Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 15, 2023 – The Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

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Isaiah 9:2-7+Psalm 36:5-19+(Romans 15:8-13)+Matthew 4:12-17

Jesus has just spent 40 days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan. He is undoubtedly on the verge of starvation and exhaustion, and the first thing he hears as he returns to Galilee is that John – his cousin and the one who had just baptized him before he went into the desert – has been arrested. Rather than resettling in his home in Nazareth, he moves on to Capernaum, about 30 miles northeast on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

There is an interesting word choice in this decision by Jesus. Matthew tells us that Jesus withdrew (ἀναχωρέω, although our current version says “went back”) to Galilee. You can learn a lot by analyzing word choices, and when we do a close look at this word ἀναχωρέω, it tells us something about what is happening. When the magi return to their home by another way after bringing their gifts to the infant Jesus, they go by a different way because they had been warned in a dream not to return to Herod. When it says “they left for the own country,” the verb is ἀναχωρέω. When the Holy Family is returning from Egypt but Joseph is warned in a dream not to return to Bethlehem, the same verb is used. Similarly in the 12th chapter of Matthew, the pharisees conspire against Jesus after witnessing many miraculous healings, and Jesus “withdrew” – ἀναχωρέω is the verb (12:15). And finally, when Jesus learns that John has been killed by Herod, he goes away to a quiet place (14:13). Same verb.

In each of these instances, the withdrawal is because something dangerous is afoot. In the case of John’s arrest, if Jesus is viewed as one among his cohort, he could be next. He withdraws not out of fear or to avoid violence, there is plenty of opportunity for that later on, but because he has work to do before then. He has disciples to call and preaching and teaching to do. His withdrawal to Galilee is, for now, necessary.

Tomorrow is the day we remember the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., although the actual date is today. He would have been 94 years old had he not been gunned down at the age of 39. One of the well-known instances in his life when withdrawal might have been tempting for him became known as the kitchen-table experience. One night in the early months of the Montgomery bus boycott, the phone rang, and the voice on the other end of the line told Dr. King that he was going to be killed, his family was going to be killed, his house was going to be bombed. That night, he paced back and forth in the kitchen, sat down to drink a cup of coffee, and poured out his heart in prayer. Was he up to the work that lay ahead of him? Should he back down for his own safety and that of his family? He was afraid and wasn’t sure he had any strength to go on. And that is when he had what he described as an experience of the divine, a voice telling him to stand up – stand up for what is right, what is good, what is true – and God would be with him.

A few nights later, while King was speaking at the First Baptist Church, a bomb was thrown onto the front porch of his house while his wife and child were inside along with another member of their church. While King was awaiting word of their fate, he claims that he was not worried. That kitchen table experience had been enough to assure him of the rightness – the righteousness – of his cause. He said to those gathered at the church

“Let us keep moving with the faith that what we are doing is right, and with the even greater faith that God is with us in the struggle.”[1]

There was no ἀναχωρέω, no withdrawing for King. Not for another decade when he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

One of King’s colleagues, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, was one of the subjects in a book I just finished called “Priests de la Résistance” about clergy and religious folk who stood up to fascists and Nazis in various times and places. Shuttlesworth was pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham when, on Christmas night in 1956, the Klan detonated sixteen sticks of dynamite outside his bedroom window. Miraculously, no one was killed, although Shuttlesworth landed in the basement as the blast collapsed the floor of the house.

After the explosion, as friends and neighbors filled the streets in their bathrobes and nightgowns, a police officer who was also a member of the KKK approached Pastor Shuttlesworth and suggested it would be a good time for him to leave town. Shuttlesworth responded, “I wasn’t raised to run.”[2]

Shuttlesworth did not withdraw, did not go home by another road, and suffered mightily through beatings and threats and arrests, but he somehow managed to survive it all until his death at the age of 89. If you ever fly into Birmingham, you will land at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.

Jesus knew when his time had come, when there was no other road to take but the one that led to Jerusalem and the cross.

Our lives are generally filled with less-risky choices. Living the life of faith may not subject us to violence, although I continue to be followed and watched because of my activism in Charlottesville, but taking seriously God’s call could lead to less worldly comfort, criticism or suspicion by family and friends, maybe even a change in careers. There are many demands placed on our time and our talent and our treasure, and sometimes we follow that better than at other times.

The magi may have gone home – ἀνεχώρησαν – withdrawn by another way, but they were not the same. When we encounter Jesus, we, too, are changed. And we have a choice: go home and carry on with business as usual or pray for God to lead us into deeper love for our neighbor, even if it means putting ourselves out there in discomforting if not dangerous ways. If we follow in the path of Jesus or Dr. King or Pastor Shuttlesworth, we might just be able to bend that arc a little more toward justice.

[1] – this story is recounted in King’s 1958 book Stride Toward Freedom about the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

[1] Fergus Butler-Gallie, Priests de la Resistance!: The loose canons who fought Fascism in the twentieth century (London: OneWorld Publications, 2020) 233.

allsaintsadminSermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 15, 2023 – The Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas