There was a pecking order in the Holy Land – those from Jerusalem and Judah considered themselves ethnically purer, more religiously correct, enlightened, and sophisticated. And they thought those up north in Galilee to be bumpkins, more transient, Gentiles, less enlightened – in a land of darkness. They refer to Galilee somewhat like those in Chicago designate “downstate.” It is not a compliment. “Will it play in Peoria?”
It is in this context that the writer of Matthew begins his narrative of the ministry of Jesus, “the people who sat/walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Being in Galilee is like “sitting in darkness.” In another account the question is posed, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
When we hear this we think of all humanity struggling in darkness, and Jesus is the light of the whole world – that is what Epiphany is all about, the “the light of Christ; thanks be to God.” Christ for the whole world. But in the Matthew context today the words from Isaiah are referring to a particularly benighted area, a backwater; an area worthy of derision.
The common take from this passage of Jesus calling disciples, is for us to consider how Jesus is calling each of us to God’s mission, calling us to join with him in mission to do God’s work in the world. Leave our boats behind and fish for people. “I will make you fishers of men … if you follow me,” is Jesus’ message in the Sunday school song. Take up a higher calling – to those who may have lower expectations of themselves. To take up a cosmic journey.
And this is worthy and true.
What I want to talk about today is what it means to consider with distain whole groups of people, regions of a nation, and categories of people. What does it do to those who hold others in contempt? And what contempt does to the self-understanding of groups of people so considered?
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As one who lives in Iowa I know what it means to be the butt of jokes on late night television. And when once every four years we have the Iowa Caucuses, and have televised interviews of men in plaid shirts sitting on hay bales being interviewed as quaint. And deep pondering about if Iowa folks are getting more than our fair share of attention.
When we first moved to this area from California my wife Nancy remembers having conversations with local folks asking, “Why would you move here?” And after talking a little about affordable housing, job opportunity and better schools, replying with some exasperation, “Well you live here, there must be something you like.”
We live in “flyover America” in the view of some people. For some who hold this characterization it diminishes the importance of what we think and do. They write off our significance. And for some of us, we buy into this, and it lowers our self-esteem. And it causes us to be reactive, and spiteful, and mean. For others, we know better, and know that we are “as good as anybody,” and capable, and knowledgeable, and we resolve to do our best and play our part with integrity. When four years ago I posted pictures on Facebook of our Caucus at the local elementary school, California friends marveled at face-to-face democracy with neighbors in action.
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And that is the edge those who are regarded as objects of derision face: whether to be spiteful or to double down on integrity and resolve. One theologian, Oscar Cullman, analyses the names given to the fishermen, and suggests that they were not so simple as frequently regarded, but rather revolutionaries who were ready to burn the place down. I found his analysis plausible.
But Jesus saw in them what they did not even see in themselves. Jesus called out positive potential. He regarded them as beloved children of God; what we are all called in our baptism. Jesus treated them with dignity and respect, and called these under employed fishers to something higher. The realm of God. Jesus calls them and us to something even higher than their best selves, to be partners with God in the remaking of the world. Jesus saw them as real people.
Some call those who have been derided to be spiteful; others see us as real people and offer us a higher calling. It can go either way.
It would be a shame to preach this whole sermon and not refer to the experiences we (Steve, Judy, Carol and I) had at the Southern border of Mexico last week. We met with migrants en route, seeking a better life, and held in contempt by many.
- We met Roselino who has a claim for asylum fleeing machete violence in his hometown in Guatemala, who made it to the US border, and has been returned to Mexico to await a hearing on February 3 in El Paso, Texas. We listened with respect to his story, and we are seeking to guide him to resources which can help him with his claim.
- We met with a tearful English-speaking woman from Cameroon, who flew to Ecuador and literally walked through the jungle of the Darian Gap. She is fleeing violence in a civil war in her nation. Our contribution was to listen and talk with her in English, because she feels so terribly alone in a migrant shelter where only Spanish is spoken.
- We met a Cuban woman whose father was part of the resistance in Cuba, and was therefore blacklisted in many ways.
Our contribution was to regard these people as Children of God, listen with respect, and accord them proper dignity. We did not classify them as objects of derision or folks unworthy of human decency.
One woman who inspired me was Myra, who lives in Chemik down by the border. Nancy and I met her about ten years ago in San Cristobal de Las Casas. Since then she has started and now runs a center for women who are being sexually trafficked and stuck at the Guatemala-Mexico border. She provides a route to safety and out of prostitution, a safe place to stay and a chance to work for money to get them out of their dire situation.
She is one who has responded “yes” to Jesus’ call to discipleship. She has said “yes” to partnership with God.
Jesus calls us all to be disciples; Jesus does not call us to be spiteful.
Amen and amen.