With the 2008 presidential campaign already in full swing, the New York Times published headshots of all forty-three of our U.S. presidents, together with each one’s race and gender identification. All forty-three, of course, have been white males. But were you aware that three- fours of them have been descendants of the Mayflower? Or that there are only English surnames on the list until it gets to Theodore Roosevelt – who was actually a Mayflower heir, also.
My first awareness of American public life came in the summer of 1952. Our household radio carried the Republican National Convention from Chicago, and as an eight year old I was intrigued by the debate over whether the Republicans would risk nominating Eisenhower over Taft because, even though he had led the liberation of Europe in World War II, his German surname made it questionable whether the famous general would be elected!
Evidently our system is rigged in favor of white males with English surnames, especially if they are Mayflower descendants – just like the system in Jesus’ time was fixed to benefit, through the taxation, and eventually indentured servitude, of poor Jews, aristocratic Roman citizens (like Tiberius and Pontius Pilate) and their Jewish collaborator friends (like Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas and Caiaphas).
But outside the system, “in the wilderness,” however, Luke tells us, “the word of God came upon John son of Zechariah.” Luke’s term for “word” here is rema – meaning “word” or “event” or “affair” or “thing.” He says, in effect, that the “thing” that God is up to came upon John, to the end that John went about proclaiming the most radical idea in all of human history – the idea of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.
Through knowledge of people’s sins, or even the sins of those with whom, prejudicially, they are identified (e.g. identifying Eisenhower, because of his surname, with the German enemy), those in authority can keep people down. But if, in fact, sins are forgiven, then all who once were kept down because of sin can now rise up and be the resurrected people, as God intends. No wonder great crowds flocked to hear John and be baptized.
Jesus himself went to John for baptism. The evangelist Mark and Matthew tell us that coming up from the water of baptism, the Spirit came upon him and he heard the divine voice identifying him: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” But Luke says that this word came after Jesus, his baptism past, was praying. Luke wants to contemporize in the present the experience of baptism in the past. He sees prayer as the way in which we can constantly appropriate the power of the Spirit of forgiveness given us in baptism.
Subsequently in his hometown synagogue Jesus reads aloud a scripture composed of three texts: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim forgiveness to captives” (Isaiah 61:1) … to forgive the oppressed (Isaiah 58:6), to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord (a reference to the jubilee year described in Leviticus 25:10 with the words around the rim of the Liberty Bell in Independence National Park, ‘Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof’).”
“Today,” he proceeds to say, “this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” He understands himself to be the Anointed agent of forgiveness and the release and freedom it brings. He claims that this scripture is programmatic for his entire mission. His mission, his forgiveness, extends to “foreigners” and not just his own people (Luke 4:24-27). God, he knows, loves each as though God has naught else to love, and all as though all were but one.
His assertion that God forgives everybody is downright offensive to any system that is rigged in favor of a few. In response to lots of hitting on the playground, Virginia Satir, the author, psychologist, and Kindergarten teacher, tells of the posting in her classroom a sign that read, “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play,” in response to which one five-year-old said, “Then what’s the point of playing?”
The little boy’s comment would have resonated with Tiberius and Pontius Pilate and Herod. Together they conspired to execute Jesus precisely because he claimed divine authority for his position that “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play,” because he “proclaimed liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof.”
He calls us, moreover, to the selfsame mission. In Luke’s gospel the call comes during a miraculous catch of fish so superabundant it begins to sink Peter’s boat and that of James and John, too. It is hard to tell whether their reaction of astonishment is from the success of their catch itself or from the fact that their success is causing them to sink. What is obvious is that, having brought their boats ashore, they leave boats, fish, and, indeed, everything, to follow Jesus in the work of creating a level playing field for everyone (Luke 5:11). In the words of Martin Bell and Graham Maule, Jesus asks them:
Will you come and follow me, If I but call your name? Will you go where you don't know And never be the same? Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known, will you let my life be grown in you and you in me? Will you leave your self behind if I but call your name? Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same? Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare, will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?
Will you love the ‘you' you hide if I but call your name? Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same? Will you use the faith you've found to reshape the world around through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?
May each of us answer as did Peter and James and John:
Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name. Let me turn and follow you and never be the same. In your company I'll go where your love and footsteps show. Thus I'll move and live and grow in you and you in me.
-- Preached by Charles E. Bennison, Jr. Calvary Episcopal Church, Rockdale, Pennsylvania February 4, 2007
In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanius tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came upon John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.