrimage to the Temple and create flimsy, foliage-covered huts out of wood and palm leaves.  They did this to remember the faith of their wandering ancestors, who constructed similarly temporary structures in the wilderness during their journey to this long-hoped for promised land, where they were now living the dream.

But over time, the Hebrews were attacked by armies from all over, and eventually, the walls fell, the Temple was destroyed, and the people were taken away into exile in Babylon for somewhere between 50 and 70 years. And so, the dream was deferred.

They did not celebrate the festival of Sukkot, or any festival, really, in quite the same way during the exile.  But in the story we hear today, the people have trickled back to Jerusalem from Babylon. There was no single day they could mark as the end of the occupation by running out into the streets and declaring the exile over.  But enough people returned to rebuild the walls of the city,  and in this story, they are commemorating their work by reading the Law inside the gates and celebrating the festival of Sukkot once again.

 So that’s the context of this story, in the common square, facing the water gate in Jerusalem.  For six hours the people are out there, listening to the reading of the law and weeping. And then Ezra their priest and scribe says, “Do not weep anymore.  Rejoice. Today is a holy day.” 

There is the revelation: Today. This new day was holy, just as the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness was holy, and the years of exile were holy.  Despite all appearances, they were not forsaken.  God was still speaking. And so, herein was a pivot point for the people of God.  They could place their hope in the strength of the walls they had just rebuilt, or they could turn and hope in the God of their ancestors; the God that protected them in flimsy huts in the wilderness.

Well, almost 500 years later, in synagogues all over Judea, it happened again.  The Hebrews had been conquered, this time by the Romans. They were still in the Holy Land, but it was no longer their land.  They were an oppressed people, and they hoped for a Messiah to come and deliver them. That was the dream.

Instead, a seemingly ordinary brown Jewish man, filled with the Spirit, began teaching people to hear and understand the Law anew. He taught them to use God’s words not merely to decide who was righteous and who was sinful, but to hear them as signs of God’s love: words of liberation from the math and misery of human empires.  You could say he taught them to pivot toward a different dream of God.  He went to Nazareth, and the scribes invited him to read from the Law and the Prophets.  And after he read those spirited words from the prophet Isaiah, he said, “Today is a holy day. Today the scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

There it was again.  “Today.”  God was still speaking, still proclaiming favor to those who seemed by worldly standards to be forsaken.  Common men and women, and all who could hear and understand had a choice to make.  Would their hope be in this new revelation of God’s messy presence among them all?  Or would they continue to hope and despair in humanly-measured standards of righteousness and success? 

The people of God were looking for a Messiah-King, but Jesus asked them to believe that God was up to something else; that the scripture would be fulfilled in another, more fragile way.  If you know the rest of the story in Luke, you know that the people did not like that idea very much. But the thing that I find so exciting in both of these stories is that the choice always comes again. Today.  In the midst of the messes, before things improve or progress is made or justice comes, God is there, inviting us to rejoice in something we can’t yet see or understand. And that is always where real hope is born.

It’s thousands of years later now. We listen to the word of God here and take our place in the gathered assembly of Christ.   We are the spiritual descendants of the people of God, and we are here because we believe that God is still speaking to us.  We are inheritors of the Church in all its divine mysteries and human foibles.   When we gather to hear and understand God’s words to us together, we do so hoping that something new will be revealed to us, too, in the midst of our present-day messes, even if the revelation is not what we expect.

So, perhaps the revelation has to do with reorienting our attention; easing our addiction to our own capacity to solve problems… and strengthening our relationship with the God who is still speaking.

Dr. Christena Cleveland says “We privileged folks often put our faith in our arsenal of “master’s tools”: the strong critical thinking skills we acquired at our fancy liberal arts college, the professional networks of attorneys, business leaders, pastors and community leaders that we have on speed dial, and the relative ease with which we can raise money and awareness for a good cause. These efforts might be fueled by good intentions, but they often lead us to focus on the finite weapons of privilege, rather than the infinite well of hope that is only found in a Divine Source…. the infinite power, wisdom, hope and freedom that we can encounter if we simply stop and turn our eyes, hearts and bodies toward the Divine in ourselves, our communities, and the world around us.”

I laughed a little bitterly at the idea of simply stopping, to be honest, because it seemed like we were just getting things going again! But perhaps that bitterness is all the more reason to double down on turning, on pivoting toward a Divine source and claiming our hope in God and our desire for things we have not yet seen. 

  This week, each time you are faced with a pandemic-related consequence in your life, I want you to stop, close your eyes, place your hand on your heart, and speak the name of God that feels most intimate to you. 

If that is not the anchor you need, find another one.  A song, or a mantra.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, in his 1962 sermon “A knock at Midnight” shared as his anchor the old spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead.” It goes “Sometimes I feel discouraged, and feel my work’s in vain.  But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.” That was his pivotal verse- the anchor that recalled him to hope. 

What is yours? 

The intention of identifying an anchor is to physically and mentally turn ourselves toward God’s divine reality  when we are tempted to lose hope in what we see and understand.

Because as people of faith our hope is not in the walls we build around ourselves to keep ourselves safe.  It is not in our success or power to control things in this world, or our ability to get by without too much trouble.  Our call is to be in the midst of the trouble, and our hope is in God.

Today and every day is the day of revelation.  God is still speaking. Let us hear and understand.

© 2022 Kelly Moody. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.