Epiphany 3A (Jan 26, 2020)

It’s not every Sunday that your Gospel reading quotes your First Reading, much less quotes extensively a short First Reading. That tells us these words from Isaiah must be important. Zebulun and Naphtali. Now, I’m a Church geek and a history freak and I like knowing more than other people—it makes me feel important—and I don’t know off the top of my head why I’m supposed to care about Zebulun and Naphtali. I had to look it up. The territory of Zebulun and Naphtali was in northern Palestine. It was the first Israelite territory that Assyria conquered. It’s where the fall of the Hebrew kingdoms began. Isaiah prophesies that God will begin the kingdom of God there, in the place where the destruction began. The first to fall will be the first renewed.

            Matthew quotes this text. Matthew says God’s work is beginning. Jesus is moving about in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali so the work can begin. Matthew knows Isaiah quite well. So, Matthew knows that Isaiah reads like a great chaotic discernment. Slowly over sixty-six chapters you get some clarity. We today think the book of Isaiah is probably the work of at least three major authors and various editors, but that just makes this sense of discernment more pronounced. Over generations, people are discerning. What starts off as pro-Judah, “Jerusalem cannot fall,” must then cope with Jerusalem falling, exile, return, and with return the return of old problems (and the onset of new ones). Isaiah discerns that God must be for all nations. There can be no national distinctions. Matthew mimics Isaiah’s flow. Matthew flows from Hebrew genealogy to a mission just in Zebulun and Naphtali, to a mission to all the “lost sheep of Israel,” and ends with the risen Jesus telling the disciples, “Make disciples of all nations.” God is for everyone. Matthew quotes Isaiah’s prophecy of beginnings here at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry to affirm this is where and how it begins. This is not where and how it ends.

            Another way to say this is that the land of Zebulun and Naphtali will not be the location of God’s “in group,” all others in an “out group.” In and Out groups are a fact of life. In my soul-crushing teenage years, my in group consisted largely of people not wanted in the cooler groups. We knew that, but we also had our myths about how our in group was the cool ones and the people in the out groups sucked. This is not confined to grade school. Geographic boundaries make for easy division into in and out groups. Somebody—I don’t know who and I don’t know why—has hung a billboard on 65. When you’re heading north it says, “Heaven is Real.” And I know this isn’t what they meant, but I always think, “Yes, back to Chicagoland, back to civilization.” My in group. And then heading south the billboard says, “Hell is Real,” and I always think, “From this point south, there is no pretending: You’re in Indiana, now.”

            But in and out does not have to be geographic; it can be within an organization. It can be within the Church. Paul writes to the Corinthians, urging them to drop the groups. People are saying, I belong to Apollos, I belong to Cephas, I belong to Paul, or I belong to Christ. In that world, everyone had a patron—someone higher up who they served. Even the emperor considered the gods his patrons. People in the Corinthian church are forming these competing groups around patrons. One group apparently even claims Christ as its patron, but not in a good way. They’re like, “Well, Christ is better than Apollos, so we’re better than Apollos’ group. Nah!” Paul says, “No. That’s not the Church the way Christ wants it. We’re all equals.”

            We’ll even form in and out groups over how you do church. I detect a hint of that in the call of the disciples from Matthew. These guys are Jesus’ first four followers, and they’re from competing fishing businesses. And they fish differently. Matthew says Peter and Andrew were using circular casting nets, but he describes James and John’s nets with a different, generic word for net, suggesting a dragnet. These are different styles of fishing. Neither is right or wrong. Both are wanted. I think Matthew is hinting that Peter and Andrew have one style of being disciples, James and John have another style. Jesus wants all of them. Likewise today, there are different expressions of faith—Lutheran, Catholic, Episcopal, Reformed, Presbyterian, Baptist, Nazarene, Free Church, Disciples, Pentecostal, and so on. Jesus isn’t having any of this in group/out group nonsense between denominations. He wants all of us.

            This past week I thought of this in terms made timely by the death of Terry Jones. I was raised on Monty Python (which explains a lot), so Terry Jones’ death touches close. Those six guys were not alike. Terry Jones and Michael Palin wrote surreal scenes. The laughs came from how wildly out of place things were. John Cleese and Graham Chapman often wrote confused or bullying characters. Terry Gilliam drew strange cartoons. Eric Idle developed ridiculous characters and drove them as far as he could. Together, they were Monty Python. None of them were “right” about what was funny. Sometimes they were wrong, especially in retrospect. One sketch—I admit I’ve laughed ‘til I couldn’t breathe—puts the oblivious Englishman Mr. Pither at the British Embassy in Moscow, only, the embassy’s obviously been taken over by the Chinese, and he doesn’t notice. But the “Chinese” are just English guys doing racist impressions of Chinese. It’s horrible. And while the joke is on Mr. Pither—the English guy, they’re making fun of themselves—the joke requires the denigration of East Asians. The joke requires an out group.

            Well, there’s no right way to be funny but you can especially in retrospect be wrong; likewise there’s no right way to follow Jesus, but you can especially in retrospect get things wrong. And if Paul’s words to the Corinthians and Matthew’s words on Galilean fishing mean anything to us, it’s that we get things wrong when we create in and out groups. Communion is something, especially in retrospect, we get wrong. Who is in and who is out? Our denomination has full communion with several others. Our congregation announces. “If you’re baptized, you’re welcome.” Some would find even that not open enough. And just because we welcome you, that doesn’t mean you’re welcome. You may know that your own tradition frowns upon sharing. In Valparaiso Communion is often the first thing sacrificed in any service lest we wind up in a dispute with other churches or cause trouble for members of less open communions. We should be able to figure this one out. Catholic theologian Thomas O’Laughlin contends that the common objections to intercommunion, even from high ranking theologians, often misquote canon law or oversimplify matters so we can remain divided. “Our group is right; their group is wrong.” Pope Francis dropped a not so subtle hint a couple years ago that “theologians could look into this.” Time to fix this.

            Christ is not creating a new in group. In groups require out groups. “Them.” The Church is not to be an in group or to have in groups. Christ calls the Church to be a community of equals—just “a group.” Christ calls us to embody that equality in the hope that the world may function likewise. If our actins are producing out groups, we’re missing the mark. If our systems require out groups, our systems are faulty.

            Geographic boundaries are so easy for making in and out groups! The ELCA is a sanctuary church in a country three years into its 90-day travel ban and with new bars on immigration announced last week. We’ve got some out groups based on geography (not to mention skin color). This being a sanctuary means you’re never in the out group here. Christ has us here refusing to play in and out groups. Maybe others see that and also decide not to play. Economic boundaries can mark in and out. It was announced last week that protections for some fresh water sources had been lifted. Who actually wants to poison their drinking water? No one? There’s potable water, still. It’s a matter of who can afford it. Here in the Church we’re all in the same baptismal water. Christ has us here all sharing those waters. Maybe that makes people ask if those waters need to be safe, if all waters need to be safe.

            Christ puts us here, calls us to be faithful here, to be “a group,” with no in and out groups. Christ calls us to bear witness in this little corner of the world, our own land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali. Christ’s work indeed begins among us. It’s not for any one place at the expense of another, for any group at the expense of another. It is for all nations even to the end of the age.