Homily for Epiphany 3, Year A (January 26, 2020)
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
I was at an academic conference last weekend and had the opportunity to hear a talk by Stacey Abrams focused on her deeply passionate political advocacy to end voter disenfranchisement. She chose to begin her talk with us…an audience of social workers…by giving us a sense of her identity within her family. This included her parents…both of whom are now ordained Methodist clergy…as well as her five siblings who each had a very different life trajectory, from neuroscience, to law, to working diligently every day at being a person in recovery. She loved and honored every one of them in that speech. I know you weren’t there to hear the whole thing and I cannot even attempt to recall it all with the eloquence she did…but there were a few things about that talk that have lingered with me as I’ve been working with the texts of today’s scripture lessons.
First, there was a predictable outbreak of applause at the mention of her brother, the social worker. Those of us present might not have known him, but we had an instant recognition of shared vocation and call whether or not we knew anything else about each other as individuals; the connection made us family.
The other lingering thought was how deeply and personally she was inspired to action by her youngest brother who exemplified the persistence and hard work it takes to move through patterns of incarceration and treatment to navigate a complex history of mental health and addiction. She didn’t have to tell us all the details of his story: she knew she was speaking to a crowd full of people who also knew how easily people fall through the cracks of a broken system; how people self-medicate when there is no access or means to pay for essential medication; how much concerted work and resolute faith it takes for people to get up every day and walk the step-by-step journey through addiction. We were right there, walking with her as she told her story, taking in the narrative she told about the people who raised her, who inspired her and the policies and institutional barriers that frustrate her and injure the people she loves.
As I sat there listening to her story in that shoulder-to-shoulder packed room, I was reminded about the way in which call manifests in our lives. We might be tempted to think of “call” as a mountaintop moment of personal clarity. But walking along the sea of Galilee with Jesus, we begin to see that call resides in ordinary, everyday relationship. God speaks and the common threads of our lives begin to weave together in ways we never before realized were possible.
In the Epiphany stories of Jesus’ baptism, we were given a glimpse of the divine call made manifest in Jesus’ own life. But in today’s Gospel, we get a glimpse of Jesus’ call on a more human and relatable level. The baptism of Jesus was a moment of divine recognition but it also inaugurated a deeply human story between John and Jesus, whose lives intersected profoundly when each entrusted the other with an intimate knowledge of meaning and purpose and identity. John, whose call was to baptize Jesus whose sandals he did not even feel worthy to untie; and Jesus, prophetically stepping into the waters of baptism with his wild, living-on-the-margins, zealous older cousin John, a prophet who spoke hard truths, called for repentance and lived off the grid…as we might say now…in direct and defiant opposition to empire.
As the narrative unfolds, Jesus relocates his life from Nazareth to Galilee and settles in Capernaum, on the northwest Galilean shore. This was Roman-occupied territory, the seat of the empire that his cousin so often spoke out against. But, John had been arrested; his resistance to empire had been recognized as a threat and he had been taken away. Jesus’ change of location was likely practical…we know from accounts in the Gospel of Luke that he was effectively chased out of the temple for his teachings in his hometown of Nazareth. But, it was also prophetic and poetic, as echoed in Matthew’s quotation of the prophet Isaiah. Jesus left his Hebrew home to settle in the land held by the Roman empire that had imprisoned John. And he went there knowing full well what happened. Jesus goes into the heart of the empire to shatter the empire, taking up the cry of his cousin but this time, speaking with his own unique, clear and compelling voice: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
I’m struck by this intertwining of the ministries of John and Jesus where today’s Gospel lesson begins. There are so many unanswered questions: what compelled Jesus to that particular place? How did the news of John’s imprisonment inspire Jesus’ actions? While we don’t have clear answers, we have all the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry that follow, reminding us not only that John was pointing the way to Jesus, but that the character and qualities we see John the Baptist living were woven inextricably into this narrative of Jesus’ own ministry: Jesus who met people at the margins, withdrew to spaces set aside, lived in juxtaposition to empire even within empire; Jesus who preached the need to turn and change and reclaim a vision of the kingdom of heaven in our midst and who showed through story and example the reign of God which has come near. Jesus, moved to action by the darkness of injustice, now moves deeply and deliberately into the light of call. Only then could Jesus recognize and call others.
You see, I’ve always focused more on the second part of this story than the first. How was it that the disciples of Jesus would just leave everything and follow? But I am beginning to realize that the calling of the disciples may not have felt like a singular moment or a solitary choice but perhaps, instead, like the next faithful step forward into a community that saw them as they were, asked them to come as they were with the skills of their human lives, and saw the divine spark of purpose and call in the midst of their ordinary lives fishing, and building, and repairing. Maybe we could see it another way: Jesus and the disciples on the shores of Galilee saw the need to feed those who hungered, make shelter those who needed rest, and mend the lives and structures that were broken. And so it was that a community emerged; God’s justice flowed like water and the kingdom of heaven came near.
I’m reminded of the intersecting lives of a few modern day prophets and justice bringers, too. I listened recently to an interview with Ruby Sales, a civil rights veteran and (by her own admission) unexpected public theologian. She, like many of our black siblings, felt the weight of oppression during the civil rights era in the tightening of Jim Crow laws and state sanctioned discrimination. She felt a need to stand up and do something. During one of her first protests…in 1965 when she had just turned 17…it was Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Myrick Daniels who, freshly arrested and then unexpectedly released from jail earlier that afternoon, took a bullet fired directly at them by the town’s police deputy. Jonathan died; Ruby survived. Her subsequent life of faith, of civil activism, and of public witness has been constantly intermingled with oppression by the empire. And yet she does not stop. Even more, she asserts that the central question of our public theology must be to turn to one another and ask: “Where does it hurt?”
In that interview, Ruby Sales explains “…love is not antithetical to being outraged. Let’s be very clear about that. And love is not antithetical to anger. There are two kinds of anger. There’s redemptive anger, and there’s non-redemptive anger. And so redemptive anger is the anger that moves you to transformation and human up-building.”
Jesus’ move into the heart of an empire that had imprisoned his cousin John was likely not one of gentle peace. When structures of oppression hurt those you love, you get angry. Jesus steps into that place of human anger and fills it with divine redemption. In today’s Gospel he took up the call to ministry vacated by an imprisoned John, and allowed the free slowing of the Spirit which rested on him in Baptism to call into ministry those who were needed in God’s vision exactly as they were, to do the work of replacing the empire of human oppression with the divine imagination of what can be, with God’s help. Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John were invited to participate in the reign of God. Today we hear their resounding “yes” as an embrace of this ministry of heavenly redemption from the structures of bondage in this world. We are amazed, and we are terrified, and we too are invited to participate in this reign of God’s redemptive love for all of humankind. The kingdom of heaven has come near.
Not just our Gospel, but all of today’s lessons point to this universality of the Good News: the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and on those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined; our baptism, like that of Jesus, is of God; being baptized in Christ unites us in the same mind and the same purpose. Jesus reminds us that the Good News is as present and relevant at the margins of this world as it is at the center of the empire. God calls us as we are, with the gifts and the strengths that we bring, living within the particularities of our time and place, to live into the fullness of the mission and ministry God has for us in the places where it hurts the most.
Where does it hurt? Where we see hurt, we are called to go because that is the very place where God will meet us. In the darkness of our hurt and the hurt of this world in which we live, the profound piercing of the good news of the light of Christ will be the most needed, and the most evident.
Love where it hurts; immerse into a community where we feed and shelter and bind up one another’s wounds. See Christ in our midst, calling us to be that light for the world in which we live. Say yes, not because you feel you must but because you realize that God has put you in exactly the place you need to be, in this community which Christ has called into discipleship. The steps will emerge, the story will unfold, and the kingdom of heaven will be near.