Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
What an odd dynamic to be entering Ordinary Time in the church year at such an extraordinary time for the Church. There’s nothing ordinary about preaching to you on a Zoom call no matter how many times we’ve done it together now.
What a strange thing it is to be entering a season called Ordinary Time at such a tragic time for our world, as COVID cases and hospitalizations continue to surge and death tolls continue to rise. There’s nothing ordinary about waking up to more than 365,000 lives lost to this disease just in our country alone, no matter that the numbers are so huge we can’t even wrap our minds around them, and we have no choice but to try our best to take those numbers in and then go about our days.
And how positively surreal to be entering into a season called Ordinary Time this week, of all weeks, when we’ve just witnessed a violent mob storming the U.S. Capitol building, waving confederate flags and Nazi symbols, incited and cheered on by the sitting president as they sought to overturn the results of our recent election. When we saw how little resistance they encountered for their acts of insurrection and terrorism, how few of them were even kept from leaving the scene of their crimes… When we remember protests by Black Americans and other citizens of color that have brought swift and brutal responses from law enforcement … When it sickened us to see crosses and “Jesus Saves” and “God’s army” signs in the mix …
We’ve also been called out this week for lamenting “this isn’t America” – something I certainly found myself saying on Wednesday - when there have been abundant indicators for years that this is the America in which we live. The sentiments we saw on those signs and heard shouted by that mob are all too familiar, all too common in these United States. Our utter shock each time we see them, as if they’re brand new, is doing far more harm than good. We need to accept that this is the state of our nation. And muster more than lament and outrage each time the festering evil of it all rears its ugly head. We had a giant wakeup call this week about the true scope and strength of white supremacy and the way it’s been intertwined with a deeply disturbing and distorted view of Christianity in this country. Let’s hope it seared itself into our brains to the point where we can no longer act surprised to see it again.
To another memorable crowd gathered in Washington DC years ago, that one marching peacefully, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the “fierce urgency of now.” There’s no question there’s a fierce urgency to this moment in time as well.
I was originally planning to talk to you today about Ordinary Time and how it relates to the way we need to just keep on keeping on during this pandemic. The turn of the year has certainly brought new hope in the form of vaccines but we’re still facing a whole lot of sameness as we wait for them to reach enough people to make a difference. I was originally going to talk about God’s presence with us in regular everyday moments and maybe even when life feels a little too predictable. Each new morning looking much the same as the last while we’re all hunkered down in waiting mode.
But then this week happened, and we were reminded yet again just how many crises we’re weathering all at once. My daughter Alina said to me a few days ago: “Mom, we’re witnessing so many things that are going to be written up in history books someday.” She’s right, of course. 2020 was anything but ordinary. 2021 clearly won’t be ordinary either. And as our guest preacher Phil Lewis noted last week, “we feel it in our bones, we feel the weight of it” all. It’s taking a toll.
Yet here we all are this morning doing one of the most ordinary things we do as people of God, opening the Scriptures and seeking a word from the Lord. Because we’re continuing a series on Luke’s gospel that we began before Christmas, I thought before we moved any further into this book, we’d look at the verses that bracket the more familiar Christmas texts from Luke 1 & 2. And I decided to stick with these same texts even though we might hear them now in a different way today.
First, the opening verses of Luke’s entire gospel here in chapter 1. Luke explains that while there have been other accounts written already, he wants to put down in writing himself the critically important stories of Jesus, writing an orderly account of the events he and others witnessed. He does this so his readers “may know the truth concerning the things about which [they] have been instructed.” (Luke 1:4) Heaven knows the importance of truth-telling could be the focus of an entire sermon, but what I actually want to point out today is the name of the person to whom Luke directs or dedicates his gospel: Theophilus. The identity of this person is unknown. Scholars have proposed various theories but there’s no consensus. Here’s what I love about that name, though. The Greek word Theophilus (combining the word theos for God and the verb phileo meaning love) – that name means something like “friend of God” or “lover of God” or “beloved by God.” So, whether or not there is an actual individual behind that name, I believe we’re invited to read it more broadly too, because the gospel is addressed to all of us. “Most excellent Theophilus,” Luke says to you. Dear beloved of God, dear friend of God, this good news is for you.
The second reading is one I’d selected simply to show Jesus and his parents in an ordinary moment. For their family it was a special occasion of course, but it was also ordinary in the sense of being traditional or customary for Jewish families with newborn boys to present them in the temple at 8 days old to be circumcised. Mary and Joseph were just following the law and doing what was expected of them, reminding us that Jesus’ childhood would be much like that of the other children around him. In fact, Luke sums up the next 12 years in a single verse: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” (Luke 2:40) Much as we long for more details there, I imagine the point is that there wasn’t much about Jesus’ childhood that was all that extraordinary. The whole point of God coming to earth in human form, after all, had been to become one of us. So, we can assume the gaps in the story would have contained the more ordinary parts of Jesus’ life.
Of course, even in his most ordinary moments Jesus was also the Son of God. Even on his most regular days – doing his chores, helping his dad out in the carpentry shop – he was also divine. Anything but ordinary. And thank God for that, because an ordinary human wouldn’t have the power to save us. For that we needed Immanuel, God with us.
Here we are, entering a season called Ordinary Time in the Church, when in the world around us, nothing feels ordinary at all. We are living through a season of crisis, a pivotal moment in history. But remember that we have an extraordinarily faithful God to help us through this extraordinary time.
Along with many of you I’m profoundly grateful that the day will soon come when we no longer need to fear unchecked narcissism, delusional power grabs, and the hateful, violent rhetoric of white supremacy spewing forth regularly from the White House, but it’s critical we remember that’s only one piece of the puzzle. Donald Trump didn’t rise to power in a vacuum. All he stands for, all those signs we saw brandished on Wednesday – that this appeals to a significant segment of the American population should both concern us deeply and call us to action. We long for a day to come when such dangers will be no more.
We long for a day to come when Black and Brown lives and Asian and Indigenous lives and Jewish and Muslim lives are freed from suspicion and prejudice and disrespect and from the threat of violence just for being Black and Brown and Asian and Indigenous and Jewish and Muslim…
We also long for that extraordinary day to come when all of our elected leaders – and all of us – will be able to speak and work respectfully together with those with whom we passionately disagree.
And of course we long for that extraordinary day to come when our entire world is free of the coronavirus.
And there is ever so much more we long for too…
My dear Theophili (to play with a plural form of Theophilus there), most excellent Theophili, God’s beloved friends, we have serious work to do. But take heart.
For Jesus our Immanuel knows first-hand how hard it is to be human, and he’s equipped with the full power of God. He can break through the mess and chaos around us to do extraordinary things, for with God nothing is impossible. Again, to echo our wonderful preacher last week, no situation, no nation is beyond God’s healing reach.
Jesus also stands ready to pick us up and dust us off… to heal us and help us… to fire us up and send us out and back us up as we get out there and do whatever is in our power to do, to address “the fierce urgency of now.” Amen.