Zebulun, Naphtali, and the Land Beyond the Wall

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Game of Thrones: The view beyond the Wall.

Isaiah 9:1-4
Matthew 4:12-23

Game of Thrones people, this one is for you.

But don’t worry, everyone else can come along too. 

In the opening sequence to the HBO series, all of the regions of the world of Game of Thrones come to life like game pieces, each part clicking into place as focus shifts from place to place on an animated map. You see the centers of power first, usually. You see King’s Landing, where, obviously, the king of Westeros lives. You see Dragonstone, usually — the home of the deposed former king. You see Winterfell, home of the famous Stark family, the wardens of the North. Then, the camera pans to the northernmost point on the map: the Wall. 

The Wall, an impossibly huge, impenetrable wall of ice and stone, separates Westeros, the country that the series is primarily concerned with, from the wilds beyond. Throughout the series, “beyond the wall” is code for the middle of nowhere. Few people seem to know really who or what lives there; they just seem to have an idea that it’s a sparsely populated snowy wilderness. You know, much like Bostonians imagine western Mass. 

But people do live there: the people of Westeros call them the wildlings. The wildlings call themselves the “free folk.” They bow to no one and answer to no king. The series, among many other things, begins to eventually be about the alliances that must be made out of necessity between the free folk and the people of Westeros, and the deadly tensions that will ensue between those who live in Westeros and those who live “beyond the Wall.” 

In today’s Gospel reading, we’re told that Jesus leaves Nazareth and makes his home in Capernaum, by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. They’re familiar names, Zebulun and Naphtali. Those of you who studied Genesis with me last year and/or just know your Bible pretty well probably recognize them as the names of two of the twelve tribes of Israel, and two of the corresponding twelve sons of Jacob. The rest of you are probably thinking “Yep, those do indeed sound like names in the Bible.” 

Zebulun is the sixth son of Leah, Jacob’s first wife. Naphtali is the second son of Bilhah, the handmaid of Rachel, who bore children in Rachel’s name when she thought she was barren in true Handmaid’s Tale kind of style. 

I don’t expect you to know or remember any of this. I had to look it up myself. There’s a good reason. Neither of them was the first or most powerful son, and neither of them is the first or most powerful tribe. This is the northern edge of the kingdom.

We’re supposed to look at these place names and go “…where?”

Playing the “if Israel were Massachusetts” game again, it is as if we are told that Jesus left his home in Boston and made his home in Hinsdale, in the mountains. 

Unless you’re intimately familiar with the map, you’re unlikely to have the foggiest clue. And that’s the point. 

Jesus has moved Beyond the Wall. 

The Hebrew Bible lesson for today shines a little light on this text during this season of light: “In the former time [God] brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time [God] will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.” 

Land of Westeros, light has shined even on the land beyond the wall. Bostonians, light has shined even on western Massachusetts. Light has shined on all the places you once thought of as “out there” or insignificant. God’s light shines on the border country and beyond. 

In this seafaring place, you can be sure that Jesus was preaching to and healing both Jewish people and Gentiles. And that’s around the time that Jesus goes for a stroll along the Sea of Galilee and invites four fishermen to come and follow him.

“I will make you fish for people,” or in the King James language, “I will make you fishers of men” has always seemed like such a strange image to me, mostly because fishing never really ends well for the fish. The longer I follow Jesus, though, the more I get it. I mean, who hasn’t occasionally felt gutted while serving the Lord? And who hasn’t even occasionally felt a little trapped by all the work that must be done? The line of need is endless, and discipleship is hard, yet I can’t ever manage to bring myself to leave the work, or Jesus, behind.

I mean, take a second and look at your bulletin cover. It looks like Jesus is standing behind these two disciples like “I gotcha now!” 

And yet, what we are offered is, in a sense, death. But that’s not the end. We’re constantly pulled into this cycle of death and resurrection: getting tired and feeling discouraged and finished and wanting to quit and maybe even actually quitting, and then finding new hope and new life and new purpose, over and over, in church and in life. It’s the kind of gift that doesn’t always feel like a gift, but an actual calling never really does. I’m betting you’ve felt the same way in your work, in your life as a parent or grandparent, with your spouse or a significant other, and in your significant friendships. Life always comes and goes in waves of death and resurrection, and God is constantly offering us life renewed. 

On “Two Bubbas and a Bible” this week, a favorite preaching podcast that I like to listen to, we got this story this week: Marty Saarinen, later a professor at the Lutheran seminary in South Carolina, began his career on the upper peninsula of Michigan. Saarinen, you might know, is a Finnish name, and so, as a young pastor, he went to serve the Finnish Lutherans in Michigan. Pastor Saarinen was told to go see a shut in couple out in the middle of nowhere and introduce himself. The young pastor drives through logging country, has to stop his car and walk across a log bridge in the middle of the wilderness. He finally comes to a clearing, and there’s a Finnish cabin with smoke coming from the chimney. He walks across the porch and knocks on the door and stands there in his clergy collar and horn rimmed glasses. An old man opens the door and doesn’t say a word to the young pastor. He turns around and says to his wife, sitting by the fire: “Anna! God has not forgotten us!”

So here we are again, at the beginning of a new year, getting ready to have our annual meeting after worship, elect a new council, and for you all to be formally introduced to this thing we’re doing with Forward leadership. And the text for the day is Jesus calling these ill-equipped disciples who are way out on the margins to come and follow.

Every voice will matter in 2020. Every person will matter. We will need you. God has not forgotten you, and God has not forgotten us. Even on us, light has shined. 

And though it may sometimes feel like a trap, it isn’t. It is a cycle of death and resurrection, dejection and questions and frustration and new hope that we all get to experience together. 

God has not forgotten us. We get to do this. Even on you, on me, on us, light has shined. 

If you have a lot of questions, that’s okay. If you have a lot of worries, that’s okay. If you feel like we’re beyond the wall and beyond God’s good care, that’s okay too. 

Every day, the call is there: “come, follow me.” And as the days get longer and light literally shines on us all, let us remember that even on us, light has shined. God has not forgotten us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

“What Are You Looking For?”: The Christ and the Cheshire Cat

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John 1:29-42

As light returns to us here in the northern hemisphere and we celebrate the days getting longer, the church celebrates a season of light: the time after Epiphany. We remember the star that led the wise men to the Christ child at the beginning of the season, and we remember Jesus transfigured and shining on a mountaintop at the end. In between, we remember Jesus being revealed as the Light of the World as the sun outside stays with us a little longer each day. This season is an in-between season, separating Christmas from Lent.

One of my favorite books and movies of all time is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. 

In one particular scene that has untold sermon potential, Alice wanders around the strange woods after going down the rabbit hole, finding herself in a very strange place indeed. Suddenly, she hears singing — the voice is disembodied and the words are nonsense. Finally, just a smile appears. Then, two yellow eyes. Finally, a tail, and then, a whole purple striped animal.

Thus, one of the best literary characters of all time, in my opinion, appears. 

That character is, of course, the Cheshire Cat. The trickster who’s a little off his rocker, but is also strangely full of wisdom.
“Oh!” Alice says. “You’re a cat!”

“A Cheshire cat.” 

After some small talk, Alice says, “I just wanted to ask you which way I ought to go.” 

“Well,” the Cheshire cat replies, “that depends on where you want to get to…?” 

Alice responds immediately, “It really doesn’t matter, as long as I…” she starts to explain.

The Cheshire cat interrupts, “Well,” he says, “then it really doesn’t matter which way you go!” 

I’m not saying that Jesus is the Cheshire cat, but Jesus in the Gospel text today isn’t unlike the Cheshire cat. He answers questions with questions. He says confusing things. And you get the sense that he might be messing with people just a little bit.

In this Gospel text, Jesus is baptized, which we don’t witness firsthand but only hear about from John the Baptist: “remember how I said that one who’s greater than me will come after me? This is the guy.” 

John’s Gospel has been leading up to this moment for a little while now. The beginning of the Gospel, instead of a birth story with shepherds or wise men or a manger, begins with the famous “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” all the way down to “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” 

Then we learn about John, and through John we learn about Jesus — and here we are. 

Last week, we heard the first words Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, and they’re him asking to be baptized. This week, we hear Jesus’ first words in John’s Gospel. 

The Word made flesh speaks for the first time, and what does he say? Furthermore, these guys have just decided to follow him. You’d think his response would be some wise statement, but it isn’t. 

He just says, “What are you looking for?” 

As those of you who walked with me through John’s Gospel last year may remember, he asks that a lot: either “what are you looking for?” or “who are you looking for?” Most notably, he’ll ask the latter question when he’s arrested, then he’ll ask it again of Mary at the tomb when she thinks someone’s stolen his body.

What are you looking for?

It’s a question that would do us well to ask of ourselves in our lives generally. What are you looking for? 

Validation? Accomplishment? Peace? Love? 

But I won’t take you too far down an existential crisis-y rabbit hole, even if Jesus does sound a bit like the Cheshire cat in this passage. This is church, and it is Jesus we’re talking about today, so I’ll leave you to ponder what you’re looking for in life later this afternoon while we focus on church for now.

Why are you here? What are you looking for?

Pastors know just about better than anyone that people come to church for all kinds of reasons. Some come out of habit, and some out of obligation, and some as a form of fire insurance. Many others come because they find community, and meaning, and love, and/or because after all these years, there’s just still something about trying to follow Jesus that calls to them. 

One of the questions that I’ve learned to ask as a pastor is to occasionally get people to ponder this question of Jesus: “What are you looking for?” 

Why do you go to church? And if you go here regularly, why do you go to this church?

As we move through the synod’s Forward Leadership program this year, answering that question will go a long way towards helping us find our unifying “why” — why God’s placed us here, in South Hadley, now. 

Because, to paraphrase the Cheshire cat, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, it doesn’t much matter where you look. 

I’m telling you: endless wisdom in that cartoon cat. 

So Jesus turns around and sees these guys following and he asks them what they’re looking for. 

And they are not ready for that. You can practically hear them stammer in the text. Lutheran pastor and fellow Southernern Delmer Chilton describes it this way: “It’s like you’ve got a couple of inept detectives trying to tail somebody, and the person they’re tailing turns around and says, ‘What do you want?’ And they’re like “UHHHHH… you got a dollar? Can you tell me where the 54 bus is?”
They respond, “Ummmmm… where are you staying?” 

And Jesus responds with another key phrase in John: “Come and see.” 

He’ll say it again a little later to invite more disciples to follow him. The woman at the well will say it when she invites others to come meet Jesus. And Mary and Martha will say it when Jesus asks where they’ve buried his friend, their brother, who died. 

Come and see. 

Just show up, and expect to see something new. 

Two weeks ago, when Gail, Debbie, Paula, Barb, and I were at the Forward leadership retreat, we lamented to the leadership that we had more questions than answers. We were told that that’s right where we were supposed to be. I’ve been thinking over the past couple of weeks that, despite my love of answers, maybe having lots of questions is a good place to be overall.  

As we embark on a new year, and as we embark on the Forward leadership program together, or whatever it is that you’re embarking on in 2020 — what are we looking for? Why do you come to church? What are you looking for?

What are you looking for, overall, in 2020? 

Because you know that if it doesn’t matter where you get to, it doesn’t much matter which way you go. 

But before you allow the Cheshire cat to throw you into a crisis, remember Jesus’ invitation: come and see. 

Just keep showing up, expecting to find something. 

Come and see. 

Jump into this Forward leadership process with us. Come and see. 

Show up in your life, however you need to show up, and expect to find something new. 

Come and see. 

Show up at this table, and expect to meet Jesus in bread and wine, even though it’s illogical. 

Come and see. 

Let 2020 be the year that you show up and let yourself be surprised.

The invitation is always there: here at church, in your home, and every day when you open your eyes: come and see. Amen.

Epiphany: Never Travel Alone

Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12

I make more sense, I think, when in motion. 

I make more sense to myself when I’m moving, whether it’s running, lifting, or traveling. And with a family across the country and friends flung to the four winds, I do have both the opportunity and the obligation to travel often. 

As such, I’ve developed some simple rules around traveling. I always joke that air travel lowers my already low view of humanity. Watching people not follow the rules makes my little heart break and my hair burst into flames. But I have two simple rules when I get off an airplane — if I see someone struggling to get their bag down from the overhead bin, I help them. It’s always good to help other people avoid concussions. This rule especially applies when the bag is being taken down right over my head. 

My second rule is to always look both the pilots and the flight attendants at the doors in the eyes and say thank you. It’s always good to remember, I think, that you did not reach this destination safely by yourself. 

When you think about it, we rarely travel alone, even when we travel solo. 

If you doubt this, think about your last long trip. Chances are, it took at least two pilots to get you there, and maybe also a train conductor and maybe a Lyft or taxi driver or two. If you’ve never flown or haven’t flown in awhile, you might be thinking, “Nah, I drove myself there.” 

Even then, however, we rarely travel alone. There are other people on the highway. And there are the people who work to register, insure, and maintain our vehicles. We owe our safe arrival to the people who check our tires and change our oil, and if something goes wrong, we’ll be depending on state troopers, tow truck drivers, or even passers by to help us get out of a tight spot. 

We live, increasingly, in a time of isolation, when more and more people are choosing self and family over community — that is to say, we’re choosing to stay home rather than go to town meetings, join community gyms, or, yes, even participate in organized religion. We bemoan how yoga is overtaking church, but if you ask the owners of yoga studios around here, you’ll find that they’re not collecting the people that churches are losing; they’re struggling too.

We are more connected and more isolated than ever. 

This is, in part, because of the quasi-illusion of connection that we get from social media. But I think the bigger culprit is that we’re overextended and tired from hours at work that just keep getting longer and family obligations that keep taxing us, leaving people of every age wanting to just hang out in sweatpants at the end of a long day rather than go to some town or church event. 

Regardless of the cause, increasingly, we’re alone. Or at least, we think we are.  

Today, we cap off the twelve days of Christmas with the celebration of the Epiphany, or the visit of the magi. This year, in this increasing age of isolation, I couldn’t help thinking about how perfectly plausible it might have been to only have one magi visit the child Jesus. 

Quick yearly review for those who might have forgotten or never knew it: your nativity scene is a composite sketch of the Gospel stories of Jesus’ babyhood and toddlerhood. No Gospel includes both shepherds and wise men (if you don’t believe me, please, look it up). Further, Matthew doesn’t tell us how many magi there were; he only tell us that there were three gifts. 

But what we do know is that “magi” is plural. They did not travel alone. At some point, somebody said, “Hey! I think that star means something.” And they gathered some of their friends, and they took a road trip. And the destination, unbeknownst to them at the time, was love: Jesus Christ, God made flesh. 

And when it was all over, Matthew tells us rather poetically that, in order to avoid Herod, inspired by a dream, they “went home by a different road.” Every trip changes us, especially when we meet God there. 

It’s the fifth of January, 2020. 

We’re all embarking on new journeys. Some of us have New Year’s resolutions to keep, while others are continuing on the same journeys we were on before Christmas: journeys to healing. Journeys to recovery. Journeys to getting those kids or grandkids raised and out of the house. Journeys to career goals and personal bests. Journeys to retirement and rest. Journeys of post-retirement adventure. 

We are all on journeys. And it’s important to remember that we never travel alone. 

One of the most intimidating new employment experiences I’ve ever had was learning to be an overnight chaplain in a hospital. There were so many procedures to follow, charting to do, reports to give, emergencies to respond to. I struggled to remember what to do when something happened, how to call security if I needed them, how to get in touch with the head nurse if someone who arrived after a death wanted to see a deceased loved one in the morgue.

Finally, I realized: the chaplain is never alone in the hospital. No one is ever alone in a hospital. There are always other travelers, people whose knowledge you can draw on, people you can rely on to help. 

No one travels alone. 

My friends, this is important to remember as we embark on our own journey as a congregation. This past weekend, several of us were up at Camp Calumet taking part in the opening retreat. One of my hopes and visions for this program is that we will learn to travel, together, as a congregation. We have a ton of energy and more resources than most congregations our size; the opportunity lies in learning to use them together, relying less on a few people and more on ourselves as a unit.

It will take time, and I don’t know where this journey will lead. But what I do know is that we, like the magi, are following a pattern as best we can, trusting that the destination is love, and trusting that God is with us on the journey. And maybe we, too, will leave this journey and go home by a different road, changed forever. 

Whatever journey you are on, remember that you do not travel alone, even when it seems like it. And if you have goals this year, I encourage you to find a community to help you achieve them — even psychology tells us that working as part of a group, whether on fitness, reading, learning a language or skill, or any other feat — yields much better results than working alone. [Köhler effect]

My friends, in this age of isolation, the most radical thing we can choose to do is to refuse to be isolated. If you haven’t been coming here much, join our community and let us walk with you. Whatever your journey, find a group to support you. Refuse to travel alone. 

Ask for support, or offer it. Ask for help, or offer it. Thank the people who travel with you and thank the people who take you places. Support and remember those who travel with you on whatever journey you’re on, and let’s remember to support each other as we take this journey together.

Before we leave today, we will bless chalk that we will use to bless our homes for the new year. When you bless your home, think of the journeys you’ll take this year — both the literal trips you’ll take and the figurative journeys from here to there. Pray for yourself and for your traveling companions, whoever they may be. 

And know that God goes with you, and that ultimately, our destination is always love. Amen.