January 12, 2020 Epiphany 1A
In the 1950s, a young Harvard professor, Dr. Ed Wison, discovered something fascinating about ants. When an ant dies, after a couple of days, the other ants take it to the colony's refuse pile where other dead ants and junk gets discarded.
The discovered that the smell that signaled that an ant was dead was oleic acid. They ran an experiment in which the dabbed one of the living ants with the oleic acid, a substance that is not harmful to the ants in any way, and immediately a worker ant grabbed the living ant and hauled it off to the garbage pile. After a couple of hours of cleaning itself the ant was able to return from the garbage pile and continue life in the colony.
As the experiments continued it showed that when ants are dabbed in oleic acid, they will often self-isolate themselves to the garbage pile until the smell has been cleaned off or wears away. In other words, the living ants act like they are dead.
One researcher affectionately calls these poor confused creatures "Zombie ants". A recent study discovered that ants produce both "life chemicals" and the "death chemicals" their whole lives; but when an ant dies, it stops emitting the life pheromones. So, there is nothing covering the smell of the "death chemical" of oleic acid.
The other ants know that they can bury their dead comrade. While there are no ants in the readings for the day, there is a powerful lesson to be connected to today's Scripture.
Today's lectionary readings pick up on a strong interconnected theme that runs through all of the readings. The prophecy in Isaiah, the poetic verses from the psalm, the account of Peter in the Apostles, and even the Gospel of Matthew all pick up on a theme that God reaches out beyond every boundary to draw people into God's embrace.
Today is the celebration of the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. The sacrament of baptism communicates God's presence and God's faithfulness. Baptism is also a sign of the love that flows from God's heart and reaches out to us beyond all boundaries.
In the Isaiah reading it speaks a word of hope-both present and for eternity. "I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness." The people have strayed into exile, and now the prophet speaks a word of hope into their darkness. Even in the midst of suffering, forcibly taken from their land, God declares God's people beloved, chosen and called by name.
In the Epistle reading Peter is preaching to the centurion Cornelius in the Acts of the Apostles. According to custom and law, Jewish people were not allowed to enter the houses of gentiles. But God sent a vision to Peter of unclean animals and said, "What God has cleansed, do not call unclean."
Peter preaches to Cornelius' household about the ministry of Jesus: "They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear." This is restoration and renewal. This is radical inclusion. There is no human outside the reach of God's love. Jesus died and rose again for all to be gathered unto God--not only the Jews but also those of every nation. Isaiah's prophecy is fulfilled in Christ.
What do these readings mean for us today? In our baptism, God declares, "This is my Child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." God has given us a path that is paved with love, renewal, belonging, and acceptance. God reaches to those that are lost, those that doubt their belonging, and those who doubt their worth and declares that they have a place in the kingdom of God.
That's the good news. That's the best news. The problem is that many of us act like zombie ants. We think we're already dead. Like John the Baptizer, we doubt our place in God's kingdom. There are those voices all around us all saying in some way, "You're not good enough. You're faking it. You're not worthy. You don't belong." And like the ants, we drag ourselves off to the graveyard with the dead ants, letting the glow of the light and life and love of God fade away. But the voice of God, the voice that thunders over the waters, the voice that breaks open the heavens, declares, "this ism my Child the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." We just have to listen.