January 26, 2020

Epiphany 3A

The Dirty Dozen


When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles–
the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea– for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee,  father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the king. Matthew 4:12-23




There was a movie made a number of years ago called The Dirty Dozen. It told the story of an unusual military operation that supposedly occurred during World War II.  An American officer, played by Lee Marvin, was given a very tough mission to accomplish.  His assignment was to free some American captives from a Nazi prison. To engage the mission he did not build a team by selecting players from among best soldiers in his outfit. For one thing he was told that there was a 90% chance that his mission would fail.  The Army did not want to risk the lives of any really good soldiers for a mission like that.


To recruit men for his mission he went instead to an American military prison where bad soldiers were held – men who had messed up in terrible ways and run afoul of the military justice system.  They were thieves, murderers, scoundrels who had come up the hard way in life. They had continued their nefarious ways after enlistment, and thus ended up being thrown into prison. 


As the movie unfolds we see the wisdom of this officer’s selection of his dirty dozen.  For one thing, they had skills that they had used in their earlier lives, which proved to be perfect for the demands of this risky venture. One of them knew how to pick locks.  He could be very helpful at the prison. Another was good with his fists and fists would come in handy.  They were all good at lying, concealment, and the sneaky tactics of crooks, which were exactly the skills they needed to get this job done.


I wonder if an appeal of The Dirty Dozen was that it was a story about people whom the world regarded as worthless reprobates, and yet, in the right situation, with the right sort of guidance and encouragement, these losers became heroes.


Today’s gospel tells about twelve people, who were chosen by Jesus. They were a rather remarkable lot in their own non-remarkability.  


Ordinarily, when it is necessary to fill an important job vacancy, there is an extensive search.  Candidates are surfaced and vetted who have requisite experience, impeccable credentials and proven track records.  The one hiring wants some assurance that those hired have the necessary qualifications for the job.  


However, when Jesus picks his first disciples, sending them out to preach and to do the very same things that He has been doing, the gospel makes no mention of qualifications.  One might think that Matthew would have reported that Jesus chose these men because of their prior experience, or their great potential or their unusual spiritual insight.  But we are told none of that. 


Rather abruptly, we are simply told that Jesus decided it was time to pick some people to help Him do His work and that is all the information we are given. Jesus called some fishermen, a tax collector, a man who would disown Him and one who would betray him.  It is almost as if the gospel bends over backwards to assure us that none of these people were special in any way.


It was to these twelve ordinary people who had no particular qualifications that Jesus decided to introduce the kingdom.  And to these same He entrusted its proclamation and the work of its ongoing establishment.  And He sent them out to do what He had been sent to do.


In these days, the Kingdom of God and its priorities have come under renewed assault. Its proclamation struggles to be heard amid the raucous dim of counter-Kingdom voices. The world-view, understandings of life, actions and behaviors that it encourages and inspires have come under renewed heavy fire.   


There is a big divide between what is and has been the mission of the Episcopal Church for the last fifty years and the agenda of those who are now in control of our society. For more than five decades our Church has committed itself to the rights of women, to civil rights, to the full inclusion of sexual minorities, to nuclear arms reduction, to anti-poverty initiatives, to the care of the earth and to providing welcome and safe harbor to immigrants and refugees. The current order makes a mockery of all of these things for which the church has struggled and sacrificed. 


In this hour, greed and self-interest are clearly in the ascendancy and even celebrated as values worthy of our aspirations.  But disciples of Jesus don’t put themselves first. Rather we believe the last shall be first. 


At this time, anything that might be termed healthy patriotism has been marginalized by an unholy brand of xenophobic and exclusive nationalism.  But disciples of Jesus don’t build walls. Rather they welcome the stranger with compassion.


In these days, that peace which is always a precious and fragile commodity faces impulsive and irresponsible invectives, threats and incendiary actions.  But disciples of Jesus do not live to offend others. Rather they respect the dignity of every person.  


In the public square, greatness, as defined by Jesus, has been sidelined by that very understanding of greatness that the gospel deplores.  Jesus taught his disciples, “If you would be great, you must become as the least and the servant of all.” 


Evangelical preachers of the so-called prosperity Gospel surround the one whom they have decided to anoint as the God’s chosen vessel.  The public Christian presence has hit a new low. I am sorry Paula White, newly appointed head of the presidential office of religious affairs, Jesus did not preach “Blessed are the rich” and He certainly does not bless the one for whom you dare to stand with arms outstretched in blessing.  He does not bless a man who curses His Kingdom. Rather he calls you and that man to repentance of the evil that you advance.


“Blessed are the rich” was among several misunderstandings of God’s blessing that Jesus endeavored to unseat in human religious consciousness.  His people believed that wealth, health, many children and a long life, were proof of God’s favor. If you were poor, ill, childless, and died an early death, you were not favored by God and probably being punished for your sins.   Rather Jesus declared again and again, “Blessed are the poor.”  And it most surely remains God’s will, as proclaimed in Mary’s Magnificat, “To bring down the mighty from their thrones and to raise up the lowly.”  


As then, so today, Jesus calls his disciples, the likes of you and me, to be agents of His Kingdom and only agents of earthly kingdoms to the extent that they embody and reflect the priorities of God’s Kingdom. The mission that Jesus would share with us involves risk. It defies popularity.  


Remember how Jesus told his disciples that they needed to be prepared to suffer the loss of all, even their lives, for the sake of the Kingdom.   As a disciple, what am I prepared to risk? What are you prepared to risk?


Knowing what His mission is up against, Jesus continues to choose everyday, realistic, ordinary people.  But hopefully we are people tough in integrity and willing to live out the courage of our kingdom convictions.  


He sends us out as lambs in the midst of wolves, advising us to be guileless as doves but cunning as foxes, to do nothing less than the impossible and against the greatest odds.


We are a group of people with the same qualifications or lack of qualifications to be disciples as the first twelve He chose. When you look at us and our back rounds, who among us is really suited, on the basis of past experience or present attributes to proclaim the gospel to an unbelieving world and to a world that is always more enamored with the lie than it is with the truth.   Who among us is qualified to challenge and to heal a broken world in Jesus’ name?


We are disciples of Jesus.  He chose us. I hope and pray that each day we grapple with what this means and, even in the face of loss, own this as our primary and principle identity.   It comes before being a spouse, being a parent, being a citizen or any other identity to which we would lay claim. And when we embrace and own discipleship as our principal identity we have the best shot at being the best spouse, the most loving  parent and the most committed citizen that we can ever hope to be. 


So when was the last time you identified yourself to yourself or to another as a disciple of Jesus?  In word or in action? When was the last time you wholeheartedly, fully and completely embraced this identity and even allowed it to place yourself in conflict with another identity ? 


We may not be qualified, but by God’s grace we have been authorized to be his disciples, and that, in itself is rather wonderful. Perhaps He sees in us more potential than we see in ourselves. Perhaps He thinks that what needs doing in the world requires the wisdom that we possess by faith. Perhaps he can take experiences that we have had at work, or at school or at raising a family and use those experiences to help, support, defend and protect the most vulnerable among us.


Jesus seems to delight in taking ordinary, everyday people, people who do not seem to have all the qualifications and credentials, and selecting them to be his disciples.  He promises us that he will give us what we need to be faithful to Him and his mission.  And he sends us out into the world, promising us that we shall be part of his mission of proclaiming salvation to a dying world, and of effecting healing for a broken people.  


It’s a tough job, a risky venture and by all reasonable calculations we should fail.  But relax for in God’s eyes success lies in being faithful and not in winning. And besides, God has already secured the final victory. 


The Rev. Frank J. Alagna

January 26, 2020