Year A — Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Commentary for January 23, 2011

Click here for today’s readings

Isaiah 9:1-4
This reading serves to highlight two of the lesser known tribes in the nation of Israel: Zebulon and Naphtali, named for the sixth son of Leah and the second son of Bilhah (who bore him on behalf of her mistress, Rachel) respectively. Now that information will warm the hearts of your people!

Multiple wives and concubines apart, both Zebulon and Naphtali were important to the military success of Israel during the time of the Judges. Particularly, they joined in Gideon’s force that routed the numerically superior Midianites (see Judges 6-8.)

Thus, for the prophet, the redeeming power of the Lord lies in the light he brings for the people “walking in darkness,” and in God’s power over the oppressor — just as God delivered Israel in the case of the Midianites.

Psalm 27:1, 4-9
The image of God as light in our lives is expressed so beautifully in this worship psalm. God’s light provides strength and shelter, as well as a clear way to seek God and behold the beauty of the Lord. All are good reasons to sing and make melody to the LORD!


1 Corinthians 1:10-18
The Apostle quickly and firmly lays out the guideline for behavior that is fitting for Christ’s followers: no divisions! How many different ways have churches figured out to “divide” themselves over the years? The list is practically limitless. (One of the congregations I served once held a three-hour “business meeting,” replete with heated words and invitations to fisticuffs, discussing the issue of whether it would be better to place cans or bottles in the soda machine in the fellowship hall!)


Paul asks them not to devolve into loyalty cliques…his question is penetrating: “Was Paul crucified for you?” Perhaps another way of parsing his admonition to the Corinthians might sound something like a 12-step slogan: let’s keep the main thing the main thing! Remember why we are here and what we have been called to do…proclaim the gospel, which is the message of the cross!

Matthew 4:12-23
Ever keen to support the facts of Jesus’ ministry with the foundation of Hebrew scripture, Matthew’s gospel connects Jesus’ decision to base his ministry in Capernaum of Galilee with the passage cited earlier from Isaiah 9. By so doing, we get an immediate connection to the task of bringing light into the world, a job now clearly relegated to Jesus as Messiah by the impending departure of John the Baptist from the scene.

Jesus’ initial message echoes that of John: repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Thus, Jesus is now clearly set up as the message-bearer; indeed, Jesus will do more than speak the message of the kingdom. He will live it by his ministry of teaching, preaching, healing and feeding.

And, as an aside, it’s convenient that living in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali places him directly beside the Sea of Galilee…the source of his first raw recruits — the fishermen Peter, Andrew, James and John. Now, we are told, they are going to catch people! Wonder how you do that?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Here is a story Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American on the Supreme Court, often included in his speeches around the country.

There were two sisters. They had lived with their parents and brothers and sisters in a dilapidated old house since their birth. Time went on, their brothers and sisters married and moved out, their parents died, the sisters remained.

Sometime in their mid-forties they had a big falling out; such a big falling out that they stopped speaking to each other. They were too stubborn for either one to leave the little house, so they continued living there together.

A chalk line divided the bed room into two halves. The chalk divided all the rooms in the house, so that the sisters could come and go and get her own meals without trespassing on her sister’s space. In the stillness of the night, each could hear the other breathing and snoring.

This went on for many, many years; then one night one sister got up to go to the bathroom and fell, breaking her hip. Her sister heard her scream and scooted across the chalk line to her side. She called for help, then sat in the floor and held her sister while waiting for the ambulance.

Sometime, in the midst of the darkness and the pain, the words I’M SORRY and I LOVE YOU were exchanged. In the midst of brokenness, healing had taken place.

Justice Marshall always ended that story by saying: The legal system can force open doors, and even, sometimes, knock down walls, but it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to you and me. Bridge building. It’s a good name for the ministry of healing that is the church.

As we look at the world’s continued darkness, its wars and disease and ignorance and prejudice and violence, we can see that at the root of most of this is our disconnectedness; our alienation from God, from each other, and most of all from our true selves.

It is the lack of genuine, open, trusting, loving community in the world that causes most of our problems, or makes them worse.

The church is called to a simple ministry in the midst of the world’s darkness and disconnection; we are called to shine the light of God into the world and to pull the world’s disparate peoples into one community– the people of God.

This calling has never made much sense to the world. It looks like a quixotic quest, a nonsense proposition. The world operates by a different set of rules.

Perhaps it’s not exactly cut-throat, dog-eat-dog out there; but it certainly is look out for #1 and know who your friends are and you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

Ever since Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee and called out Simon Peter and James and John, the Sons of Zebedee, those who were left behind have felt that those who went were foolish.

Even Jesus had family problems in this regard. Our Gospel lesson says he left the tiny village of Nazareth and moved, made his home, settled in the larger, more exciting town of Capernaum. It was kind of like Barney moving from Mayberry to Mount Pilate; exciting, but not without its drawbacks.

Over in Chapter 12 we read that his family back in Nazareth started hearing things about what Jesus was saying and doing up in “the cities” and “his Mama and them” went to take him home because they thought he had embarrassed the family enough.

As Paul puts it in our Second Lesson: “The message of the Cross is foolishness . . . .” It is interesting to note the Paul says this in a letter to a congregation that is in the midst of a huge church fight. Their fight in the Church in Corinth had to do with which Pastor they liked best.

I’m one of Paul’s people; I’m one of Cephas’ people, I’m one of Apollos’ people; and for the hyper self-righteous people, “H’mp, I belong to Christ.” Thank God, we never get that silly around here . . . do we?

And Paul’s remedy for all this infighting and fussing and back-biting was the foolishness of the cross, the ridiculousness of the Gospel story. He calls upon the Corinthians to remember the highly unlikely and paradoxical way that God chose to save the world.

This is also the highly unlikely and paradoxical way God calls upon us to behave in the world; as God’s ambassadors and healing-agents and bridge-builders between cultures and peoples.

That is the task which we have been given, that the exactly who we have been called to be. We are called to respond to God’s act of building a bridge of love to us by turning and building bridges of love to others.

We are called to build bridges of forgiveness and vulnerability and risk-taking, bridges that are cobbled together with the little crosses of suffering we bear for one another each and every day.

Bridges laid down across the great chasms of division and distrust, fear and hatred that afflict and terrorize our world. Bridges that seek to bring all those who have lived in great darkness into the even greater light of God’s love.

We are called to a ministry healing, a ministry of building bridges of love and forgiveness between people, a ministry of shining the light of God’s love on all people. Are we ready to embrace this ministry? Are we prepared to let the light of Christ shine through us? Are we willing to reach out to the world with the foolishness of the cross?

Amen and amen.

A Bonus Illustration
Back in the 1980’s there was a man named Larry Trapp living in Lincoln, Nebraska. His name was doubly ironic; he was a man trapped in his own hatred and trapped in his own body. Larry Trapp was suffering from a fatal disease and was confined to a wheel chair; he was nearly blind, he was also the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Nebraska. He truly was a man trapped in darkness.

Larry Trapp became obsessed with driving Michael Weisser out of town. Weisser is Jewish; he is the cantor of the Lincoln Synagogue. Trapp barraged Weisser with hate mail, at home and on the job. He made incessant threatening phone calls, he organized demonstrations, He did everything he could to make life a living hell for Michael Weisser and his family.

Cantor Weisser was truly intimidated and scared. He had a wife and children, he wanted to protect them. But Michael Weisser was also a man who was unwilling to let another person’s hate prevent him from showing love. So he started calling Larry Trapp’s home, always getting the answering machine. So, he always left a message. He said, “This is Michael Weisser. I’d like to talk to you. I want to know why you’re doing this to me.”

Finally, one day, Larry Trapp answered the phone, screaming and cursing and threatening, “WHAT DO YOU WANT? YOU’RE HARASSING ME!”

And Michael Weisser said, “I Know you have a hard time getting around and can’t drive, and I was wondering if you might need a ride to the grocery store or something?” After a very long stunned silence, Larry Trapp quietly replied, “Uh, no, I’ve got that covered, but thanks for asking.”

Larry and Michael kept talking by phone. After a while, Larry Trapp started going over to the Jewish Cantor’s house for dinner, they became friends, and when it became apparent he had nowhere else to go, the Weisser family invited Larry to move in with them. And he did, dying there in Michael’s arms a few months later.

Somewhere along the way Larry Trapp left the KKK. He spent his last time on earth spreading a message of love in a world of hate; Larry Trapp became an apostle to Klansmen and other hate groups; trying to get them to see the great light of love and forgiveness he had seen and experienced. (TIME Feb. 17, 1992)

One thought on “Year A — Third Sunday after the Epiphany

  1. Pingback: Year A: The Third Sunday after the Epiphany (January 26, 2014) | The Lectionary Lab

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