Yesterday, we opened our doors during the Women’s March on Madison. It’s something we’ve done before—in 2011 and last year, during the Latino Day of Action. In response to people’s questions yesterday, including a TV reporter, I replied, “It’s what we do; it’s who we are.”
Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. 6 years ago, some parishioners questioned the wisdom of opening our doors. Was it a political act? To questions and concerns like that, I responded, whatever we do or don’t do is a political act. If we keep our doors closed, it will be interpreted as a political statement, just as if we open our doors and welcome people in.
That dilemma is a function of our location on Capitol Square. The people who built Grace Church on this site were making statement about the relationship between Grace Church and state government, and they were bringing a reality a vision of the relationship between church and state, the gospel and politics.
We live in a very different world and nation than existed in the 1850s, but the legacy of that vision of the relationship between church and state lives on. It was on display during the inauguration with an inauguration day prayer service at St. John’s Lafayette Sq, and yesterday’s interfaith prayer service at the National Cathedral. The Episcopal Church has, since the founding of the church and our nation, served unofficially as the Established Church of the US.
That’s something I’ve always been uncomfortable with because of my own upbringing in a very different tradition and because it sits uneasily with the gospel. In the twenty-first century, that relationship seems very hollow, especially in our new political context.
But what should our role be as Christians and as the church in the political realm? I hope to say more about that in our forum later. For now, let me just say that I think American Christianity, left and right, has been misguided in taking a similar approach, seeking to promote the gospel through the political process, even if the goals of progressive and conservative Christians are very different.
Some of you may be muttering that I’m preaching politics from the pulpit. That’s not the case. What I aim to do is to lay out some initial reflections on what the Good News of Jesus Christ means in our current context and how we as a congregation, as Christians, as the Body of Christ might come together to witness to that Good News and to embody the love of Christ in our new world.
Today, as I reflect on this gospel reading, I am overwhelmed by its aptness for our situation. In the first place, the very context of it. It begins on an ominous note, with a reference to the imprisonment of John the Baptist, and the retreat of Jesus from (presumably) the province of Judea or the area around the Jordan River to Galilee. In essence, Jesus is going back home; but he’s going there because Herod arrested John the Baptist. It’s likely that Jesus felt himself under threat and suspicion because of the action taken against John; after all, the two were associated.
So one might imagine that Jesus was feeling very much like many of us do today, fearful, concerned about the future, concerned about his future. But he did not hide. He may have gone to Galilee, but in the midst of whatever fear he might have had, he chose at that very moment, in all of the uncertainty, to begin his public ministry. More than that, Jesus emphatically chose to continue John the Baptist’s ministry. Matthew reports as a summary of Jesus’ proclamation: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
Let me pause and make two observations because to twenty-first century ears, this language sounds overly pious and a bit old-fashioned. When we hear the word “repent” our minds go to the overt rituals and drama of repentance—feeling shame and guilt over sins and seeking God’s forgiveness, whether we do this individually and privately, or in the context of the sacrament of Confession. Similarly, “kingdom of heaven” sends our minds to pearly gates, angels with harps, and streets paved with gold. Both of those sets of images are misleading.
The word translated here as “repent” is the Greek “metanoiete” which literally means “change your mind.” So it’s not so much feeling remorse for one’s actions and seeking forgiveness, but a complete transformation in one’s point of view; the way one looks at the world, perhaps even, a transformation of who we are at our very core.
Similarly, while Matthew almost exclusively uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” it’s his wording for what in the gospels of Mark and Luke is called the kingdom of God and kingdom should be thought of not as a place, a territory or nation, but a qualitative existence—we could say “reign of God.” We will have a great deal more to say about the reign of God as we work through the Gospel of Matthew this coming year. Especially now, we might even translate it as “empire” and interpret Jesus’ proclamation of the “empire of God” as a direct challenge to Rome. God’s power and justice is present around us and in this very world, confronting and overturning the power and oppression of Rome.
From that brief summary of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, Matthew turns to the story of Jesus calling the first disciples. In its brevity and simplicity, it invites all sorts of questions. Why did Peter and Andrew, James and John, respond in such a way to Jesus’ call? Did they know Jesus? Had they heard about him? Was it something in his demeanor that motivated them? Were they so ground down and dispirited by lives caught up in the grinding poverty and oppression of Roman occupation that they jumped at the opportunity to break free?
Put yourself in their position—perhaps you feel a bit like that today, overwhelmed by recent events, worried for the future. Some of you may have had your spirits lifted slightly by the wave of protests yesterday. But we’re wondering, where do we go from here.
The answer is simple. Let’s follow Jesus. One of the things I’ve freed myself from since November is the outrage spiral. From time to time, I feel myself getting sucked up into the vortex, but each time, I’m able to pull myself away and out and refocus on what really matters—the Good news of God’s reign. God’s reign does not depend on who occupies the White House or controls Congress. In fact, I can hear Jesus’ call more clearly now; I can see the way forward.
Jesus went about the towns of Galilee proclaiming the good news that God’s reign is near. He healed the sick, restored people to their communities. Jesus calls us to follow him, to share in the proclamation of that good news. Jesus challenges us to welcome the stranger and the foreigner, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, to visit the sick and prisoners. Jesus challenges us to love our enemies. In all of that, we are participating in the coming of God’s reign of justice and peace. In all of that, we are following Jesus.
May you hear his call; may you follow him.