Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Motley Crew: A Story-Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12

Man, some weeks it's a hard birth. I've been talking to friends (both online and irl), many of whom are feeling it. Is it the push of Lent hurtling towards us? I don't know. But I ground out most of this last night after 10 PM. Ugh.

That said, I think it preached.
Sometimes I worry about myself.

“A Motley Crew”
Matthew 5:1-12
January 27, 2008

It had been an amazing set of days. For the brothers, James and John, it had been like nothing they had ever experienced before.

Here was what they had experienced:

Growing up in a small fishing village, where they were known by all as the sons of Zebedee. Never being able to throw a stone at a goat, or to giggle at a girl without some venerable neighbor accosting them, and reminding them of that connection: “You, sons of Zebedee! Your father will not like to know what it is you’ve been up to!”

Beginning to understand at a very young age what that name meant, what it signified to and in the community. It meant: fisher-folk. It meant: poor, but proud. It meant: God had blessed other families, but not yours. It meant: crushing taxes, but nothing that could persuade either father or mother that some other line of work would be more profitable. Zebedees valued their independence above all. A leased boat, even with the taxes, meant that nobody owned you. Nobody controlled you, even if you weren’t blessed.

And then the daily life: Up hours before dawn, hours before the farmers and shepherds and goatherds, even, because the fish… they liked the night hours. They would swim and school with abandon when normal folk were still sleeping off their drink. So… up they would get, the sons of Zebedee and their father. And down to the shoreline of the lake they would go… the lake that was so large and unpredictable, the locals called it “sea.” And out would come their nets, and they would push off into the swirling waves, and they would wait.

While they waited their father would talk, murmuring low. He would talk about the taxes, and about the other fishermen. He would talk about the way the drink did get to some of them, and warn his sons to beware. He would talk about the catch of the day before, and wax poetic on the fine catch that was sure to come today. He would even, sometimes, talk about their mother, and the women and girls at home. The big-hearted Zebedee would talk, and his respectful sons took it all in, all the while scanning the water with their young, sharp eyes for a silver flash of fin. And then the haul, and the muscle-straining, back-breaking task of pulling it in. Or, no haul, and the hollow anxiety of rowing back to shore empty-handed. If it was a good day… if they were blessed by God… the work of cleaning the fish, quickly, expertly, then brokering the sale, then transporting the haul to the market. Going home with a few coins to be turned over to the women folk, so that they could hurry to the market before sunset. A meal eaten in the crowded firelit rooms, and bed, far earlier than other men, because they would awake the next day, far earlier than other men.

This was their life. This was their every single day, six days out of the week. because even the poorest were blessed by the Sabbath. This was their life. Until, that is, just a few days earlier, and the arrival of Jesus, walking by as they had mended their nets. Their father had been talking of the day’s catch, a good one, the end of a good week, and a rare moment of feeling prosperous and optimistic. James and John had looked up to see Jesus, walking slowly towards them, with the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew at his heels, the look of enthralled puppies on their faces. He had called them, called their names… how did he know their names? Had Simon told them? Their father had looked up, shocked, to see his only two sons abandon their nets without a word. John was already upon Jesus, eyes wide, listening to the other two talking excitedly. James turned to see his father scowl and turn his back. He had hesitated only a moment… and then he too had gone.

And it had been an amazing set of days, like nothing the brothers had ever experienced before. Jesus had begun preaching in all the little synagogues by the lakeshore, and his reputation had spread through the villages faster than news about good spots for casting nets. Here was a man whose tongue was surely blessed by God… he had the ability to speak just a few words, only to have whole crowds of people fall silent astonished. As if by instinct people had begun to bring their sick to him… people who were paralyzed, people with fevers, people who were possessed by demons. The brothers watched with their mouths gaping wide in amazement as Jesus laid his hands on them and healed them. Each day consisted of miles of walking, followed by Jesus preaching and teaching, followed by breaking bread in someone’s house, followed by an evening of healing late into the night. The men were carried along, each of them, on a current of energy that seemed to radiate from Jesus himself. They were utterly rapt. They were along for a ride.

And they were such very different men, those four, on that ride. John, James’ brother, was the youngest. He followed Jesus with the look of a dreamer, almost afraid to open his mouth in his presence. James had recently begun to believe John was outgrowing his meekness, but now, in the energy field created by Jesus he was newly docile. James had always liked thinking of himself as his brother’s protector, but suddenly, in Jesus’ presence, he wondered that he had ever given himself the compliment of thinking he could do much of anything. In the light of Jesus—the power of his words and his touch, the depths of his compassion—James felt himself somehow diminished, impoverished. He wondered that he had ever imagined he had anything to offer anybody.

Simon Peter was the oldest and the roughest of the men. He had a reputation in their small down for being something of a braggart, but James had always suspected that the bravado hid a lion’s heart. If anyone was wronged, if any merchant tried to short the scales and cheat a fisherman out of his due, it was Simon who stepped forward to argue and cajole until justice was done. Andrew stood somewhat in his older brother’s shadow, while at the same time loving him with a startling purity of heart. Andrew was devoted to Simon, and now, it appeared, he was devoted to Jesus.

The four men had begun to stumble into a new rapport, without the familiar surroundings of the boats and the nets to bolster their relationships. They had been growing to know one another even more intimately than is afforded by living and working together at the lakeshore. They had begun the process of figuring out their roles, in relation to one another and to Jesus…

And then, today, something had shifted. The mood had changed. There was some new tang in the air. Jesus had awakened them early, and hustled them out the back door of a house, only to find a crowd already waiting for him. They ducked behind another house, hurried along the lake and across a rocky, weedy path to the foothills outside the town. They had begun to climb. The four men hurried after Jesus, who strode fast, as if on his way to an important assignment. The four followers were glancing back over their shoulders. They could see the crowd. It was immense. It was terrifying.

They climbed for close to an hour. The men were bathed in sweat as the sun climbed higher in the sky, and they had nothing to shield them from its glare. The crowds, laden with their sick, their babies and their picnic baskets, were far below them. Jesus turned, abruptly, and sat on a rock. He looked at them, each of them, in turn, holding the faces in his gaze for what seemed an eternity. James leaned against a scrubby pine, panting, while John and Andrew flopped at Jesus’ feet. Simon Peter stood at Jesus’ side, looking down at the crowds, as if prepared for some sort of defensive tactic. After what seemed like a long time, James heard the voice of Jesus swimming towards him through the sound of blood rushing through his ears.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

And he held James in his gaze.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

And his eyes rested on John, sitting at his feet, looking up.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

And he glanced, with just the tiniest hint of a smile, over his right shoulder, at Simon Peter, looking sternly down at the crowds.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

And he looked into the eyes of Andrew, the devoted one.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

James looked at Jesus, and wondered at what he had spoken. He looked from one man to another, and began to take in the full impact of Jesus’ words. He began to understand something, something he still probably couldn’t have said aloud. But he began to understand. They were enough, these four men. Was that it? He wasn’t sure. But they were the ones… somehow he knew, as surely as he knew how to tie a mesh knot, that they were the blessed ones. But how was that possible? How could they be… blessed? How could the poor be blessed? Didn’t everyone know that it was the rich who were blessed by God? How could those who mourn be blessed? Didn’t the need to mourn automatically indicate that God had somehow cursed you, taken a relation to the land of the dead? How could all these things be signs of God’s blessing, God’s favor? It was all upside down and backwards.

As James looked into Jesus’ eyes, and listened to the sound of his voice, he knew that somehow Jesus had taught them a new thing. Somehow, God had thrown his lot in with them. He could feel it. He could feel it in the power of Jesus’ presence. And somehow, they were each an integral part of this new thing…this kingdom of heaven Jesus was talking about. Each of them was a necessary and unique part… none of them was expendable. Each member of this small, motley crew had a role to play. And in that instant James knew there would be more of them, multitudes. He knew that Jesus would draw to himself all those in mourning, both those who mourned their loved ones and those who mourned a world so violent, so unjust. And he knew that Jesus would draw to himself the peacemakers… people who would teach others to bend and yield and lay down their weapons and live together. And Jesus would draw to himself all manner of women and men and even children, and each and every one of them would be necessary, a vital part of this new kingdom, the one that had already begun.

You are the light of the world, James heard Jesus say. And he laughed aloud. The crowds were coming. Here they were! Thanks be to God. Amen.

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