Third Sunday after Epiphany
I Corinthians 1:10-18
How many of you remember the first time you ever went on a roller coaster? That first time on a roller coaster tends to bring out a proverbial roller coaster of emotions. There is a moment of anticipation, of heightened anxiety and fear- a moment of expectation. It happens when the roller coaster begins its ascent. You get strapped into your seat, the ride operator reminds you to “please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times,” and then you go up. The car jolts forward, you are angled upward, and the clanking chain slowly, slowly pulls you higher and higher. Everything below you gets smaller and the rest of the roller coaster track finally comes into view. You can see the steep initial descent, you can see the hairpin curves, you can see the loop-the-loops. And what do you feel in that moment? Do you feel excitement? Do you feel fear? Do you feel regret?
Life is a lot like a roller coaster. There is often a build up of anticipatory energy and expectation, until finally gravity does what it does best and you are pulled into the track of life. When you finally crest that hill and you are about to descend you might feel a bit of excitement, fear, or even regret.
The story of Jesus is a bit of a roller coaster ride. At this point in the story of Jesus, we have been building up to the big drop. Bit by bit we have been climbing up a hill of anticipation and expectation. We begin with the family tree of Jesus remembering where Jesus’ blood famiily came from and how God remained faithful to Jesus’ people generation after generation. God was with King David and King Solomon in their faithfulness and unfaithfulness. But God also lifted up and used the gifts of outsider, non-Jewish,and those whom some would consider “unsavory”- women like Tamar (who was accused of prostitution), Rahab (who was non-Jewish and operated either an inn or a brothel), Ruth (who was non-Jewish), Bathsheba (whose husband was killed by King David when he got her pregnant out of wedlock), and Mary (who was a peasant girl found to be pregnant before marriage). Jesus’ lineage anticipates how the salvation of God is proclaimed and enacted through unlikely, overlooked, and often maligned persons.
Jesus is born in Bethlehem and visited by the non-Jewish stargazers called Magi showing that the salvation of God that Jesus brings is for all the people of the world, not just a select few. King Herod hears of this Messiah King’s birth and orders the slaughter of all the children in Bethlehem showing that the salvation of God will often upset and threaten the unjust powers of this world. Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist showing that Christ comes to be with us in life and death, and that he is beloved by God. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness by the devil and three times he rejects the temptation to use his power and authority to serve himself, but instead we are shown that the salvation of God is enacted through self-giving love and service.
As Jesus prepares to embark on his ministry, the anticipation rises as bit by bit he ascends higher and higher to the crest of that roller coaster ministry. From that anticipatory height, we see the tracks ahead- God empowering the outcast and despised, God bringing salvation to all the world, the challenge and opposition of proclaiming Christ as King, the solidarity of Christ who dwells among us, and Christ giving his whole life for others and not glorifying himself. Now, Jesus is at the top of the hill. His car is just a moment from speeding down the hill of ministry. From that vantage point, Jesus knew what lay ahead of him- the countless needy people who were sick, poor, hurting, mourning or lost; the opposition to his teaching on grace and mercy; the abandonment of his friends; his suffering; his death; his rising from the grave. What do you think Jesus felt as he gazed down that steep decline, the hairpin turns, and the loops? Was he scared or was he confident? Was he excited or was he worried? Was he hopeful or was he lost?
We at Saint John’s are at the top of our roller coaster hill too. It has taken a long time for our car to be tugged up to the top of this hill and we have anticipated this moment for a long time. Over 150 years ago Saint Johannis was founded by a group of faithful Christians who wanted to serve and worship God together. In seeking to follow this call to serve and worship, our congregation moved to this neighborhood in Mayfair. We have seen many beloved pastors, musicians, teachers, and leaders offer their gifts. We have seen many changes over the years with the goal of remaining faithful and proclaiming the love of God in word and in deed. Generations of Sunday School teachers offered wisdom and kindness. The preschool was opened. Women were ordained. LGBTQ persons were ordained. Lay leaders served the church on Council, Ministry Teams, property work, and more.
In those 150 years the world has changed too. Our neighborhood exploded in population. Immigrants from all over the world now call our neighborhood home. Poverty is on the rise, housing is insecure, hunger is a perennial issue, and systemic and personal racism continually rears its ugly head. Our membership and worship attendance exploded 60 years ago, but now is at a fraction of where it used to be. Church as an institution is often viewed by others as either a quaint, irrelevant organization or it is characterized as a hateful, hippocratic, self-righteous club. The injustices and sin of this world often seem too great to overcome and the people and tools of the church seem too small to meet the need.
So how do we feel at the top of this hill? How do we feel as we await that moment when we plummet toward the earth and into its hairpin curves and its frightful loops? Are we scared we won’t make it? Are we regretting that we ever got on this ride? Are we excited to see what happens next?
Jesus was at the top of his roller coaster hill when he gets word that his coworker in the gospel, his cousin, and his friend, John the Baptist, has been arrested. What was Jesus feeling in that moment? Was he excited to go down that hill? Was Jesus, fully human and full of compassion, feeling anger? Fear? Did he regret that he ever got on this ride? It is at this point that Jesus crests the hill. It is now that Jesus goes down the roller coaster hill of ministry. It is time. Injustice that imprisons and condemns to death the innocent, like John, will not be tolerated. Christ has come to proclaim the Good News of God for everyone who is burdened by Bad News of sin, injustice, and death, and he has come to proclaim it now. He has come to set the captive free, to bring light where there is shadow, and to bring life where there is death.
What did Christ do when he descended this roller coaster of ministry? He trusted the salvation tracks that God had laid long ago. Jesus continues to proclaim the same message that John the Baptist had proclaimed, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near!” Like John the Baptist and Moses and Mary and the prophets who had gone before him, Jesus announces in his words, in his healings, and in his self-giving love, that God is coming into this world and the world will not remain the same. Jesus announces that we must repent, that is, have faith and trust that God is making right the wrongs of this world and that we get to witness and live into that Good News. The other thing Jesus does, is he gathers friends and coworkers in this roller coaster journey. He calls fishers to fish for people. He gathers his followers to teach them about God’s love, to support and challenge their faith, to love them, and to ask that they love him too.
We are on the same tracks and the same roller coaster of salvation as Jesus. So what do we do when we crest the hill and see the steep decline into the world’s injustices, pain, sin, and death? We do the same thing Jesus did. We trust the tracks that God has laid out long ago. We trust in the stories of God’s faithfulness and mercy found in Scripture and we hold on to the tradition and songs of the saints who have gone before us and witnessed to God’s love and power. We also do not ride alone. We ride with coworkers and friends in the Gospel. Sitting in adjoining cars, we encourage one another, we face our fears together, and we rejoice in the ride together.
We are at the top of the roller coaster tracks and looking down at the loops, steep declines, and hairpin turns of our future as the Church. We see the steep bends of fighting for justice in a broken world, we see the loops of church survival and the call to faithfully root in our communities, we see the hairpin turns of how we are called to serve, worship, teach, and invite in a changing world. It is OK to be scared.
But we do not ride alone. God has given us each other as co-riders of the Gospel journey and our track is secure. God has been faithful and laid the tracks of mercy, kindness, justice, forgiveness, and abundant life that we get to ride into the future.
Christ rode this track too and so we can be sure that the ride is right and our journey is secure.