Speaking of Inauguration
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
Tags: faith, inauguration, jesus, prayer, protest
Well, I guess you could call it an inauguration. The story from today’s Gospel reading, that is. It’s Matthew’s take on the start of Jesus’ ministry – where he sets out the core of his message and how he’s going to lead moving forward. Bracketing the events of this weekend for a moment, I take it that while I’ve been away on vacation, there’s been some controversy about the role of the church and where we should be during these events – on our knees in prayer, out on the streets, both, or out of the arena altogether. (Yes, that kind of news reaches New Zealand.) I’m proceeding with some caution here, because this isn’t a rally. This is holy ground for all of us. We come to church, in part, because we want to be reminded of loyalties that transcend party, that there are truths that can’t be reduced to rhetoric or fighting points. Besides - we can’t hear what God is trying to say to us in this space if we’re either crouched in defense or pouncing to attack. So I’m going to start with Jesus, because here at church – that’s what we do.
Personally, I prefer Luke’s take on the start of Jesus’ ministry. He has him at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, using Scripture to set out his agenda – namely, to bring good news to the poor, to let the oppressed go free and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Sounds like my kind of good news. And he’s explicit that he’s including everyone in the work of God’s kingdom – Jews and Gentiles, men and women. He’s even a little confrontational with the religious leaders who raised him – challenging them to re-read their own sacred texts in a more radical, less timid light. My inner protestor loves this Jesus.
Contrast that with what we’re given today in Matthew. Matthew, for whatever reason, skips this moment and has him go straight to Capernaum without the fiery speech first. He’s not at home here; he’s not in his place of worship. Jesus doesn’t start in the halls of power either, although his message and example will certainly take him there in time. He’s out meeting people where they are – in this case, on the Sea of Galilee. His starting place is significant, and not just because Matthew will take any opportunity he can to proof text. Jesus starts in what even Isaiah called a dark place over 700 years before. The territories of Zebulun and Naphtali, better known as Galilee, they were the first dominoes to fall to Assyria. Eventually, the Assyrians left, but then came the Babylonians – then the Persians and the Greeks. Now it’s Rome casting darkness over the land. In other words, Jesus doesn’t wait for the conditions to be optimal; he begins his work in a dark place and at a dark time.
To that end, Matthew adds that Jesus only turns on his mic, if you will, after his cousin John the Baptist is arrested. We’re not sure why he waited this long, only that he was well aware of the risks involved. His message at the start was pretty much what John was preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Later he’ll shed more light on how we can know justice and peace when we see it, how we can tell phony kingdoms from the real thing. For now though, the message is simple: Repent. Turn. Stop wallowing in the darkness and despair. Start facing the light. Why? Because something better than you can possibly imagine is coming your way, despite the darkness – and you can be part of it now. So suit up. Come on board.
While Luke tends to focus on the outcast, on those who think they’re on the outside of religious acceptability (part of why I like him, I suppose), Matthew focuses more on the insiders – those who already think they belong. Matthew’s initial audience is the church, the already gathered community of Jesus’ followers, so it makes sense that he has Jesus begin his ministry by actually gathering people and asking them to serve.
Admittedly, I’ve never fully understood the appeal of his call: “Follow me, and I’ll make you fish for people.” As a marketing hook, it could use some work. Fishing was long, hard, smelly work with irregular rewards and inadequate pay. Perhaps the only perk is that you’re dealing with fish and not people. Ask anyone in the service industry what it’s like to fish for people. At least fish don’t talk back. Can’t we just worship God without the messiness of other people? What could possibly be the attraction in this call?
Well, fishing then wasn’t what many of us think of as fishing today. They didn’t spend hours on end with a tiny hook and a series of lures, throwing back anything not worthy of wall-mounting; they went to where the fish were and cast their nets broadly. They brought in all sizes and shapes of fish. Perhaps it appealed to Peter and his buddies that Jesus fished for them and people like them; maybe they liked the prospect of not being God’s quality control.
Perhaps that’s it. Jesus fished for them. He sought them out and called them. It wasn’t the eloquence of his words that captured them, at least not yet. It wasn’t the destination that drew them; he didn’t tell them where they were going - only that by following, they wouldn’t stay stuck where they were in the dark. It was only later that they caught the implications of this model - that when we cast our nets broadly and go where the fish actually are, we find ourselves part of a very diverse lot. The truth is - we don’t get to pick and choose who belongs to Jesus and who doesn’t. The job of sorting belongs to God, not us – although, I will say, we do have some say in who gets the mic and should take responsibility for that. I understand, believe me, the disgust we feel when Jesus is misrepresented – the revulsion at the Prince of Peace being used to justify war or bigotry, or the lover of the poor being co-opted for the sake of greed. We just need to be careful in our outrage not to show the same shortsightedness we see in our critics. Sometimes we fail to see potential partners because we can’t acknowledge the complexity of those with whom we disagree. We’re almost never just one thing. Isn’t it worth at least trying to find some common ground – for the sake of those we say we’re fighting for?
That’s part of what Paul is trying to get at in his seemingly impossible advice in today’s passage from 1st Corinthians. How, on Inauguration Weekend, can we possibly be in agreement with no divisions among us? Is it just a pipe dream that we could be united as Christians in the same mind and purpose? And yes – I am limiting the discussion of unity to our fellow followers of Jesus for now. Of course, other kinds of unity matter – across cultures and generations and religions. But for some of us, it’s almost easier to build those bridges; we’re less likely to jump on our moral high horse when we’re being respectful of what we know we don’t understand. With our fellow Christians, we’re sometimes more likely to get nasty – and that’s unfortunate for so many reasons. In my view, it’s tough to be a credible prophetic voice to the world when we can’t get our own house in order – when we’re staging purity fights about who’s more just and trying to score points against our fellow believers. If we can’t model compassion with each other and affirm each other’s dignity, who is going to believe us when we call on those values as the basis for public policy?
We hear a lot about unity these days. It might be helpful to talk first about what that doesn’t mean. By calling for unity, Paul is not calling for identical thoughts or behaviors or reactions. Paul talks about differences in gifts all the time, different parts of the body of Christ – and says that those differences are part of God’s gift to us. They’re a gift, not a threat. We need our actives and our contemplatives; our voices of protest and our voices of calm. What Paul is calling for here is clarity on what unites us so that our witness can be stronger. So let’s be clear.
As Christians, we find our unity in Jesus. We find it in his message and example – in his unselfish love for all people and in our common need for grace, no matter how right we think we are. We find our strength in him – in his embodiment of the fact that love is stronger than hate, stronger than even the deepest cynicism and darkness. We find our center in the claim that Jesus is Lord, that the kingdom and the power and the glory belong to God – and not ultimately to anyone else, elected or otherwise. We find our purpose in following Jesus, not just to our places of worship but back out into the streets – in casting our nets broadly and meeting people where they are. Following him out into the world keeps us from getting stuck where we are in the dark.
When we find ourselves following Jesus, no matter how soon or late we start, we find ourselves turned around – away from the despair and hopelessness and back toward the light. We find the strength we need to choose our battles and then respond in decidedly non-identical ways. What’s more, we find in the process of following Jesus that any ground can be holy. With practice in spaces like these, with our songs to sing and prayers to raise and bread for the journey, we can start hearing what God is saying to us about justice and peace in all kinds of places – with both the insiders and those who aren’t even thinking about coming inside. We connect again with our deepest loyalties, our most profound truths – and start seeing open windows and possibilities for relationship again where before we only saw locked doors and closed minds. Given all that’s at stake, that’s not a bad place to start. Amen.