Sermon Seed: Be Called
Sunday, January 15, 2023
Second Sunday after Epiphany | Year A
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Isaiah 49:1-7 • Psalm 40:1-11 • 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 • John 1:29-42
Thrill and Rejoice (Click here for the series overview.)
By Sharon R. Fennema
The season of Epiphany invites us into the work of beholding. The scripture passages we encounter in this season offer up countless moments of revelation, of manifestation, moments where we are invited to hold in view the contours of God being made known in our midst, especially through the life and ministry of Jesus. And these moments of revelation elicit responses. When we are drawn into deeper awareness, fuller understanding, new discovery, it impacts us, it moves us, it calls us to be transformed by the encounter. The season of epiphany shows us how the work of beholding is connected to the work of becoming.
When we read this scripture passage from the gospel of John in the context of the season of Epiphany, we are most often drawn to the testimony of John regarding Jesus as the “epiphany” in this passage. From the very start of the gospel, John is identified as a “testifier to the light” and that testimony continues to unfold, first to those wanting answers about his ministry and then, it seems, to anyone who will listen. Here we encounter John’s exuberant proclamation “Look, here is the lamb of God.” It seems like he can’t help but share his new understanding with others and does so by naming Jesus as God’s physical, embodied manifestation of grace, moving among us, close enough to see and touch. What greater epiphany could there be than beholding the tangible presence of God!
But there is another kind of epiphany in this scripture passage that, too, draws our attention: the moment of revelation that occurs when the two disciples hear John’s testimony and begin to follow Jesus. Their following is its own revelation. Where John’s words provide a moment of new discovery, the disciples’ actions – their joining the movement Jesus is beginning – offer deeper understanding and new awareness of the ways God is being made known in our midst. In their actions we discover that God’s love and justice are made manifest when we move together. What Jesus’ ministry will continue to show us over and over again throughout the gospels is that the liberation and redemption he embodies takes all of us.
I find it particularly compelling that the narratives of the calling of the first disciples, are part of our Epiphany texts each season. With all of Jesus’ revelatory sermons and stories, his miracles and life-changing healing, it would be easy to stay focused on beholding all the ways that Jesus is God’s love-made-flesh. These aspects of Jesus’ ministry are, after all, earth-shattering, sky-opening revelations of the new thing God is doing in and through Jesus. But Jesus, himself, reminds us that this is not the whole story. He is showing us from the very beginning that the liberation he is revealing, manifesting and making known is collective liberation. And this collective liberation is revealed each time someone takes up their role in the unfolding story of God’s redeeming love. When the disciples follow, and bring others along, they become their own exciting awaking to new possibilities, for themselves, but also for us all these centuries later.
Since I first encountered it, I’ve been compelled by the spiritual resource collective enfleshed’s description of collective liberation. Among their beautiful descriptions of collective liberation is this gem: “[collective liberation] is the eschatology for a theology that claims all life is entangled, inseparable, permeable, eternally woven together. It rejects individualism. Celebrates collaboration. And acknowledges the difficulty of the fact that we need each other.” The fact that Jesus begins by surrounding himself with others and continues that practice throughout his ministry reveals our interrelatedness. Not only are the struggles we face bound up with one another, the salvation we long for is also something we build together. Perhaps the greatest epiphany in this story is the fact that we need each other.
This lectionary reading comes right on time for those of us in the United States who will be coming to it during the weekend where we celebrate the vision, work and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We rightly celebrate and honor Dr. King as an exemplary transformational leader and guiding force in the Civil Rights Movement. In his own way, his speeches and sermons, his protest marches and direct actions, served as epiphanies during those contentious times: revelations of God’s love and justice made known in our midst, provoking new discoveries and understandings that made and continue to make so many come alive in new ways and to new possibilities. But Dr. King did not establish this legacy alone. He was part of an intergenerational movement of people working to move this country toward racial justice in many and various ways.
A few years ago I had the privilege of hearing several prominent activists from the civil rights era reflect on their work. One thing that Rev. James Lawson, an influential leader and teacher of nonviolence, said has stuck with me. As he reflected on some of the initiatives he had helped lead during the struggles for racial justice that came to a head in the 1960’s, he reminded us that what we now call a “movement” was actually a loose collection of actions taken and ideas shared between a variety of locally-situated groups. “There was no civil rights movement,” he said, “just a whole lot of civil rights movers.” From the young people of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to the nonviolence practitioners of the Congress of Racial Equity to the many affiliates and established chapters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, there were hundreds of local groups taking local action bring about greater equity and justice across racial lines. If we learn anything from taking a deeper look at Dr. King’s legacy, perhaps it is that liberation takes all of us.
Dr. King spoke to this sense of collective liberation often. In fact, one of his most famously quoted phrases refers to our inescapable mutuality. He fleshes out this metaphor in his 1965 commencement address at Oberlin College, entitled “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution.” Here, he says,
All I’m saying is simply this: that all mankind [sic.] is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality…And by believing this, by living out this fact, we will be able to remain awake through a great revolution.
As with Jesus and the disciples, perhaps the greatest epiphany of the civil rights movers, as Lawson describes, is the fact that we need each other, that not only are the struggles we face bound up with one another, the salvation we long for is also something we build together.
I’m grateful to the biblical scholar Audrey West for pointing out in her commentary on this passage in the gospel of John that it contains Jesus’ first words in the gospel. She notes that a question is the first thing of Jesus’ lips here. “What are you looking for” or more accurately to the original Greek, “what are you seeking?” West notes:
Jesus’ ministry begins not with a mighty command to silence a demon, as in Mark; nor with a sermon to the crowds who have gathered on a mountain, as in Matthew; and not with a quotation from Isaiah to proclaim his anointing for the year of God’s favor, as in Luke, but it begins with a question: “What are you seeking?” What are you looking for? What do you need? It is a question worth wrestling with — as individuals, as congregations, as communities — since our answers will have a great deal to do with what we find as well as with the journey we take to get there. What are you seeking? What motivates you? What is that you really need, not just on the surface, but deep down into the core of your being? What are you looking for?
I can’t help but think that this question was the beginning of Jesus building the collective liberation of which his life, ministry, death and resurrection would be the manifestation. He turned to those around him and began to create relationships, to learn who they were and what they needed. He reached out to connect their deepest longings to the love and justice of God being revealed in their midst. Perhaps this is also where we can begin this epiphany season to discover what collective liberation we are working towards, what salvation we are building together, what role we can take up in the unfolding story of redeeming love. When we turn to those around us and ask, what are you seeking, we can discover how we can join one another in building God’s movement of justice and love together. Then perhaps not only will we behold the epiphanies emerging in our midst, but also, our lives can become epiphanies too.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in its entirety
For further reflection
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
“Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Remaining Awake through the Great Revolution,” Commencement Address for Oberlin College, Oberlin College Archives (June 1965), accessed at: https://www2.oberlin.edu/external/EOG/BlackHistoryMonth/MLK/CommAddress.html
Audrey West, “Commentary on John 1:29-42” Working Preacher (January 2017), accessed at: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-john-129-42-3
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Join the Movement for Racial Justice
Dr. Sharon R. Fennema serves as the Join the Movement Curator for the United Church of Christ.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (email@example.com), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Isaiah 49:1-7 • Psalm 40:1-11 • 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 • John 1:29-42
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=14