January 22, 2017
Matthew 4:12-23, Isaiah 9:1-4
Today is the third Sunday after Epiphany and each of these Sundays has featured an exchange between Jesus and John. First, John baptized Jesus. Second, John told his followers to follow Jesus. Today, Jesus hears that John has been arrested and it sends him into action. The words from Isaiah are repeated “the people who lived in darkness have seen a great light” and then Jesus sets out to begin his ministry. His first proclamation sounds like it could have been John speaking. He says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” We tend to think of John as the repentance guy and Jesus having a kindler, gentler different approach to ministry. Instead of starting ministry with some nice flyers with inspirational quotes and clip art, he comes out with a simple instruction: “repent”, then he takes a walk by the sea and tells some people fishing to follow him.
This is not an example of beautiful, inspirational preaching. The words are short and simple and yet they seem to be more than enough. In both cases, the ones Jesus called immediately left their work and went with him.
We don’t live in a world where we make big life changes immediately. If we are going to change careers, we probably require some training. If we are going to relocate, we probably have to sell or rent a house. We have to close bank accounts and fill out change of address forms. We don’t just up and go with no effort whatsoever. And yet, the ones in this story went with Jesus. There isn’t any conversation about what the job will pay or how much vacation they will get or if it includes health insurance. They just go.
Why? I wonder if they have spent their entire life preparing for this. They may not even know it, but when Jesus shows up they don’t have to stop and think about it or consult with loved ones because this is what they were born to do.
I was living in Atlanta managing a bookstore twenty years ago. I had finished seminary, but I refused to be ordained in a denomination that denied ordination to the extraordinary gay and lesbians who had been called by God. So my form of solidarity with those who were being excluded by the United Methodist Church was to say no to the ordination process. I had not yet come out and had no idea that would ever be in my future. I only knew that it was wrong for the United Methodist Church to deny ordination to those God had called and I would not stand with the oppressor.
I was on a retreat and the theme for the day was “call”. Everything we did that day had to do with God’s call. My call was still there, but I was convinced that I could not act on it. When we sang, “Here I am Lord, is it I Lord, I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.” I said, “yes, I will go.” I didn’t stop to think about my bank account or health insurance or where I would live this call. I knew that I had to go. Three months later I had moved across the country where I finished the ordination process and served a church that was open to all. I am called to let all people know that the church is open to them. I know that the church is profoundly richer when we include all, not a select few.
God calls each of us. We tend to use the word call to refer to ordination, but we are all called to follow Jesus. What is Jesus calling you to do? What issue nags at you? Who do you worry about the most?
The text today is rather sparse. Jesus tells people to repent. He calls followers and then he sets out to tell people about God and heal those who are sick. In those few verses, many lives are changed. He calls us to care for the most vulnerable. We are called to bring God’s loving, healing to those who need it most. We may think that we don’t have the energy or skills to do that, but do you ever think about what a void is left if you choose NOT to offer your gifts?
I saw the movie Hidden Figures this week. It may be the most important movie I have ever seen. It is the story of Mary Jackson, an engineer, Katherine Johnson, a mathematician, and Dorothy Vaughan, a computer programming supervisor who worked for NASA in the early 1960’s. These women were brilliant. They were African Americans offering their skills to get the first U.S. shuttle launched into space and they did so with profound odds. This was a white male industry and yet each of them out performed their counterparts. They had to overcome so many obstacles to simply offer their gifts. They didn’t give up when they were treated as less intelligent, couldn’t put their names on reports they authored, were not allowed to touch the coffee pot, and had to walk half a mile to a building across campus just to use the restroom. If they had given up, the Friendship 7 spacecraft might not have launched successfully.
Many of us have given up for much less than that, but I am clear that is unacceptable now. The world needs us. They need people of faith to step up and say yes to the call. There is a deep depression settling in and fear is dominating day and night for many. A woman comes to the church every few months. She has many strikes against her. Her English is not great. She supports herself by selling homemade burritos. She has a list of health concerns and no insurance. She came this week and told me how afraid she is that she will be deported. I can listen to her fear and then go home to my warm house after depositing my paycheck. I cannot ignore her pain and I cannot pretend her fear means nothing.
We collected change for bus passes several months ago. A man who was stranded here wanted to return to his family in California. I didn’t have the right resources to help him do that, but each time he came, I gave him bus passes to get around the city. He came last week for one last bus pass. He had finally earned the money he needed to go to California. Before he left town that evening, he had to collect some of his stuff around town. Those bus passes didn’t make it possible for him to go home. But they became a touchstone for him. He came to a place where he was treated with dignity and when he came for the final bus pass, we celebrated with him.
I had a meeting in Arizona last week and on the flight home I sat next to a girl who goes to Jefferson middle school. She said she has come to church here a few times. She told me that she really likes our doors. The doors tell the entire community that all are God’s beloved, not just people with a certain income, skin color, or gender.
There are so many ways we as a church say to the community, “we see you. We are here for you.” We don’t have all the answers and we don’t have unlimited resources, but we have the ability to treat people with dignity. We have the opportunity to say that we think each person counts. We must stand up for the marginalized. We must have honest conversations about racism and oppression.
This week that call came from a 15-year-old boy from Atlanta. Royce Mann was asked to present his poem “Rise Up” at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Monday to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. Royce says, “There is more work to be done. The movement for equality is not over. Rise up with those overlooked and undervalued by society.” His poem calls us to stand with the black man, the boy in a wheelchair, a Muslim women who wears a hijab, a trans boy disowned by his parents, a female Native American poet whose voice is ignored, a white boy living in poverty, a woman born in the US whose parents are Dominican and is told to go back to Mexico. He ends with the words, “Martin dreamed when it was time to dream. Rosa sat when it was time to sit. Barack ran when it was time to run. Now is the time to rise, to rise up together as one.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTNTWZLdypM)
Yesterday several thousand in Albuquerque gathered to say yes to the call. We will not be silent. We will stand with those on the margins. Today, we welcome several new members and together we are stronger. We have what we need to be God’s people. God’s call is as clear today as it was in Matthew’s gospel. Rise up, beloved of God, rise up!