Pr. Ben Adams
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
January 27/28, 2018
Jesus’ First Direct Action
The first ever direct action I participated in was during seminary. Our target was Takeda Pharmaceuticals because their CEO was a large donor to Bruce Rauner’s campaign for governor, and we wanted a meeting with the Governor. Our power analysis revealed that going straight to the Governor with our agenda would not get us that meeting, but if we targeted someone with the power to influence the Governor, we could create a crisis with that person, and that person would have a direct line to the Governor, to get us our meeting.
So the center of power for us was the lobby of the Takeda Pharmaceuticals headquarters in Deerfield Illinois. And we went there, and we disrupted business as usual, and we got the attention of the folks all the way on the top floors, and you better believe Governor Rauner got a call that day from the CEO of Takeda saying that some very loud and passionate people came by my office today and they would like a meeting with you Mr. Governor.
It’s usually at this point that I usually hear the question like, “Isn’t there a better way to get a meeting with the Governor? Can’t you make a phone call to his staff? “ And the short answer is no, because it’s not just about getting the meeting. It’s about being heard and getting an appropriate response. The “appropriate” way was getting us nowhere, so after too long being ignored, we took the only action we knew, direct action.
This month we also celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and he was a man who knew the power of direct action and why it was necessary. He pretty much wrote the book on it, and he writes in his iconic Letter From A Birmingham Jail: “You may well ask: 'Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?' You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored."
It’s not just about getting attention, it’s about not being ignored. And if we look back, we find many examples of successful direct action in the history of our world and even in the history of the Lutheran Church – I would say that the Reformation is an example. And if we look even further back, there was someone else too who understood the power and necessity of direct action. Jesus Christ. In today’s Gospel we have Jesus’ first direct action. We have left the wilderness and the sea and we have entered Capernaum and it is no accident that we go directly to the center of power, the synagogue and on the Sabbath day no less.
Biblical scholar Ched Myers says, “From the moment Jesus strides into a Capernaum synagogue, it becomes clear that Jesus’ kingdom project is incompatible with the local public authorities and the social order they represent. A “demon” immediately demands that Jesus justify his attack upon the authority of the scribal establishment; Jesus vanquishes this challenge and commences his ministry of healing. He brings wholeness and liberation to the poor, and receives hospitality from the socially outcast, with whom his solidarity lies. The risk of provoking official hostility does not deter Jesus from pressing his criticism of every social code that serves to institutionalize alienation.”
Myers here is encouraging us not to read this exorcism story as a literal miracle where we then try to demythologize the exorcism as a cure for epilepsy or a mental disorder, but rather to see the power of this story when we understand it as a symbolic of the real social conflict that was occurring because of the neglected needs of people by the powerful scribal establishment. Jesus disrupts the social order by asserting an alternative authority.
So if we can understand this story as a symbol of social conflict, I wonder how this text and Jesus’s example of direct action might lead or invite us consider what unclean spirits in our own society need exorcising? What about the unclean spirits of homophobia, racism, sexism, or ableism?
Where in our world can Jesus’s story of his first direct action give us hope that the reign of God has already come near and continues to reveal to us the hope of an alternative reality of life and liberation that has been graciously bestowed upon all people through Jesus Christ.
In Deuteronomy today, we are told, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people” We give thanks for prophets like Martin Luther King Jr., but maybe you too are that prophet, following in the example of Jesus Christ who from his first direct action to his last one on the cross opposed and subverted all powers and authorities that seed to dominate and alienate.
I think it’s easy in this work to stop because we don’t see instant results, or the resistance we get from the world becomes too much to bear, but we as baptized children of God and people of the resurrection, we might die a thousand deaths on this journey, but we have faith that there is life and liberation on the other side.
This is the same Christ who commands unclean spirits and conquers death so that we all can experience life abundant.
My knees were weak as we walked in, my heart pounded, and my voice shook as I joined the chorus of chants that echoed throughout the whole building. But I can still remember the feeling of being raised up by the presence of God and presence of the folks all around me.
And I get that same feeling here in our Holy Trinity community where we uphold one another as we march together in the Women’s March or the Pride March, as we serve together at the Crib Shelter or at the South Loop Community Table, and as we pursue eco justice and anti-racism endeavors. In every act of justice, service, kindness, grace, peace and love, we are upholding one another in hope as God raises us up as prophets in Jesus’ direct action campaign of healing and wholeness. Amen.