Frederick Douglass, a social reformer according to the Episcopal Lectionary Calendar, is celebrated on February 20. Douglass was a Black spokesman for the Abolitionist Movement, editor of the North Star, and adviser to President Lincoln. He was also a slave who learned to read and ran away in order to escape the severe punishment that usually came with this skill when it was discovered in a slave. In the North, he was discovered by the Abolitionists who took him to Britain to speak against slavery. He was a very powerful orator and a key figure in persuading the British to stay out of the American Civil War. When the Civil War began, he encouraged President Lincoln to establish units of African American slaves to fight for their freedom while supporting the North. Lincoln did not develop these units of armed forces, much to Douglass’ disappointment.
“The measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most vulnerable citizens.” Not long ago I received an e-mail with this quote from Carter, or maybe it is a paraphrase, but it is close whichever it is. And it made me start mulling over our current situation, especially since Joe Arn had raised the question: Are we, as Christians responsible for helping the poor? My answer to Joe’s question is: Of course! Just thinking about this statement of Carter’s may give us a clue about the man himself. He is a highly ethical man who takes his Christian commitment seriously without any reference to his political alignment. This is the sort of statement that a Christian would make, especially one who took the practical application of his belief seriously. It is not the sort of statement that a politician who was interested in winning in the annals of history would make. Only winners make those pages. When we focus on the weak and vulnerable, we show our love and compassion toward others. When we focus on winning at all costs, we show our disdain and disregard toward others. Have we lost our way as Christians? Do we care for each other or only for the winners? Is it hard to be a friend of the vulnerable?
This is the first week after Epiphany, and yesterday we celebrated the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. During this event, God proclaims that Jesus is His Son. Hence, this is a special day for us and we celebrate by repeating our vows or the vows that were said for us as an infant and by being sprinkled with water off of a rosemary branch. This is one of two central sacraments celebrated by the church. It is the initiation of each of us into the church, the body of Christ. There was a huge battle in the early church over the mark of membership into the church. Many felt that membership was marked by circumcision, which was a Jewish thing and signified that you were a member of the Jewish people who followed the law of Moses. That was fine for those Jewish males who joined the Way, but it did not work for women or Gentiles (anyone not a Jew). So Paul, with the backing of the church in Jerusalem, tossed out any physical mark of membership, making baptism the central requirement.
The third Sunday of Advent is marked by Matthew’s account of John’s imprisonment. One of the very important questions that John continues to have is whether his selection of Jesus as the chosen one was accurate. A not uncommon question for all of us at the end of our lives: Did I live my life well? Have I done any good? Have I made a difference for anyone? These are questions about our legacy. John’s question is about the legacy of Israel. Will the Kingdom come? Is there leadership that will make that happen? Jesus sent back a response that the sick were being made well, the deaf heard, the lame walked, the blind were able to see, lepers were cleansed, the dead raised, and the poor clothed and fed. These are all things that turned the world of John and Jesus upside down, as well as our own. They are marks of the Kingdom which Jesus brings about and that we are called to continue to bring about. It is the Kingdom that John has anticipated. It is a revolution for a revolution truly turns the world upside down. This is to say that what is usually called a revolution is NOT a revolution for it does NOT turn the world upside down. What Jesus was about was turning all of the categories of suffering upside down. John could rest easy in his prison cell.
This is the second Sunday of Advent and Matthew’s voice is no less ominous than the first (see 24:36-44 and 3:1-12). He is calling for the Pharisees and the Sadducees to repent for the Kingdom of God is near. It is the voice of John the Baptist that issues the call. He calls them a ‘brood of vipers’, a phrase that I associate with Matthew. Matthew writes his gospel to the Jewish community, but he recognizes that Jesus has many enemies in the community, including Sadducees and Pharisees who continually try to trick Jesus into breaking the law. We know this because he uses stories like Noah’s flood and the tracing Jesus’ ancestry to David so that he has a legitimate claim to the Kingdom. Jesus is the messiah that all Jews had anticipated. This is the message of John the Baptist who promises that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit, not with water.