Matthew 4:12-23 NRSV
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:Friends and members of Atonement Lutheran Church - it is a joy to join you today for your celebration of becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation. The Gospel lesson we just read is interesting to reflect upon as we think about our ministry together as people of diverse sexual orientations and perspectives.
"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, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
In Matthew chapters 1 & 2 we read about the birth of Jesus and the wise men. Matthew 3 brings us the words of John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism, and in Matthew 4 we read how Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness for 40 days. Then these words from today’s lesson, “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 …”
Jesus’ ministry has not even begun yet, yet this is already the third time in his life that he has been forced, for political reasons, to leave his home and flee for his life. The first time was as an infant when King Herod was looking for him to kill him. As you may remember the family fled the country, going to Egypt. The second time was after Herod’s death, when Jesus’ parents decided it would be safe to return. Yet, upon their arrival they discovered that Herod’s son Archelaus was now in power and the cure was probably worse than the disease, so they didn’t go home, but rather then moved up to the northern fringe of the country – Nazareth, a cave city actually – which is where Jesus spent his childhood. Today, following John’s arrest, we read that Jesus decides to leave even Nazareth and he moves to what is really the wrong side of the tracks – Capernaum, in the ancient territories of Zebulun and Naphtali. Once again dislocated. Once again in danger for his life simple because of who he is.
If we want to understand this lesson we have to understand what it means to be Jesus or John, falsely arrested, forced to flee for your life, seen as a commodity or somehow dangerous or untrustworthy just because of who you are. Matthew, noting that Jesus had fled to the ancient lands of Zebulun and Naphtali says, “Oh ya, we know this story. We’ve been here before!” In ancient times the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were attacked, abused and enslaved by the Assyrians. Now, again, with the arrival of Jesus, light has dawned upon those who sat in darkness.
The only bad part here is that Jesus refuses to stay marginalized and well behaved. Rather, we read today that Jesus now steps out of the shadows and says, “THIS IS NOT OKAY! FIX IT, PEOPLE!” “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.”
This is your new, congregational, statement of welcome. I’m here today as your bishop to thank you for taking the time and effort to get to know Naphtali a little bit. That is to say, I want to thank you for going through the RIC process, and being willing to wrestle with the inherent prejudice and marginalization that our culture forces upon gay and lesbian people. I want to thank you for saying clearly that Atonement Lutheran no longer wishes to participate passively in prejudice, but rather that in care for your gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, you want to understand.We at Atonement Lutheran Church reach out withthe good news of God’s love through Jesus Christ.
As Christ’s ministry includes everyone, we too welcome persons of anyethnicity, gender identity, race,sexual orientation, marital status, age,economic situation, and physical or mental ability.
We celebrate the gifts each one brings to the lifeand ministry of this community of faith.
People have always marginalized other people in human societies, based perhaps on ethnicity, or skin color, or gender, or wealth, or education, or brute strength. And Jesus or John, or African Americans, or the handicapped, or whoever the marginalized are, have learned to adapt, and survive in such situations. They know how to hide, to share, and support one another. Notable Scriptural “exceptions” to this “rule” include orphans, widows and ‘the stranger among you.’ I’m suggesting these marginalized people garner special attention in Scripture because, perhaps, they are unable to organize or help each other. They really are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable - people unable to organize and fight back. They have absolutely no way to help themselves – not even the bad ones - and so the laws of God and the prophets advocate for them. The laws of God and the prophets are not usually understood to advocate for gay and lesbian people, but then who knew? I mean, even gay and lesbian people didn’t know there was such a thing as gay and lesbian people until maybe 100 or a 150 years ago. Historically people we today would call gay and lesbian just knew they didn’t fit in. They suffered their “strangeness” quietly and alone, or when their true selves overwhelmed them, made “moral errors” in their behavior and suffer accordingly.
It was in 1980 that American Lutherans (in a social statement adopted by the American Lutheran Church) first time said publically, ‘Okay, we get it; some people are gay and lesbian and that means we’re going to have to start to think differently.’ Yet even today, some 30 later, gay teens still commit suicide at unprecedented rates, and our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers who survive adolescence continue to live hidden and silent, or dangerous and frustrating, lives.
Zebulun and Naphtali. People who sit in darkness. Jesus is for them.
I have a pastor friend who happens to be gay and in a long term relationship. Last year when we were taking reservations for Synod Assembly I asked him if he was bringing his partner, trying to get room reservations straight. He asked me as his bishop, “Can I do that?”
For 20 some years he has come, as a pastor of the Oregon Synod, to convocations, Synod Assemblies, continuing education events, and the like and never once felt free to bring his partner to these events. The church has told him that’s not okay. We have said “No” to his family.
So I said, “Yes, of course it’s okay. Why wouldn’t it be?” Then he said, “Do you want me to bring my partner?” And I say, “I don’t care one way or the other, I’m just trying to get room reservations made.” So he asked if he could have some time to think about it, and then finally he said “Yes, I would like to do that. Thank you.”
The story doesn’t end there, though. At the assembly we have a banquet, a nice, sit down, plated dinner. My friend and his partner came to the banquet, sat at a table, and waited for people to join them. Among those who did were three of our synod’s high school youth – all male. After the banquet my friend came up to me after the banquet, with some concern, because two of the three youth had told him they were gay. I said, “Well, that’s good. I’m sure they were sitting with you because they don’t have much role modeling for healthy, Christian, gay relationships. I’m glad you and the church can be there for them.” But my friend said, “No, you don’t get it. If this gets out people are going to say that we were trying to make them gay, or trying to curry their favor or something. That’s what “they” always do to “us” – and you as bishop are going to be the one who gets in trouble. This was a mistake.” These men have lived in the land of darkness for so long that they quite frankly don’t know how to act in a church that says it is now okay to be who they are – while at the same time knowing it still, really, isn’t.
So we’re on a journey. Not a journey of right and wrong, but a journey of understanding, and advocacy – a journey of courage and tentative trust. Again, I want to thank you for taking a step out onto the tarmac here. But please understand, this is not an easy journey. Those of us who have grown up in a world where our friends are never the ones to get thrown in jail, or where we are never the ones that have to flee for our lives – we don’t get it. We don’t know what it means to have to live hidden and secret lives, and we don’t understand how when we say, “You are welcome here and it’s okay now.” – that it still really isn’t much of the time.
I would like to think that the adoption of your statement of welcome says something about you as a congregation. Not so much that you want to be open and inclusive, which I know you do, but that you want to learn and listen, and come to understand what it is like to be different.
"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 . . .”That word is for all of us – absolutely – but we know that the world is darker and more dangerous for some people than for others. It appears from the Bible that we find Jesus most deeply embedded in those people and places that are strange to us. So, today, Zebulun and Naphtali have become sacred states. We welcome those by the sea, whom the world calls Gentiles, and whom we have been content to leave in the shadows of darkness. Jesus will have none of that anymore. None of us can now stay silent anymore.
In Jesus’ Name. Amen.