St. John’s United Methodist Church of Baltimore

Rev. Dr. Jackson H. Day, Pastor

Second Sunday after the Epiphany – January 16, 2022[1]

On Christmas Day, 1968, my Brigade Commander gave me a helicopter and a case of whiskey and told me to get to all the units I could, scattered on mountain top firebases in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.  My Christmas Day sermon that year was based on the first words of Psalm 137: “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.”  Actually I used the words from the King James translation, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.”  Because on few days of their year’s sojourn in Vietnam did American troops feel more of a sense of exile from their homeland in a strange place than on Christmas Day when their families were home with gathered family sitting around a table with turkey and all the trimmings.  Publicists might have praised the glory of being at war, but emotionally we knew:  We were in exile.  We were in Babylon.

History depends on who writes it.  Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar surely would have written the events that took place 2500 years ago differently.  But what we read was written by the descendants of the Judeans who lost the Judean-Babylonian war and were exiled.  When you are exiled, you are in a place you don’t belong.  You are missing the people who are familiar and surrounded by those who are strange.  You are wishing you could be somewhere else, back in the place you used to call home.

But when time passes something happens.  Generations change.  You know only where you are, and you forget where you have been.  Jerusalem was destroyed and the exile began in the year 587 BCE.  Imagine a child born the next year, 586, growing up in Babylon, hearing from her parents about the land they had lost but never knowing it herself.  Now it is 566, she has a child of her own whose only connection with the lost Judah is through her grandparents growing up.  Twenty years later it is 546, and yet another generation, whose only connection with Judah is through great grandparents, who by this time have probably died.  The exile ended and the promised return to Judah and rebuilding of Jerusalem began about 520, by which time yet another generation was born.  Surely by now many of these Jews were in most respects Babylonians, with Babylonian language and culture and values and only dim memories of their Jewishness.

I thought of all this when I heard Isaiah’s words, “you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.” [2]   Because if they are called by the names that their great-great-great grandparents found familiar, even the names most cherished by those now-dead ancestors will be new to them.


When the Pilgrims arrived in New England, they adopted imagery from the Bible and applied it to themselves.  They were not going into exile in a strange new country, they were fleeing from their exile in an England that persecuted their expressions of faith, and so they adopted the imagery of the Promised Land where they would create a nation and a culture like a light set on a hill that would be a beacon to all the nations.

I wondered, what if they were going into exile but just didn’t know it?  When you read the history of the Pilgrim’s descendants you realize that they quickly forgot about being a light on a hill.

The Native Americans they encountered were soon displaced and annihilated.

Fear of evil led to the evil of the Salem witchcraft trials.

A couple of centuries later their descendants sent missionaries to convert the natives in Hawaii.  Those descendants quickly seized the opportunity to take the land for plantations, become the dominant class, steal the island from the Hawaiians and turn an independent kingdom into an American territory.

But it didn’t take individuals two centuries to forget their dreams.  I encountered the story of a New England man who was born only a few months after his parents were married.  That’s by no means a unique sort of event, but the parents were hauled into court by the Puritans for “fornication before marriage.”  To compound the story, DNA studies have now shown that the infant in question was fathered not by the husband but by a nearby clergyman whose parents had arrived on the Mayflower.  The “city set on a hill” had foundations of clay.  Had they come to the promised land, or were they really in exile in Babylon?


Our land is going through a crisis of self-discovery today that is wrenching many at their roots.  The self-discovery is at the heart of our cultural divide, a divide so intense that some analysts are likening it to the preface to a civil war.

What is American Exceptionalism?  Are we the City set on a Hill, or are we Babylon?  Was Robert E. Lee a heroic figure fighting on behalf of his people or was he a slave owner fighting on behalf of his property?  Were our Founding Fathers paragons of virtue to be emulated in all things or did they have both hearts of gold and feet of clay?

And what do we do with the memories?  Literally whitewash them?  Cleanse their taint from our bodies in a bath of guilt?  Or loudly say it ain’t so and never has been?  On his first day in office this week, Virginia’s new governor issued an executive order that Virginians shall not learn their past in schools.  They shall not view their history from the perspective of those whom Virginia oppressed.  They shall learn only what Babylon wants them to learn.


Tomorrow our nation honors Martin Luther King, Jr, and we honor him for his effort to bring America out of Babylon.

The challenge in 520 BCE was to lead a group of people to the Promised Land who had never been there before.  They were the descendants of the Judeans who had been exiled, but they and the generations before them had grown up in Babylon.  Some had been brought up on images of a Jerusalem they had never seen while others had accepted Babylon as a good place to be.

Martin Luther King, Jr absorbed an understanding of America where African Americans were in exile.  He grew up in segregated Atlanta where two previous generations of his family were Baptist preachers.  While he was in college, a summer working on a farm in Connecticut opened his eyes to the possibility of racial harmony.  When he graduated from Morehouse College, his college president, Benjamin Mays, a social gospel advocate, encouraged him to enter the ministry.  In Crozer Seminary in Philadelphia he became acquainted with the nonviolence of Mohandas Gandhi.  He honed his skills at United Methodist Boston University School of Theology when he got his doctorate.

And then he began to lead America out of Babylon.  As pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama, he was soon involved with the Montgomery Bus boycott and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  In the spring of 1963 he was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama.  Later that year was the March on Washington and his famous “I have a Dream” speech.  His efforts produced the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a Nobel Peace Prize that year, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  On April 4th, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York, he tied his civil rights work to an anti-war stance regarding the Vietnam war, and exactly one year later, in Memphis Tennessee to support sanitation workers, standing on the balcony of a motel, he was killed.

What is important is that he never lost the understanding that he was to lead his people out of Babylon.

In his great “I have a dream” speech, he referred back to the Emancipation of enslaved people and said, “But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

And he never lost the understanding that by his people he meant not just those who looked like him, but those who did not.

“But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

“The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

“We cannot walk alone.”

And Martin Luther King, Jr, went on to describe the destination of a nation returning from exile:

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood….I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”


Our lectionary assemblers gave us a passage today that St. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth. [3]   I don’t know if they realized it, but they gave us some instructions for helping realize Martin Luther King Jr’s dream.

“Look at the gifts people bring,” St Paul was saying. People are not problems to be solved but gifts to be recognized, because we know where the gifts come from:  “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;  there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”

Every moment of American history that has marked us as Babylon is a moment in which some of us have not recognized and affirmed the gifts of others of us and St. Paul is clear:  a rejection of the gifts God has given is a rejection of the God who has given the gifts.


2500 years ago the Jewish people exiled in Babylon began their trek out of exile, back to a Jerusalem that lay in ruins and had to be rebuilt.  The imagery of that return has inspired prophet after prophet who hoped for the future.  John the Baptist borrowed words from Isaiah to describe his role in preparing for Christ [4] and Martin Luther King, Jr, echoed those same words in that famous speech of 1963:  “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”


What’s a good first step on a trip out of exile?  It may sound startling, but it you know me it won’t be a surprise.  What’s the first step?  Take communion.

Why do you think the lectionary writers put the story of the wedding feast at Cana [5] on this particular Sunday?  Because for Christ, the wedding feast symbolized the coming kingdom of heaven—and the communion meal acts out the wedding feast that celebrates the kingdom.

This is the wedding feast which the rich and powerful, content with whatever Babylons their age afforded, refused to attend.  This is the wedding feast whose messengers were sent out to gather the poor and homeless, the sick and suffering, the oppressed and rejected.  This is the wedding feast where one spouse is God and the other is humanity and a covenant between the two is affirmed.

This is the wedding feast where of course water becomes wine because in the presence of Christ it could do no other.


Communion is a first step, not the last.  It is an act of grace that must be followed by acts of justice.  It’s the beginning of the trip from Babylon to Jerusalem, not the end.  It’s food for the journey.

Most of us here are already on that journey in one way or another.  Don’t go without nourishment.  Despite all the work of those who have sought to make a highway in the desert, to lower the hills and raise the valleys, it’s still a long road from the wilderness to the promised land, from Babylon to Jerusalem.

We need the bread of heaven.  We need the cup of salvation.  
We need food for the journey.  Thanks be to God.

[1] Lectionary Readings:  Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, I Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

[2] Isaiah 62:1-5

62:1 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.

62:2 The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.

62:3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

62:4 You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.

62:5 For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

[3] 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

12:1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.

12:2 You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak.

12:3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.

12:4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;

12:5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord;

12:6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.

12:7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

12:8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit,

12:9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,

12:10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

12:11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

[4] John 1:23; Isaiah 40:3

[5] John 2:1-11

2:1 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.

2:2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.

2:3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”

2:4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

2:5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

2:6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.

2:7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.

2:8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.

2:9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom

2:10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”

2:11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.