Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 15 2017
Isaiah 49.1-7; Psalm 40.1-11; John 1.29-42
Rev Loren McGrail, United Church of Christ | National YWCA of Palestine
What a blessed and ominous Sunday! It is the second Sunday after the Epiphany, when the wise ones came or when Jesus was baptized and named as God’s beloved Son. It is the darkest and coldest time of the year in many parts of the world. Yet it is still the season of the manifestation of the light and the revelation of God’s love in the world.
This is also Martin Luther King Sunday and it is celebrated in many Protestant denominations in the United States by reading parts of his speeches or sermons. I used to go to a church where we read his letter from the Birmingham Jail aloud and then talked about why we as a predominately white congregation were afraid to act for justice for others.
What wasn’t talked about was the way towards the end of his short life that he connected racism with economic injustice and militarism. Everyone wanted to believe in God’s beloved community, but few wanted to do the hard work of using our power to stand up for justice. But this is exactly how the beloved community, heaven on earth, is built.
As Dr King said, Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.
Like prophet Isaiah calling out his servant Israel to restore the survivors, to become a light to the nations, King called us to speak out against not just racial injustice but economic inequality, and the worship of the gods of war.
He called us to stand for love even if it meant facing attack dogs and fire hoses on a bridge, or spending time in jail for committing acts of noncooperation or civil acts of disobedience.
King’s legacy for justice continues today. You will see or hear echoes of it this coming weekend during the inauguration of America’s next president. Many people have made the decision not to participate or to protest, including well-known civil rights leader and now senator John Lewis. Women from across the country will hold their own protest next Saturday wearing pink hats as a visible symbol of their rejection of Trump’s misogynist behavior and comments.
But before this historic event will be the Paris talks scheduled to begin Monday. Here world leaders who have failed to help Israel and Palestine forge a peace agreement will make decisions on how to resuscitate the two-state solution. Will King’s commitment to nonviolence be part of their discussions? Will they divest from selling arms? Will they invest in peace and equality for Palestinians and Israelis? Will they recognize the state called Palestine?
Our Isaiah text reminds us that we have already been named and called. Will these countries finally become that light of justice and demand a just peace?
Our lectionary text from the Gospel of John also deals with the theme of call and vocation. It explores the interrelated way being called and testimony and witness lead to mission.
The passage begins with that wild man John the Baptist testifying to how Jesus is God’s beloved, his son with whom he is well pleased. He saw the dove, the Spirit, descend and become one with him. His witness becomes his testimony to his own disciples.
The light cannot become manifest unless it has a witness. John is that witness. His work is to prepare the way, to name who he is, “God’s Passover lamb”, the one who will take away the sins of the world for our liberation.
John’s testimony provokes his own disciples to follow the lamb. Seeing that he is being followed, Jesus asks them, “What are you after?”
They don’t answer “You” or “the Messiah”. Instead they ask another question, “Where are you staying?
Now I must interject here a few things for us to think about.
Why this question back? It reminds me about a conversation I often encounter here when talking with Palestinians about another Palestinian. They always ask, even before I can finish my sentence, “What’s his family name?” Knowing which family or tribe helps them place him or in a social context.
The context of where you are staying or living also does this. For example, I live in a Muslim Arab neighborhood in occupied East Jerusalem near my workplace and near the UNDP. I live in a family compound with other foreigners and my landlord’s family.
I am protected from the violence around me; but I can still hear the fighter planes taking off, the explosives in the distance, or smell the tear gas from the clashes. I have become uncomfortably accustomed then too to soldiers on every corner with their fingers on the trigger. I live here in this kind of environment but it is not where I am from. Where I am from is a country that helps pay for those weapons. It is a place I can return to, when those weapons and planes lead to yet another intifada or war.
Back to our story. Jesus doesn’t tell these men where he lives, he answers rather, “Come and see.” He knows that the real question they are asking is “Who are you? Can we stay with you? We want to belong to someone.” So the only way for them to find out is to come and see for themselves.
So they come. They stay. They remain.
Andrew, our Saint Andrew, was one of the first to go and see and stay. He wanted a place to remain and Jesus was that place, a person who is himself a home, a place to belong, and a whole way of life. Andrew models how discipleship can begin. You hear a testimony and go and witness yourself and then your story becomes a testimony for another who then also comes to see and stay. This is how his brother Simon got called and became Peter. The process is so complete that sometimes we are even renamed.
Through the centuries commentators have seen this short lectionary passage as a text about call and mission. I agree, but I think it is first and foremost about an invitation, an invitation to witness, to testify, or follow. Invitations can be accepted or declined.
If we identify with John the Baptist, are we in the right place to recognize the Christ when he shows up? Where do we see the spirit descending and coming to rest? Where is the dove of peace to be found?
I found this dove in the story about a farmer in France. Cedric Harrou is a 37-year-old olive farmer, on trial for helping dozens of migrants and refugees travel through the remote Roya Mountain Valley near his home. This is the same valley where Jews fled the Nazis during WWII.
Cedric is part of a loosely knit underground of people who help people migrate north to Germany. When asked about why he was doing this he said, “There are people dying on the side of the road. It’s not right. There are children who are not safe. It is enraging to see children at two in the morning completely dehydrated.”
Is this not the action of one of Isaiah’s rescuers? Or the Christ who told us that what we do to the least of these we do to him? Who told us to feed his sheep?
If we identify with Andrew are we ready to leave what we know and trust that where we will end up is where we need to remain or stay? Are we open to being transformed? Are we willing to share this story with others?
My second story is about my own denomination, the United Church of Christ. In this Trump darkened world they have decided to take a lead in the sanctuary movement.
Originally this was a movement to offer welcome primarily to Central Americans in the 1980s who were fleeing death squads in their home countries. Churches opened their doors to shelter them and keep them safe.
In the 1990s through to the preset moment churches began to take in immigrants who were about to be deported. Since 2014 we have 16 churches in 9 cities that have given aid to 20 individuals.
After the election and a growing sense of hostility toward many groups of people it was decided that sanctuary was now needed to be extended to others who are under attack: refugees, immigrants, people of colour, native Americans, Black Lives Matter activists, members of the LGBT community, and women.
These faithful churches and their members have decided to belong to the One who stands for inclusive love. Their witness is inspiring other churches to do the same.
So dear ones, gathered here in Jerusalem, during this uncertain time of growing hatred and violence with no peace deals in sight, what doves have you seen? Do you believe you too are God’s beloved?
Who have you followed lately? Who has invited you to come and see what they are doing to help build the beloved community? Did you go? Did you stay? How are you sharing this good news?
Isaiah says we have been named in the womb for such tasks as these, including being part of God’s rescue team. Rescuing is important but it is not enough. We must also face the powers and principalities that lead to the injustice itself. We need to face those in power who are legalizing racism or inequality too.
Our work then as Christians is not only to testify to the light by staying centred in Him but also to become bearers of the light to others. On earth as it is in heaven requires our accepting the invitation to come and see and stay. This is how the light becomes manifest to others.