Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
I spent part of my on-going recovery this week reading about climate change. You know, something light and relaxing. What caught my attention about this article was one line: “Collapse isn’t inevitable.” Collapse is not inevitable. That line comes from an article titled “What 5,000-year-old Skeletons tell us about living with climate change” by Kate Yoder. Yoder was discussing an academic article, “Climate Change, Human Health, and Resilience in the Holocene,” co-authored by Gwen Robbins Schug, Jane E. Buikstra, Sharon N. DeWitte, and Sonia Zakrzewski. These scholars looked at a whole bunch of human skeletons and mummies to see if they could see any patterns in the remains that would help them understand better how our ancestors responded to changing circumstances in the environment around them. What they found is that, as Yoder states, collapse is not inevitable. But, some communities are better able to respond to the changing climate around them.
I won’t try to summarize a summary of an academic text for you. This is a sermon, not a literature review. The shortest version of the information presented is that human-caused climate change is already affecting and will continue to affect the weather. Weather changes and the pollution that is a result of human choices about how to live in this world will affect food supplies, the availability of drinking water, and likely change the kinds of diseases that humans, plants, and animals are affected by. And, people are going to end up having to move around, change how and what we eat and how we clean water. The institutions that we humans have organized to help us live together are going to have to adjust to these changes or, they, and we will fail.
While the human-caused climate change we are facing is more severe than the climate event these scholars studied, there are some clear patterns in communities that were resilient in the face of significant changes in climate. People who live in mobile societies with flexible social structures that also got their food from diverse sources fared much better than societies with rigid social hierarchies, crowded living situations, and food that only came from the kind of agriculture that requires living on and working the same land the same way for a long time. And, communities that retain and pass along traditional knowledge about communal care, the ecosystem, and food traditions also were able to adapt more quickly and successfully in the face of environmental change. Also, societies that maintained significant social inequality in order to benefit a few wealthy people had a harder time coping with environmental changes, especially disease and malnutrition. If we want to have resilient communities that can withstand major upheavals, we will build societies that don’t require some people to be very poor for the benefit of the very rich.
Yoder cites one of the authors of the academic paper, Robin Schug, saying “We would not be where we are today without cooperation.” After looking at study after study, in regions across the world, it is heartening to hear these scholars offer confirmation that working together for the good is something that has helped humanity survive catastrophe again and again and again. While they are quick to point out that cooperation doesn’t always happen, they also note that the presence of a crisis doesn’t have to mean that humans will respond in violent and hoarding ways. We can choose to care for each other and work with each other and creation. Our scripture for today spoke of every good gift being from above. This research seems like a good gift to us, especially as we consider our ministry as a church in the midst of changing times and changing environments.
What would it mean for us to adapt some of these descriptions of resilient, flexible, and equitable societies to shape our calling as a church? How can we learn from our ancestors to adapt and cooperate and make changes based on the realities of the world around us. I am carrying this word with me: Collapse isn’t inevitable. It is possible to thrive and care for each other in the midst of great shifts in the world around us. May we be quick to listen, slow to exclude, and use any anger we have with the status quo to move towards a life lived according to God’s priorities of love and justice.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Kate Yoder's article: https://grist.org/health/how-ancient-societies-adapted-to-climate-change-anthropology-study/
The original academic article: https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2209472120
Matthew 4:18-25: Jesus Calls the First Disciples
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus Ministers to Crowds of People
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
Sometime between his baptism and the arrest of his cousin who baptized him, Jesus realized that he couldn’t or shouldn’t or didn’t need to do his work alone. According to the scholar Jillian Engelhardt, Jesus seemed to feel called to continue and enlarge the work John began. What we see in the Gospel, then, is Jesus doing this work, inviting people to repent, that is, set themselves right with God’s priorities. However, unlike John, Jesus would not preach that message alone. Jesus will have to leave the riverside and wilderness to find his coworkers.
In Matthew, Jesus moves from the riverside and wilderness outside of Nazareth, the place where John had centered his ministry, out to Capernaum in Galilee. This happens just a few verses before our reading for today. In a commentary on this text, the scholar Melinda A. Quivik invites us to pay attention to how this move is described. Remember, the gospel writers understood Jesus to be the Messiah described in Isaiah. The author of Matthew talks about Jesus’ move using a quote from Isaiah:
He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’
In her commentary, Quivik reminds us that the people of Galilee, that is the people of Zebulun and Naphtali, have been living in war for generations. During the era in which this story was recorded, Galilee was the land that Pontius Pilate ruled with an iron fist for Rome. Isaiah said that God would help the oppressed and raise up a leader in their midst. It matters that Jesus would begin his public ministry in the midst of people who had suffered at the hands of warmongering rulers. It shows us that God is always right in the middle of the shadow of death, with the people who need God the most.
As Jesus walked by the sea, he saw the fishermen, Simon and Andrew, hard at work. He invited them to join him, saying he would make them fish for people instead of haddock or smelt or whatever you fish for in the Sea of Galilee. What is perhaps most surprising is that they immediately follow him, without asking a word of explanation or clarification. I think I would have asked a few questions. Then, Jesus saw the brothers, James and John, who were also out working. He called out to them, inviting them to preach the word of the nearness of God. They also left everything and followed him. They were fishing with extended family and they left their family just sitting there, mending the broken nets. And, nobody, not even Jesus, takes time to explain to the new disciples, or us, what this “fishing for people” means.
Some might wonder why the brothers are willing to drop everything to follow Jesus in that moment. I read once that some scholars argue that these sets of brothers knew Jesus before he offered this invitation. They say that it is possible that they grew up with Jesus, or at least knew him by reputation. Some scholars argue that there was also a good chance that the brothers had heard John preaching before he was arrested. If the brothers already believed John's word that God was preparing to do something new, maybe they were just waiting for the sign to start working with God for that new thing. When Jesus showed up, saying, "All that stuff John was talking about... that's happening now. Come and be a part of it," maybe that was the sign they were waiting for.
I have to say, I kind of like the idea that they were already prepared and just needed a sign to start working towards the kindom of heaven. But, if I’m being honest, it’s mostly because I am more comfortable with the idea of them having a plan, instead of them just dropping everything with a moment’s notice and leaving. This whole story makes better sense to me if they are just waiting for someone, in this case Jesus, to show up and lead them. That being said, I don’t think the Gospel makes clear why they followed Jesus. All of those explanations are scholarly conjectures by people who, like me, have modern, fairly comfortable lives. What the story actually gives us is just four young men and the teacher who invited them to follow him. There is no explanation as to why they go.
I did read once a commentary Dr. Raj Nadella who noticed that, while we don’t know anything about these young men’s plans, it’s pretty clear that somebody in this story has a plan. You see, Rome has a plan. That plan is the unspoken undercurrent that shapes so much of Jesus’ life, and, ultimately, his death. Rome, like the other empires before them that made life hard in Capernaum, lived by a plan rooted in death and destruction, in conquest and forced assimilation. While being part of Rome meant that you might have good roads and aqueducts, it also meant having foreign soldiers breathing down your neck, conscription and slavery, theft under the guise of taxation. Violence was the primary tool in Rome’s plan. And, they wanted people to get so used to the horrors of occupation that they would feel powerless to stop it.
Jesus’ surprising invitation to these four brothers is a disruption of that plan. As many of us know, it only takes one moment, one event that is incredible or awful or confusing or full of potential to show you that you don’t have to keep doing what you’re doing according to someone else’s plan. So, maybe Jesus’ invitation was completely out of the blue and completely unprepared for and exactly what those young men needed at that moment. When they heard him, they knew the Empire didn’t have to control them. They knew that the kindom of God was offering them something more. So, they left the lakeshore and walked towards it. With no real plan about what came next.
The Holy Spirit moves in lots of ways. As you look through your annual meeting booklet over the coming week, I hope you’ll see the Spirit in the carefully crafted budget of our church, planned over several months to reflect our church’s call to participate in the kindom of heaven. But, I hope you’ll also remember that the Spirit moves outside of well-thought out plans, too. Jesus is still telling us that the kindom of heaven is close at hand. Let’s make sure we are walking towards it, even if our plan is still to be determined.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Melinda Quivick, "Third Sunday after Epiphany," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C, featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds. Dale P. Andrews, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, and Ronald J. Allen, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012)
Raj Nadella: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-412-23-5
Jillian Engelhardt: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-412-23-6
Sermon for January 8, 2023: Fresh Epiphanies from Familiar Texts based upon Matthew 2:1-12 by Sarah Mills
Matthew 2:1-12: The Visit of the Wise Men
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘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.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Friends, I wonder if you, like I, often feel like you know a story so well that you can recite it backwards and forwards. You could summarize it in maybe ten words or less. So many of the stories we hear around this time of the year are stories that easily fall into that category. We hear them in songs and we tell them to children. They are tattooed on our collective Christian context.
Well, can I recommend a combination of two practices that work for me when I find myself drifting into this sort of overfamiliarity? The first is to open your Bible or your Bible app or your online search engine of choice, locate the story and read it. And then read it again. And again. And again. This practice of lectio divina or “divine reading” has been a tradition, particularly in the monastic world, for centuries. You meditate on the reading in a way that is different than just hearing it once, maybe twice a year read from the front of a church. And it is this act of really sitting with a text with intention and attention that leads on to the second practice.
Now, this practice is maybe more difficult or unnatural to us when we are faced with one of those ultra-familiar stories. When you read that story for the third or fourth time, step into a role. A role that is different than that of a Sunday churchgoer. Find a person in the story that you will choose to identify with as you read and re-read this story. Take on that role. Put yourself in their shoes during your lectio divina.
Now, I have found that there are a few keys to doing this second practice. The first key is total and utter commitment to the practice. It can be uncomfortable to sit with the point of view of a person or a group of people that our years of Sunday school and Christmas carols have chosen not to focus on. However, that is how our scriptural complacency can settle in. It’s how we think we know the whole story when we’ve whittled it down to ten words. So who are our individuals or groups of individuals in today’s scripture. Who is present in the scenes described? Well, there’s the obvious “stars”, if you’ll forgive the pun, of the show, the three kings. There’s Herod, of course. Then there’s the “chief priests and scribes of the people” who Herod calls to council him. And finally, there’s the holy family, sitting in their modest lodging in Bethlehem. Mary, the new mother, Joseph the (probably equal parts proud and nervous) father, and their vulnerable, tiny child. These are the four groups directly impacted by this story. So now, having identified these players, we turn to the second key to this practice: context.
Context is paramount when it comes to really getting into your role! As any theatre student will tell you, one of the keys to Stanislavskian method acting is to find points of connection with your character so as to more fully inhabit them. You cannot do this if you do not know where they are coming from, literally and metaphorically. So let us add some context to our four key players:
Re-read the scripture now, holding on to your chosen role, trying to put yourself in their place.
Read it again.
Read it one more time.
What was the experience like? Have you ever thought about the story from that point of view? What new insights have you gained? Do you have conflicting feelings about how you would react in those situations? What stories might have happened in between the portions committed to scripture?
Maybe there were hushed discussions in dark hallways of Herod’s palace. Secret conversations in native tongues as you walked the six miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Shocked reactions and hurried attempts to clean up when you hear foreign dignitaries have arrived to pay homage to your newborn son.
For me, this is what brings familiar scriptures to life. This scripture that we have heard so many times before can have new life, excitement, and relevance breathed into it. Suddenly, we are given new perspectives to consider, new moral questions to ponder, new reasons to tell the stories again. I encourage you to try this practice with any biblical text you’ve examined before. Or maybe try this combination of lectio divina and individual identification with your favorite story from the Bible. Lay your preconceptions to one side and commit entirely. Enter with context and background information, ready to dive into the story anew. Perhaps you will find yourself surrounded by outsiders, following a star to a great promised king and being met instead by a teenage mother, a worried, watchful father, and a defenseless, tiny baby. Scripture can still surprise us with these epiphanies of imagination, just as God surprises the world by joining creation as the most vulnerable thing imaginable, a wriggling, crying, cooing newborn. May we never take these surprises for granted, seeking them out with open hearts, ready to be moved by the guiding light of God’s love.
Haworth-Maden, C. (Ed.). (2004). The Glory of the Nativity. In The Life and Teachings of Christ. Saraband.
Muddiman, J. (2014). The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford University Press.
Newsom, C. A., & Ringe, S. H. (1998). Women's Bible Commentary. Westminster/John Knox Press.
Walton, J. H., & Keener, C. S. (2019). NRSV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Zondervan.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
On Tuesdays, I usually pick out the title of my sermon. I pick something based on what catches my attention on that day. This is often the part of the scripture that I feel speaks to the present moment best. On this, our final Sunday of the Christmas season, when we are remembering the stories of Anna and Simeon, the prophets who offer a final confirmation for Jesus’ parents that the message they heard from God was true... that this child before their eyes was the answer to their nation’s prayers... Simeon’s song caught my attention. He was so moved by the sight of this child that he broke out in song! And, these days, it would be good to see something so powerful that we would be reminded of God’s power to keep promises. So, on Tuesday, I decided that my sermon would be called “My Eyes Have Seen.”
Then, I sat down to write my sermon. I went to look at the last time I preached on this text. And, I was very surprised by what I saw. Guess what I named the sermon the last time I preached on this text? I named it My Eyes Have Seen. Apparently, that phrase often catches my attention. Now, maybe it’s because I know that hymn, the one that says “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” (it was written by Julia Ward Howe who spent a lot of time just down the road in Gardiner). Or, maybe it’s because, at the turning of the year, I appreciate a story of someone witnessing something grand and divine, a fulfillment of something long hoped for. And, this story is about past promises’ current fulfilment leading to a loving and just future. I, personally, would like to see more of that.
In his commentary on Luke, Fred Craddock notes that “Luke’s Gospel begins and ends in the temple.” Today’s reading is the moment when Jesus is taken to the temple for the first time as an infant. And, we are reading about this moment because it is important. Both Craddock and a professor named Shively Smith encourage us to pay attention to how devout Jesus’ family is. We must remember that this great religious devotion is happening among common, poor people, not royalty. Mary is responsive to the movement of God in her life. She knows that God stands with the lowly and will use her family to lift up the downtrodden.
After Jesus is born, his family remains devout. As a symbol of their commitment to God, Mary and Joseph fulfill the ritual obligations of their people. They have their son circumcised and named according to what God said to name him. They also presented him at the temple and offered a sacrifice in thanksgiving. Dr. Smith points out something interesting about the animal that the family sacrifices. If you remember from other readings, the devout were instructed to bring animals to sacrifice. Importantly, if you were someone of limited means, you were not required to bring in the same sacrifices as someone who was quite wealthy. In fact, there are lists of appropriate sacrifices for poorer people to make Leviticus 5, 12, and 14. If you were to look at these lists, you would see that one of the offerings is two turtledoves. This is an offering set aside for those who are the poorest. When the author of Luke shows us Mary and Joseph bringing turtledoves, they are showing us that God is doing what Mary said God would do, lift up the lowly and downtrodden. This child is a part of that lifting up.
Why would it be so important to emphasize to the reader that Jesus was both rooted in his religious faith and also from simple means? For Smith, this small detail is a bit of foreshadowing. In the book of Luke, Jesus will spend much of his time advocating for the poor. In chapter 4, when, as an adult, he spells out his own mission statement, he will read out the words of the prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor." A couple chapters later, in the sermon on the plain, he will assert, like his own mother once did, that God takes special note of, and care for, the hungry, the poor and the excluded. He will go on to assert that part of serving God is tending to the poor and that God's kindom will welcome most quickly those who need the most help.
In my preparations this week, I read a poem by Howard Thurman. It’s called “Christmas is Waiting to be Born.”
When refugees seek deliverance that never comes,
And the heart consumes itself, if it would live,
Where little children age before their time,
And life wears don the edges of the mind,
Where the old man sits with mind grown cold,
While bones and sinew, blood and cell, go slowly to death,
Where fear companions each day’s life,
And Perfect Love seems long delayed.
CHRISTMAS IS WAITING TO BE BORN:
In you, in me, in all mankind.
Thurman believes that God’s promise salvation is not most clearly seen in the halls of power or wealth. But, instead, in the places of strain and upheaval and need. We would do well, then, to remember that when God chose to raise up a savior, God did so from among the ranks of the impoverished. Now, imagine the difference that makes in this story. A prophet named Simeon sees a poor family with an infant just more than a week old. Against all odds, Simeon sees greatness in this child. He sees God in this child. He is so inspired that he sings about it.
Simeon calls Jesus a light for the whole world, “for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to the people of Israel.” It is important to realize that Simeon saw, in this child, not just a leader for his own people, but a gift for the whole world. This shouldn’t be taken as a justification for the idea that Jesus came to coerce people into faith. But, instead, this is a confirmation that the world is connected and that God cares for the world, and that God is invested in a mission for love and justice for all of creation.
Simeon also offers this family a blessing and a warning. “This child is destining for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed- and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” A second prophet, Anna, then comes up to this small family. She, too, praises God for this child. She will go on to become one of the earliest preachers in Luke. It says that she spoke about the child to anyone who was concerned about the redemption of Israel. It is too bad that none of her sermons seem to have been preserved to this time, at least as far as we know. At least we have this account of her, praising God and preparing to tell everyone what she has seen.
In his commentary on the text, Fred Craddock says that “God is doing something new, but it is not really new, because hope is always joined to memory, and the new is God’s keeping an old promise.” I hope on this New Year’s Day, you will remember, with hope, these elders who greeted young Jesus with joy and wonder. I hope that memory inspires you to see Christ at work in this very present time and to be like Anna and share the story of God’s love and justice into the future.
Resources consulted to write this sermon:
Shively Smith: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3526
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5035
Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 2011)
Fred. B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.