Tagged with Coalition of Love

Rejoice and Be Glad

Matthew 5:1-12

Over the past two weeks we’ve watched Jesus start his ministry. We saw Jesus at the Jordan, where he was baptized and recognized as the Lamb of God.  We watched Jesus travel to Capernaum, and begin to preach.  We were witnesses as Jesus began to put together his team, calling fishermen off their boats to become his disciples.

Now Jesus is traveling and teaching and healing throughout the region of Galilee. His ministry is fully launched, and let me tell you: it is going great. Everyone wants to hear Jesus’ words.  Everyone wants to feel Jesus’ touch. Everyone wants what Jesus has to offer.

But as Jesus looks out at all the people who have shown up in our scriptures today, he doesn’t celebrate his success. He doesn’t try to consolidate his popularity.  Instead, he turns around, goes up a mountain, and sits down. We can imagine the disciples’ confusion; what is Jesus up to now?  Uncertain, they gather around him, waiting for whatever is going to happen next. Then Jesus begins to preach. He begins to preach a very strange sermon. He says:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you   falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

I imagine that the disciples were feeling pretty good about themselves before this mountain top trip.  Sure, they’d thrown away their livelihoods and left their families to follow an inexperienced rabbi reformer. They’d taken a big risk.  But that risk is definitely paying off!  They are at the right hand of the most famous religious leader around. With all of his wisdom and all of his influence, surely the future must be bright.

But Jesus, with his experiences fleeing Herods, with his experience of the arrest of John the Baptist – Jesus has a better idea of what his team is up against. Jesus, on his mountaintop perch, sees a bigger picture.  This movement they’ve started isn’t going to be a glamorous one.  Jesus knows his disciples need something more than he’s given them so far, to prepare them for the trials that are ahead.

Blessed are those who mourn, he says; for there is a great deal to grieve and only if we grieve can we find comfort.  Privileged are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, he says; for our longing will empty us of hate and fill us up with love.  Happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, he says; for in standing up for God’s Kingdom, we will become residents of it, no matter what happens around us.

There is suffering ahead, Jesus tells the disciples: suffering, because we are human; suffering, because of our social location; suffering, because of our calling.  There is suffering ahead as we work to realize God’s kingdom of love and justice on earth. Prepare your hearts, and remember that in our suffering, God still offers a blessing. (more…)

Fishing for People

Matthew 4:12-23

Jesus has been on quite a journey in the past few weeks as we follow our gospel readings. Late in December, he was born in Bethlehem. Early in January, he travelled all the way down to Egypt with his family to avoid the reach of Herod the Great.  Last week, Jesus was with John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan River. Today, Jesus is ready to begin his ministry; and he begins it by traveling to Capernaum by the sea.

Why does Jesus go there? The scriptures don’t tell us directly.  But we do know that Capernaum represents a whole different world than Nazareth.  Jesus’ hometown was small, and in the middle of nowhere.  By contrast, Capernaum was three times as large, and located right on the edge of Lake Galilee. It was a place bustling with trade and marked by Roman influence. It was not far from another seaside city, the city of Tiberias, which was the capital of the ruling Roman Tetrarch, Herod Antipas.

Just in case you’re having trouble keeping your Herods straight this season, Herod Antipas is the son of Herod the Great; and like his father, he was known for his ruthlessness. In this story, he arrests John the Baptist. Historical sources tell us that John was arrested, and later beheaded, simply because had the gall to criticize Herod for getting divorced in order to remarry his half-brother’s wife. Seems like a small offense to earn the death penalty.

But getting back to Jesus: Jesus begins his ministry by travelling to Capernaum by the sea.  Why?  By travelling there, Jesus steps out into the open.  He stops hiding from the powers that have threatened his life since birth.  He begins to engage the powers that have just jailed his mentor.  Jesus decides at the age of 30 – which was not very young in those days – that it is finally a good time to claim his calling.  And he goes all in.

Jesus goes to Capernaum and he begins his ministry with one sermon: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  This sermon may sound familiar. It’s exactly the same as the one we’ve already heard from John the Baptist.  In John’s absence, Jesus is carrying his movement forward. But it doesn’t take long until Jesus realizes that he’s not getting very far.  To really make a difference, the movement needs a deeper roster of leaders.

So Jesus takes a stroll along the Sea of Galilee.  He sees two brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew, casting a net into the sea; and he calls out to them.  He sees James and John, mending their nets with their father; and he calls out to them. He calls out to these fishermen, and says: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  And immediately, they leave their nets, their boats, and their families, to follow him.

It seems like an unlikely start for something that became so significant.  The rabbi is inexperienced. The fishermen are uneducated.  Still, something draws them together. Only with the support and help of these new disciples does Jesus really gather momentum, teaching and preaching and healing and recruiting throughout the region of Galilee. (more…)

False and True Names

Isaiah 49:1-7
John 1:29-42

Last week I talked about the coalition of love that came together to get the baby Jesus safely from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth, from birth to adulthood. The magi, the angels, Joseph, Mary: there were many roles to play.  And I asked a question: What will our role be in the coalition of love that is needed now?  How will we shelter and spread hope in our world?

Answering that question begins with knowing who we are.

The Bible is full of stories of naming and renaming and identity claiming. There are several examples just in our texts for today. In the passage from the Prophet Isaiah, God gives Isaiah a new name: light to the nations.  In the gospel, John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God; and then, later, Jesus tells Simon he is to be called Peter.  All of these names have special meanings. They help the people in our holy book understand who they are, and who they can become with the help of God.

Names help us understand who we are and what we are called to do. But not all names are true names.

Right before the gospel passage for today begins, John the Baptist has to fend off a crowd who is eager to find a name for him.  “I am not the Messiah,” he says. They ask him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” but John says, “I am not.”  “Are you the prophet?” the crowds ask. But John says, “No.”  You can hear the irritation rising as the people demand:  “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” Then, finally, John tells them: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.”

It’s not the answer that they wanted. It’s not even an answer that they fully understand. But John knows who he is, and he knows who he is not. He is willing to disappoint people around him, in order to carry out the work that is, in fact, his to do.

Sometimes people try to give us false names that are good names, prestigious names that are simply not for us, like they do with John the Baptist. At other times, people try to give us false  names to diminish and degrade us.

We remember this weekend the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement that he was a part of. Now this man is widely recognized as a hero in our nation and beyond, but that was not always the case. He was given other names. King learned the name “less than” when he was forced to stand on a crowded bus so that white people could sit. He learned the name “better off dead” when his house was bombed during the Montgomery bus boycott. Those in power labelled him “communist” to justify FBI surveillance. Others called him “traitor” because they disagreed with his tactics.  “Criminal” was a familiar name in a short life that included 29 arrests.

Still, somehow, amidst all of these false names, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed true to who he was.  He never stopped working for the causes he believed in. He was an imperfect and powerful person, in an imperfect and powerful movement that changed the world. He, and John Robert Lewis, and Ella Baker, and so many others.

I wonder: what are the false names that you have been given? (more…)

A Coalition of Love

Matthew 2:1-23

The twelve days of Christmas ended on Friday with the feast of the Epiphany, when we remember the arrival of the Magi at the manger. But in the Gospel of Matthew, the Christmas story doesn’t end there, at that peaceful gathering around the Christ child.  It goes on.

The Magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and travel home by another way.  Their failure to inform him of the baby’s location makes Herod so angry that he decides to kill all the children in and around Bethlehem who are two years old or younger. This strange and horrific act is called the massacre of the innocents, and recalls the violence of another biblical tyrant, the Egyptian Pharaoh.

Miraculously, however, Jesus is not killed. An Angel of the Lord visits Joseph in his sleep, telling him to flee to Egypt with his family.  It is years and two more angelic visits later before Jesus finds a home in Nazareth, before he finds a safe place to grow into the man who we will meet at the shores of the Jordan River.

Why does this beautiful story end with so much drama and tragedy?  The gospel of Matthew reminds us that Christmas is not a fairy tale. Jesus was a real child, born into a real and dangerous time and place.  Jesus was a Jewish baby born into a Judea ruled by King Herod.

Herod the Great was an enterprising man from a powerful family. His father appoints him to be the governor of Jerusalem, but this isn’t enough to satisfy Herod’s ambitions.  Eventually, Herod travels to Rome. While he is there, he somehow convinces the colonial power to recognize him as “King of the Jews.”  The only problem is that there is already a King in Judea: the descendant of a long line of Hasmonian Kings who had ruled independently before Roman conquest. Following the Roman proclamation of Herod’s new rank, a war begins between the old King and the new. Herod prevails, and a new dynasty begins.

Once in power, Herod is a brutal despot. He outlaws protests, gathers information through a secret police force, jails opponents, and imposes a painful tax.  His private behavior is also remarkable for its cruelty. He banishes his first wife and child when a second marriage becomes more politically expedient.  He executes several family members, including another wife.  Herod publicly identifies himself as a Jew, but the Jewish council, the Sanhedrin, condemns him. His rule provokes anger amongst the Jewish people and helps to plant the seeds for later revolts against the Roman Empire.

Jesus was a real child, born in a real and dangerous time and place.  Jesus was a Jewish baby born into a Judea ruled by King Herod.  How could this vulnerable, squirming bundle of hope possibly survive? How could the one who in his infancy was called the “King of the Jews” be protected from a vicious reigning King?

According to Matthew, Jesus survives because of a coalition of love. (more…)