Third Sunday After Epiphany
“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.”
There will come a time in everyone’s life when bold choices need to be made. From deeply personal actions like publicly calling out sexism, racism, or ableism in our daily conversations, to more global actions like how we engage in our political systems, there will be a time when we need to answer the words, “Follow me.”
Following Christ is complex. We have made many aspects accessible, built structures to support, and collectively agreed that certain ways of people are just and right. And yet…there are still times when we will have to step out and away from what we have been, in order to discover what God hopes for us to become.
A difficult aspect of following Christ out into the unknown is that so many others may be dismissive, confused, or downright oppositional. There will always be rational reasons not to follow Christ: our own safety, the security of our families, and the burden of communal judgment. That said, our faith demands us always to discern where God is leading. Not only do we have always to be alert for the ways in which God’s pat is being revealed to us. We then have continually to decide if we are going to walk it.
Edward Coles was born on a plantation in Albemarle County, became friends with neighbors Thomas Jefferson & James Monroe and served as private secretary to James Madison. During college at William & Mary he was influenced greatly by another James Madison, the episcopal bishop of Virginia and the college president. Madison thought slavery morally indefensible. Coles despised the darkness of slavery and committed himself to not being a slaveholder. When his father died, he inherited a farm on the Rockfish River in Nelson County and 19 enslaved people. He was able eventually to sell the farm and free the enslaved. With the proceeds of the sale, Coles moved all of them to Illinois and purchased homesteads for each family.
I note Coles’ story because of a singular bold action to follow Christ that he took. In 1814 he wrote to his friend and neighbor Thomas Jefferson, author of the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” and urged the former President to follow through and free his enslaved people.
Retired from politics, with no need to worry about gains and losses, beyond the pale of government and other diplomatic engagements, his reputation firm, the risk of such a bold move would have little negative impact on his standing in the community. It possibly, as Coles hoped, could pave the way for an end to the horrible institution.
Coles implored Mr. Jefferson to live into “the principles you have professed and practiced through a long and useful life…as well by being foremost in establishing on the broadest basis the rights of man….Permit me then, my dear Sir, again to intreat you to exert your great powers of mind and influence, and to employ some of your present leisure, in devising a mode to liberate one half of our Fellow beings from an ignominious bondage to the other.”
Mr. Jefferson began his response by acknowledging that slavery was wrong. That it was indeed morally reprehensible. And then he declined to get involved. Coles wrote a second time. There was no reply. Apparently, his bold action had cost a friendship.
Yet how many of us run in such extraordinary circles that our bold action includes regular interaction on such lofty levels? What ordinary people have you seen make bold choices despite the risk of opposition they faced? It is easy to hold up as heroes people who have chosen bold actions, but we should be wary of encouraging the idea that one has to be some kind of larger-than-life figure to follow Christ in bold ways. Often real lasting change is made when many ordinary people make a bold choice as a group.
Anne Braden had an ordinary upbringing as a devout Episcopalian in Anniston Alabama. From a middle-class background, she accepted without question the rigidly segregated mores of her community. That is until college. At Randolph-Macon in Lynchburg, she began to see a larger vision of the world. She began to question segregation.
In her book, “The Wall Between” she writes of “a conversion of almost religious intensity…turning myself inside out and upside down.” Looking at racism she wrote, “Either you find a way to oppose the evil, or the evil becomes you and you are part of it, and it winds itself around your soul like the arms of an octopus…if I did not oppose it, I was…responsible for its sins.”
In 1954 Anne and her husband helped Andrew Wade buy a home. Wade, an electrical contractor and Navy veteran could not find something suitable in a middle-class African-American community in Louisville, KY. The Bradens suggested they look at a white-middle class neighborhood. Then purchased the home for them and sold it to them. The day the Wades and their young daughter moved in, a crowd gathered to taunt them, burned a cross next door and that night a rock tore through the front window. Later rifle shots ripped the kitchen door. The house was bombed as protests continued.
Finally the Wades moved to a Black neighborhood. But not before they and the Bradens were indicted for sedition for stirring up racial animosities. Carl Braden was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his bold action.
On August 10, 1976 Anne Maguire and her three children, ages 8, 2 and six-weeks, were out shopping in Belfast when police fired on a car carrying IRA fighters and weapons. The out of control car crashed into the young family. All three children died.
Betty Williams, raised a Catholic in a Protestant-Catholic household witnessed the scene and accused the IRA of provoking the attack. In the days that followed she gathered signatures of both Catholic and Protestants protesting the violence. Then she gathered 200 women to march for peace in Belfast. The march passed the home of Mairead Corrigan, Anne Maguire’s sister and aunt of the children. She joined the march and the work with Williams. Their next march 10,000 Catholics and Protestants parading to the children’s funeral. From there these two ordinary women formed the Community for Peace People. It is an organization dedicated to a peaceful resolution to the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Edward Coles, Anne & Carl Braden, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, these are people who left comfort and security to follow. Years of struggle and hardship followed each. Yet eventually, the paths they chose led to ending a wrong opposed to God’s will. How might we as a community discern what it means to follow as a group of people?
As difficult as discerning God’s calling can be, I have always found that what seems bold or risky to others seems quite normal and natural to those who genuinely trust that they are following where God is leading. Holding this tension between the unstable and unknown and a clarity of calling is a gift that allows us to be bold in how we live our faith and gives us the courage and calm to follow. May it be so for each of us. For Jesus is calling us, even now.