Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany

Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

Anyone want to buy a medical N95 mask?  Well, good luck with that, because from what I hear they’re sold out everywhere.  This coronavirus thing has been going crazy, huh?  I mean, sure, we had one confirmed case here in the Lower Mainland, but apparently that guy has been in quarantine.  And I think three now in Ontario, but those three cases have been dealt with and were expected.  The CDC and WHO have said very publically and on record that there is no need for those of us in Canada to panic as risk of infection is very very low.  So what do people do?  Panic, of course.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that this is a serious disease that has been going around, and if you contract it, there is a chance you could die.  Many in China have died already, I think the death toll is around 400, and there was a case found in the Philippines just yesterday. But we’ve had this happen before, haven’t we?  Like we have this illness of the month and a small percentage of people die, and society goes in full panic mode.  It’s like all they are doing is figuring out ways to avoid dying by this one specific cause, while paying no attention to all the other much more likely and very avoidable ways we could die, like heart disease from a bad diet, lung cancer or something from smoking or worse yet, vaping, or maybe even falling to the a regular flu from not getting a flu shot.  And let’s be honest, how many of us get our flu shots every year?

Fear is a powerful thing.  It makes us do irrational things, think irrational thoughts, and jump to irrational conclusions.  And we all have that fear in us, it just takes the right kind of stimulus to kick start it, and then rational thought and action just get tossed out the window.

Maybe it isn’t a fear of dying from an obscure disease that is more prevalent on the other side of the world, but it could be a fear of gun violence so you actively avoid anyone who you might think would carry a gun, regardless of how judgemental or racist it may seem.  Or maybe you’re afraid of being alone, so you latch yourself onto any warm body regardless of how abusive or dysfunctional they are.  Or maybe, to put in our Lower Mainland context, you’re afraid of driving in the snow so you refuse to go out when there is any snow on the ground or drive like 12km/h when there is a tiny patch of snow on the grass over there.  These fears that we have could hinder us from doing what needs to be done, could debilitate us from being active in our relationships and society, could stop us dead in our tracks in living as God has actually intended us to.

This was the case for the Jewish nation living in bible times.  They were absolutely ruled by fear.  They were so afraid of breaking the rules, afraid of being kicked out of their promised birth rite, afraid of being declared “unclean” and thus be treated like a leper.  That fear was real, and it motivated them to stay in check.  At least, in a “check” that made them think that they could be good enough, disciplined enough, and clean enough to still be part of group.

The problem in that was in maintaining their cleanliness, they had to disassociate themselves with any of those who are unclean, in fears that the unclean will make them lose all their work in keeping clean.  So they would put on their own version of the N95 mask, thinking that this thin veil that does close to nothing to protect them would make the difference and save them.

So the fear was strong in them.  They took their need to be clean and threw away what they’ve learned from the prophets.  That is, they were so concerned with doing the right things, saying the right words, and spending time with the right people that they forgot what God actually would like them to do, and that is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.  Instead, in their fears they overlooked injustice as long as it benefit themselves, they were only kind to those who could return the favour, and they walked down the paths of self-interest, self-righteousness, and self-preservation.

And if I’m honest with you all, they aren’t the only ones.  I too, am afraid and have let that fear stand in the way of what is good and right for me.  I have acted out of my own pride and done things only for the sake of making myself look better, in fear that people won’t like me.  I have ignored justice in the world by buying clothing I know have been made in sweat shops because I was afraid that I wouldn’t fit in because of how I look.  I’ve been selective of who my friends are, in that in the hierarchy of social status, it only makes sense that I and others like me be the lowest common denominator of who I can benefit from.

I am afraid of what I’d look like, what I’d become, or what “unclean” disease I might catch and might exclude me from being popular, respected, perfect.  Because if I want to be perfect, I’d have to hang out with other perfect people, right?  As the saying goes, if you want to soar, you have to fly with the eagles (or something like that).

But the thing is, we aren’t called to be perfect.  We aren’t made to soar.  God doesn’t require us to be better than everyone else at the expense of everyone else.  Rather, God calls us to be blessed.  That is, we are called to love ourselves in spite of our failures, fears, and imperfections, because we are loved. 

Yes, we have fears, and we probably will regardless of how hard we try to hide them.  We have our faults, and they will always come regardless of how much we cover them up.  We have our imperfections, and they’ll always be a part of us regardless of how much we deny them.  But even in that, in all the dirt and muddiness, in all the slop and uncertainty, in all the anxiety and fear, God calls us blessed.

See it isn’t in our fearlessness that God can bless us.  It isn’t in our strength and self-reliance.  It isn’t in our own power and authority.  But God meets us in the very pit of our being, in the deepest, darkest reaches of who we are, in those corners and closets of our lives that we hope to remain hidden, and draws us out, reveals to us how we are loved in spite of all that and brought into community and relationship.

Friends, we don’t have to fear our imperfections.  We don’t have to fear others who we feel fall under our social class or status.  We don’t have to fear how we are regarded by God or others, because we can rest assured, believe, and have faith that God has and forever will bless us with a love that has created the universe.

And when we see those fears that we have of not fitting in, of not being liked, or not clean enough are actually irrational fears and can be put aside, we can then truly see each other and all people as beloved children of God.  We can truly act out of justice because the needs of others become our great concern.  We have love kindness without any hope of gain or return.  We can walk humbly with God because we would be able to see that it isn’t what we do that matters, but it is how much God declares us as blessed that matters.  And that just happens to be a whole darn lot.

In this season after the Epiphany, let us be reminded of the confidence given to us as God’s children, that we are not chosen to be loved because of our ability to be perfect, but because we simply are created, we simply are welcomed, we simply are.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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