First preached at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square on 1/26/2020
Relevant lectionary readings here.
About this time last year I was just returning from my first trip to the Holy Land. As part of a J-term class with LSTC, we visited Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt. At the end of the trip, my spouse Adam and I holed up in the monastery at Mount Sinai and just read the whole Gospel of Matthew from cover to cover in one sitting. How different the stories felt to us now that we had seen these places. I had always been super annoyed that a certain Bible prof would assign dozens of pages of encyclopedic readings on geographic formations in the Bible. It felt so arduous to read like 20 dense pages on the difference between these land masses or about the difference between a cistern, a spring, and a well. It was honestly the sort of thing I memorized for the quizzes and then promptly forgot.
But after visiting the places where these stories took place, I began to see that in these Biblical narratives, the setting, the land, is often a main character in the story.
That’s true for the Gospel reading we have today. The first half of the reading is all about places. Jesus is all over the place, a couple chapters prior to our reading today he was a baby, fleeing from Herod with his parents to Egypt, returning and settling in Nazareth. In the chapter before this one he was baptized in the River Jordan by his mentor, John, and then driven out into the wilderness. And then, upon arriving back into civilization, he gets the news that his cousin and mentor had been arrested and he withdraws to Galilee, to the town of Capernum, in the ancestral homeland of the Zebulun and Naphtali tribes.
Each of these places is heavily loaded with meaning. Zebulun and Naphtali are the names of two of the sons of Jacob who became two of the 12 tribes of Israel. Zebulun, whose name means “gift” was the 6th and final son of Jacob and Leah. And Naphtali, meaning “struggle,” was born of the handmaiden Bilhah on behalf of Rachel who struggled to conceive and struggled with the rivalry between her and her sister. The lands these tribes inhabited conjure up promises from God and generations and generations of stories and history from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Moses to Joshua.
But these lands no longer bore those names in Jesus’ time or in the time of the Gospel writings. Because these tribes no longer existed. Zebulun and Naphtali are two of the lost tribes of Israel. During the time of Isaiah, in our first reading, Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the tribes to first suffer under the iron fist of another Gentile Empire, Assyrira. They were carried off as captives, deported, enslaved, disappeared. The prophet Isaiah brings a word of hope for these tribes, for the lost people of Zebulun and Naphtali, that one day God will break the yoke of slavery and crush the rod of their oppressor.
These covenant-evoking names frame the land as a gift, but this land is now occupied by imperial powers. It is to this region, a region wrecked by colonizing Empires past and present, whose lands ache with memories of suffering, whose air still echoes the screams of war and whose dirt is still mixed with blood…it is to this region, this place, that Jesus comes when he hears of the arrest of John the Baptist.
This suffering at the hands of Empire is not just relegated to the past. In Jesus’ own time, a foreign power has occupied these lands once more, except this time it is not the Empire of Assyria. It is the Empire of Rome. And although the NRSV reading translates the word “withdrew”…Jesus “withdrew to Galilee and made his home in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali”…the word “withdrew” is a little misleading. Jesus’s move to this territory was less of a retreat or a rest. This region was the region where Herod Antipas ruled, the same puppet king who had just had John arrested. Whereas in chapter 2 the threat of another Herod, his father, had sent Jesus and his family “fleeing,” scripture uses that same Greek word again to describe Jesus’ movements. But this time, Jesus flees TO Herod, to the seat of power, and begins his ministry there in plain view and defiance of the arrest of his comrade, cousin, and friend.
Jesus isn’t retreating away from the threat. He is running right into it and quoting the exact same words of John that had just gotten him arrested saying, “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near!”
No wonder people were curious about Jesus and decided to follow him. That is a bold move. Jesus’ ministry was even more antagonistic to the Empire than John’s, while people came to John, Jesus actively pursued people and invited them to build a movement. That’s what Jesus is saying when he calls out to the people who would become his disciples, “Follow me! I will make you a fisher of people!” This metaphor has been misused often. Somehow we over-spiritualized it, as if fishing for humans was about the conversion of souls. But it’s not just that. Fishing for humans, following Jesus, is about building a movement for the liberation of bodies. Ched Meyers teaches us that, “Elsewhere [in scripture] the ‘hooking of fish’ is a euphemism for judgment upon the rich [like in] Amos 4, and [the] powerful [like in] Ezekiel 29. Taking this mandate for his own, [when Jesus makes the invitation to fish for people] Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege.”
And how does Jesus do this? How is he able to build a movement? He goes around healing people. He provides for their physical needs, the needs of their bodies. The Roman Empire kept people poor and therefore sick for a reason. People who are struggling to survive can’t afford to overthrow Empires. The Black Panther Party knew that. That is why in addition to political pursuits and more overt justice work, they also did direct services, feeding and healing people, not unlike Jesus in this story. The Panthers called their programs, “survival pending revolution.” So Jesus, building his movement, is traveling around saying the same inflammatory stuff that got his mentor put in prison and eventually killed, foreshadowing Jesus’ own death and execution. And as Jesus travels around he is doing free breakfast programs and free community health clinics. Because Empire took the choice away from people by keeping them in survival mode, and once people were made well by Jesus, they were free to have a choice again. They were free to join the movement, to fish for more people.
This is not unlike our own world, now. We are living on a land with people who have been displaced and disappeared by a bloody colonial history and a gentrifying present. We live on a land that is being held captive by imperial forces, that cries out for justice. We have a population of people who are too weighed down by debt, too sick with no insurance, too hungry, too focused on survival to build movements. And that is by design. It is on purpose. Empires keep the common folk desperate and hungry because desperation makes ideal workers who will tolerate meager conditions, and distracted citizens that won’t fight back.
So what can we do? How can we continue to build a movement that lasts, how do we fish for people? Next week St. Luke’s will have an opportunity to make plans and decisions about that very question in our annual meeting. Scripture has some advice for us. The letter to the Corinthians reminds us not to let ourselves be divided, but to form true solidarity with one another. In our time that might mean learning about the connectivity of the issues of race and class and gender, refusing to allow the Empire to use the dominant narrative dividing us by pitting us against one another while the rich hoard all of the resources, as if there is not enough for all of us to flourish. We can be brave, the kind of brave that borders on foolish. We can put all the “wrong people” in charge, the kind of people that society says couldn’t possibly be good leaders. We can organize our budget around things that seem risky but right. We can find new ways to care for one another, to free each other up by providing for our basic needs. We can ensure each other’s survival pending revolution. And we can decide that this is the year that St. Luke’s will build a real base here, that we can move beyond a group of people with shared values who occasionally participate in various public actions, and we can move towards an organized base that moves strategically, that threatens the Empires in our midst, that acts powerfully, transforms lives, and changes the world.