Called from Occupied Territory

I preached this sermon at First Church Simsbury on January 22, 2017 after members of First Church and Center Church in Hartford joined together to participate in a “Signs of Hope Urban Immersion Experience.” After drawing parallels between Hartford’s Frog Hollow neighborhood and ancient Israel’s occupied territories of Zebulun and Naphtali I ask, what would it mean for us to travel back to our occupied territory, those parts of our lives that are occupied by disappointment, loss, betrayal or condemnation? And what would it mean to hear Jesus calling us to ministry from that very darkness?

Isaiah 9:1-4, Matthew 4:12-23

Did you hear that?

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching…and proclaiming the good news…and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Sounds great doesn’t it? In preparing this sermon, I thought, I want some of that. I want some of that for our troubled world, I want some of that for each of you, and quite frankly, I want some of that for myself. So, we’ll circle back to that vision of a cure for what ails us, but first, I want to share a story about Signs of Hope.

This past Thursday, a group of our members joined with members of Center Church in Hartford for the Signs of Hope Immersion Experience. Meant to give us first-hand exposure to some of the people, places, issues and challenges of inner-city Hartford, the day was planned by our Mission Board member Debi Ackels and her counterpart Bill from Center Church. With Rev Kev behind the wheel of the Jesus Bus, our first stop was at Center Church where we learned about the assistance they provide through their Warburton Resource Center. Next we stopped at the ImmaCare emergency, no-freeze shelter, housed in the sanctuary of what was once Immaculate Conception Church, then on to the Frog Hollow branch of the Hartford Public Library. We finished with lunch at Hands on Hartford, and a presentation by the Christian Activities Council.

This was an eye-opening experience for all of us who participated, and I extend a big thank you to Debi and Bill who pulled it all together so beautifully.

I was especially moved by our visit to the Frog Hollow library. For those who don’t know, Frog Hollow is the poorest neighborhood in Hartford, with a median household income of just over $25,000 per year. We were told that Frog Hollow was named for the French Canadian immigrants who settled there in the mid-1800’s. Frog, of course, being a racial slur for these immigrants. Today, this neighborhood of about 10,000 is populated mostly by immigrants from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Guatemala.

Many identified our visit to the library as the most memorable stop. With one room, just big enough to hold the twenty-five of us, the library functions as a place for school children to get tutoring and use the half-dozen computers, while also serving as a community gathering place. The Head Librarian, Leticia Cotto, and her two assistants gave eloquent and powerful testimony about the invaluable role the little library fills. We learned that the City of Hartford approved a bond for a larger and better equipped library many years ago, but that each year the legislature reapportions those funds somewhere else, most recently for the Duncan Donuts Yard Goat Stadium.

Our visit was still fresh in my mind when I sat down to reflect on this morning’s passage from Matthew.

Over the years, I have read these words dozens of times and preached any number of sermons on the story of Jesus calling his first disciples. But I must have skimmed right over the first five verses.

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

 

Other than trying not to stumble over the names, I never gave much thought to Zebulun and Naphtali.

But my experience in Frog Hollow drew my attention to the importance of geography and history, so I became curious about these places. Who were these territories named after? Who lived there? What was their history? Was it a history of triumph or struggle?

Matthew doesn’t leave us to wonder, pointing us to an important chapter in the history of Israel as told by the prophet Isaiah some 700 years before Jesus lived.

‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
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.’ 

Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the twelve tribes of Israel. Territories where these family groups settled carried their names. When Isaiah is writing, these territories are occupied by the Assyrian Empire. Those who have some familiarity with the Old Testament will know that the Assyrian Empire to the north invaded Israel and took leading citizens into captivity in Assyria while occupying the territory of those who remained behind.

So in Isaiah’s day, Zebulun and Naphtali were occupied territory. That means that the people of Israel who lived there suffered daily under an oppressive regime that siphoned off resources in support of the empire.

700 years later, it is significant that Jesus begins his public ministry in this very same territory. And this region is again occupied, now by the Roman Empire.

It can be challenging to wrap our mind around just how thoroughly this impacted daily life. As in Isaiah’s day, resources were siphoned off, this time in support of Roman elites.

Just as my visit to Frog Hollow informed my understanding of this scripture passage, causing me to consider the importance of place names and geography; so this scripture passage in turn informs my understanding of Frog Hollow.

Though Frog Hollow is not occupied territory in any literal sense, like Zebulun and Naphtali, resources are siphoned off from the poor of Frog Hollow to support the lifestyle and interests of the powerful. This is why, year after year, funds to upgrade the small, one-room, store front library get diverted to support wealthier districts.

It is no accident that this these regions in Galilee are where Jesus chooses to begin his ministry. Matthew’s audience would have understood the significance of this immediately.

When Jesus says, repent, for the kingdom of God has come near, he isn’t telling the Jewish residents of this place to repent from their sins – telling lies, gossiping, jealousy – no Jesus is confronting empire, demanding that the occupying Romans and their Jewish collaborators, the Pharisees, repent for oppressing the poor and most vulnerable.

In the previous chapter, John the Baptist had called out the Pharisees and Sadducees for this same behavior. Matthew writes, “But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, John said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” And as revealed in the first verse of this morning’s passage, John was arrested for daring to confront the political and religious power of empire.

But while knowing the danger, instead of fleeing in the other direction, Jesus goes to the very symbolic heart of empire, and takes up John’s demand, “Repent!”

Jesus then calls his first disciples from among those whom had felt the bite of Roman rule, four fishermen. Fishing on the Sea of Galilee was not a way to get rich; fisherman made just enough to get by. After Rome takes its cut, and the Jewish tax collectors squeeze some extra for themselves, you can bet Peter, Andrew, James and John found it impossible to get ahead.

At the end of our day in Hartford, a woman who had joined us from the Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation asked exasperated, how can people who face all these daily challenges possibly escape this cycle? Like these fishermen, those trapped in poverty in Frog Hollow find it next to impossible to break the cycle of poverty.

Yet these are the very people Jesus calls as his disciples. And with Peter, Andrew, James and John in tow, Jesus then sets out restoring people to health and wholeness.

To review, Jesus intentionally begins his ministry in a place that had been under the thumb of empire for 700 years. He begins by demanding that those in power repent, change their ways, because the reign of God is upon them. He calls his first disciples from among those who live with this reality day in and day out, then sets about restoring people to health and wholeness.

Restoring people to health and wholeness. That’s where this morning’s passage ends, and it’s where I began. So I ask again, doesn’t that sound great? Don’t we all want that healing for ourselves and our world?

What would it mean for us to travel back to the occupied territories of our life? Now of course I don’t mean literally occupied by empire, but I am talking about those experiences that continue to occupy our hearts and minds, burden us, hold us back. These may be experiences of hurt, betrayal, trauma, disappointment, regret, or condemnation. Or we may be occupied by anxiety, fear or anger. Where do we sit in darkness, where does the shadow of death fall upon us?

Maybe you have had an experience of being bullied. Been in an abusive relationship. Had a parent from whom you never felt love. Been subject to sexual harassment. Experienced betrayal in a marriage, or a broken relationship with a child. Maybe you just feel like your life has never amounted to much.

These are the occupied territories we are invited to travel to within ourselves knowing that Jesus will meet us there. Jesus will meet us there and demand that the forces of darkness that occupy and oppress us repent, let go, set us free!

And these are the places in which we will find fellow disciples, those who also know what it means to be occupied, to suffer, to be squeezed.

And these are the places from which we will then be called to ministry.

Which brings us back to places like Frog Hollow.

Jesus calls us from our own pre-occupation to minister in the occupied territories of the world today. Whether in Frog Hollow, among Syrian refugees, in support of equal rights for women and gays and lesbians, to children with special needs, or with lonely seniors in nearby nursing facilities, Jesus meets us in our dark and shadowed places and says “Follow me,” leading us and the world to health and wholeness. And that is a sign of hope.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Dear George:

    You always have a way of opening our wounds and healing them too! Thank you.

    All the best, Janet


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