I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “immediate”. It’s been coming up in conversations a lot lately, and to be honest, it causes me a bit of anxiety because it infers that I need to do something “now”. There is a sense of urgency when the word “immediate” is used, and so I start to panic and I become very resistant to do anything. Unless I get a call that someone is in the process of dying and wants to make a last confession or receive a prayer, chances are, I don’t respond to “immediate”. It’s a mental block I have.
So to try to ease my anxiety around this word, I looked it up, hoping that I would be let off the hook somehow. According to Webster’s the word “immediate” means:
--occurring or accomplished without delay; instant
--following or preceding without a lapse of time
--having no object or space intervening
--of or pertaining to the present time
--without an intervening medium or agent; direct
Well, that didn’t help.
And then I was working on preparations for today’s sermon, and there’s that word “immediately”. The Gospel of Matthew says that Jesus calls his first four disciples to follow him, and they went “immediately”. It doesn’t say that they went home to talk it over with their wives. It doesn’t say they waited until the end of the day, after they had finished their work. They went immediately.
Now this isn’t the first time I’ve read this Gospel, and it’s not the first time I’ve preached it. In the past, the ideas of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry have stood out to me, or that he chooses fishermen to be his first disciples, and therefore anyone could be called to discipleship. But this time, it was the word “immediately” that stood out. God is obviously trying to teach me something.
Why would these four men have dropped everything to follow Jesus? What was it about him that was so compelling? When I think about these questions in my current place and time, I would imagine that no one would just stop everything to follow a guy they hardly know, if they knew him at all. Let’s be honest, if a man came walking through our streets today inviting people to follow him, we’d probably ignore him or worse, laugh. I seriously doubt that we would leave our homes, children, partners, work, pets, in other words, our everyday lives, to follow him, let alone “immediately”. So what is it that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew is trying to say about Jesus’ calling of disciples? Was there something special about Jesus that those early disciples knew or understood that doesn’t translate to us in 2014 that would cause them to follow him without a lapse of time?
The early disciples were Jews looking for a Messiah—a religious and political leader. They were looking for someone who was “God with us”.
In the reading from Isaiah today, we know that there was a hope for a time that was glorious. A time when light would shine on those who were in darkness. A time when their burdens had been released. Most scholars agree that at the time of Isaiah, the Jewish people were being occupied by the Assyrians; they were in a state of bondage and they were waiting for God to break in and free them. By the time of Jesus, the occupation had continued, this time under Roman rule, and the prayer was still being lifted up for a Messiah.
In the ministry of Jesus, freedom from occupation begins to happen. Not only are people freed from the bondage of sin, but Jesus begins to question all constructions in society that cause division. It is Jesus’ courage, hope and confidence as a preacher, teacher and healer, that speaks out against oppression. As James Cone, my favorite black liberation theologian states, “the true meaning of the gospel is ‘God’s liberation of the oppressed from bondage’”. In other words, in Jesus there is freedom and liberation; there is an answer to the centuries of prayer.
But that’s jumping way ahead, because in the gospel of Matthew, this is just the start of Jesus’ public ministry. It’s not until he’s called the first four that it then says he goes out to heal, teach and proclaim the Good News. Did those four fisherman know that Jesus would do those things and that’s what caused them to respond immediately? If we know anything about the disciples, it’s that they always had questions, they were always trying to understand who and what Jesus was about, so I’m not sure that foreknowledge is the answer.
As I worked my way through sermons already written on this topic in the past and scholarly writings, the word “discernment” became a theme. Those first four disciples had discerned Jesus’ call to “follow me” as an invitation of God.
There is quite a lot of talk in the Church about discernment. To discern means to be able to detect, recognize or distinguish with the intellect. In the Church, we discern not only with our minds, but also with our hearts, and we often do it with a group of individuals because we believe in shared wisdom and understanding.
Everyone I know who has taken holy or religious orders has a discernment story. Our own Marilyn has recently completed the formal “discernment process” which helps individuals understand how God is calling them in ministry. What I know about these stories, including my own story, is that discernment often begins very privately with a longing of the heart, a sense of being unfulfilled in their current situation, or even that nagging voice that says “follow me”. Discernment stories can be hard to explain because to non-Christians, or even skeptical Christians, the call doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Discernment stories often sound like the stories of crazy people…called to leave a current occupation, called to move to a different town or city, called to leave family behind. And so in our overly intellectual world, we hide or temper our stories so as not to be perceived as “crazy”.
But that’s the call of Jesus…a little bit crazy and requiring immediate action. Not everyone is called to take holy or religious orders, but no one is exempt from Jesus’ call to “follow me”.
Ask yourself, when you decided to volunteer for FISH, the Warming Shelter, or some other program, was it because you felt like you wanted or needed to do something to help others in the community? And did you need to think about it for years and years, or did you just “know” and go? Well, that’s Jesus calling.
How about when you offered care to a child, a friend or a stranger? Did you agonize and try to refuse this longing in your heart, or did you know and go? Yep, that’s Jesus too.
You see, Jesus is always calling us. He’s calling us all the time to do things to help heal and liberate each other, our communities, and the world. The question is whether or not we are listening.
Maybe the story from Matthew only makes me a little nervous. Perhaps you’ve completely reconciled the idea of responding to Jesus immediately. But if you haven’t, I invite you to consider the possibility of responding to Jesus’ invitation to “follow me” without hesitation. I know it’s something I’m constantly working on.
“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.” (Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, August 28, 1963)
Tomorrow we celebrate Martin Luther King Day in our nation. This past Wednesday was his birthday, and so we celebrated his life and ministry in our midweek gathering.
I chose to use the opening lines of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech this morning because Dr. King is often revered as a prophet. He came from a long line of Southern Baptist preachers, and he was a highly educated man—he received his BA, BD, and PhD from Boston University in Systematic Theology. To obtain this kind of education would have been difficult for a Black man prior to the 1960s and the Civil Rights Act.
Dr. King revealed in interviews that after a troubling phone call late in the evening in 1957, he prayed and was called by name. He said that in his prayer, he heard the Lord speaking to him and saying, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice,” and promising never to leave him alone. Dr. King referred to his vision as his “Mountain-top Experience.” (Holy Women, Holy Men)
This experience propelled Dr. King into the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. His campaigns were instrumental to the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1965 and 1968. Dr. King then turned his attention to economic empowerment of the poor and opposition to the Vietnam War, contending that racism, poverty and militarism were interrelated. (Holy Women, Holy Men)
Last Tuesday evening, Matt and I were watching “American Experience” on OPB and the topic was the summer of 1964. For those of you who remember that summer, or are particularly good at remembering American History, then you’ll recall that the summer of 1964 was the summer when young men and women from all over the country were trained to help register Black voters in the south. These young men and women felt called by name to make change in the world. They faced difficult obstacles…harassment, violence, and for three young men, even death. The Free Speech movement, campus demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and the Women’s movement all grew out of the events of the Civil Rights Movement because people’s eyes had been opened to the injustices in our country.
Now it would be easy to sit back and think “Wow…we’ve fixed all these problems...we’ve come a long way, baby!” But the truth is, we’re still facing radical injustices in our country. Today we are faced with the challenges of unjust immigration legislation, the inability for committed, loving same-sex couples to marry, economic disparity, and the glass ceiling for women still very much exists.
So what does all this have to do with today’s lessons this second Sunday in Epiphany?
In the reading from Isaiah, known as the Second Servant Song, the narrator or “servant” proclaims that he was called and named by God before he was even born. When we read this passage from Isaiah, we know that the prophet was anticipating the coming of the Messiah and that salvation would be available for all to the ends of the earth. The prophet was anticipating that the Messiah would bring about a change in a time of chaos…an ushering in of peace, compassion and justice. We too are waiting for a change amidst chaos.
But we have also called. Now that Jesus, the Messiah, has come among us, we must continue his work. We too have been called and been invited to “come and see”. As theologian Richard Ward explains, we have been called to a higher purpose as children of God “to become a ‘light to the nations’ by becoming agents of God’s [new] order of compassionate justice”.
Perhaps we won’t suddenly find ourselves called to march on Washington or lead a movement. But maybe we are called to participate in justice and compassion in a different way…becoming educated about issues faced by members of our community, providing food and shelter to someone homeless, or advocating for someone who has been silenced through injustice or violence.
In the Psalm, again we are given this message of having been called up by God, and our response to that call. The Psalmist says that God pulled him up from the pit, made his feet secure under him and put a new song in his mouth. And the Psalmist’s response to God is to say “Here I am” and to proclaim God’s love, faithfulness and salvation to others.
Like the Psalmist, we have been pulled up and made sure. Like the Psalmist, we have the opportunity to say “Here I am” and share with others God’s love and faithfulness. We don’t necessarily have to proclaim it from the “mountain-top”…we can easily share God’s love and faithfulness by offering care to someone in need, by being good stewards of our resources, and by steadfastly praying for the healing of this world.
And finally, in the Gospel of John, we have not only a recounting of Jesus’ baptism and being called “the Lamb of God”, “Rabbi”, and “the Messiah”, but we also hear of Jesus inviting his followers to “come and see” and renaming Simon as Peter. In this gospel story we have not only Jesus’ identity being confirmed, but an invitation to be someone new and do something different. What is it that we’re looking for? God’s mercy and love. And what are we to do when we have experienced it? Share it with others, invite them to “come and see”.
I don’t know if I’ll ever have a “Mountain-top Experience” like Dr. King, and I don’t think I can solve all the problems of the world. But I know I’ve been called to make life a little more just, a little more peaceful, and a little more like the Kingdom. I too have dreams. What are your dreams?
”The kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Come, Lord, and open in us the gates of your kingdom.”
These are the lyrics to a chant that is sung in the Taize community in France. I have a dream of going on pilgrimage to Taize at some point in my life. My friend, Jeffrey, who was ordained with me goes almost every year…it’s one of the few things that I’m truly jealous of.
So I want to tell you a little bit about the Taize community.
The Taize community began when Brother Roger left Switzerland in 1940 for France. During the Second World War, Brother Roger had the conviction to help people who were going through the ordeal of war, so he bought a house to shelter refugees in the small village of Taize. He and his sister offered hospitality to war refugees, which included Jews and agnostics, until their activities were discovered. Brother Roger, his sister, and others fled Taize for Geneva until the war was over in 1944. In 1949, seven men joined the original group in Taize and took vows of celibacy and simple living. Today there are over a hundred brothers from 30 countries and from both Catholic and Protestant traditions.
The prayers and liturgy of the Taize community have evolved as their community evolved. In the 1950s, the community liturgy followed a more monastic liturgy: hymns of praise, Scripture reading, response to Scripture, silence, intercessory prayers, Eucharist, and closing hymns of praise. The entire liturgy (with the exception of the Scripture reading and Eucharist) was sung in French. While French was the native language of the village of Taize, it didn’t reflect the multicultural community that was developing.
By the late 1960s, the brothers began reading Scripture in other languages as a way to be more inclusive of the pilgrims that were visiting Taize. In an attempt to be more welcoming, common songs from other countries were included in the liturgy. However, while the intention was good, it still excluded people from participating in the liturgy.
In 1974, 30,000 young people made pilgrimage to Taize for the Council of Youth. Yet Brother Roger was still troubled by the lack of inclusive language in the liturgy. After much reflection and discussion, a brother of the community was tasked to find a way to adapt the prayers so that all the pilgrims could participate in the liturgy. The result was an adaptation of the “canon form” that was used at a Benedictine monastery outside of Barcelona. The “canon form” was a simplistic, repetitively sung prayer, that wasn’t in any particular national language. It was this task and subsequent adaptation which led to the development of Taize chant as it is known today. On Easter of 1974, “Cantate Domino” was introduced into the liturgy, followed by “Ubi Caritas” two years later. Since the pilgrims and brothers responded well to these additions, more Latin chants were introduced into the liturgy.
Among the “legends” of Taize is that one night after the evening worship had concluded, pilgrims remained in the church and began singing “Ubi Caritas”, which continued for twenty minutes. At this time there were few of these Latin chants being used in the community, so Brother Roger commissioned Jacques Bertheir to compose more chants. Bertheir’s task was “creating one or two lined chants to be sung with an easy melody…reflect[ing] the ecumenical nature of the community”.
The question of how the chants “work” to create healing and reconciliation for the brothers and the pilgrims is part of the mystery of the experience of Taize. As Jason Brian Santos explained in his reflections on Taize, “for many young people who have grown up in the tension of religious traditions, Taize incarnates their deepest longing for peace…Taize is the only place in the world where they can worship in communion with all Christian traditions freely”. Santos goes on to explain that reconciliation is fostered at Taize through hospitality. While on pilgrimage, travelers are welcomed as children of God, and are also trusted with the responsibility of taking care of the community; “each week at Taize the pilgrims accomplish all of the work that is required to operate this ecumenical community”.
For Olivier Clement, the mystery of Taize is also found in community, “They want to be Christians together, both respecting their various backgrounds and leading a common life which is an example of reconciliation”. Clement goes on further to posit that all of humanity is called to live in communion with each other, in both unity and difference. The balance of living in unity and difference is a form of healing and reconciliation.
How does the experience of a pilgrimage to Taize shape life outside the community? For Clement, he believes that there is a “link between a deep spiritual experience and a creative opening to the world… [and that] the more someone becomes a person of prayer the more they become a person who is responsible…[a] servant of every human face”. This “servant-hood” or stewardship for others calls us to be present with the suffering and to be creative change agents in the world. When Pope John Paul II, visited Taize in 1986, he also believed there was a connection between pilgrimage and responsibility. In his address to the gathered pilgrims, he stated:
They [the brothers] want, in prayer and silence, to enable you to drink the living water promised by Christ, to know his joy, to discern his presence, to respond to his call, then to set out again to witness to his love and to serve your brothers and sisters in your parishes, your schools, your universities, and in all your places of work.
Are you starting to understand why so many people make pilgrimage there and why I hope to go someday?
So what does all this have to do with today’s lessons this second Sunday in Epiphany? I believe that Brother Roger and the other men who make up the Taize community serve as an example of being called “Beloved” and then using that call to become disciples and share God’s love, compassion, and hospitality with all.
In the reading from Isaiah, God is pointing us to the “servant”, the chosen one who will bring forth justice. Brother Roger and the Taize community have also worked to bring forth justice in the world through their hospitality and their works of charity. All financial contributions or inheritances received by the brothers are given to Operation Hope, which is the community’s outreach ministry. Among the their projects are support for children in South Sudan, humanitarian supplies sent to North Korea, support for AIDS orphans in Ethiopia, schools in Bangladesh, and aid for the sick in Cambodia.
But we are also called and have been taken by the hand of God to bring about justice. Now that Jesus, the Messiah, has come among us, we must continue this work. We too have been named, called and given a mission. As theologian Richard Ward explains, we have been called to a higher purpose as children of God “to become a ‘light to the nations’ by becoming agents of God’s [new] order of compassionate justice”.
Perhaps we won’t suddenly find ourselves called to start an ecumenical worshipping community like Brother Roger and his companions. But maybe we are called to participate in justice and compassion in a different way…taking a meal to someone in need, donating clothing for someone cold, or advocating for someone who has been silenced. We are God’s servant and act as a chosen one every time we serve at FISH, every time we read the prayer list and offer up these individuals for healing, and every time we are compassionate with someone that we might otherwise turn our backs on.
And finally, in the Gospel of Matthew, we have not only a recounting of Jesus’ baptism, but his being called “the Beloved”. In this gospel story we have not only Jesus’ identity being confirmed, but an invitation to be “the Beloved” as well. What does it mean to be God’s beloved? It means we have a responsibility to share God’s mercy, love, healing and reconciliation.
When I was interviewed at seminary before beginning my studies, I was asked, “If God were to show up right now, and said ‘This is the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’…what would God be pleased about?” Well, if that doesn’t just make you a little humble, I don’t know what would. But I think that God would consider St. Mark’s a Beloved community; a community that is thoughtful about welcoming a stranger, a community that responds to opportunities for healing, a community that is open to the spirit of reconciliation, and a community of mercy.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get to Taize…my places to make pilgrimage is growing to an almost impossible bucket list. But I have been inspired by the community and the music to try to be more hospitable, more compassionate, and more loving. And I have also been encouraged through their ministry and music to explore how I’ve been called Beloved and think about how I can please God. I believe that I have been called to be a creative change agent in the world, and I believe that you have, too.
“A ‘Parable of Community’,” accessed September 21, 2012, http://www.taize.fr/en_article6525.html.
 Jason Brian Santos, A Community Called Taize (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 105.
 Ibid, 107.
 Ibid, 108.
 Ibid, 108-109.
 Santos, A Community Called Taize, 123.
 Ibid, 129.
 Ibid, 142.
 Clement, Taize, 52.
 Ibid, 42.
 Ibid, 46.
 Ibid, 46-47.
 “One passes through Taize as one passes close to a spring of water,” accessed September 21, 2012, http://www.taize.fr/en_article6718.html.
“Operation Hope,” accessed September 21, 2012, http://www.taize.fr/en_article331.html.
“Arise, shine for the light of Christ and the glory of the Lord has come upon you”. Do you remember when I taught you that little song last year? Here it is in our lesson from Isaiah and really is the theme of Epiphany.
So what is this Epiphany business all about anyway?
Commentators and scholars have a lot to say about traditional understandings of the visit of the magis and their gifts. The magi are representative of three non-Jewish cultures, and therefore serve as a symbolic representation of God’s revelation to the Gentiles. The gift of gold is a gift one would present to a king; the gift of frankincense is a gift one would present to a divinity…so these two gifts are symbolic of the combined nature of Jesus—both human and divine. And the gift of myrrh is a burial gift, foreshadowing the death of Jesus. These are wonderful and symbolic understandings of the magi and their gifts…if we want to keep them safely tucked away in our nativity scenes and children’s plays. But let’s take another look at the Epiphany and what it means for us today.
In the reading from Isaiah, we have the expression of deep joy by the prophet in the midst of the Babylonian captivity; there is an eagerness to return home, to overcome the enemy, to once again experience the love of God. And so Isaiah tells the people essentially, “rise and shine, the day of God’s glory is here”. This is a wonderful revelation of good news. And the prophet doesn’t stop there! Not only has the day of God’s glory arrived, but people will be reunited, sons and daughters will return home, the sea will provide a bounty, and many nations will come together. Rise and shine indeed! The prophet is reminding the listener that God is grabbing hold of things and that everything is about to change…this is what an epiphany, or a revelation, is about!
In the reading from the Gospel of Matthew, we are given the account of the visit of the wise-men…the revelation of God to the Gentiles. And while this is important because it lays the groundwork of all future revelations to “outsiders”, what I find so wonderful about this text is that it reminds us of God’s universal love for everyone. As great as the gifts of the magi were—I mean who wouldn’t want gold, frankincense and myrrh—these gifts are never as great as the gift of the Incarnation, Emmanuel, God with us. No gift that magi, or we, ever present will be equal to or surpass God’s love. And there’s no shame in that! God isn’t keeping score on the value of our gifts, because really what we offer, we should offer with our whole heart…which is love in return. God’s gift of the Incarnation teaches us about generosity and the power to give to others out of love. That’s the revelation…that’s the epiphany.
A few years ago Epiphany fell on a Friday. Some of us gathered together for dinner and an evening service of prayer and reflection. Part of our worship included putting candles around the creche as symbols of the gifts we have to offer God. The gifts included peace, love, truth, and justice. We are able to offer these gifts because they have been given freely to us.
So this morning, as you prepare for the exchange of Peace and the receiving of Holy Communion, I invite you to ask yourself what gift you have been given that you want to share with others. “Arise, shine, for the light of Christ and the glory of the Lord shall come upon you”.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.