St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
January 19, 2014
Year A: The Second Sunday after Epiphany
An Excerpt from A Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Co-Workers with God
Well, if you were in church last Sunday you may be feeling a bit of déjà vu right now.
Last week we remembered and celebrated the Baptism of Jesus.
We heard Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus presented himself to John the Baptist. It’s a little awkward. At first John the Baptist is understandably reluctant to baptize Jesus, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But, Jesus insists and, we’re told, as he was coming up out of the waters of the Jordan, a voice from heaven declares, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The Baptism of Jesus is a great epiphany – a manifestation of God’s relationship with Jesus the beloved Son – God’s unbreakable bond with Jesus.
And, in the same way, our baptism is a great epiphany for us – a manifestation of God’s relationship with us – a manifestation of God’s unbreakable bond with us.
And now here we are back again today.
And it turns out that our gospel lesson is partly about…the Baptism of Jesus.
But, this week we heard the account of the baptism of Jesus found in the Gospel of John.
And, you’ll notice that there are some interesting differences between John’s account that we heard today and Matthew’s take on it that we heard last week.
To make things slightly less confusing I’m going to call the Gospel of John the Fourth Gospel.
In the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist is the narrator. He tells the story of Jesus’ baptism which has already happened at some point in the past.
Well, actually, if you read or listen carefully, the Fourth Gospel deals with the awkwardness of John baptizing Jesus by skipping over the baptism itself. Here John the Baptist never quite says that he did baptize Jesus. So, on the one hand, the Fourth Gospel gives John the Baptist extra attention by making him the narrator, by giving him the opportunity to be the first to declare that Jesus is the Son of God.
But on the other hand, John the Baptist is diminished.
His baptizing ministry is described as simply a way to discover the Lamb of God. And, in the Fourth Gospel, John doesn’t even get to baptize Jesus.
But, then, look what happens next.
We’re told that the next day John the Baptist points out Jesus, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
Some of John’s disciples are understandably curious about this “Lamb of God” and they begin to follow Jesus.
And so, it begins.
At his baptism, Jesus receives his call from God.
And, Jesus won’t live out his call on his own but surrounded by others.
So, now, Andrew, Peter and others receive their call to follow Jesus.
There is a special word for a call from God: “vocation.”
Unfortunately, until pretty recently, that word vocation usually referred only to people who felt called to ordained ministry or to serve as a nun or a monk.
Certainly when I was growing up that was the sense of the word.
If someone asked me if I “had a vocation” I knew they were asking if I felt if I wanted to be – if I felt called to be – a priest.
Fortunately, in more recent times we have rediscovered the profound and powerful truth that all of us - teachers, accountants, cooks, musicians, cleaners, doctors, students, cashiers, editors, soldiers, unemployed people, retired people, volunteers, parents, grandparents, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, priests, worship leaders, vergers, acolytes, choir members, ushers – all of us are called by God – all of us have a vocation.
And, like Jesus, and like Christians through the centuries, we receive our call – we receive our vocation – at our Baptism.
In the words of the prayer book, at our Baptism we are called “to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.”
At our Baptism we receive our vocation to “persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.”
At our Baptism we are called to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”
At our Baptism we receive our vocation to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self.”
At our Baptism we are called to “strive for justice among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
At our Baptism we are called – at our baptism we receive our vocation.
We receive our vocation - which, let’s be honest, is a lot.
It’s a lot to remember. And it’s a lot to live out.
Today as part of our Martin Luther King celebration, we heard an excerpt from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It’s one of his most famous pieces of writing but we may not know the context.
Dr. King and others had gone to Birmingham, Alabama, in an effort to desegregate one of the most segregated cities in America. He and others were arrested on April 16, 1963, which happened to be Good Friday that year.
While he was jailed a group of eight local white clergymen, including the Episcopal bishop of Alabama, issued a statement titled, “A Call for Unity.” They urged those who demanded civil rights to take their fight off the streets and into the courts of law. They rejected Dr. King and the others as “outsiders” who should leave the people of Birmingham to deal with their own issues. And they called for patience. They asked Dr. King and the others to wait.
In response, Dr. King wrote his famous letter. He wrote it in his jail cell, on scraps of newspaper, which were then smuggled out of jail.
Reading the excerpt we heard this morning, a sentence jumped out at me:
“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God…”
“Co-workers with God.”
At our Baptism we are called – at our Baptism we receive our vocation.
And we have lots of words and images to describe our vocation but what it all boils down to is that God calls us to be co-workers.
We are meant to be co-workers with God.
And, really, that’s all God has ever wanted – that’s all that God has ever asked of us, isn’t it?
This past week at Evening Prayer we heard the story of Adam and Eve eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge – the story of the first disobedience, the first sin, that messed up everything.
Really all God wanted was for Adam and Eve to work with God to tend the garden.
And that’s all God really wants now.
God still gives us our vocation – still calls us to be co-workers.
Just like all of us, Dr. King was an imperfect human being but in his life and work he answered God’s call – he lived out his vocation to be one of God’s co-workers.
And, like the Lamb of God, Dr. King ultimately sacrificed his life for his vocation.
Beginning at our Baptism, right here and now, in this time and place, we are all called, each in our own way, to be co-workers with God.
God calls each of us to tend our little patch of the garden here: to love the hard to love, to give to outstretched hands, to demand justice for the oppressed, to forgive and forgive again.
So, this week’s epiphany is that God calls each of us – God calls all of us – to be co-workers with God.
Dr. King answered God’s call.
How about us?