January 12, 2020

2020 Jan12_RevSusan

 

1st Sunday after Epiphany- Year A

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Susan Plucker

 

In our church calendar events are happening rather quickly.  With God in charge there doesn’t seem much time to get spiritually bored and complacent even though our bodies and brains may be yearning for rest after the holiday.


In a mere 18 calendar days and one chapter in the Gospel of Matthew we have moved from the birth of Jesus, the coming of the wise men, Joseph fleeing with the family to Egypt, the slaughter of the innocent children by Herod, Joseph safely settling with the family in Nazareth, to this scene of the mature John and Jesus along the river Jordan.


We quickly leave behind the infants and their families, knowing virtually nothing of those intervening years, and stand with these two unusual grown men at the river.  Both men, called by God.

 
Both men, faithfully responding,
continuing to step into the unknown future
to serve God.

 

Servanthood is the theme woven through today’s reading…. Baptism, YES!  But more importantly the “so what” of baptism…. What difference did it make… does it make? The difference is servanthood, service to God and only God, as God’s beloved sons and daughters.


The passage we heard this morning from the book of Isaiah is referred to as the “First Servant Song,” being the first of four servant songs in the book of Isaiah.  It’s not clear who the author of the passage intended the servant to represent.  But it is clear that the early Christian Church understood this song, and the other three, as descriptions of Jesus The Christ, Anointed One, Messiah, Son of God.


Stepping back from early Church time, I think it will be helpful for us to look at Isaiah’s passage within the historical and cultural context in which it was written. The author of this passage was writing to the people of Israel who had been living in exile, refugees in Babylon around 550 BCE.  And Isaiah the prophet, doing as prophets do, is speaking God’s word more than likely, to them.  Assuring them that the time is coming when they will be free to return to Israel.


With that return will come a new responsibility, a new role for them as a nation.  God speaks:


“You are my servant in whom my soul delights.  I have put my spirit upon you to bring forth justice to the nations.  You will not grow faint or be crushed.  Your breath and spirit come from me.  I have called you, taken you by hand, kept you as a light to the nations to open eyes that are blind, bring out prisoners, bring out those who sit in darkness. You are called once again to serve me.”


It is my experience that we have a difficult time with the concept of being a servant…. servant to God, no less.  The word conjures up a variety of images in my head, and most of them not what I think God had in mind.  Nor what Jesus has revealed for us.


As a child growing up in Philadelphia, we had a servant, a maid, who came to help with household chores.  I spent memorable hours down in the basement talking with her as she ironed clothing and bed sheets for a household of eight.  


And then there is this outlandish (in today’s view) memory of “Highschool Slave Day” in Houston Texas.  This was a fundraising event held every year.  Members of the Student Council, football team, and cheer leaders were the slaves and were auctioned off for the highest bid.  The highest bidder owned the slave for the entire school day and the slave had to do whatever was asked…had to be servant for the day. The tasks, as you can imagine, ranged from the ordinary to the ridiculous.  Carry books to class, sit on the cafeteria floor during lunch, eat with their hands tied behind their back…. A far cry from bringing forth justice and righteousness.


And then there is the work-study experience of my first year of seminary.  My job was washing dishes and chopping vegetables for breakfast and dinner.  I was surprised to discover how isolated and invisible I felt and was treated by my peers while working behind the scenes.  


Isaiah is speaking of a different kind of servanthood; not enslavement, not powerlessness, not isolation.  But servanthood as the opportunity to serve God by communicating, revealing, demonstrating the power and love of God by one’s very own actions.  Acting to bring forth God’s justice…open eyes that are blind to God, bring forth prisoners from isolation to God, make God known, God Manifest, God revealed.  


This is the same opportunity falling on John and Jesus at the river…falling on us as we renew our baptismal promise this morning.  Promising, with God’s help to:

  • Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ
  • Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves
  • Strive for justice and peace among all people
  • Respect the dignity of every human being
  • Be a ready and will servant to God

In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter has come to the home of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, obeying a vision he had. Obeying and trusting God despite his profound consternation.

 

For you see, at that time it was against the law for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone from another nationality.  You and I can’t conceive how unthinkable Peter’s actions would have been in his day.  Yet, with God’s help, Peter acts and boldly proclaims to the entire household of Cornelius, not safely in secret, but right out there…. “God shows no partiality” (like we usually do) but accepts those of any creed, race or nation who fear the lord and do what is just.


We too are often sorely tempted to limit our ministry, our servanthood, our response to God.  As Peter was, as John was as he hesitated to baptize Jesus.  Our holy scriptures are full of stories of initial hesitation, running away, “not me” responses to God.  Yet here we sit.  


Pretty amazing isn’t it, what God has accomplished with frail human beings who have learned through the servanthood of our Christ what can be accomplished with God’s help, and only with God’s help.
When we find ourselves perplexed, in doubt, fearful, confused regarding the next action, the next words, desiring that they proclaim the love of God.  Wanting to act from our baptismal covenant, but, but, but…. life today is not any simpler than it was for Peter and Cornelius, is it?


Then perhaps we can move to today’s gospel story and simply pause and stand by the river and pray for the knowledge of God’s will and the power to carry it out.  Taking to heart the vision given to each of us, the vision of God proclaiming to Jesus “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  For we have come to learn that Jesus went under the water not just for himself but for all of us, as we try to follow him as disciples and rely on him to show us the way of servanthood.

 

One of the commentaries makes the statement concerning the baptism of Jesus:

 

Jesus tested the water and assured us it was fine.

 

You know, somebody has to be the first one in the pool…. Jesus tested the water and assured us it was just fine, assured us, that we too are God’s beloved daughters and sons with whom he is well pleased.


So, on this 12th day of January, 2020, living in the uncertainties and challenges of our particular place in history, and our own personal lives…. More often than we might want to admit, confused, perplexed, in doubt:

 

  • I pray we use this interlude of worship and eucharist to allow God to move us to a place of confidence and gratitude.  
  • I pray each of us truly hears God’s words as spoken to Jesus, spoken to us…. These are my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.  
  • I pray that we remember in the days to come to pause, stand by the river, open to hear Gods’ words of love, encouragement, and wisdom.

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