Sermon: Born to Be a Light

Trial for the Homrich 9. Activists blocked trucks from turning off Detroiters’ water.

By Bill Wylie-Kellermann, Saint Peter’s Episcopal Detroit, Epiphany 2, January 15, 2017

Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-11
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

Our readings for today echo those of last week. Again we have reference to John, to the baptism of Jesus, the dove alighting upon him, AND again beside it a Servant song from Isaiah.

There is a striking commonality of Second Isaiah and John: both have central figures whose identity is hard to pin down. In the gospel of John it is the “beloved disciple,” identified only by that name. Is this a cipher for John himself, for his beloved community? Is there an historical referent? Even another character in the story? Or is this a narrative figure with which we, as readers, may identify, a call to discipleship by another name?

In Isaiah, the unnamed character is the “Suffering Servant,” introducing a human agent of God’s freedom, light, and change in history. Is this an individual? A community? Even within the text this morning it seems at one moment to be Israel, but then a few verses later a figure who gathers and restores Israel from exile. The scholars have exhausted themselves in a search for the historical servant. In some way it functions almost as an archtype, a space and form in which we readers may recognize or find a calling. The early church certainly found the figure of Jesus described there, though it may be more realistic to imagine that Jesus found himself, his calling and vocation named in the Servant.

When John witnesses to what he’s seen in Jesus, calling him both Lamb and Messiah, he’s pretty much nailed the suffering servant with just two words. Power in weakness, authority in vulnerability, transformation through nonviolence. Once again we have to ask, when John names him so publicly, does he also thereby call Jesus into it? Does Jesus live into a mentor’s recognition? That, of course, is what friends and mentors, or pastoral communities at their best, do.

So is vocation internal or external in our lives? My own mentor, William Stringfellow says vocation names that “awareness of [the] significance of one’s own biography. To have a vocation or to be called in Christ means to discern the coincidence of the Word of God with one’s own selfhood, in one’s own being, in its most specific, thorough, unique, and conscientious sense.”

I’ve been brooding a lot on my own vocation in recent weeks. That’s prompted by things here at St Peter’s, events in my own life, and, yes, this moment in history. I’ve come to think of my calling as “place-based,” rooted in Detroit and this corner of the city. So how does who and where I am play out in this new moment? One of Martin Luther King Jr’s mentors, Howard Thurman, wrote a famous admonition: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Not a bad start on inner vocation, but I can’t separate it from our own Grace Boggs’ perpetual query, “What time is it on the clock of the world?” With the inauguration pending this week, I am asking a different questions than I was two months ago. Vocation as inner. Vocation as outer.

On top of that I confess that when I read Isaiah this morning the phrases that tempt and draw my eye concern the Servant’s discouragement – exhaustion and despair. “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” Nothing, nada, naught. A hat full of clock parts. But then, it’s such a brief line. The servant doesn’t linger or seem to indulge it, but is on to “yet” and “nevertheless…” My cause is with the Lord “who formed me in my mother’s womb to be God’s servant.” A coincidence of the Word.

Our song and praise and gifts of thanksgiving are offered this day on the birth of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Where in heaven’s name did he come from? Called from before he was born? Here indeed is one whose mouth was sharp as a sword. A polished arrow, in God’s quiver, hidden away. Here is one who knew discouragement. Who found the prophetic calling a “vocation of agony.” Who nevertheless…

This week there was a meeting at Swords into Plowshares Center to plan the Detroit celebration of this 50th anniversary of King’s 1967 Breaking the Silence speech at Riverside Church against the war in Vietnam. There will be a reading, in parts, at Central Methodist the Sunday prior, and then in many places April 4. One of the places I’ll be reading is with the Homrich 9 water protectors outside of 36th District Court because that very day we are scheduled to go back on trial before a jury.

I mention that because of the day and because vocation figures so prominently in Martin King’s reasons for opposition to the war. He notes that, like any good preacher, he has seven reasons for resisting the war – the first of which reflect the “giant triplets,” the pre-eminent powers of our times: racism, materialism, and militarism. But then his reasons turn vocational – they are run through his identity as civil rights leader, Nobel peace prize winner, minister of the gospel, and human being. Given the reading from Isaiah, I was particularly struck by the Peace Prize. He says that the Nobel placed him on a world stage, broadening his view and his commitment to a global vision and task. It’s almost as though God had spoken: “It is too light a thing that you should gather a movement and fight for civil rights. I will give you and that movement as a light to the nations.” A liberation struggle on U.S. soil will enlighten and inspire the world toward active, provocative, nonviolent resistance and transformation. War is not the answer.

The gospel reading this morning concludes with the call of our spiritual namesake Peter. Perhaps it’s right on time for our own process of considering anew our identity and vocation as a community beloved.

John’s is a different telling of that call than we will hear next week from Matthew. It takes place not while they are casting their nets by the Galilee, but somehow across the Jordon where John was baptizing in the wild. Andrew is on one of John’s disciples, so already tutored and formed. Part of John’s witness to Jesus is to nudge his own disciples toward the man with the dove. In the conversation that follows, question answers to question: What are you looking for? Where are you staying? Come and See. So spare and simple an invite for a call to discipleship.

Our namesake is one of those. Jesus looks on Simon and sees something. Behold, you will be called Cephas, St. Peter, St. Rock. We can hold to that in the storm at hand. Thanks be to God, we have been looked upon and recognized, named and loved, and even called.

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