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Last week, and again at the beginning of today’s service, I mentioned, that the inspiration for our worship for the next few weeks comes from the National United Church’s newly launched strategic plan. I have to admit, I was surprised last Sunday at the spontaneous applause that broke out when I told you the strategic plan is based on commitments to right relationship with Indigenous Peoples and to becoming a church that is Anti-Racist, Inter-Cultural, Affirming, Open, Accessible, Barrier Free and Functionally Bilingual. I don’t know why I was surprised. With the exception of becoming functionally bilingual, these are all values that align with the welcome we extend every time we gather in this place. Even if we are imperfect at living out these values, we profess to aspire to them.
So it may be that among the strategic plan’s call to Deep Spirituality, Bold Discipleship and Daring Justice, we will feel less challenged by the call to Daring Justice then some of us were challenged by the call to be bold in our discipleship, but I wouldn’t count on it.
At first glance, you might be wondering what this week’s scripture reading has to do with daring justice. This is the writer of Matthew’s gospel’s version of the call of the first disciples which has some clear distinctions from John’s call story that we heard last week. The version we heard today is set just after John the Baptist has been arrested. Early in the passage, we hear Jesus echo the proclamation of John the Baptist to repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. We also hear Jesus quote the prophet Isaiah when he says the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light. It’s thought that Matthew writes his gospel for a Jewish audience, so the reference to the prophet Isaiah is setting Jesus up as a fulfillment of this prophecy. He is the light shining in the darkness. After this various disciples are called to follow Jesus and fish for people. And then, we see Jesus going throughout Galilee teaching ad preaching and curing every disease and sickness among the people.
Perhaps with the exception of the prophetic quotes, it all sounds like Jesus is launching a ministry of personal salvation, conversion and healing. The word justice doesn’t appear anywhere in this text. But if we dig a bit deeper, we will see that not only is a ministry of daring justice implied in this passage, it’s at the heart of Jesus call to his first disciples.
Several years ago now, a group of us from this church went to hear the biblical scholar Dominic Crossan talk about the circumstances in ancient Israel that allowed the historical Jesus and his movement to take root and gain momentum. Crossan spoke specifically about the state of the fishing industry during the 1st century in the area of the Sea of Galilee. (which is actually a lake)
He talked about how in 1986, during a period of drought in the area, the hull of a boat was discovered in the mud of the lake. Once restored it clearly resembled the type of boats described in the pages of the Jesus stories. On close examination, what they found was that the boat had been pieced together with several types of inferior wood found locally. The entire keel had been salvaged from an earlier boat. Both the sternpost and stempost had been removed, presumably to be reused in some later vessel. When it was sunk offshore this now useless hull had been stripped of every reusable part including the nails.
According to Crossan this vessel which dates back to at least the beginning of the common era, tells the story of an experienced Boatwright with sparse resources. The broader story it reveals is of a community feeling an economic squeeze. In the early days of the common era, Antipas, the son of King Herod, ruled the area of Galilee. In a bid to gain power and influence he commercialized the lake in order to increase his tax base. The impact of that on the local fishing villages was severe. Resources were scarce, and people were valued only for the economic worth, which is why children and widows had such little worth, and people were despairing.
So when a man named Jesus showed up and said follow me and I will make you fishers of people, we can imagine that what Jesus was inviting them into was a movement, a movement of growing numbers of people that were seeking a more just and fair existence: a movement that valued each person for who they were, not just for what they could produce; a non-violent movement that taught them that when they shared with one another and cared for one another and let their lives be ruled by grace and love everyone would have enough and be enough; a movement that called forth from within them the strength and the courage to stand up for what they knew was just and fair against the power structures of the day; a movement that had already gotten John the Baptist arrested; a movement of daring justice.
Crossan says this is why the Jesus stories emphasize food and health and the land because people were desperate for the kind of abundance that fair and peaceful relationships with one another and with the land can bring. Some of them were even willing to risk their lives to achieve that goal.
From its’ inception in 1925, The United Church of Canada has always had a focus on what’s called the social gospel, an interpretation of the Jesus story that emphasizes society’s collective well-being more than personal salvation. The social gospel highlights Jesus preference for people on the margins over those in positions of power and privilege and challenges those of us who have benefitted from being part of the dominant culture to be part of seeking a more just existence for those who society has undervalued at best and harmed at worst.
When Jesus talks about repenting for the kingdom of heaven has come near, we can imagine that he is looking to us as individuals and to us as an institutional church to turn away from behaviors that perpetuate injustice and to turn towards behaviours that reflect the core message of the gospel or good news of inclusion and basic human worth. We shouldn’t be surprised to find a call to Daring Justice at the heart of the national church’s new strategic plan.
In the past this kind of justice seeking call from our National church has often found it’s expression in asking us as congregations and individuals to use our public voice and political influence to seek the kind of policy changes from our governments that bring about lasting change on a larger societal scale. What I find more challenging in the new strategic plan, is that there is a greater emphasis on asking us to take seriously the call to make sure our communities of faith and the church in general reflect the equality, inclusion and justice we have been so good at advocating for in the wider world.
At a national level there is currently an intentional commitment to dismantle systemic oppression inside the church in three core areas: indigenous justice, racial equality and Two Spirit or LGBTQIA+ rights. At the same time attention is being paid to where these areas of concern intersect with other areas, particularly climate justice.
In this morning’s reading in which Jesus walks beside the Sea of Galilee calling to Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John to follow him, we can imagine that the immediacy with which they drop their nets and go is rooted in the urgency they are feeling for economic justice and the promise of a more equitable world. Their experiences of injustice would no doubt allow them to relate to racialized and indigenous people in our own day. But they would have very little connection with our contemporary issues around gender and sexual identity and they would no doubt be shocked at the state of the planet.
The question for us is, how much urgency do we feel about the state of our world? How willing are we do drop our nets, to let go of the past and follow the way of the one who leads us into life? How compelled are we to heed the call to repent, to turn away from our own participation in injustice and turn towards the realm of heaven in which equality, peace and justice for all reigns supreme? How willing are we to engage in a call to daring justice?