Saturday, January 14, 2017

Late in the Day

Sermon on the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, and before the Inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States: The Second Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

John 1:29-42

This is one of those Sundays when several quite important things come into conjunction. We are in the middle of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday celebration. We are days away from the most controversial Presidential inauguration that I can remember in seventy years. We are a week into the season of Epiphany. And you might add, the weather is not so hot.

My question, and I invite you to ask it with me, is what in the scriptures today sits closest to where we are living at the present moment.

I am struck by the story in which two disciples of John the Baptizer shift their attachment to Jesus. The gospel writer makes clear that they have John’s unqualified support, for he himself recognizes Jesus to be the long-awaited one who “baptizes with holy spirit.” He is unique enough for John to call him “the Lamb of God.” So there is not a dynamic of competition or disloyalty here. Interestingly, it is not Jesus who first calls these disciples, as the first three gospels tell us he did. Rather, they begin to follow him unbidden. They literally follow him, tagging along to find out where he is staying. Presumably they share the notion that when they find out where his lodging is they will perhaps have a conversation with him, or apply to be his students.

There is something charming about Jesus turning around and asking these two what they are looking for. They ask him where is is staying. And that’s all he needs. “Come and see.”  He invites them in. We are not told where—that is not important—but we are told when. It is late in the day, the tenth hour, 4 PM. That suggests that a transition is about to take place. Ironically, as we shall see in later chapters of the Fourth Gospel, they have found the Light. And they find the Light at just about the time darkness was to befall them.

late in the day

There. That is the place that the gospel seems to me to sit closest to us. First, it tells us of a shift in attachments, a transfer of loyalty from one authority to another. Second, late in the game these disciples discover something amazing: the true messiah.

A good deal of discussion, debate, argument, even out-and-out conflict has taken place in the Church—and not just the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Communion—over the last several decades around the question of authority. People have debated the authority of the Bible and debated about what is even meant by its authority. Everybody caught up in the argument has assumed that Jesus was on their side and that they were on his. That’s always the way it is. To be honest, Jesus himself is subject to so much interpretation and spin that it is almost impossible to say exactly what he stands for. And yet, at bottom, we know. He was a radical. The very trouble he got into which ultimately led to his murder was consorting with those who were outside the approved circles. Having open table fellowship with those outside the law, reaching out to social and political outcasts, breaking religious regulations, conversing with people one was not supposed even to pay attention to: all of these are things that Jesus is reported on good authority to have done and encouraged.

Yet, on the other hand, he was steadfastly disappointing to those who looked for political solutions to political problems. He refused to be co-opted by movements, like the Zealots, who were interested in fighting. He consistently held out the ideal of the Kingdom of God, which he said clearly was not co-terminus with any of the kingdoms of this world. He even said outrageous things that virtually no one believes either prudent or possible, such as “love your enemies.” The things he said about money drive even the most lukewarm capitalists crazy. So the Jesus that we actually could know from the gospels is hardly the Jesus that we really want to follow. Instead, the Church has fashioned Jesus into its own idea of Messiah, and essentially made the gospel about getting into heaven when we die, a topic that Jesus seems barely to have been interested in.

So what might happen were we to begin following Jesus with the idea of actually becoming disciples of his? I don’t, by the way, discount the fact that many of you are doing your best to do just that. I also know that the only way I’ve found to do it is to be constantly seeking the truth, assiduously asking questions, examining my heart and soul daily, being bold about accepting the uncomfortable truth of my real attachments, and above all being open to the possibility of change. Not that I do it well, mind you. Nor am I some kind of expert. I just know that settling into what I already embrace and calling it “Jesus” or “God’s will” is a delusion. What might it be like if we were to make a daily habit of taking his question seriously: “what are you looking for?” That might be a good place to start. And we might reply with a question like these two disciples: “where are you….?” The questions themselves might be far more important than particular answers.

That’s what I mean by shifting allegiance, shifting to another authority. It is endless work and requires some effort on our part. Now don’t confuse that with the issue of whether of not God loves you. You won’t get it right most of the time, and you’ll also find that living the gospel is hit-or-miss at best. And God’s love, thank God, is not predicated on whether you do or don’t get it right. Make a short list of stuff you don’t have to worry about and put first on that list, “whether or not God loves me.” That’s settled.

But then there’s the second thing we learn, and that is that these disciples become convinced fairly quickly that whom they have found is indeed the Messiah. Go back to the fact that it is late in the day. Symbolically, that lateness is what we are all up against, even the young among us. Frankly, as one of our Advent hymns puts it, there are signs of ending all around us. Climate change, economic upheavals, wars and rumors of wars, and now an incontestable wave of reaction and repression that appears to be sweeping much of the planet: these things together create a sense of urgency. They also create a kind of panic in which people are known to lose their heads and begin following false prophets and fake messiahs. There is nothing new about this, one of the reasons why it is so disturbing.

We do not have to follow suite. We have an alternative: to follow Jesus. And here is where I think that both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Donald Trump have something to teach us. I cannot imagine two historical figures much farther apart than these two. And I think that each of them would likely agree. Dr. King’s dedication to non-violence; his witness to inclusion; his courage in taking on the powers of evil; his steadfast casting of the movement towards greater human rights as a matter of getting on the side of divine justice: all of these things give us a model of what it means to proclaim the dawning of a real messianic age. And don’t forget that his life ended as those of many prophets and apostles: in death. The life of God, while full of joy and ecstasy, is not the proverbial Sunday school picnic.

And Mr. Trump teaches us some lessons as well. You read the news as well as I, and I don’t think I have to spend sermon time belaboring the obvious. But I’ll tell you what I have learned from his political ascendancy: how easy it is to fool people into thinking that whatever affirms their prejudices is in fact the truth. Now you might say that I am not being fair, and I won’t argue that I am. I’ll only tell you that my understanding of the gospel of Christ leads me to the conclusion that anything that oppresses the poor and weak is the opposite of the radical welcome of God. Anything that exploits and demeans the natural world is incompatible with the Creator’s purposes. Any deliberate attempts to sow dissension and division are contrary to God’s call for honest peace and reconciliation. Any effort to advance oneself and one’s own interests at the expense of communal integrity is at best suspect, if not downright counter to all that the gospel demands of us. How to respond? I choose not to react, or at least to keep my reactions in check. But I will not keep silent in the face of injustice and falsehood. And I call you to examine your conscience and to remember your baptism, in which you are called, as am I, to repent and return to the true Messiah when we find ourselves colluding with the forces of darkness and hate. Striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being is a commitment that lies at the core of Christian life, and I refuse to go back on it. As the song says, “No turning back, no turning back.”

So there you have it. I have worked Martin Luther King and the President-elect into the sermon. But notice that this is not about King or Trump or somebody else. It really is about Christ. And that means it is about you and me. Those two disciples only had a couple of hours of daylight. No one knows or ever will know what exactly transpired between them and Jesus. But it is certain that Andrew was moved to go find his brother and introduce him to Jesus. And we see that same energy motivating other disciples in this gospel. In the gathering darkness, they have chosen the Light. Names change and identities are recast.

It is late in the day. Darkness is arriving, as it has a habit of doing. But remember what we have been celebrating now for well over a month, and many of us for a long, long time. The True Light that enlightens everyone has come into the world. You have a choice. Either succumb to the darkness or follow the Light which cannot be put out. The choice may be obvious, but it is not easy. Still, you will find when you ask, “Where are you?” you will hear a voice saying, ”Come and see.” That is your cue to follow where he leads.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017

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