A Heaven-ish Empire

sermon on Matthew4:12-23; 1Corinthians1:10-18


This Sunday marks the anniversary of Pastor Sonja and me starting here and preaching our first sermons at MCC. It makes me think back to those days a year ago, meeting you, figuring out how this wild system of two shared congregations functions, and details for an annual meeting a week away, and even what streets to take to get here.

This Gospel reading has a similar feel, right? So much happening at once. It’s the first glimpse of Jesus’ ministry (not that I’m trying to compare myself to him, I’m just talking hectic beginnings) with many details of him moving to a new home, he’s preaching, he’s meeting people, calling them to follow (and they have their own hectic new beginnings), Jesus is going around healing and teaching and curing. Bizzy!

But amid the details of this first glimpse of a public Jesus and what he’ll be up to until the end, one bit right away grabbed my attention this week. The passage starts: “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested…” That detail feels peculiar. It seems to indicate that Jesus’ ministry didn’t come out of fulfilled preparation or special readiness. It didn’t say, “Now after Jesus had earned his Master of Divinity degree and was approved by the synod…” Nor does it attribute this to internal enthusiasm with some sort of spiritual motivation, that God nudged Jesus to use his gifts as who he was truly meant to be. He wasn’t looking for opportunity, as if perusing job listings and weighing his options until he decided to pack up shop and move down to the lakeshore instead of staying with the family carpentry business back in his hometown.

No, what really seems to have gotten the ball rolling on what Jesus would accomplish in a couple short years and what would try to be shut down and stifled as he was executed, and what continues as the movement that maybe your parents introduced you to when you were but an infant and that keeps bringing you here now, what started all of this huge and vital process, according to that first sentence from Matthew this morning, was a crisis, was that John got arrested.

Again, just to make sure we’re really getting it, that wouldn’t have been the obvious choice. If Jesus felt close to John and was impressed by him and even echoed some of John’s preaching, then this isn’t exactly when he should take up the mantle of a mentor, but would’ve been a good time to lay low and hide out and not make waves. Not only does Jesus start his work amid a moment of crisis, but clearly from John’s example, this is dangerous.

That is emphasized by the setting in the reading, though it doesn’t quite jump out at us. Matthew likes to quote from the Hebrew Bible and tell us that Jesus was fulfilling those writings. He does it 15 times, way more than any other writer. We need not take it as if prophets were predicting details about Jesus so much as Matthew saw the old story, God’s story resonates in the life of Jesus, and the ancient story has continuity in this new community.

At any rate, in this case the words from the Isaiah that Matthew uses describe Jesus’ setting as the land “on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” Being under the shadow of death certainly must be a description for crisis and danger, so there’s that awareness with the start of Jesus’ ministry.

Still more, it describes Capernaum as “on the road by the sea” and as a region “of the Gentiles.” Those are doubly dangerous terms. The region of Gentiles indicates it’s far from the heart of the faith. This isn’t amid other Jewish believers near the temple in Jerusalem, but is out in the hinterlands, surrounded by non-believers.

Maybe worse, this so-called “road by the sea” means the Via Maris, an ancient highway that ran from Egypt to Damascus and far beyond. It was a route for international trade under the supervision of the Roman Empire. Those people who have sat in darkness far from the safe nightlight glow of their religious stronghold were instead under the watchful lurking eye of a foreign government’s military occupation. Capernaum was a highway wayside, where people were trying to eke out existence as a meager and maybe forlorn group of believers. These people are at all kinds of apparent loss—of their health, of their security, of control, of any sort of prestige and power. And Jesus himself is at a loss as John the Baptist has been imprisoned.

To reiterate once more: in that dark setting, Jesus began. Amid this shadow of loss, the light Jesus casts is counter to the empire. Again, it may not jump out in our translation, but he’s confrontational when he says that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Rather than picturing a palace in the clouds, we could more meaningfully title it something like “the heaven-ish empire.” This is the same when Jesus has us pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.” It’s about how God would have earth run, the shape of life under God’s authority instead of Caesar’s. It should leave no surprise from the get-go that darkness tries to overcome light and such talk and such actions are going to get Jesus crucified; he is boldly proclaiming this new empire in enemy territory, offering an alternative community directly in the face of reigning powers.

Again, as he calls those first pairs of brothers, he’s transferring or relocating them out of the kingdom of Rome. In leaving behind their nets and boats and role as fishermen, Jesus is pulling them out of a job that was indentured labor for the imperial economy. These guys paid taxes in order to get out on the water, and then their catch mostly went to palaces of oppressive leaders. They weren’t enjoying Friday night fish fries of what they caught; rather, they were left with only boiled down glueyness of guts and otherwise unappealing parts of the fish. Jesus is inviting them to abandon that life of captivity for a risky new role of fishing for people.

The same vision of the heaven-ish empire’s new community is also embodied in the mention of healings. One theologian says the Gospel talks so much about sick people because “Roman imperial structures and practices were bad for people’s health. Some 70-90 percent of folks in Rome’s empire experienced varying degrees of poverty… [and] Such factors resulted in widespread diseases associated with poor nutrition (blindness; muscle weakness etc.) and a lack of immunity (diarrhea; cholera etc.)…[So] Jesus’ healings are acts that repair imperial damage and enact God’s life-giving empire in restoring people’s lives.”*

Though that could be close to raising questions of government and health care, our reading from 1st Corinthians portrays this new community in ways which might be still closer to our reality gathered here. Paul reiterates that we are people of the cross, baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Rather than the too-human distinctions of earthly power structures, this is our core identity now. Again, this transfers your allegiance from the old kingdom into the new community of equals, of mutual care, of shared responsibility. We don’t define ourselves against each other, but with each other, together.

Paul’s appeal is that in Jesus we should recognize no divisions among ourselves, but should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. In that congregation, it meant revising how they settled legal disputes and how they served meals and how they viewed the less talented among them. It reconfigured relationships between the wealthy and poor, the high class and the hungry, the wisely cultured and the vulnerably foolish, how they interacted in marital relationships and sexual ethics, and even how they understood the living and the dead.

I’m going to break there. That’s loads of ancient background, though I hope it helps you sense how vibrant and vital this gathering here is, critical (amid crisis), a matter of death and new life, confrontation with empires on each other’s behalf. It’s the spreading graciousness of the heaven-ish empire that is welcoming you, continuing to transfer you to a new community and to strengthen your resistance. In shorthand, this Godly way of meeting the darkness of crisis with the light of enlarged caring community is often known briefly as “love.”

I’m not going to spell out specifics of how to love or to do better at living into this central and critical identity we share in Christ, of how you’re enacting the ancient story, or go into political descriptions, or forecast what standing up against imperial forces means in our world now among crises and dangers we face in our own dark setting.

Instead, with just a brief glimpse of the struggle in more modern settings, I want to share another passage from Martin Luther King, in which he happens to use our Bible passage from this morning. Here you go: He begins in noting the “sad fact” that we resist participating in the beloved community because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of [enemies], and our proneness to adjust to injustice…[Yet, he says,] These are revolutionary times. All over the globe [people] are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” …America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of [love] will take precedence over the pursuit of [hate]. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brother [and sister]hood.**

And, with that reiteration of Jesus’ invitation and sharing Rev. King’s expectancy of new birth, finally the one other reflection I offer was shared with me that the darkness around us isn’t always the darkness of the tomb, but may be the darkness of the womb as we’re emerging into the light of new possibilities, new life, new relationships. I continue to be glad to be sharing that with you.


* https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3138 (Warren Carter)

** “A Time to Break Silence” in A Testament of Hope, p241-2


An Offensive Highway

sermon for 3rd Sunday of Advent

Isaiah35:1-10; Matthew11:2-11


With the unexpected expectations we’re encountering during Advent, the twists and turns and surprises to heighten our hope, today we find ourselves on an offensive highway.

Recall slippy or blocked roads you traversed to get here on this snowy day. Or picture that Beltline with a traffic jam, lanes closed for construction and then you see flashing lights around an accident because a deer ran out. Yet even as those agitate your nerves, they aren’t the offensive highways. Remarkably, that comes with Isaiah envisioning the opposite of those stretches of road, though it will take us another moment to get to why it’s offensive.

Isaiah’s vision of a lovely highway starts with a roadside beautification project, a barren area brought to bloom, a sunbaked desert expanse turned to a lush oasis of crocus flowers, and what had seemed drably lifeless instead filled with abundant joy. Already that scenic highway is a different picture than the monotony of some long car trip on an interstate.

Still, it’s no byway in Isaiah’s vision, not just for those looking for the pleasant diversion of a side trip. No, this road is for everyone. Since we’re accustomed to hopping into a car to take us most anywhere, it has lost some shock, but for ancient people who traveled only by foot, it’s astonishing that the blind would be able to find their way and the lame would have strength for the journey.

For a sense of that promise, I read these verses in the surgical prep room before Dorothea Torstenson’s knee surgery, and you’d better believe she heard this as good news: “make firm the feeble knees, be strong, do not fear! Here is your God who will come to save you. Then the lame shall leap like a deer.” Sure, Dorothea had still been able to get around, but this sense of mobility that might enable her to get back onto a bike and to visit museums and even to stand around to chat after worship, this is exactly the promise she yearned for. She even joked about dancing like a deer in worship today to illustrate it!

That’s a sense of Isaiah’s envisioned highway. To go a step further, he says you don’t need GPS on this trip or even how to read a map. In another of my favorite Bible verses, Isaiah proclaims “no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” There’s no way to get lost, no risk of falling off this route, even fools.

In Isaiah’s time that was extraordinarily good news for a people who had felt abandoned, with no way home for generations. These people had suffered first under the Assyrian Empire until 300 years later in 587 BC they were defeated, destroyed, carried away, and held captive by the Babylonians, with no way to return home, to their temple and their cultural practices and the life that they so longed to have. Dreaming of home wasn’t the good ol’ days but ancient history, receding ever further into the past.

Home. An extraordinarily good word. A release from what imprisons and a return to life. We might have sense of that longing for college students far away and returning for winter break and getting to be back amid familiar and comfortable places. You may long for bygone traditions of a family that has fractured and found other ways of celebrating, wishing for restoration and resuming what you miss. Or it’s in the song “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams,” written from the perspective of soldiers stationed overseas during World War II.

But from that bittersweet tune crooned by Bing Crosby, it’s still a long way to offense, so we need to turn from Isaiah’s proclamation of abundant homecoming, a celebration so joyful that the land itself will excitedly welcome exiles home and so insistent for all that none will miss out on the journey or even need roadside assistance, from there we turn to the offense of the Gospel reading.

John the Baptist had sent messengers to ask about Jesus. Jesus replies his mission has been what Isaiah envisioned: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

But there’s a distinction, as Jesus concludes: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Isn’t this extraordinarily good stuff? Who would take offense? Well, John the Baptist for starters. Last week we heard John’s proclamation in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord, making paths straight for the coming Anointed One. He was setting expectations that the Christ would come with a raging fire, burning the chaff, clearing the threshing floor, chopping trees out of the way. Instead Jesus came not to consume and clear but to heal and share freeing good news, for the sick and hurting and poor and outcast. That subverted John’s expectations and maybe caused offense. That wasn’t the Messiah he made way for or the kind of Lord for whom he was preparing.

Jesus then rubs in the offense with a pretty heavy backhanded compliment: “no one is greater than the John the Baptist; yet (!) the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than” John. What does that mean? Well, Jesus started his first sermon with these words: “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). So much for John’s greatness; even if you are spiritually inept and lacking in any holiness or one of those fools who would tend to lose the highway, still the kingdom is yours and (ipso facto) you’re greater than John the Baptist.

Jesus ends that first bit of preaching in the Beatitudes reiterating: “blessed are those who are persecuted, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:10). An obvious fact is that if you’re being persecuted it means someone’s against you, trying to claim you’re undeserving, and certainly not great or holy or blessed by God. So when Jesus stands on behalf of the persecuted, the poor in spirit, or (maybe slightly less apparent to our perspective) the sick and hurting, he is offending the offender. He rejects the persecutor. He upends our expectations.

As Jesus stands on your behalf, in spite of your poverty of spirit, he is causing offense to those who have been striving to enrich their spirits and were feeling proud of their piety. In bringing good news to the poor, he contradicts those who claim that wealth is a blessing from God. In curing disease and healing Dorothea and all who need health care, Jesus stands against those who write us off in our disabilities and our aging or who would claim we need to earn our own strength and wellbeing or say that our weak flesh is corrupt and cursed by God.

As we go with Jesus on this way toward home, toward the will of God, down a beautiful highway lined with celebration and accompanied by those who need the work of seeing, hearing, cleansing, freeing, life out from death and good news amid poverty, this way is bound to offend. That this is God’s highway is offensive to those who don’t want God to do these things, who want it to be their way on the highway. But, as Isaiah saw, God’s promise is uninterruptable.

Now, we may find ourselves on both sides of that message, occasionally resistant to the bounty of blessing, and occasionally overflowing in joyful gratitude that we are the fools who won’t be left lost or manage to go astray from God’s extraordinary goodness.

Two closing examples for that split, that dichotomous pairing where God’s highway goes right through our society: UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank was the keynote speaker at the Wis. Council of Churches annual meeting this week. Amid adverse state budgets, she talked of defending the university and advocating for the faculty, when being hired for “thinking is not always an appreciated activity.” If that seems sadly laughable, she also noted that for every $1 the public invests through taxes, the university returns $24 to the economy of our state. It should be a no-brainer, the obvious way to go, and yet some still find education offensive.

Second example: in preparation for that meeting, I was reading a book by Chancellor Blank. She’s a committed member of the UCC and describes how important her faith is as a framework amid difficult decisions. She helped write the denominational statement on economics back in the 1980’s and the book I’m reading is called Do Justice: Linking Christian Faith and Modern Economic Life. In it she presents another of these offensive conundrums for us, with the words of Mary we’re singing during this Advent season. She writes, “Those who have worked hard to achieve economic security respond very differently to the news that God feeds the hungry without charge and sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:53) than do those who are struggling with unemployment or discrimination” (17).

This is God’s broad highway, inviting us all along to make the world more beautiful and filled with celebration. It’s an invitation for when we need it, and also for when we’re part of society’s foolish resistance, which maybe means we need it even more.