Archive for January, 2008

Journeying with Jesus

Sunday, January 27th, 2008

There are moments in life that change our lives forever. “I do,” spoken by the couple at the altar. “It’s cancer,” revealed by the physician at the doctor’s office. “I’ve lost my job,” shared with a spouse, parent, or friend. “I’m leaving,” uttered in the heat of an argument or the coolness of finality. “She died,” acknowledged in a myriad of ways, depending on the age and circumstance.

As recounted in the fourth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, the words that changed Jesus’ history and ours are these: “John has been arrested” (Matthew 4:12). The John of whom Matthew speaks is Jesus’ cousin. This is John–the baptizer ushering from the wilderness, proclaiming the message, “Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand!” This is John–the prophet challenging the moral authority of Rome, calling King Herod’s relationship with his brother’s wife, Herodius, adultery. This is John–the only child of Elizabeth and Zechariah–parents whom after years of barrenness are blessed with a son marked by God’s call.

Matthew’s Gospel is terse in its language, yet beneath that terseness is an under- current of urgency. The landscape has radically changed for both John and Jesus, as their callings are inextricably intertwined. Jesus has just returned from 40 days of solitude and fasting, time alone with God, time alone with himself, time alone with the Tempter and all that could derail him from his calling.

I recently spent 48 hours on my second-ever Silent Retreat. Two days of silence is still a challenge for me. Yet, even in two days, the visceral connection with God as well as the awareness of that which gets in the way of experiencing God is astounding. The self is unmasked and thus called to new places of being. I cannot imagine what 40 days alone in the wilderness would produce as far as character, clarity, and resolve.

We often think of Jesus’ time in the wilderness as “The Test” or “The Temptation.” Our bibles often subtitle this story in such a way. We rarely think of this time apart as “The Centering.” This is clearly Jesus’ longest period of solitude before–and after– his public ministry begins. The scriptures focus on Jesus wrestling with the Devil, but his time alone surely included as well many moments of intimacy with God.

Have you ever faced a difficult experience, looked back, and said, “Good thing I did that beforehand or I never could have made it through this moment!” For Jesus, it was a good thing he spent 40 days in solitude in the wilderness, given what was to come. In settling some debates with the Prince of Darkness, he came away more fully embodying his deepest and truest self.

The narrative continues: “When Jesus got word that John had been arrested, he returned to Galilee. He moved from his hometown, Nazareth, to the lakeside village Capernaum…” (Matthew 4:12). The author of Matthew’s Gospel is not given to much detail. What he leaves out here is the reasons for John’s arrest and the real possibility that John could languish in prison until he died, or worse, be murdered. What he leaves out here is any sense of Jesus’ reactions to John’s arrest, any discussions amid the extended family about this turn of events, any foreboding this might foreshadow in Jesus.

Not only is all this omitted from the story, but there is no commentary about the reasons Jesus left Nazareth and moved to Capernaum. Jesus grew up in Nazareth and learned the carpentry trade there. Tradition has it that, as the eldest son, he had helped support his widowed mother and the rest of his siblings through this trade.

We must turn to Luke’s Gospel for the background we need. After Jesus’ 40 days of solitude in the wilderness, he returns to Nazareth. This is predictable. He returns to the synagogue where he has worshiped since he was a child. This is predictable. He reads the scroll from Isaiah. Predictable. He announces that this scripture is being fulfilled in the hearing of the congregation. Surprising. Jesus is eloquent and deep. Somewhat surprising—“Isn’t this the son of [Mary and] Joseph?” some murmur (see Luke 4:22). ‘Isn’t this the hometown boy?’

What happens next sets the stage for the move to Capernaum. Jesus tells two stories, both about prophets and outsiders, Elijah sent to the widow of Zarepath and Elisha who healed only Namaan the Syrian. The worshipers are filled with rage, throw Jesus out, and attempt to push him over a cliff, but he passes through the crowds and escapes.

A few years ago, Peace Community Church went through several months of conflict with the American Baptist Churches of Ohio over the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the church. Ultimately, the church was censured by our Ohio Region and received into the American Baptist Churches of the Rochester Genessee Region, but not without a great deal of injury, challenge, difficult meetings, and the like. Perhaps someday a church historian might say, “In 2005, Peace Community Church left the American Baptist Churches of Ohio and joined the Rochester-Genessee Region.” Period. Beginning and end of the story. Sounds simple and peaceful enough, doesn’t it?

So it is with the story in Matthew’s Gospel about Jesus’ move to the lakeside village Capernaum from his hometown Nazareth. Nowhere is there a mention of what it was like for Jesus to be thrown out of his hometown, how that was for his family—were they reviled? Did they disagree with his preaching that day in the synagogue? Did they wish he would “tone it down” for his own sake? Once John was arrested, did they ask themselves, “Can’t Jesus learn something from John’s experience about what happens when you say too much?” Nowhere is there a mention of Jesus’ feelings of responsibility as the eldest son, how he put those aside because God was calling, how he let go and let other siblings take over.
John has been arrested. Jesus is kicked out of his hometown, nearly murdered. Good thing he spent 40 days in solitude. Jesus’ life is rapidly changing. His private life as a carpenter is over. His public life as a prophet and teacher gets off to a dangerous start with an unreceptive hometown audience. What’s next?
These turns of events lead to three more changes for Jesus. First, he picks up where John left off, preaching, “Repent. The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Repentance is a ‘church word’ that really means “Turn around, change.” The Reign of God is at hand, a time of transformation is here! Listen and respond!

Secondly, Jesus realizes that this mission isn’t a solo mission, but a mission of many– one requiring the establishment of a new community. His old community is back in Nazareth. So, Jesus begins calling disciples–Simon and Andrew, James and John, as well as others. Unfortunately, Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t include the stories of women who were called into that community, but we know that they were there from a solitary mention in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 8:1-3). Thanks, Luke!

Jesus offers the simple invitation, “Come, and follow me.” In ancient Israel, it was a great honor to be invited by a rabbi to be his disciple. Jesus collects a diverse and surprising bunch of unlikely followers from the common walks of life. 2000 years later, his simple invitation still stands.

Finally, Jesus begins a ministry of healing and compassion. Matthew’s Gospel declares, “He also healed people of their diseases and the bad effects of their bad lives…People brought anybody with an ailment, whether mental, emotional, or physical. Jesus healed them, one and all” (from Matthew 4:23-25, The Message). Like the inclusive message Jesus preaches in Nazareth that nearly gets him killed, like the inclusive community he begins building as he calls disciples to himself, Jesus heals everyone who comes to him and everyone who is brought to him and can’t come by themselves. They come from everywhere that word can travel. Matthew’s Gospel mentions “the entire Roman province of Syria, Galilee, the ‘Ten Towns’ across the lake, Jerusalem, Judea, and still others from across the Jordan” (from Matthew 4:24-25).

Who lives in these places? In Jesus’ day, Galilee up north has the reputation of being “the land of the Gentiles” among those who live in southern Judea, including Jerusalem. This age-old nickname was coined after the Assyrian invasion around 800 B.C.E. The victors deported Jews and mixed the populations to weaken any potential for unified resistance.

So, to this prophet, teacher, and preacher come Romans from Syria, native-born Syrians, Jews and Gentiles from Galilee, Jews from Jerusalem and Judea, and others from across both the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee in other Roman provinces. Word gets around. People come, and come, and come. The compassion of God in the face of Jesus is unlimited by race, geography, or nationality. The compassion of God in the face of Jesus is unlimited by life station, physical health, age, and gender. A yearning for healing truly knows no boundaries. Insiders and outsiders make their way to Jesus.

Beneath these terse verses of Matthew’s Gospel, there is a story within this story–so much behind the text that we don’t see at first glance. There are so many questions to ponder about how it all this was for Jesus–coming out of that wilderness after forty days, facing the arrest of his cousin John, being catapulted into his own ministry, saying goodbye to Nazareth and taking up residence in Capernaum, calling a community of disciples together and ministering compassion and healing to the multitudes.
Let’s take a few moments to sit with the weight and magnitude of this story and all of its various pieces—there are surely other pieces we don’t even know! As we continue the season of Epiphany whose dramatic symbol is “light,” I invite you to feast on the dramatic symbolism of light which is displayed on our altar, and let God speak to your heart where God so chooses. Amen.

Where are you staying Jesus?

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

It seemed like such an innocent question. “So where are you staying Jesus?” Andrew and I had been with John’s group for several months. I had gotten used to tramping around with him in the wilderness. It was an amazing thing to watch. People would come from everywhere out into the middle of nowhere, just to hear John.

I don’t know what attracted them, or us, to the message. It was nothing like Jesus. John was all hellfire and brimstone, and Jesus had a much gentler side to him. But we came out there to see John by the thousands and some of us just couldn’t go back.

I don’t know how many people I helped climb down into the river, but it was more than I could probably count, anyway. John said Jesus even came one day. I wasn’t there. John had sent me into some village to get some food. But John never stopped talking about it. He said as soon as Jesus came up out of the water God’s Spirit came to Jesus and stayed with him.

But it wasn’t until later that I finally saw Jesus for myself. We were just standing there with John one day and all the sudden he starts shouting, “There he is. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And the next day, he passed along the road and John started it all up again.

I’ve got to be truthful. When I first started going out into the wilderness to hear John I thought he might be the one, the one all of Israel was waiting for. But he kept saying no, it was someone else, and he was just getting things ready for him. He said he had no idea who it was, until Jesus came out to be baptized. ‘He’s The One, I know it,’ he kept saying.

So when Jesus walked by that day, Andrew and I were standing there and suddenly Andrew said, ‘Let’s go check him out and see if the Baptizer could be right.’ I thought it was a crazy idea then, but that was nothing compared to how crazy it was going to get.

I can’t say that I really meant to go with Andrew but suddenly there we were trying to catch up with Jesus when he stopped, looked back over his shoulder, and said “What are you after?”

I didn’t know what to say, but Andrew just said, ‘Where are you staying.’ ‘Come along and see for yourself,’ he said. And we have been seeing for ourselves ever since.

I don’t know sometimes if I want to curse Andrew or bless him. Sometimes I think he was too curious for our own good. But we ended us staying at Jesus’s place for a day and then Andrew went and got his brother Simon Peter. Jesus called him Rock.

By then we were in too deep. I mean I had always meant to stay with the Baptizer, but now I was with Andrew and Rock and the others with Jesus. And it seemed it was what John wanted. But I still felt guilty at first. I couldn’t stop talking about the Baptizer. I guess I wanted to make sure Jesus knew that I wouldn’t have gone to where he was staying, and stayed with him, if it hadn’t been for John.

I thought I understood at first what the Baptizer meant when he saw Jesus coming down the road and said, ‘There he is, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ I’m no worse a Jew than any other of the lot, so I knew about all the sacrifices that took place in the temple. I knew the stories from the scriptures about the scapegoats that were sent out into the wilderness to carry away the sins of the people.

So when the religious rulers turned Jesus in to the Romans, and those most civilized of barbarians stripped him naked and hung him up on one of their crosses, I though there he is, ‘The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ As time went on and we talked all this stuff through some of us thought that it was necessary that Jesus become a sacrificial offering. God offered him as a sacrifice, putting our sin on his back, so we could be forgiven. It’s like we ran up the debt and Jesus paid the bill.

It was some of the women who first started claiming that was crazy. It wasn’t God they said who stood there in Pilate’s courtyard shouting ‘Crucify him, crucify him.’ It was human beings, people like us. It was humanity, some of them said, who was offering Jesus as a sacrifice to appease the gods of this world because we didn’t know what to do with him. His message was too radical. He turned too many things upside down and inside out. He called too much into question for us to let him live. That’s why we make our human sacrifices, anyway, they argued, to convince the gods to keep things the way they are.

They just wouldn’t buy this sacrificial atonement business. ‘Let me get this right,’ one of them said, ‘you say God was angry at our sins and ready to punish us for them. In a strange, sort-of-gymnastic move, God became human in order to take the rap. Or that the Son took it for God, and for us.’

And besides, they said, what about that story where Abraham thinks he is supposed to offer his son Isaac as a human sacrifice to God. God said no. And in the old stories in the scriptures human sacrifice is never seen as something acceptable to God. So why would you imagine God would want to make Jesus a human sacrifice?

They obviously had been thinking about this a lot more than I had. It all seemed so obvious to me. So I asked them what they thought John meant when he said Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world? It sounds pretty sacrificial to me.

Their response was maybe the Baptizer was saying God offered Jesus to us not as a sacrificial victim but as a gift showing us a new way of living. Jesus, they said, might not be the one that sin was supposed to be piled on, but the one who showed us how to get out from under the pile of sin.

And they reminded me that John said he took away the sin of the world, not the sins of the world. We can think, they said, about all the greed, and envy, and faithlessness, and prejudice, and immorality, and racism, and nationalism and all the other sins that haunt us and this world. We can make the cross into some kind of machine where our sins become the righteousness of Jesus without anyone, save Jesus, having to take seriously the results of sin. And people don’t seem to be sinning a whole lot less.

But just maybe the sin of the world that Jesus took on was this whole bloody system that alienates us from one another and God, they said, and leads to cross after cross after cross. Could he be The One God sent to us to break that cycle of sin and violence by his willingness to let it all fall on him, become our sacrificial victim, and not God’s?

The conversation is not done. And I’m not sure what I think. This is what I do know. We went that day to see where Jesus was staying and we kept on staying. And I remember John saying how when Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit came and stayed with Jesus. And I have seen the Spirit at work.

There is more than just a handful of us now. We thought it was all over that awful Friday. But then Sunday morning came, and as Rock says in one of his sermons, “We saw it, saw it all, everything he did in Israel and in Jerusalem where they killed him, hung him on a cross. But in three days God had him up and alive, and out where he could be seen. We are his witnesses.” 

I’ve seen so much since that day. All we wanted to know was where he was staying. And it turns out he is staying with us. All of us, just like the Spirit was staying with him.

One of the gang, Paul, says all of us together are the body of Christ. Jesus is seen and known and alive in us, all these little churches now spread all over the place. That’s where he is staying now. Maybe they’re right. The Lamb of God has changed this world. I see sins all over the place, some a bit too close to home, as they say. And I am glad that there is such a thing as forgiveness.

But when I’m with the brothers and sisters, I realize there is a power of death that has been broken, that we can live in a new way in this world because of Jesus. And we are living in new ways. Some of us share our income and homes. We don’t fight Caesar’s wars or pretend he is some kind of god. We try to live as if there is no difference between Jew and Gentile, master and slave, men or women, though we aren’t always good at it. It’s because of Jesus we are living in radically new ways.

And I don’t think Jesus just wants to stay with us. He was God’s offering to the whole world.

If we remain curious about Jesus, willing to ask questions about where he is staying, what he is doing, where he is going, why he wants to stay with us, then maybe we will keep going, staying with him as he stays with us. If we bring what we can of ourselves to the body of Christ, maybe we will figure out what John meant about the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Time will tell.

How Martin Luther King, Jr., changed this church… a story about a vision, a calling, and a transformation

Sunday, January 13th, 2008

Bob Thomas was one of the saints of this church. He was a man of principle, courage, humility, and heart. He died at age 90 in March, 1993. To that day, he carried with him always a deep love and devotion for high school sweetheart, Dorothea. She was his beloved wife who preceded Bob in death by 14 years.

Bob was an activist, but not the firebrand sort. He was quiet yet determined, joining college students on busses to Marches on Washington well into his 80’s. His resume of achievements for the common good was long and distinguished, including local and national accolades. On Sunday mornings, he carried a little devotional book filled with poems and prayers by Thomas Kepler. He often read from this well-worn treasure during Sharing Time.

Bob lived the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, but he always credited Dorothea with being the ‘real’ bible student between them. If you never met Bob, his picture hangs in the parlor. If it wasn’t for Bob, you wouldn’t be sitting here today.

During the 1960’s, Bob heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., decry Sunday mornings at 11 a.m. as “the most segregated hour of the week.” At the time, Bob and Dorothea were attending Mt. Zion Baptist Church, the black Baptist Church in town, where they had been members for a long time.

Bob couldn’t get Dr. King’s comment out of his head. He began to sense God’s call to come to this church, then named ‘First Baptist Church.’ Dorothea wasn’t equally convinced, but eventually agreed to leave her friends at Mt. Zion and build new relationships here. As members of FBC, Bob and Dorothea assumed important roles, with Bob serving as the Moderator when Steve and I came to Oberlin.

The time came during the 1970’s when First Baptist Church seriously considered closing. The congregation had shrunk to eleven people (“plus Jesus,” as Bob always said). Nine of them were retired. They had been ably served by part-time retired pastors for several years, but how could they ever support a pastor, or the needed upkeep for the building. Should they close?

As those eleven people “plus Jesus” prayed and struggled with what to do, Bob suggested the idea of working with the Ohio Baptist Convention to bring a young pastor to town and see what could happen. A two-year deal was struck with the Ohio Convention. Hire a young person (which turned out to be Steve!). Give that pastor two years to turn the church around. Then—turn the building over to the denomination to sell and close, or continue the rich and historic ministry of this church within the wider community.

That was 1979, nearly 30 yeas ago. Some of us have been privileged to live that story. It is always worth retelling. Martin Luther King, Jr., changed the direction and future of this church in more ways than we might first imagine…

Wanted!–Primary Movers and Latecomers to the Action

Sunday, January 13th, 2008

I always come to the remembrance of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with some measure of shame, because I was a latecomer to the action. I hang around with a lot of 1960’s activist types, the primary one being my husband, but also with many others from Oberlin and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. I often feel somewhat like somewhat of an imposter in such company–not that my own vision and conscience don’t span the globe in 2008, but they surely didn’t in the 1960’s.

I was born in 1952, so I was ‘coming of age’ in the days when Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others, were leading the charge against legalized segregation in our country. My teenage years were spent in a large suburban high school, a white enclave of middle class values. While some were fretting over injustice and conflict in Selma, Alabama; Washington, D.C., and Marquette Park, Illinois, my days were consumed with teenage crushes, overachieving at school, and how well my Beethoven Piano Sonata was memorized for my next piano lesson. As caring of an individual as I sought to be, my attention was focused on the usual fare of teenage life, with an extra dose of genuine volunteerism thrown in.

It was really marrying a news junkie and marketing third world handicrafts through Jubilee Crafts during our early years in Oberlin that widened my world profoundly. These two experiences offered me the opportunity to see that justice is wider and deeper than charity, and yet when a person is hungry or homeless or dispossessed of mind, body, or spirit—charity is as needful as justice.

In our scripture reading from the Letter to the Ephesians today, the author is sitting in prison and writing to his fellow Christians. Scholars dispute whether or not this letter was written by the Apostle Paul, with some landing on either side of this question. I have always believed the letter is Pauline for a myriad of reasons, so today we will assume that it is Paul’s message to the Church in Ephesus.

“Grow up! Grow up! Grow up!” he says. “Don’t stay a newborn in the faith! Keep growing! Keep maturing! Keep journeying!”

Being around my newborn grandchild, Sofia, I have noticed something about young children. Every time I see Sofia, something noticeable has changed about her. Her face is more mature; she focuses on objects more intently. Her little fists are not so tight; her fingers open more often. Her head is stronger, and she moves it more easily from side to side. She smiles a little bit. Now she is smiling a lot, and it has only been two weeks since I last saw her.

As newborns in the faith, we change so much so quickly. Yet, the older we get, the more imperceptible are the daily transformations. If we don’t see an 8 year old for a year, she might have grown several inches! If we don’t see a 54 year old for a year, he might just have added a few pounds or a few silver hairs!

One of my favorite parenting stories comes from an exchange between me and one of my daughters who had been away for awhile during her late teen years. In this case, absence did make the heart grow fonder!

We were standing in the kitchen one day after she returned home and my daughter said to me, “Mom, you have changed so much while I’ve been gone!”

I smiled at her and said, “Oh, my dear, when you are my age, you don’t change that much in four months. I do believe it must be you that has changed!”

The point I am trying to make is that the changes in our lives may seem harder to see the longer we journey with God. In my journal, I recently wrote, “I am growing so slowly, but I am growing deeply.”
The important part is that we are growing at all. We must continually ask ourselves, “What is God doing in my life? How am I growing spiritually?” We must continually ask one another, “What is God doing in your life? What are the growing edges of your spiritual journey?”

I encourage each of us to ponder these questions for ourselves and find someone at church whom you want to know better and share these questions and your responses with one another.

This year, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Planning Committee of the Oberlin-Area Cooperating Ministries moved beyond planning the usual Oberlin events and decided to offer a week of opportunities that allow us to grow and stretch in new ways. The theme of the week is “Moving Beyond Our Boundaries: Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.” If there is one thing we take away from our celebrations this year that endures beyond this particular week, I hope it will be the call to move outside our usual spaces, our usual relationships, our usual activities. Listen there for God. Look there for God. Learn there from God. Grow slow, but grow deep.

Martin Luther King, Jr. And Me

Sunday, January 13th, 2008

I was fifteen years old when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. To be truthful, I didn’t pay too much attention to him at that age, but I knew he was a good person trying to do good things.

His death led to riots around the country. I was listening to a Chicago radio station a couple of days after his death as I was falling asleep. There was a report about a man who had been killed in the riots there. He was simply walking out of his apartment when he was shot and killed.

Suddenly, right as I was trying to fall asleep I was plunged into what I guess we would call an existential crisis that lasted for three pretty much sleepless nights. The more I thought about Martin Luther King, Jr., and that unnamed man who was shot coming out of his building, the more I struggled with issues like mortality, God, call, commitment, faith.

I didn’t know anything about the man who was shot. But I assumed he hadn’t done anything worth being shot for. And I knew that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed not because he had done something wrong, but because he had done something right. At 15 years of age, I was trying to put an awful lot together. The universe was seeming awfully unfair, and I was realizing that no one, not even myself, could continue to assume it would be fair.

The church I had been going to for maybe a year, I didn’t go to church much before then, had an altar call at the end of each service. It wasn’t a big deal, not the verse after verse kind of thing, with every head bowed and every eye closed. But it was emphasized that a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ was the gateway to new life.

I was pretty skeptical about all of that, but the more I laid awake those nights, the more I thought about it. Maybe this whole Jesus thing wasn’t as pie in the sky as I thought it was, maybe they were on to something. I kept thinking that Christianity didn’t really make sense, but now nothing else was making sense. And Martin Luther King, Jr. had seemed to latch on to Christianity in a big way.

I laid awake and paced and finally realized that I needed to get myself up to the front of that church. So on the next Sunday, almost before the hymns were opened to the right page, there I was, and glad to be there.

What I hadn’t caught on to at the time, was that journey to the front of the church was a beginning, not an end. And I think that is what I learned most from Martin Luther King, Jr. as in the years ahead I realized more and more what kind of man he was.

We’ve talked about this before, but I find it really intriguing that in the Gospels all Jesus says to the disciples when he encounters them is, “Follow me.” He doesn’t tell them where he is going. There is no statement of faith they have to sign, no set of doctrines they have to subscribe to, he doesn’t make any promises other that they will find life, whatever that means.

Conversion, I began to realize, since those days that I appeared at the altar of the Big Walnut Baptist Church in Reelsville, Indiana is something that happens in our lives again and again and again.

It took learning more about people like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Oscar Romero whose life story we will be thinking about tonight, to help me to realize that. They both experienced all kinds of conversions as they followed Jesus, what they did was out of commitment to the one they had decided to follow. Neither one of them would have ever imagined they would end up where they did, but they were in it for the long haul, figuring it out, like we all have to do, along the way.

So when I think about the part Martin Luther King, Jr. played in my conversion, I realize that the what is more important is the part he has played in my conversions along the way, as I keep on trying to figure out what Jesus was saying when he said, “Follow, me.”

If I ever got to ask a Presidential candidate a question here is what it would be: What’s the point of crushing a bruised reed?

Sunday, January 6th, 2008

Somewhere along the way, as the Jesus movement took hold, people began to see in the passage we read earlier this morning from Isaiah 42 something that looked like Jesus. “He will bring forth justice to the nations.” “I have put my spirit upon him.” “I have given you as a covenant to the people and a light to the nations.” The promise to “open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness,” are reflected in the very first sermon Jesus preached when he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”

That has led some to believe that this passage from the prophet Isaiah, written several centuries before the birth of Jesus, was always intended to be about him, a foreshadowing of the life and ministry of the Messiah. Others argue it’s okay to let the text stand on its own for whatever purposes it was originally written, and use it as a model for the ministry and mission Jesus adopted.

However we get to this passage, there is something compelling in it that reminds me of what I read about Jesus in the gospels. And the phrase that has been particularly standing out to me lately is the one that says, “a bruised reed he will not break.”

At first, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Who cares about a bruised blade of grass somewhere along a river’s edge. But, of course, there is something much deeper going on here. The Servant that Isaiah writes about is one who notices the vulnerable, who goes out of his way to make sure he doesn’t make it any harder for those already having a hard time.

Jesus paid a lot of attention to the most vulnerable, and not only refused to make things worse for them, but his mission was to make things better for them.

I have been thinking about all of this a lot during the current presidential campaign. There has been a real race to out Christian each other, though Rudy Guiliani has declared himself a non combatant in matters of religion when it comes to the political wars. And as all these candidates stress their Christian credentials there has also been an increasingly ugly race to see who can be the hardest and harshest when it comes to illegal immigrants. It seems like an awful lot of candidates are trying to fight off accusations that they are soft on illegal immigrants, and going out of their way to sound as tough on illegal immigrantion as they can.

Who is more vulnerable than illegal immigrants? What bruised reed is easier to crush than that one? Yet so many of these presidential candidates, who are vying for the title of most Christian Presidential candidate ever, are not only willing to crush this bruised reed but they want to yank it out of the soil, stomp on it, burn it, and make sure they have television crews recording every minute so they can make a commercial out of it.

This is not the way of Jesus. But it is the way of Herod who sent his soldiers out to kill those baby boys after the travelers of the East failed to come back and deliver the coordinates for the attack Herod was going to launch against Jesus. We know how vulnerable babies are, but Herod went after them anyway for the sake of the nation.

It’s a political ploy that dates much earlier than Herod. Pick on the most vulnerable and call it leadership. When you are going after babies or illegal immigrants, who you say represent a dire threat to the nation, you don’t have to talk about real dangers like lack of health care, a war machine that is out of control, an economy that performs only for the wealthy, growing poverty, a failing education system, attacks on civil liberties, a housing crisis, or global warming.

The person now designated at the front runner for the Republican nomination, the Rev. Mike Huckabee recently said the most dangerous threat facing our nation is illegal immigration. It’s not terrorism, it’s not environmental degradation, it’s not swelling budget deficits, it’s not the lack of health insurance for over 50,000,000 million Americans, not bridges falling into rivers, not nuclear proliferation, but illegal immigration. Let’s batter the bruised reed. I mean, isn’t that what Jesus would do?

And this battering of bruised reeds has bipartisan appeal. Before he was first elected in 1992, Bill Clinton cut short a campaign trip so he could return to Arkansas to deny clemency for a mentally retarded man who was then executed. And before his reelection, President Clinton told us that children in welfare families were getting too many benefits, and he gladly supported a bill to make life harder on the already battered and bruised.

Republican and Democrat alike were falling all over themselves the past couple of election cycles to be tough on gays and lesbians. There is not a bruised reed that many a politician since Herod’s day has been willing to pass up.

The thing is that it doesn’t seem like Mike Huckabee is the kind of guy who really wants to beat up on illegal immigrants, or that Bill Clinton is a really ardent capital punishment supporter. But they think, I guess, that’s the price of power.

On Epiphany though we celebrate the coming of Jesus into this world who like the one spoken of in Isaiah 42 would not break a bruised reed or quench a dimly burning wick. Rather, ‘he will establish justice in the earth.’ The King of the Jews that the Wisemen sought did things a different way, understood power to be something you use for the sake of the powerless, the bruised reeds.

Do you see why we celebrate his birth with light? The travelers followed the light of that star. These Gentiles were willing to proclaim this newborn Jewish king as ‘a light to the nations.’ If only the nations would get it, see the light, and stop crushing bruised reeds.

If I read the Revelation correctly, though, the nations never really get it, or not until it’s too late. That’s why the seer in the Revelation was not overly impressed by the Roman empire with all its might, and all its wealth, and all its death. John put his money on the church, even though there were plenty betting that Rome was going to obliterate that bruised reed before it could further annoy the empire. Funny thing, though. The Roman empire is long gone, as are several of its successors, and the church is still here, and it still needs to be annoying the empire.

That, I think, is the larger point of Epiphany. It’s not simply as the beginning of John’s Gospel put it that the ‘light has come into the world,’ but that ‘the darkness has not overcome it.’

This light that Jesus brought into the world was not meant to live and die with him. It was Jesus, who looking at his followers one day said, ‘you are the light of the world.’ Like so many things in the Bible we realize that Epiphany has something to do with us. This light is not just about Jesus, it’s not just about God, it’s not even just about these really religious people we imagine we could never be like. It’s about us. And it’s about us particularly as the church.

The Book of Revelation also tells us I believe, it’s always time for the church to stand and be the church, to come into its own no matter what the empire is up to. We, the church, are here for the sake of the bruised reeds. That is how we bring light into this world. And that’s why church is worth our time and effort and money and commitment. It’s an Epiphany movement that has been put in our hands.

And we know what it means to be that bruised reed. We know our own vulnerabilities as individuals. If someone wanted to come after us, they could break any of us pretty easily. That’s why we stand for the most vulnerable, because those illegal immigrants, for example, are just like us. They want what is best for their children, just like we do. They want to live in peace, have a roof over their heads clean water to drink, and food on the table. ‘Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Those are not the words of the empire. That’s what Jesus said.

So if politicians come along and talk about the hymns their mamas sang to them, the prayers their papas prayed for them, the Bible studies they have gone to, the church camps they have attended, or that Jesus Christ is their personal savior, that’s all fine and good. But when they ask us to join them in crushing bruised reeds we just have to let them know that we are voting for the church and the ways of Jesus, thank you. Because that’s where the light is, and the darkness of your political pandering will not overcome it.

With the travelers from the East we celebrate the light that has come into this world, The One who shows the nations what justice is. And he celebrates with us, asking us to remember him by being the light he knows we are.

There’s not a bruised reed he will break, not a guttering flame he will extinguish. That’s what the King of the Jews is about. I wonder if one of the political parties will put that plank in their platform? It sounds pretty good to me, and it’s something that Christian presidential candidates, and all the rest of us, would do well to remember.