Sermon for 1/24/21: ‘Sup, Dude!  What’s the Rush! Or, When God Comes Calling

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3 Epiphany

Psalm 62:6–14; Jonah 63:1–5, 10; I Corinthians 7:29–31; Mark 1:11–20

For the form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties
–I Cor. 7:31b – 32a

In advance of my taking time away from my duties and obligations for and on behalf of St. James, I had set out for myself a reading list which, now in retrospect, could have been the core for a graduate seminar. And during the weeks of my staycation, I read a lot, but I did not complete the self-proposed/self-imposed syllabus.  I did not come anywhere close.  No longer was I the graduate student or young professor, able to take shelter in the quiet halls and libraries of the academy.

Life intruded itself.  The pandemic did not recede from my consciousness, for I received calls from kin and friends alike who shared with me the condition of family members.  A priestly colleague telephoned to ask my prayers for his own ministry, for he was concerned that he could not do more to assist members of his congregation whose immediate lives, although free of Covid-19 infection, have been upturned due to financial instability caused by the seemingly never-ending pandemic.  And as was appropriate, my telephone rang from parishioners within our own community.  I honored the request of a graduate student to write a recommendation on her behalf to a Business School, and gave ear to another student, a young man who needed a sounding board for his further graduate education.  Life was and is to be lived, and matters of importance are not to be postponed until a more convenient time.  I complained not; I regretted nothing.

While on staycation, I had not read in advance the lectionary for this third Sunday of Epiphany.  However, having now done so, I wish that I had [done so earlier], for I must give the apostle Paul his due.  St. Paul articulates for his readers—and, in hindsight, for me—the need to slow down.  “I want you to be free from anxieties,” writes Paul.  Paul admonishes that we should ‘listen to what God is saying to God’s people.’  As I composed the syllabus for my staycation, I failed to build in “down time,” failed to anticipate the rejuvenation that proceeds from taking long walks—yes, in the cold of New England—and from sitting before my fireplace and just watching for hours the play of the flames.  This unplanned activity distracted me from my reading list.  This same distractive activity of seemingly doing nothing, so I now believe, freed my mind and my spirit to allow the Divine Spirit to reclaim its central role.

As was often true in my previous academic life, so did my self-imposed reading list get altered.  Not knowing why, as I stood one afternoon before my bookshelves, I retrieved from my collection a small volume that I had read before.  I took a seat before the fireplace.  The book opened to a letter, which I began to re-read.  It was none other than the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written 16 April 1963 by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., while he was incarcerated by the authorities of that city for exercising a right established in the Constitution of the United States of America—the right to assemble and to seek redress for morally bankrupt laws.  I read this short epistle prior to the attempted, but thwarted, coup by terrorists in our National Capitol, and likewise prior to remembering that the federal holiday in commemoration of his work to unite our country was on our calendar.  “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was in response to the critique of clergy who had deemed King’s activities, although nonviolent and non-destructive, as “unwise and untimely.”

As I re-read Dr. King’s rebuttal, I did this time what I had not done before, but what I often typically did with my personal books as a graduate student or professor: I highlighted phrases that struck me as true and as relevant today, as in Dr. King’s own day.  And I repeat: As I read, I did not anticipate the attempt by terrorists to overturn our government.

I share now some of the prescient words of Dr. King with you.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

“… time itself is neutral, it can be used either destructively or constructively… We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that time is always ripe to do right.”

“Jesus Christ was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment.”

And so it is that using the vernacular, I say “Sup, dude!  What’s the rush?”  What do we do when God comes calling?  And what is that call?  It is none other than the extremist Jesus himself who provides us with the answer to Dr. King’s dilemma, as well as to our own.   I must offer the backstory, for our lectionary for today omits an essential element, an introduction that explains the urgency to strive for “right.”  After Jesus allowed his cousin John to baptize him, he withdrew.  He needed to be alone, in order to reflect on his mission.  He engaged in a staycation: “And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove…The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.”  (Mark 1:10 – 12)

Thus, as we read further, the urgency contained in today’s gospel becomes immediately apparent.  After returning from his time of reflection and re-centering, Jesus receives word that his cousin John has been arrested for speaking truth to those in power who were abusing their power, their rank.  Time became of the essence for Jesus, who picked up the mantle that had been removed from John’s shoulders by those in power.  And Jesus needed assistants, ambassadors who were willing to give up their settled lives, their income (fishing), their families, and their personal safety for the common good.  “Jesus Christ [becomes] an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment.”  As God’s Messiah, he subjugates his own self-interest.  Our Book of Records details the resistance that he encounters in so doing.

And to my vernacularly posed question “What’s the rush?” the answer could not be clearer if we but listen to God’s Messiah and read Paul’s message to the Church at Corinth.  As followers of the Crucified and Resurrected One, the Kingdom of God is not built in some future time, as we sit in God’s heavenly kingdom.  Rather, we live in the Here and Now, i.e., we have this time, not some future time, in order to get it right, to lend our voices and resources to those who place themselves in the forefront of the march towards righteous unity.  We become, in our own time, those replacement disciples of Simon, also called Peter, and his brother Andrew, and the brothers James and John, and of the rear guard: Mary and Martha; the Roman Centurion; the man blind from birth who, upon receiving his sight, spoke out for the righteous cause; and Joseph of Arimathea who sat with the Sanhedrin Council, but supported Jesus.

In his inaugural address on Wednesday, 20 January, President Joseph Biden extended a call to service, for the good of our nation, for the good of the world, and for the good of the earth.  It is my hope and prayer that you and I, in our roles as messengers of God’s Messiah, who heard our President’s clarion call to unity of purpose and righteousness, will respond in great earnestness and urgency to bring us to unity.  However, we shall do so not merely because of his request, which is, in my opinion, honorable.  Rather, we engage in the struggle for unity because that call is none other than that put forth by the Extremist Jesus.  We do so in recognition of that Higher Authority who made heaven and earth and all the people who dwell therein, who may, because of language and location, address the God of Creation by another name.  We do so, because Jesus, followed by Paul, has taught us that time is indeed of the essence, as the poetry of one of my favorite hymns proclaims:

God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year;
God is working his purpose out, and the time is drawing near;
nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

From utmost east to utmost west, wherever foot hath trod,
by the mouth of many messengers goes forth the voice of God;
give ear to me, ye continents, ye isles, give ear to me,
that the earth may be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

March we forth in the strength of God, with the banner of Christ unfurled,
that the light of the glorious gospel of truth may shine throughout the world:
fight we the fight with sorrow and sin to set their captives free,
that the earth may be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

All we can do is nothing worth unless God blesses the deed;
vainly we hope for the harvest-tide till God gives life to the seed;
yet nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

                                                                        The Hymnal: 534