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Title: “Steer into the distress”
Preacher: Canon Missioner Maggie McLean
Date: Third Sunday of Epiphany 23.01.23 4.00pm
The movement in our Gospel today is extraordinary, and not really explained. At the start there is fear; withdrawal, and darkness. By the end, just a few verses later, there is teaching; proclamation and healing.
It seems that the first reaction of Jesus on hearing about the arrest of John the Baptist is to hide away from the authorities. He leaves Nazareth and withdraws to ‘Capernaum by the sea’ – (which sounds a bit like Whitby) but was, according to the prophet, a place where ‘people sat in darkness’. Perhaps, if word came that they were out to get him, a quick dash to a boat would secure his escape?
It sounds a very unpromising moment in the career of Jesus the Rabbi.
The charity The Samaritans have a phrase they use in their training, which is to ‘steer into distress’. Most of us in general conversation try to avoid difficult topics. When things get too raw, or too real, we change the subject. The phrase used by The Samaritans is the right one for their work – to give people the opportunity to say how they really feel. To see difficulty as something to be explored, not brushed under the carpet.
In going into Galilee Jesus steers into darkness. At least, from the perspective of King Herod and the Roman Emperor he served, Capernaum was one of the dark places – somewhere the civilising light of Rome hadn’t fully reached. Somewhere very different from Jerusalem.
On the edge of Empire Jesus begins to proclaim the Gospel. If John went to preach in the desert of the wilderness, Jesus chooses the bustle of the town to preach God’s Kingdom. For some people towns and cities are also deserts – and here Jesus will encounter those who are alone in a crowd; abandoned in the midst of community; despised because of illness; or treated with contempt for their poverty.
Into this darkness Jesus comes as a beacon of hope. As people encounter him lives are transformed. The oppressed are brought comfort, and their oppressors are met with harsh words and reminders of God’s love for the least. People are healed, and the message of God’s love and longing for the lost sheep is made clear.
It seems to me that one of the most important things the Church does, in being faithful to Jesus Christ, is to affirm the humanity of all God’s children. In God’s eyes there are no ‘lesser people’, or those for whom the love of God is qualified.
At its best the Church reflects the open affirmation Jesus embodied for so many people. People who feel of less value in human society. In him, in the Church, people are children of God and have a dignity beyond human reproach.
I know that in recent days, following the statement from the House of Bishops, there will be those who feel the Church has not gone far enough in affirming the dignity of people who are LGBTQIA+. I suspect that there will be many people who, despite the Bishops’ intentions, continue to feel that they are not fully valued in the life of the church.
I can’t help but draw parallels with the debates regarding the ordination of women in the 1980’s, debates that ate into the heart of my identity and soul too. Debates that because they were about me and people like me, could never be heard in the abstract. The small steps the institutional church made towards ‘inclusion’ always felt inadequate until full equality could be achieved.
Making people feel ‘less than’ is something that the institutional church should rightly apologise for and that’s why this debate and action by the Church cannot stop – we must continue to ensure that no one who is part of Christ’s body every feels that they are a child of a lesser God.
Valuing people who feel on the edge of the community – or pushed out of it – is the central message contained in the life and ministry of Jesus – a ministry that begins here in Galilee. But in order for that ministry to develop, to grow and to prosper, Jesus needs disciples to support his mission.
This isn’t done by a class or a qualification. Jesus calls people to be with him. Day and night, day in and day out. It is by sharing his life with the disciples that they begin to understand the scale and significance of what he has come to do. Discipleship was never a Sunday task – or a Sabbath obligation – it was 24/7. Across three years these close followers come to see how Jesus sees, serves and loves the world.
That’s why prayer, service and Bible reading are so important for Christians today. Like those first disciples, we are called to keep company with Christ. Sometimes we’ll say stupid things to God, or be angry or be disappointed. There’s nothing wrong with that. The Bible is full of people who aren’t happy with God but who, like the disciples, somehow manage to keep their faithfulness and continue to follow. The important thing is that we remain in relationship with God.
As we continue to journey through the season of Epiphany we are reminded that Jesus is a light for the whole world to see. The Messiah who steers into our darkness and seeks those who are shunned or excluded. And this is the work of the Church, our work, if we want to continue our discipleship with Christ. A discipleship fed by keeping company with Jesus, whether in joy or sorrow – a relationship that is living and, we hope and pray, bringing light into the dark places of our world.
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