This is my sermon from the First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 10, 2021. The lectionary is found here. On Epiphany, the Wednesday before this Sunday, an angry, violent mob stormed the US Capitol.
Wednesday afternoon was one of those times that felt surreal. One minute I was musing about John the Baptist’s fashion and cuisine choices: Why are we told in today’s Gospel that he was clothed in camel’s hair with a leather belt and ate locusts and wild honey? What did that matter to the story of Jesus’ baptism? The next I was standing in my kitchen saying to Kathleen, “What? The Capitol was stormed? The US Capitol? In Washington, D.C.? It was stormed?” I’d been in the office all day and hadn’t listened to NPR or checked in on Facebook or opened one of the newspaper apps on my phone. After a quick run to the Post Office to mail the Children’s Chapel packets I’d been working on just a few minutes before I’d realized I was curious about John’s attire and appetite, I opened my computer to watch and read the news. And there I stayed, stuck in one of those it’s-a-train-wreck-why-can’t-I-avert-my-eyes kind of moments, but for (literally) hours, with all of the fears and concerns, all of the anger and frustrations, all of the sadness and grief that I have been carrying for several years, even before that fateful day in November 2016 – all of it right there, inhabiting what felt like every fiber of my being and spilling out onto my lap in wave after wave.
It was too much and though I knew to pray – I knew I needed to pray- I had absolutely no idea what to pray, what words to use because I lacked the capacity to form clear thoughts. So, being the good Episcopalian that I am, I turned to the Book of Common Prayer, and let some of the familiar words hold me up, surround me with reminders of what I believe and in whom I believe. I remembered the sermon I preached on November 13, 2016, the Sunday after Election Day. I remembered talking about how the words we use matter. We use language to communicate. Words are part of how we relate to one another, they are part of being in relationship. Words mean what they mean to us as we utter them and to others as they hear them. What we say, when we say it, where we say it, all of these things lend meaning to the words we choose. The things we say have an impact on people and, whether we intend them to land as they do or not, we have to accept and acknowledge that they do.
So, long into the night on Wednesday and then again for a good deal of Thursday, I listened, hoping to find words somewhere, from someone, that would help me make sense of what I was seeing and hearing. I listened to reporters and journalists. I listened to government officials and law enforcement experts. I watched videos of the President and of the President-elect. I watched videos of prayer services and Episcopal bishops. It actually wasn’t until Friday that I heard something that helped. On Friday, I heard Presiding Bishop Curry say: “In the moment of a national crisis, a moment of great danger, … a people must decide, ‘Who shall we be?’”
In that moment, I felt something shift, not to a place of finding sense in what had happened on Wednesday or what has been happening for years in this country, but a modicum of sense nonetheless. I was drawn back to today’s Gospel, that familiar story of Jesus’ baptism with that seemingly superfluous line about John in camel hair, eating honey. I was drawn back to words that have always made my heart sing, to words that touch the deepest longings within me: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” I knew that there was nothing I wouldn’t do to have “the heavens torn apart” and to hear God speaking those words specifically to me because they answer the question “Who shall I be?” and not just in times of crisis or danger, but all of the time. And suddenly the inclusion of John’s clothing and food choices made sense.
“Who shall we be?” is the question people have been wrestling with for all time. From Adam and Eve and their choice to be people with the knowledge of good and evil to Abraham willing to sacrifice Isaac to Esther entering into a marriage and alliance to save her people, we are on a quest to answer that question. The prophet, Elijah, whom we are told in 2 Kings is either a “hairy man” or wearing camel’s hair, depending upon the translation, points people to a new way of life that is grounded in the one God. Elijah prophesies the coming of the Lord, the hope for an end to war and conflict, famine and need. The Lord, whom we Christians know as the Messiah, the Christ, will come to save us from ourselves, to forgive us from our sins, and to bring us to new life, to a new way of being in the world and with God.
Bishop Curry’s reminder that the storming of the Capitol is yet another opportunity for us to ask ourselves “Who shall we be?” as a people, as a nation, as beloved children of God is both a comforting reminder and a challenge. We, unlike Elijah, know that the Messiah has come and has shown us what it is that we need to do to be the people God created us to be, to be a part of realizing God’s dream here on earth. You know that is a sermon I can preach. It is a sermon I do preach… a lot. And as our nation struggles to face the racial and other social justice issues that are part of the fabric of its founding and institutions, it is a sermon we need to hear. All of us must do our part to ensure that all of God’s children are treated with respect, their innate dignity affirmed, their basic rights affirmed and upheld. There is no way to be a follower of Jesus, the Messiah, and not commit to that way of life.
Today, however, in this week of such immense fear and anxiety, we need to hear the fullness of the message. We need to hear God saying to us, “YOU are my Beloved; with YOU I am well pleased.” Whatever our part in creating and nurturing the circumstances that culminated in the storming of the Capitol, whatever our politics or voting choices, we need to know that the way of the Lord prophesied by Elijah and the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ as proclaimed by John the Baptist is a way of life that is for us, each and every one of us. This is our comfort and our joy. This is our solace and our hope. This is our challenge and our motivation. This is who we were created to be and who we get to choose to be, with every decision we make and every word we speak.
The Word of God broke into the world in the birth of a vulnerable infant in Nazareth. The Word of God lived among us, teaching us how to be our best selves, how to show our love for God in our relationships with God’s people. The Word of God died at our hands because God’s love defies even the most horrific aspects of our human nature. The Word of God lives among us still, working in and through us, giving us all that we need to live the Way of Love. And that is the Word that matters above all else.
Copyright 2021 The Rev. Paula J. Toland