Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
January 25, 2009
The way in which Jesus called his disciples is one of those stories we all know fairly well, isn’t it? He called common workers, fishermen, to follow him and he would make them fishers of people. I’ve never actually understood that image all that well, but then I don’t like to fish so maybe that’s why. Or maybe it’s just that I don’t like catchy phrases designed to sum up something quite a bit more complex. Fish for people? Would that have caused Simon and Andrew to leave everything behind and follow this rabbi? Still, it’s this dimension to the story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry that we all know. Once he had been baptized, and he came back from his days of preparation in the wilderness, Jesus got started by gathering his team.
Sometimes, for reasons I don’t understand, I read a passage like this one from Mark and something completely new jumps out of it, something I hadn’t noticed before, something that had always been there but simply carried no importance. Maybe it’s because I always allowed myself to get hung up on the phrase fishers of people, I completely missed the beginning of Mark’s story. Did you catch it when I read it a moment ago? “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee.” According to Mark, immediately after Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, he went out into the wilderness for forty days to face his temptations. Mark, always spare with details, wrote nothing about what actually happened to Jesus during those forty days, nor what actually happened to John while Jesus was gone – only that at the end of that time, John was arrested and Jesus went to Galilee.
The stories of Jesus and John are intertwined by the Gospel writers. Luke spent the most time describing the important relationship between them, going back to their mothers, Mary and Elizabeth, describing in several ways how John was deferential to Jesus, how he understood that he himself was not the long-awaited Messiah, how he, with the rest of the Jews, waited for the new David and how he recognized Jesus, even while still in his mother’s womb. But whether we believe there was this personal relationship between them or not, we do know that John was popular among a segment of Jews that believed that the Jewish priests had betrayed them to be given position and power among the Romans. We know that John was a charismatic leader who was a prophet and lived the life of a prophet in the wilderness by proclaiming the will of God and pronouncing judgment on those Jews who had betrayed God by acquiescing to Roman rule. We know that John’s followers, like Jesus’ followers later, were a growing irritant to the Jewish chief priests. We know that Rome was ruling the Jews and that the chief priests compromised their responsibilities to God to get along with the Romans, which to John meant that the priests had become collaborators with the enemies of God. Herod Antipas, a Jewish priest who was particularly detested for his apparent duplicity, and John the Baptist, the zealous, prophetic truth-teller were on a collision course. Herod needed to quiet John’s disciples down, and, in a move that has been repeated throughout history, cut the head of the movement from the movement. He had John arrested.
That was the scene to which Jesus returned from the wilderness. Rome was still in charge. Jewish priests were collaborating with Rome. And John was in jail. As national crises go, it was about as bad as it ever gets.
It’s risky to describe our own national crisis in terms that imply its similarity to the crisis in Israel in the first century. Our land is not occupied by an enemy state. We are not ruled by a foreign government so that our own leaders have to decide how to get along with the oppressors. We are not a minority people ruled by a majority who look upon us as inferior chattel, cheap labor, mindless sheep. So please do not read more into what I am about to say than is there. But we have been in something of a national moral crisis for quite some time now, the results of which have propelled us headlong into a significant economic crisis the repercussions of which we are just beginning to feel. We are a nation that has responded to our fear of terrorists by betraying our own rule of law and ideals of jurisprudence, engaging in illegal imprisonment and torture. Our government has sought to silence dissenters by violating principles of privacy. Has it been as bad as we know other governments have done? No, but degrees of separation are only degrees. The violations of our values have not just been something of the past eight years. The previous administration’s antics did not happen in a vacuum – no, we must look back sixteen years, twenty-eight years, forty years. Nothing happens ex nihilo. While I am, among my friends and family members, one of the most grateful for the election and inauguration of our current president, and while I watch with relief as some of the most pernicious actions of our government are being stopped and overturned, still, I am wary.
Crises do not happen overnight. Even 9/11, as bad as it was and as shockingly surprising as it seemed, was only one more event in the growing threat of terrorism. And terrorism is only one response to a series of decisions and actions and movements that signal despair. And despair grows gradually. So while a crisis may seem sudden and abrupt, like the arrest of John the Baptist for instance, it is almost always a complex set of circumstances that have grown more serious and dire over a long period of time and that for much of that time, the growing crisis has not been on the public radar at all.
So, I wondered, as I watched the glow of joy that beamed out of Washington D.C. last Tuesday, what crisis is brewing that none of us know. What crisis will our nation encounter in 2011 or 2012 that is now only a note on a report on page 357 of some document on someone’s desk?
Crises are real and they are painful. There is always a human cost that cannot be measured, because it is a cost to the spirit, to the will, to the hope and trust and confidence of the heart. We are participants, even now, in the makings of the next national crisis. We are swimming in the water that grows murky and poisonous and we scarcely realize that we can’t see as clearly through its depths as once we could. Even now, a child of God is suffering because of something we have allowed to happen. Right this minute, an angry women is strapping explosives to her belly, a child is picking up a gun for the first time, a father is coming home from his third shift job to sleep for the few hours he has before going to his second shift job, a baby is waking up in a homeless shelter, a grandmother is trying to find enough money to send to her unemployed daughter.
John was arrested. Jesus came to Galilee and began selecting disciples. He did not deviate from what he knew he had to do. He did not go back to the wilderness for forty more days, just to be sure he’d gotten it right the first time. He called disciples into a life of sacrifice and service, onto a perilous journey toward Jerusalem and the cross, toward a horizon of justice that always seems to be just beyond reach.
There is never a good time to respond to the call to Christian discipleship. There is always only now. Right now. Now. Amen.