Power and Privilege - a sermon preached by the Rev. Linda Kuhn 1-5-2020
scripture: Isaiah 62: 2-4, 8-11; Matthew chapter 2 First Presbyterian church, Pardeeville, WI
Today is the first Sunday of Epiphany according to the church calendar. The word "epiphany" means revelation, understanding, that moment of "aha" when everything falls into place. Epiphany arrives on the church calendar 12 days, or generally the 2nd Sunday, after we celebrate Christmas. This day we usually read the story in the gospel according to Matthew of the wise men or magi finding the baby Jesus. While for the western church we celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 with gift giving, for the Eastern Orthodox church - (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox Church), this is the big celebration with gift giving. It parallels the story of the wise men bringing their gifts to the Christ child. Their gifts, however, were totally inappropriate as baby shower gifts because they are intended by Matthew's gospel to be symbolic -- gold and frankincense (an expensive perfume) -- items fit for royalty - these 2 also being in an obscure reference to a passage in Isaiah, and myrrh, which is an embalming fluid - foreshadowing what is to come at the end of baby Jesus' life with his crucifixion and death.
Each of the 4 gospels in our New Testament are crafted to tell the story of Jesus and his impact not only on the followers of his day but for future generations as well. When written, they were not intended as strict biography or as a chronology of Jesus' life, but as an interpretation of his meaning and message in order to educate and guide and inspire his followers. As far as scholars can tell, each of the gospels were written at least a generation or two after the ministry of Jesus, likely in the last quarter of the first century or later. They are written to different audiences, each with their different backgrounds and cultures to influence how the message is presented. They would have been written from and to somewhere around the Mediterranean basin with the Roman Empire still intact and in control, at a time of heightened persecution when it was dangerous to be known as a follower of Jesus, more so in some places than another. And they would have been written after the early church would have held their momentous conclave in Jerusalem where and when it was decided to open the doors and allow Gentile converts to join the fellowship without insisting on a lot of hoops for them to jump through -- a hugely major decision of the church that was hugely controversial in that day. "Outsiders" were now welcomed into the fold. One would think, why bar the doors or make it difficult for people to join the church? But those on the "inside" had to think about what the essentials of the gospel, the good news, was and what was distracting trappings of the faith. They also had a sense that if they welcomed "outsiders" in, they would be changed as well in the process.
All of this provides context for understanding the multi-layered way in which Matthew writes his gospel of Jesus the Christ. He appears to be writing to followers of Jesus, likely in Jerusalem, with Jewish in ethnicity , culture, history, and religion in their background. Matthew is constantly reaching back to Older Testament references to bring forward quote to support his claim that Jesus of Nazareth is intimately tied to long-standing Jewish hopes and expectations of the Messiah. "Messiah" is the Hebrew equivalent for the Greek word Christ, and means "the anointed one." "Christ" is not the last name of Jesus of Nazareth, it's a title given to him. Jewish kings were anointed, most notably one of the first being King David, remembered in Jewish history and tradition as King of the Golden Age of the nation where they were an empire to be reckoned with, only for it all to begin to crumble soon afterwards in civil war, their occupation by the Assyrians, then carried off into captivity in exile in Babylonia (which is when our passage from Isaiah was written by the way), then the rebuilding of the nation, but never to the same level of glory and power as it was during King David. Matthew taps into these memories and expectations and nationalistic hopes to present his story of the significance of Jesus. But while doing so, he brings his readers into a different kind of understanding of what God's kingdom, God's realm and reign is about in the world. With Christ as God's representative, God's reign runs by different rules and norms and values than those of the rulers of the world his readers at the time were living in, which was a world rife with corruption and injustice, violence and exploitation, power and privilege.
This is a lot of Bible history to take in all at once, but I want to give you a sense of the bigger picture that Matthew is painting with his gospel. At the very beginning of his gospel, these two worlds collide with the birth of Jesus - the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom or realm of God. Wise men arrive in Jerusalem from the East, likely Persia - which is modern day Iran and which was outside the reach of the Roman Empire. By tradition we say there were 3 of them, but the scriptures never name the number. We refer to them as kings, but they are described as wise men or magi, likely astrologers who studied the stars and looks to the constellations and cosmos to predict and interpret earth shaking events. They were likely advisors in the royal court of their own homeland.
They arrive in Herod's court. Herod was politically a Jewish puppet king, ruling only at the pleasure of the Roman emperor, but nevertheless powerful in his own right in ruling over his people Israel. Herod is caught flat-footed when the wise men announce their quest. He and his advisors know nothing of this child to be born, whom Herod quickly surmises is a potential threat to his rule and privilege. Matthew's gospel has a repeated theme that those who should have been in the know about Jesus' true identity (like Herod, like the scribes and Pharisees, like his disciples, even Peter his closest) are the last to understand. Here it's the outsiders, Persian or Gentile wise men, who seek and understand and believe and worship Jesus before those who should have known better, do. In true villainous form, Herod sends the wise men on their way under the ruse of asking them to report back; they in turn, play the trickster and thwart Herod by returning home another way. We often end the reading or telling of the story there with a bit of intrigue, maybe a bit of comedy or a chuckle, and make this part of the story into a children's Christmas pageant. But as we heard in the reading today, the story goes in and takes a horrific turn. The adult part of this story includes the terrible and terrifying reaction of Herod, who initiates a pogrom against his own people, the massacre of young children, intent on wiping out nearly a generation, all because his desire to preserve his power and privilege allows him to do so in this evil and sinister way. And Matthew's gospel drives home the point that Jesus was under threat by the powers of the world from the beginning of his life, paralleling the threat the early Christians were also facing in their persecution. Matthew zeroes in on the ultimate show-down between the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of God - how it runs, its norms and values and who's in charge. The question Matthew poses for readers of his gospel then and for generations to come is to look at that clash with open eyes and decide who's side are you on? There can be dire consequences for which side one stands on. But Matthew lifts up a vision of a different way, a different realm, the restoration of the realm of God which Isaiah so poetically describes - which he urges converts to recognize was present in the form of Jesus the Christ and yet also a reality to hope for, hold onto, and lean into ways that realm will continue to unfold in their lifetime and in lifetimes to come.
So let's try to bring the ancient story forward into our lifetime. Two realms in competition - the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of God. The role of power and privilege. It's at the center of our scripture reading this morning from Matthew. Herod had it. The Roman empire and its citizens had it. Societies were, and are, shaped by these forces. And in 2020, it shapes the politics of our own country and in the world. As political campaigns heat up, embedded in messages and tactics will be these forces of power and privilege -- who has it, who doesn't, how it gets used, and even who should be prevented from gaining it. The movements of the last few years -- Black Lives Matter, the Me, too, immigration reform to name a few -- have put the role of power and privilege front and center of our national dialogue, if only for a short news cycle while scandals grab the headlines. It has caused some widespread introspection and examination of how these forces infect national policies, how we spend our resources, what our priorities are, and even comes down to our daily interactions with one another and our neighbors and how we treat one another. There is no denying that privilege with a capital P skews the democratic process in our country. Our race, the color of our skin, our gender, how much money we have, where we live, our sexual orientation -- and how these coincide or don't with the dominant social norms affect who has the power.
And while none of us here have the degree of power and privilege of a King Herod, I think we are all becoming more aware of how we can be manipulated by others into reacting out of fear to defend and protect what we have, by threats that others will take our privilege and power from us, as if there's a limited amount. This is dangerous to us politically and spiritually when we allow our fears to be preyed upon. It's not my role from the pulpit to enter into partisan politics; but it is the role of those of us from the pulpit to speak to the spiritual dangers inherent in trying to do all we can to protect and defend our privilege and power at the expense of those who are without, those "outsiders". Our calling as people of faith is to live into a vision of the realm of God such as what Isaiah wrote of, which I quote: proclaim good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for the captives, release from darkness for the prisoners, because that's what the realm of God looks like and what the Messiah was all about.
As followers of Jesus, we are called first as citizens of God's realm, and secondly as citizens of the US. I think key to how we are faithful at this time of our national history, is to not deny or ignore the power or privilege we have in whatever form it comes to us, not to be ashamed of it, but to recognize how it give us abilities and resources and opportunities others do not have. And then to use these advantages for the good of others. Privilege in itself is not bad; power in itself is not bad. They do, however, carry more responsibility when we have them in how we use them. The question is: are exercising them in spiritually faithful ways? Not to hoard them to ourselves, not to keep others out, not to lord them over others, not to reinforce unjust or exploitative systems or practices or behavior. These are resources we can use for the common good in the name of the Christ to build structures and systems that more nearly reflect God's intentions for us and for the world.
May it be so.
Sacrament of Communion
Invitation: Throughout the Bible, the meaning of this ritual is described in a number of different ways. We speak of it as a sacrament, a holy experience, when we have access to God's presence and grace in a unique way. We talk about this ritual as instituted by Jesus himself in his last days with his disciples. We point to the symbolism of bread and wine, body and blood, and remember the embodiment of God's grace in the human form of Jesus of Nazareth and the sacrifice he made on the cross. We also refer to it as a foretaste, or an appetizer if you will, of the heavenly banquet. People will come from the east and the west, from the far ends of the earth, to sit at the table together. No outsiders or insiders, no one with more honor or prestige than another, all of us children of God, in one family.
As Presbyterians, we practice what we call an open table -- all are welcome to seek access to this grace of God through Jesus Christ. Status doesn't matter, background doesn't matter, race or gender or age or sexual orientation doesn't matter, even our intellect or level of understanding doesn't matter. Because this is the Lord's table, not ours, and he spent his whole ministry breaking down these barriers to say none of this keeps us from the grace of God.
Prayer: We come to this time, O God, not because we deserve to be here, but because of your invitation. We come to this table, not because we are worthy, not because we deserve to be your guests, but only because of your mercy and great love that reaches out to each and every one of us and to the world.
We come because we hunger for food to feed our souls. We come because we thirst for living water. Open us to your spirit in this sacred meal, we pray. Bless these elements, and bless our remembering. May we know in our heart of hearts the extent to which you have been willing to go, out of love, for our sakes. May this knowledge bring us to our knees in gratitude and awe to transform us. Empower us and equip us to live as citizens of your kingdom, your realm, in the name of Christ. Amen.
Institution: On the night in which Jesus was betrayed, arrested and soon to be executed on a cross, he gathered his friends and disciples around a common table. There he took bread and broke it and said, “This is my body, broken for you. As you eat of this, remember me. Then he took the cup and said, “This is the cup of the new covenant, sealed in my blood. As you drink of it, remember me.” As we eat, as we drink, let us remember the one who died for our sakes and rose through the power of the living God.
Distribution - intinction
Prayer of Thanksgiving: By your Spirit, O God, unite us with the living Christ, that we may be one in service. As this bread and blood has represented Christ’s body for us, send us out to be the body of Christ in the world. Help us, O God, to love as Christ loved. Knowing our own weakness, may we stand with all who stumble. Sharing in his suffering , may we remember all who suffer. Held in his love, may we embrace all whom the world shuns. Rejoicing in his forgiveness, may we forgive all who betray us. Give us strength to serve you faithfully as we live into your realm and way on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.