Featured Sermon: “In Christ There Is No East Nor West…”
Sermon from 1-22-2017, Epiphany 3A
Preached by the Rev Benedict Varnum at St Augustine of Canterbury in Elkhorn, NE
Have you had any conversations about unity and division this past week?
There’s a great hymn, In Christ There is No East nor West — Hymn 529 in the Hymnal in front of you. Its second lyric — “In Christ no south or north” might sound like a direct reminder of the US Civil War, and for years I assumed that was why the hymn was written.
But I looked it up this week and I was wrong. Turns out, the text of this hymn was a poem by a British poet writing under the pen name “John Oxenham,” originally for a gathering on the theme of The Orient in London. That is, it was written to reflect on the unity between Eastern and Western influences in British public life, in the earliest days of the 1900s, as cultures clashed and reconciled. The music was added in 1925.
There’s a story, perhaps true, that during WWII, two ships containing, respectively, Japanese and American alienated persons about to be re-patriated, were anchored alongside one another, their occupants glaring across the waters … until someone took up this hymn, and suddenly both sides began singing it back and forth (Kenneth Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories).
The words from the full hymn are drawn from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians in the Bible — 3:28, in which Paul writes There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. That, of course, was one of the most powerful messages of the early days of the Gospel, and one we still need to hear.
But where we hear the echoes of the North and South in the US Civil War, the earliest followers of Jesus might have heard echoes of the “North” and “South” they knew as well.
What you may know (or may have forgotten) about the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament, is that way back in the First Book of Kings, there’s the story of how the Twelve Tribes that God brought out of Egypt became divided, later, into two kingdoms. This is in 1 Kings 12, and it is one of the pivotal scriptures of the Old Testament. It describes how ten of the twelve tribes became the Northern Kingdom of Israel, while two in the South remained the Kingdom of Judah — from which the words “Jew” and “Jewish” come.
The Northern Kingdom included the kingdoms of Zebulun and Napthali. There they were, up north of Jerusalem, between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea. In fact, later generations would call this the region of Galilee … which is why the prophecy in Isaiah speaks of “Zebulun and Naphtali, Galilee of the Gentiles.” And when Isaiah was writing, he was writing with an awareness that Zebulun and Naphtali were among the first to fall to the Assyrian Empire that came. Isaiah was providing both the ancient and the contemporary names. Which means that in 740 BC, when Isaiah was writing, those were already old names.
So why does Matthew use them?
Because Jesus didn’t come for Judah in the South.
And Jesus didn’t come for Israel in the North.
Jesus came for all of the People of God. And Matthew — the Gospeller most in touch with his Jewish history and tradition — wants us to realize that this means God has come for the Lost Tribes, too, and not only the people of his nation.
This is the Jesus that John the Baptist proclaimed before his ministry began. John warned the Pharisees — the leaders of religion in his nation — that “God can raise up children to Abraham,” even from the stones of the River Jordan where he worked and taught. That is, being part of the tribe of Judah isn’t what saves you: God’s love, told by the Gospel of Jesus, is. That story is right before today’s readings, there in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 3.
This is the Jesus who came to gather all of us. He taught (in Luke 15) that the shepherd of 100 sheep will come and find even one that goes astray, or that a woman with a fortune of 10 coins will sweep out everything in her house to shine light on the floor and find even one that is lost.
This is the Jesus who traveled through the land of Samaria, unclean to Jews living under the ancient law, and he spoke to Samaritans. He spoke to women in public, also a forbidden action. He used Samaritans as an example of how to be faithful to God, to remind people that it is our actions, and not our ancestry, that unite us as a witness to God’s love and the Gospel that Jesus brought.
This is the Jesus who came and dwelled in Capernaum, in Galilee, in Zebulun and Naphtali — which are all names for places in that region north of Jerusalem by the Sea of Galilee — so that those who heard him would realize that the ten lost tribes were not to be lost any longer. All of God’s people are to be gathered back under the Good Shepherd.
So. Have you had any conversations about unity and division this past week?
Paul wrote to the earliest Church in Corinth in dismay at their divisions. He asked them, “Has Christ been divided?” He asks why they say “I belong to Paul,” or “Apollos” (a Greek name), or “Cephas” (which is the Aramaic name for “Peter,” with both words meaning “rock.”).
We might as readily ask of our divisions today: do some of us say, “I belong to Hillary?” and others “I belong to Sanders,” and others “I belong to Trump?”
But Paul might ask us, “Has Christ been divided?”
For none of these is the Messiah. None of these is the Christ. None of these is the shepherd who seeks to gather all together. And surely the Christ who spoke the Gospel to all, who forgave all from the Cross, is as much the Christ of those who are dismayed by Trump’s behavior as the Christ of those who feel that they were left behind these past eight years. Christ is the Shepherd of ALL sheep.
The name above all other names, as Paul reminded the Corinthians and the Phillippians and others, is Jesus Christ.
And today we hear the story from Matthew’s Gospel of how Jesus Christ calls us. How he began to call people to himself. The first moments in which he began the great work of gathering all people together again:
Jesus saw Simon-Peter, and Andrew, and called them to come with him. He told them “I will make you fishers of people.”
And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And he called to James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, and they left their father in the boat and followed him.
We are invited to take that journey too. We are invited to follow along with the Christ who went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
You, and I, are invited to let go of the fishing nets we think we need to sustain our way of life, and risk everything to follow the one who can teach us to make one another our life’s work instead. To become fishers of people.
We can let go of the nets that we use to ensnare and tangle one another in order to feed ourselves, and instead find true relationship with one another. We’ve known how to use those nets for all our lives, and they are familiar, and trusted, and have fed us this far. But they’re not the tools Jesus will teach us to use.
Because we are divided right now … just like Simon-Peter and Andrew and James and John once were. These and the other disciples were divided then! They argued about who Jesus was. They argued about which of them was the greatest disciple (Jesus once famously stopped them on the road to call them out about that!). They argued after Jesus rose into heaven about whether the Gospel was only for Jews or whether it was for Gentiles also. They had to come to terms with the question of whether they could trust their own unity in Christ.
But the great question for us now is whether we can hold to a greater unity than our divisions: the unity of understanding that we are all following Jesus?
In his sermon on the occasion of Tony Anderson’s ordination this past week, Bishop Barker preached about the division we find our country in: in which some find the character of the president-elect so reproachable that they cannot imagine that he will govern on behalf of all Americans … while others find the systems of power in our government to be so corrupt that they believe the act of voting for someone who promises to change them — however imperfect he may be himself — is an act of true patriotism.
I know that we reflect that exact diversity. And this is a serious spiritual challenge to our community: whether we can remain a loving family, committed to one another and to the Gospel of Jesus, in the face of our disagreements here.
Friends, brothers and sisters: I believe we can make it. I believe we have been building up the strength we will need for this journey day by day and year by year over the decades that this church has stood. Where we have learned how to work together in small ways, we will know how to work together in greater ones. And where we have weathered small disagreements, we will learn how to heal from larger ones.
God has taught us, over time, the way to succeed. That way involves placing Jesus and his Gospel first. That is always a step that guides us, and disrupts our allegiance to any earthly power or movement that falls short of God’s love, which includes all.
And it involves us really listening to each other. We need to be able to speak what is in our hearts, and hear what is in one another’s. We may not all be able to do that right away: this is a discipline, and it will take practice. It means listening without hoping to argue or change — only to understand. That’s a risk … but risks are the only thing that can deepen relationships, and deeper relationships are the only thing that can heal real division.
We may not always be sure whether someone wants to hear what we have to say, but we can take the risk of trusting them to hear it and still care about us, even if they disagree.
We may step on one another’s toes now and then … but wouldn’t we rather do that in honest daylight through trying to talk to each other?
And if we listen to God, maybe we can have conversations about unity and division that help us heal, instead of lament. That help us connect, instead of build barriers. That help us love, instead of shout down.
So maybe today is the day that you can drop the net that you think you need. Maybe today is the day to get out of the boat that represents one way of life, and once again take up the journey that follows Jesus. Maybe today is the day that you become a fisher of people — waiting to see what you can gather from the stories of the people around you … not so you can gobble them up and feed yourself, but so that you can be amazed by how many beautiful people and stories God has placed in the world.
Maybe as we travel ahead towards Lent and then Easter in these coming months, you can follow Jesus through Galilee, and Samaria, and Judah, and on into Jerusalem, carrying a Gospel too powerful to be destroyed by any Cross … even the cross of our own divided moment today.
So let us give thanks today, for a Christ who cares for the Northern Kingdom, as well as the Southern. For peoples from the East, as well as the West. And may you be heartened to follow him, today and always.