“The Land Beyond the Jordan, the Galilee of the Nations,” January 23, 2011, United Lutheran Church in Oakland, California
United Lutheran Church in Oakland, California
Isaiah 9:1-4 Psalm 27:1, 4-9 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 Mathew 4:12-23
Prayer of the Day:
Lord God, your loving kindness always goes before us and follows after us. Summon us into your light and direct us into the ways of goodness that come through the cross of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
The Land Beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Nations
The message this morning about being called by Jesus, about being summoned into the light, makes me think of my confirmation verse. Do you ever think of yours? Mine comes from 1 Peter, chapter 2, verse 9:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. God’s own people in order that you proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called you out of darkness into God’s marvelous light.
I guess my father, who was the pastor that confirmed me, gave me that verse because he singled me out to become a pastor at the age of three. Although I have been a rebellious soul, I’ve always tried to nurture and guard my faith. Faith has always engulfed me and I have always wanted to live in it and by it. For example, I wouldn’t read the philosopher Nietzsche until recently, because I knew he could have robbed me of my faith and I did not want that. Now I am strong enough to deal with his negative and atheistic thoughts and overcome them. I also always stay on guard with my knowledge because of my Ph.D. and remember to remain humble. As high as the heavens are above the earth, God’s knowledge surpasses mine – and all our human knowledge. Scientists feel that they have come a long way and they have; but let’s always remember, God was the One who knew the science that put this universe together.
That is what my confirmation verse means to me. How about you? Do you remember your verse and has it had meaning in your life as you follow Jesus?
One thing that we realize is that Jesus, the Word of Heaven came down to be with us. God chose ordinary people like you and me to follow him and walk in Gospel light and we need to have signs on our doors that say: “Gone fishing!” (Do you remember the old song by Satchmo Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby?) because we need to go fishing for more ordinary people so that they too get a taste of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth, and we continue being the place where God’s will is done here, even as it is in heaven.
Reynolds Price the great southern author and novelist just died. Like other authors he dedicated his life to writing about the weight and worth of ordinary people. Sometimes we forget that the gospel has always been about ordinary people. Jesus called simple fishermen, whose profession was looked down on in those days; just like the angels first revealed the Holy Gospel to shepherds who have been compared to used car salesmen of today.
Reynolds relates how he got cancer with a nine inch tumor that ran down from his neck through his spinal cord. The doctors’ operation failed to take it out and he became a paraplegic after receiving radiation treatment. Just before getting this treatment, as he sat in bed awaiting help from a friend, he had a vision in which he was with Jesus at the Sea of Galilee with a great crowd of other people. Jesus took him into the waves and took handfuls of water and poured them on his back where he had the fresh scar from his operation and the tattoo marks for guiding his radiation treatment to come. In his vision, after bathing his back, Jesus said to him, “Your sins are forgiven.” Reynolds was disappointed and asked, “Am I healed too?” Jesus turned and walked away, as if somewhat annoyed and answered, “That too.” The doctors had given Reynolds 18 months to live and the fact is that he lived another 22 years more.
Right after writing this sermon about the Sea of Galilee and the Galilee of the Nations, I heard Reynolds being interviewed on the radio in my car and it brought tears to my eyes. Forgive me for jumping from one lesson and theme to another emotionally.
Ah, the Sea of Galilee is the Sea of life, because it’s where Jesus started his ministry. It is also on the other end of the River Jordan from the Dead Sea and its waters are for healing and life. In this world in all our frailty, we have plenty to fear, as Reynolds shows, but like Psalm 27 says: “God, you are my light and my salvation: whom shall we fear? You are the stronghold of my life: of whom shall I be afraid?” We have nothing to fear, because God is with us. Although Reynolds still remained a paraplegic, a deluge of memories poured into his mind and he wrote one wonderful book after another.
Back to our text: Jesus’ message in a nutshell was: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Matthew does not say Kingdom of “God,” because it is the Gospel written for the Jews and they avoid uttering the word, “God.” In our pastors’ bible study we were wondering what would be a better way to refer to the Kingdom of Heaven, when we live in a democracy and the word “kingdom” sounds quaint and passé to us. It lacks the very real confrontation of our nation that it represented for the people in Herod’s kingdom of Jesus’ day. Someone suggested “God’s empire” and our consensus was a “no.” An empire is, however, a collection of kingdoms and an emperor is the king of kings. We often fail to recognize that the Christ as the messiah stands opposed to an emperor, to a Caesar or Kaiser in German or a “Shah,” which also means “emperor” or “king of kings” in Persian.
In the prophets, the cedar of Lebanon stood for an empire, symbolized an empire. An empire was compared to a tree, whose branches reached up into heaven; and the nations, symbolized by the birds of the air, made their nests in its branches. Jesus, however, championed the kingdom of heaven as a humble mustard bush, coming from the tiniest of seeds that then begins growing so strong that the birds of the air could nest in its branches.
So rather than the word “empire” we suggested the “friendship of nations” or the “beloved community,” to use the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. or perhaps the “beloved community of nations.” But the term Isaiah used is the “Galilee of Nations” and it could do quite well. It is so sweet and much more wonderful than other names, because we read how Jesus had to operate around the Sea of Galilee, when John had been arrested, because he knew that Jerusalem and Judea had become too dangerous for him.
Twenty-five or thirty years ago, church groups took regular trips to the Holy Land, as we called it, and our church, St Paul’s in Coney Island, participated as well. On one trip, when we were taken out on a small boat on the Sea of Galilee, a nun read the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor, the persecuted, those that hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice.” She read these beautiful passages while we were watching fishermen throwing their nets into the water, the same way they did for thousands of years and the way the disciples must also have done. At that moment a wonderful feeling of the presence of Jesus, that Man from Galilee came over us all on the boat. What a testament of the land! What a testament of the sea for the Man from Galilee! Just
Keep your hand in the hand of the man,
Who stilled the water
Put your hand in the hand of the man
Who calmed the sea
Take a look at yourself
And you can look at others differently
Put your hand in the hand of the man
Do you know the song?
The prophet says that a great light will appear in the Galilee of the Nations. Galilee was not like Judea, filled overwhelmingly with one ethnic group. It had all kinds of ethnic groups living together. It was more like our country, where someone said in a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Last week we saw a white Catholic male Republican judge murdered on his way to greet a Democratic Jewish woman member of Congress, who was his friend. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year-old Mexican-American gay college student, and eventually by a Korean American combat surgeon, and this all was eulogized by our African American President.
Jesus did not operate in a homogeneous ghetto of one kind of people, where routines tend to get into ruts and ruts get into drags on the human spirit.
Let’s celebrate this church [United Lutheran in Oakland, CA] because it is diverse like the Galilee of Nations and it is not a White ghetto, like so many of our churches. Many of our churches are also all Black here, because segregation is pretty much still alive in our churches and neighborhoods even today. A church will respond, “But there are no Black people living in our neighborhood.” The question is, why?
Often we put on blinders and become completely absorbed in ourselves and our own kind. “What do you think hurts other nations more, our ignorance or our apathy?” We usually answer, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” But just think, the prophetic light did not come from Washington or Philly or San Francisco or Boston; it came to us from over there in the Middle East. It came to us not only from the other side of the big lake called the Atlantic, but also from the other side of the big sea called the Mediterranean; from a place populated by the tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali, from Capernaum on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. I am of course looking to the East. If we had to think our way to the West, we would have to cross the Pacific and all of Asia to get to that light.
The light of Christ has come across many nations and through thousands of years of time to get to us – and thank God it shines on us. From that distant place, Jesus’ words also strike our ears: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Galilee of Nations [let me say] is at hand. It has come and is still furthermore becoming what God is promising for us, if we follow the One from Heaven to us sent.
Isn’t it something how Jesus goes to Zebulon and Naphtali fulfilling Isaiah’s prophesy? God’s promises become realities and these kinds of realities can come thick and fast, when we strengthen our belief, when we learn to trust God like children, when we gather people together in the nets of the Gospel and share the abundant life made possible by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
How wonderful that the United States and China have come together to strengthen a friendship and work out our international problems by means of negotiation. Let’s let our light shine on the Galilee of Nations, the gallery of nations, upon which Christ can shower new blessings.
In the prophets, the empires are pictured throwing their nets to capture the nations and the disciples also threw out their nets to capture the nations for Christ’s humble mustard bush. Not fish, of course, that are caught in nets. But now the birds of the air find their nests in its branches; [in order not mix metaphors]. So we also have to cast the gospel nets over our churches and all manner of our institutions to summon them out of the darkness into the marvelous light of Christ. We usually think only in terms of individuals, but we need to think about nations, communities, and institutions as well.
A panel discussion recently showed how broken our mental health system was. Instead of being in hospitals mental patients are now in jails. I walked up to our corner a few days ago and there was a forty year old woman, sitting on the sidewalk, looking curiously at a sandwich someone had given her. She had a few bags of belongings and had four little stacks of paper beside her, each held down by a rock. She was talking to herself like the old man that I had just passed a minute before. Both were out of their minds and she was out in the street as well. There she was: another person who had fallen between the cracks of our society. I was shocked! Where is the safety net? Really, we should say, “What safety net?” Do you still see a safety net for the mentally victimized among us? How do we become a people centered society with a system that is intact and helpful to the psychological casualties that our inhuman society produces? How do we summon our mental health institutions into the light, get the patients out of jail and into places where they can really get help?
Churches too, can’t merely claim the light, but have to be dragged with Gospel nets back into the light. Our churches need to hear the call. You and me have to hear it. We need to become fountainheads and well-springs of new thought, life, and love. I like to see miracles as the opposites of crimes. Turn the horrendous murder scene of Tuscan around. In how so far does the thought, life, and love of our church bring God’s miracles to light to overcome the carnage that happens far too often in our midst? Only some mass murders still make the news among us!
But we have access to God’s grace from on high. Jesus declares that it is at hand. We are called to believe and repent. That means because of a lack of faith our lives are heading in a wrong direction and we have to turn our hearts to God and follow Jesus in the right direction. In a stronger and stronger faith, we need to put one foot in front of the other, take one step at a time, in the direction from which we hear God’s call – until we walk on the Highway of Heaven, so we’re walking on the King’s Highway, following our Lord and Savior Jesus.
The fishermen that Jesus called represent us who have become believers and Jesus summons us to follow him. “It may not be necessary for [us] all to leave professions and possessions behind, but [we must all] leave [our old] world behind and enter the new world into which Jesus invites [us].” Jesus is calling. So we have to take the step of faith out of this world and into the Kingdom of Heaven and allow ourselves to become LUI-HS! “Living under the influence of the Holy Spirit,” so that the world, we ourselves and our churches and the Galilee of Nations, enter the marvelous light of Christ and although we cannot as yet see the feature presentation, we can get to see the previews of the coming attractions of Heaven. Amen.
I Will Make You Fishers Again
Jesus is calling!
I will make you fishers again
for women and men
and also children.
I will make you fishers again
for the Lord. Amen.
Peter, Jimmy, Philip, and John
all came along
a happy new throng.
Mary, Suzie, Maggie, and Joan
all came from home.
Let us all then obey his voice
so we can rejoice,
we are God’s choice.
Let us all just drop everything
and go follow him.
Jesus is calling!
This is a song that I changed in a children’s sermon from the original “I will Make You Fishers of Men” to make it less sexist and to put children’s names into its verses.
I talked about how hard it was to bring a fish in. I had a bamboo stick. All we needed was some string and a safety pin and we could catch some fish.
I had the children handle the bamboo stick and make believe it was a fishing rod, that they had caught a fish, and struggle as they made believe they were pulling it in.
Now we are the fish who are out there swimming around doing our own thing and suddenly God hooks us. We fight for our dear lives. Christ gives us some slack but like a skillful fisherman, draws us into the church to come to God so that we give up our lives for others. Bringing in little kids is like bringing in minnows and big fish are much harder to pull in. When God has us on the line it takes our whole lives for God to bring us in.
The Communion Blessing:
Christ draws us in on God’s line so that we die to ourselves and come alive to God and God’s love for others.
 See his obituary in the New York Times, January 21, 2011, page B16. I’m using the words of another novelist, Janet Burroway, here.
 Mark Shields quoting a friend, Allen Ginsberg, a historian from Maine, on PBS News Hour. (January 14, 2011).
 This is an old remark once made about Americans and Latin America.
 “Minds on the Edge: Exploring Public Policy Hurdles for Mental Illness,” PBS News Hour, January 18, 2011.
 I felt very guilty that night, because I had not done anything to help her, except to recognize her and say hello. All institutions and systems also need responsible and creative individual response, because there is no system given whereby we must be saved. When systems are very broken, however, creative responsibility by individuals is often insufficient and heroic responses are made. But they very often fail. I took a poor homeless man from a subway entrance into our church in Coney Island to help him. I washed him in the men’s room and realized that he had gangrene and other diseases. I realized that I was putting the members of my congregation at risk, because the facilities of a hospital with strong disinfectants were required. In his shit-impacted clothes he had sixty-two single dollar bills that those passing by had thrown to him. When we had cleaned him and given him new clothes, he left with his money to quickly buy the liquor to anesthetize himself for his final days. That’s what I mean by heroic responses.