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Epiphany 3 January 21, 2018 - The Rev. Janet Campbell
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:4-20
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, Washington
The Rev. Janet Campbell
Sunday, January 21, 2018
The beginning of the gathering of the disciples . . .
Whether Jesus’ first followers
were directed to him
by John the Baptist,
          as we heard in last Sunday’s account
          from the gospel of another John,
                    John the Evangelist,
or whether they were approached
by Jesus himself
          while engaged in their fishermen’s work,
          as we hear in the gospels
          of Matthew, Mark and Luke
                    (in similar accounts
                    that differ somewhat in detail . . .)
or even whether the calling
          at the sea of Galilee
                   may have followed sometime after
          a first encounter with Jesus
                   through John the Baptist . . .

One thing
is clear in all four gospels:
the immediacy of the disciples’ response  
          to Jesus . . .
how they stepped right out of their lives
to join him,
leaving behind
not only their work,
but also
their families
their village . . .
everything central
to a person’s identity
          in first century Palestine.
It’s likely that
Simon and his brother Andrew,
James and his brother John,
          along with their fathers,
family fishing businesses
that stretched back generations . . .
each successive generation
was expected to support
          and pass along to the next.

Fishing was a big industry
in the towns and villages along the shores of Galilee,
although the profits
          were not big
          for those who did the actual fishing.
Families like those
of the four brothers
would combine resources and efforts
          in cooperative ventures,
negotiating contracts with
          fish processors and merchants.
But payment on those contracts
was often late
          and inadequate,
and the fishing industry was heavily taxed,
even to a rate of 40% of
          a cooperative’s catch.
Out of what remained,
the families had to scrape together enough
          to pay the hired hands
                    that helped with the work load
and to support their own households.
It was a hard-working, uncertain profession . . .
half-skill and half-luck,
dependent on weather,
the market,
and the decisions of tax authorities.
Jesus had moved from Nazareth
to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee,
a busy town at the crossroads
of major highways.
This would be his base for
proclaiming the good news
he felt compelled to carry
to all the towns and villages
          of Galilee
now that John the Baptist
          was in prison.
And so he came
to Simon and Andrew
and James and John
preaching the good news . . .
the kingdom of God has come near . . .
the long-awaited fulfillment
of Israel’s hopes and expectations
          and the prophets’ proclamations . . .
the good news of
God’s mercy and justice for all . . .
bringing with it the possibility of relief
from the oppressive structures and constraints  
that so burdened the lives
          of the common people.

Mark’s gospel
          doesn’t indicate
whether the brothers
                    already knew Jesus,
and there was no need
          for Mark to tell his readers
                   that the brothers
          had certainly heard of Jesus . . .
For everyone knew
that news
of interesting or outrageous happenings
got around quickly
          from one village to another . . .
and news of this carpenter’s son,
a laborer himself,
          and his message of liberation
                   had already begun to spread.
When Jesus came striding along the shore
and called the brothers to follow
they were all too ready
          to join common cause with him . . .
They went,
even knowing that their fathers
would need to hire more day laborers
          to replace them.

In the excitement of this movement
          that seemed to be coalescing around Jesus,
they may not have realized
          that this joining with Jesus
          would so completely separate them
                   from their past lives and selves
          and thrust them
                    into an unimagined future:
          this promise come among them in Jesus
                    called the kingdom of God.
Asked to embrace wholeheartedly,
without wavering,
without limitation,
a radical reorientation
          of their allegiances, values and behavior,
they would indeed,
often reluctantly,
but little by little,
          be made new . . .
There would be no going back
          to the way they had been,
once they had
          embraced the way
                    Jesus called them to be.

As we travel with them
          through the gospels,
we see them struggle to understand
Jesus’ mission
          and their part in it
and we perhaps see ourselves in them:
In their expectations of Jesus
          shaped by their own notions
                   of what makes for success
                             and what failure looks like,
                   and how God should operate.
In their disappointments in him
          when his methods
                   seemed to them to be madness.
In their consternation
          at his assertion that his mission involved,
                   for both himself and his followers,            
                   sacrifice and suffering
                   which he described as
                             picking up a cross,
                             drinking the cup he must drink,
                             being baptized with the baptism
                                      with which he would be baptized
                                      (not the baptism of John) . . .

          By these metaphors
                             he spoke of his own death,
                   and of the dying his disciples must embrace,
                             dying to the old self
                             to live anew in God . . .
                   a death to which
                             all his followers are called.
The repentance Jesus preached
was more than the usual, familiar call
for individuals to repent of their sins,
          although it included that.
But this repentance was much broader
          and more dangerous . . .
a challenge to the worldly powers of his time
          and of every time –
the privileged,
          the dominant,
                   the accumulators of wealth –
to reject
the social, economic and political structures
          by which they have flourished
          at the expense of others,
                   those whose well-being
                   they are meant to assure
                             with kindness and compassion
                                      and generosity.
Of course this call to repent
is not just a call to the
the privileged,
          the dominant,
                   the accumulators of wealth
but to everyone
who participates
purposely or unwittingly
in systems
that cause, allow or encourage
the exploitation of  
the earth itself.
It is a dangerous call . . .
for those who hear it
and those who follow it
and those who speak it to others.
This is the cross,
the cup,
the baptism of Jesus . . .
dying to the flawed structures
          of human devising
and living into God’s kingdom
                   of mutual flourishing,

what Martin Luther King, Jr.
called the Beloved Community,
a society of justice, equal opportunity
          and love for one another:
the Beloved Community
announced by Jesus
and living on in his followers
and in all who relinquish
the false values of self-thriving
to seek the justice and peace of God.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection
and his ascension into heaven,
Simon and Andrew,
James and John,
and all Jesus’ first disciples
became the carriers of this message,
emboldened by their expectation
that his return,
fulfilling the promise of the kingdom,
          would happen within their lifetimes.

We hear that expectation
in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:
“The appointed time has grown short,”
he tells them,
“the present form of this world
is passing away.”
But the story of the early church
is in large part
the story of an expectant people
learning how to live
with the realization
that the appointed time
          was not so short as they had thought,
and that their mission
was to participate in the gradual emergence
of God’s kingdom in the world
 through their faithful following
          of the Way and ways of Jesus . . .
in the meantime.
And this is where we find ourselves
we 21st century followers of the Way,
in the meantime,
and some of it very mean.

But we can be encouraged
by Paul’s words . . .
for the present form of this world
is passing away . . .
although its passing
may be imperceptible to us . . .
Would that
all would be brought to perfection
in the blink of an eye.
But how fast is the blink
of God’s eternal eye?
In the meantime,
following Jesus,
embracing his mission,
means standing with him
in the time that is ours
over against the powers and principalities
          of this world
which continue to
suppress and subject the people of God
and all of creation,
to the despoiling effects
          of greed, folly and heedlessness.

Following Jesus,
embracing his mission,
means allowing his mission
          to come to life in us,
          to become our life.
despite the enormity
of the task,
despite the discouragements
of the present day.
Jesus did not begin
by calling the elite,
the highly educated,
the wealthy,
the powerful . . .
he began to build
his beloved community
with those who plied the fishing trade . . .
and continues
to build it with us.
Martin Luther King,
from whom we should hear more often
          than just one day a year,
liked to encourage his followers
by quoting,
as Jesus often did,
a prophet
who came before him:

In King’s case,
19th century American reformer
Theodore Parker  
Unitarian minister and abolitionist
who predicted the end of slavery,
though he did not live to see it.
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe”
Parker said,
“the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways;
I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure
          by the experience of sight;
I can divine it by conscience.
And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice”

“The arc of the moral universe is long,
but it bends toward justice,”
was Martin Luther King’s cogent summary.
We can live,
we can persist,
we can work
by those words,
          no matter how long the arc.
“We must accept finite disappointment,”
Martin Luther King also said,
“but we must never lose infinite hope.”