a sermon at a time and place

Second Sunday after Epiphany
Texts: Isaiah 49:1-7 | Psalm 40:1-11 | 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 | John 1:29-42

“Listen to me, O coastlands; pay attention, you peoples from far away!”

The first reading we hear today from the prophet Isaiah is spoken not in the voice of God, but in the voice of the Servant,  a character that is featured several times in Isaiah’s writings. The Servant – which could refer to a single person or to a community of people – is God’s agent of justice, called from the womb of their mother to restore God’s people.

Isaiah is writing in the voice of this Servant during a period of time when restoration could not feel more impossible for his community: a period called the Babylonian exile. Judah has been defeated in battle. Jerusalem, the center of social and religious life is utterly destroyed, together with the temple, the people’s sacred home. Over a period of years, the people of Judah are systematically exiled: first the rulers and the court, then deportation after deportation of countless others. The people are left scattered, alienated from their homeland, and captive under an oppressive regime.

It is out of this completely vulnerable and unprecedented moment in Israel’s history that God calls the Servant. Out of a situation of oppression, they are called to the work of restoration. And as if the situation weren’t already difficult enough, God goes on to say that it is “too light” to only restore your entire people. “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

The work of gathering the people back to God is not just for my people. The work of salvation that God sends me to do is not only for those who share my experience, not only those who share my citizenship, not only those who share my faith, but for all of creation.

This text fits well into the moment we find ourselves in today.

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On the church calendar, we are in a season of Time after Epiphany. In these weeks before Lent, we are hearing texts about God’s light shining to all nations, texts about baptism, texts about discipleship. In this season we’re inviting you to give testimony in worship about your experiences with people of other faiths. Our Diaconal Intern Luke has helped us frame this testimony series using a particular sentence that caught his attention from today’s gospel text: John’s disciples ask Jesus, “Where are you staying?” Luke reminded me that in his work with the Night Ministry (specifically in his outreach to LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness), he asks this question all the time, as a way of inquiring about whether someone has a safe place to go without assuming that they necessarily have a place to live. This testimony series invites us to ask ourselves, “Where is God staying?” and to pay particular attention to the times when God was made known to us in the experiences of other faiths.

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On the United States’ civic calendar, today is the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., American Baptist minister and civil rights leader. Dr. King would have been 88 years old today, had he not been assassinated 49 years ago by those who were threatened by the salvation work his life represented.

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Today on the public calendar is also five days before the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, a time when people all over the political spectrum are anxious and fearful.

I spend time grounding us in the moment we find ourselves in because the day and time matter. Our lives don’t happen in a vacuum; they happen in the context of history. We know, too, that God’s relationship to our lives isn’t generic or ahistorical; the Christ event happened to the world at an address in Bethlehem, during a particular emperor’s census, on a particular astrological date noticed by stargazers, at the time of a baby’s birth – a moment that we remembered just a few weeks ago on Christmas. Like all important events, the day and time are worth remembering; they matter.

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Discipleship occurs in the context of history. As we have seen, it matters that the text from Isaiah takes place during the oppression of the Babylonian exile, and not during the height of Jewish prosperity. God calls not a person or community that has its ducks all in a row, but a people at the most critical and painful moment their collective memory can remember.

In today’s gospel reading from John, the day and time matter enough to the gospel writer that he uses valuable space on the paper to be sure to tell us that Andrew decided to follow Jesus at approximately four o’clock in the afternoon(!).

Because all the most important things that happen to us, happen at a certain time. If you have children, you may remember the time they were born, or the date you brought them home. If you have lost someone close to you, you may remember the year.

It matters. It matters that Dr. King grew up in the Jim Crow era, matters that his best friend who was white couldn’t go to school with him, matters that his father was harassed by police.

And it matters that we are in this historical moment, January 15th, 2017.

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Our historical moment shapes us and makes us who we are – for better and for worse. Our historical moment can also hold us back.

The Servant in Isaiah argues with herself – at one moment declaring “Listen to me, O coastlands; pay attention, you peoples from far away!” – and in the next breath doubting why God has even called her, saying. “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” One must wonder how the context of exile must have affected the way the prophet saw herself. How did laboring in captivity affect the way she thought about her labor?

And one must wonder, too about Martin. About how generations of racial humiliation, internalized as self-doubt and depression must have affected him.

Or about Jesus, how being a Galilean, the child of a poor, unwed mother must have affected him.

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But our historical moment is not the only thing that shapes us. God, too, shapes us – in watery womb, calling us before the world has even seen our face. God makes us, not for internalized oppression, and not for the guilt of privilege either; not for shame and fear, but for courage! To be strong. God makes us for bus boycotts and children marches, for building movements that threaten the empire. God gives us a “mouth like a sharp sword” (Is 41:2), making us to say, “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!” Or, maybe in another translation, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop!

Evil and death have done their best throughout history in various forms to destroy those Servants who would struggle against them. But not even the most effective and fashionable evil of the day – not Babylonian exile, nor Roman crosses, nor political assassination, nor presidential inauguration – can keep God’s Servants from carrying out the work of restoring the world.

We have each other to love and support us. We have God walking alongside us. We have nothing to lose but the old ways of oppression. Thanks be to God.

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