By Noel E. Bordador
When I first arrived here in the United States about twenty-five years ago, the first thing I noticed when I got to the place where I was to live was the houses in the neighborhood did not have surrounding walls of concrete. In fact, there were no fences, only perhaps evergreen hedges. That was quite different from the neighborhood I grew up in the Philippines. Tall walls of concrete that separate our own house and yard from the neighborhood surrounded our house. And we were not allowed to go beyond these walls except to go to school or to church or visit relatives or friends. But I heard voices beyond these walls, voices of laughing children playing. But we were not allowed to go out and play with them because they were “different” from us. By different, I came to understand that they did not have much money. And whatever limited contacts I had with them, they managed to tell me a whole different kind of world they inhabit: they eat different kinds of food, or they seem to eat less because they had no money. They dressed poorly. They went to different schools, and different doctors, even to a different church. But there are a few times each year when my parents allowed us to get together with them, perhaps a Christmas barbecue or a birthday party. Then, the gates of the walls open, and we kids can be just kids. Otherwise, that wall for the most part of the year separated us.
Jesus himself knew of walls that separate people, especially between the haves and haves not. From what the Gospels tell us, he was born poor, and he was raised in a poor single-parent household. We know he was poor because Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospels described him as a son of a “tekton,” usually translated as “carpenter.” But to be a tekton meant to live or subsist near starvation level, and we now know that more than two-thirds of the people in Jesus’ time lived at this level. Because he himself was poor, and came from a poor neighborhood, he experienced prejudice. People often remarked about his humble origins: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” “How can he say and do such wonderful things since he is only the son of Joseph the tekton?”
High rates of poverty, starvation and death, combined with a never-ending spiral of violence in the Holy Land due to political discontent against the Romans and the Temple which had been co-opted all these must have left a great impression on Jesus as a child and a young man, enough anyway that at the age of thirty, he chose to leave home “to do something about it.”
And so in our Gospel, we see Jesus away from home, away from mom for the first time. He leaves off his hidden identity of an unassuming carpenter in Galilee to begin a public ministry at the Jordan. Based on the Gospel of Luke, we now know that he saw his mission as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah: “to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he was going to start at the Jordan, because Jordan was the spot, the place where, hundreds of years before, Israel crossed from exile to the Promised Land. Jesus was to lead people into the promised land. And his baptism was a turning point in his life, turning from his previous life to a new life explicitly dedicated to the Kingdom of God. He taught that the Kingdom begins in the here and now, and this Kingdom must be a Kingdom of non-violent peace and justice. It is a Kingdom open to all people, including the nobodies of society, and the outcasts. It is a Kingdom, which will have no walls, and this Kingdom with no walls is symbolized by his willingness to invite to dinner, and sit in a table fellowship with those who were considered undesirable and unclean.
My brothers and sisters, when we were baptized, we promised, or it was promised for us that we would dedicate our life for the pursuit of God’s Kingdom. In that pursuit, we vowed, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect for the dignity of every human being.” As part of our baptismal vows, we are to be especially attentive to the needs of those people in our parish, our neighborhood, our city and our nation, and the world who suffer from lack of resources that makes them unable to access adequate housing, education or even basic medical care or who suffer because of prejudice. If one of our hopes for this new year is peace, then we must all work towards it by working towards a society and a world that seeks to lessen the gap between the haves and haves not, a society that seeks to eliminate the walls and barriers of prejudice, and discrimination on whatever basis.
Sometimes, when I talk like this, I often wonder if I am just deluding myself, if I were simply not just an idealistic priest/social worker living in his lala land, in a utopia far from day to day reality. I often wonder how a simple priest, and social worker like me can make any difference in a world that seems to be so much in turmoil. Then two things dawned upon me. First, as John Kirvan says, “Because we cannot do everything, we are not excused from doing something. Doing nothing is not an option.”1 And secondly, I realized that it was not my job to save the world. That’s God’s job. Our job is, in our own little way, to be willing instruments of God’s peace and justice. And in baptism, as we vow to be agents of God’s justice and peace, and we are invisibly given the power by the Holy Spirit to be instruments of God’s change in the same way the Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism. Baptized in the death and rising of Christ, we are given the promise that whatever disappointments and failures we may encounter in following our baptismal call, the cross and resurrection of Jesus guarantee for us that ultimately, the victory of love, justice and peace will be the world and ours. God will, in the end, bring about the Kingdom. As we are given a mission at our baptism, our task, simply, is to be faithful to that call to mission, and let God worry and do the rest.
1 John Kirvan, Silent Hope: Living with the Mystery of God, IN: Sorin Books, 2001.
2004 Noel E. Bordador
Noel Bordador is a gay Filipino priest in the Episcopal Diocese of New York.
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