So, it may—or it may not—surprise you to know that sometimes, some weeks, I have a hard time figuring out what I should say in my sermons. Sometimes it’s because the readings appointed for the day are rather obscure or obtuse, other times because my life was just too full to focus that week, or sometimes it’s because of world events. This is one of those times. Like many, I am struggling to make sense of the news and changes of past week and what they will mean for us—as Americans, as Christians, and as citizens of the world. For much of the last week (and really since November 9), I tried to keep my head down— focusing on other things, like the church budget, making sure we have candidates in place for our own parish elections, and a rather exuberant and expensive burst online shopping. Retail therapy it’s called.
But, of course, at some point I have to start following the news again. It will probably not come as too much of a surprise to most of you to hear that when it comes to electoral politics, I am a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. Although it doesn’t exactly show up on the ancestry.com DNA test, it is definitely one of the genes I inherited from my parents. When I was growing up in Minnesota we even had an autographed photograph of Hubert Humphrey our state’s great hero—inscribed to my father.
Of course, I know that here in our congregation are people of every political persuasion. Some, likely, are excited and hopeful about the new administration in Washington, some are uncertain, and others are filled with anxiety and probably fear and even dread. And yet somehow, in some mysterious God-filled way, we are one community, one family, and one Body in Christ. That fact is one of the greatest joys in my life—in all of our diversity of belief and background, each week we come together in love, to be nourished and strengthened by God’s word, by God’s sacraments, and by the people God has placed in our lives—even people with whom we may disagree. It is not an exaggeration to say that my heart grows in love each time I see you—Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, Independents, liberals and conservatives. I am a better, more generous, and more thoughtful person because I know you, because I love you, because you fill my heart—when we agree, when we disagree, and always.
And so, my hope, at this critical time in our national life, is that we will find a way to be an example for others, a beacon of hope even, for how people can live together and love together through their disagreement. Not because we shy away from discussing important issues, but because we know that what unites us is real, true, and lasting love. Love that is a gift from God. Love that transforms us, from the inside out. And love that sometimes calls us to speak out and speak up, to confront what we see as a deviation from God’s dream and plan for God’s beloved people.
Some 2,700 years ago the Prophet Isaiah wrote: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest…. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.”
It was and still is a powerful message of hope, and it reminds us that people of faith have always looked to the power of God to transform lives and transform the world, in accordance with the principles of justice, peace, and truth. When Isaiah wrote, in the 8th century BC, foreign armies, the Assyrians—from modern day Iraq, Syria, and Turkey—were encroaching on the Kingdom of Judah, where Isaiah lived. He interpreted this as God’s judgment for their lack of faithfulness and commitment to the principles of justice and righteousness. He was particularly critical of princes and judges who neglect to defend and support the poor and oppressed.
In the chapter that follows today’s passage, he writes this: “Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statues, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you make the orphan your prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the in the calamity that will come from far away? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth, so as not to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain? For all this his anger has not turned away; his hand is stretched out still…” It’s a heavy warning, a reminder of how we are called to live and how we are called not to live.
But, even as he wrote that, Isaiah was confident that God’s chosen—the poor, the oppressed, and those who pursue justice and righteousness—would survive and thrive, restored to abundant life in Zion, the holy city. It may take time, but he believed that restoration would come. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined.” He believed it had to, because he believed in God, he believed in a God of justice and righteousness. This belief was his faith, his hope, and his life.
700 years later, Matthew, the author of the gospel, drew inspiration from Isaiah’s words. In fact, he quoted them exactly, as we heard this morning. When Matthew wrote, it wasn’t the Assyrians who were the great threat, but in the Roman armies, which had flattened Jerusalem. Over 350,000 people were killed in the siege.
The first-century Jewish historian Josephus, who witnessed the siege, described the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in this way: “As the legions charged in, neither persuasion nor threat could check their impetuosity: passion alone was in command… everywhere was slaughter and flight. Most of the victims were peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed, butchered wherever they were caught. Round the Altar the heaps of corpses grew higher and higher, while down the Sanctuary steps poured a river of blood and the bodies of those killed at the top slithered to the bottom.”
It seems very long ago now, nearly 2000 years, but we shouldn’t forget that the gospels were written in the shadow of that horror, which upended and destroyed everything that sacred. People of faith, scattered across the middle east, wondered where they would find hope amid true carnage and oppression under the crushing power of the Roman Empire. Matthew’s answer was in Jesus Christ—a different kind of messiah, who came to power not by commanding armies or with the machinery of war, but instead by inspiring fishermen and carpenters, tax collectors and even prostitutes. It was, Matthew believed, through Jesus and his disciples—as they fished for people, as they broke down barriers, and as they cared for the poor, the sick and disabled—that Isaiah’s vision would come to life.
In other words, Matthew believed that Isaiah’s vision would come to life through a movement—a grass roots movement of ordinary and not especially perfect people, people a lot like us, who were transformed from the inside out by their encounter with the living God, whether that encounter was with Jesus in the flesh by the Galilean Sea as it was for Peter and Andrew, James and John, or for those who came later, sacramentally and spiritually through the Body of Christ, the community that Jesus established as his on-going presence and life in the world. Matthew, so long ago, even in the wake of Rome’s wreckage, believed that this Jesus movement had the power to transform the world.
And you know what, so do I. Some of that transformation may come through the political process, as we vote for candidates who match our values, and then, whether our side wins or loses, as we lobby those who are elected to represent us to stand up for the values of justice and peace. That is important work in a democracy like ours—our elected officials need to hear from us, they need to know that we care about the life-changing decisions that they are called to make. That’s why yesterday’s Women’s Marches, in Washington, here in Boston, and all over the world are so significant, inspiring ordinary people like us to work for what they believe in.
But even more, the true transformation that we hope for comes in our daily lives and interactions, as we live like Christ lived, as we break down barriers, as we feed the hungry and clothe the naked, as we combat oppression and discrimination whenever and however we encounter it. And most especially and importantly, that transformation will come as we intentionally work to expand our hearts, making room for those whose world views may be different from ours. It’s not always easy, of course. Sometimes it’s really hard. But it is who we are called to be, and how we are called to live—as Christians, as followers of Christ, and as fishers of people.
Friday, Inauguration Day, a cable channel called “Decades” was replaying past presidential Inaugural addresses—from Eisenhower to Obama. Late at night I saw a few of them. They were fascinating. Surprisingly, I was really impressed with the first Nixon inauguration speech. It was really good, even inspirational. Given his later history and the fact that he beat my family’s hero, Hubert Humphrey, I wasn’t expecting that at all. My dad is not looking down on me very happily at the moment—look out for stay bolts of lightning today. Of course, the one that really stands out is Kennedy’s. Whether we were alive yet or not—I was still 12 years away—we all remember his iconic lines: “the Torch is passed to a new generation of Americans,” and “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” It inspired a generation into service.
Less well remembered were his closing sentences. He said: “Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.”
President Kennedy was absolutely correct. God’s work is our own. It is up to us, with God’s help and with God’s blessing, to transform the world, to transform hearts, to bring justice and end oppression, to break down barriers and to fish for people, so that Isaiah’s ancient dream finally and truly becomes reality, through us: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest…. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.”
Together, as the Body of Christ, as the Jesus movement, as fishers of people, we can make it so.
To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD