Our family loves maps. Of course, Scott and I grew up in a time when paper maps were the only kind of maps. Since I moved around a lot and he traveled a lot, we both learned to pour over maps. As a couple, we had road atlases for every major city in which we lived. Looking over maps helps us understand where we are going, how different areas connect, and what the big picture is.
What you do not get from maps are the stories behind the lines. When I lived and worked in Durham, NC, working among the hungry and poor, I soon learned more about the roads I had seen on the map. You see, a highway cuts through Durham and was put there many years ago. Before the highway came, there was a thriving African American community, with many small businesses. The highway cut through the neighborhoods and businesses, dividing people from one another socially, displacing longtime community leaders, and devastating many small businesses. The highway was essentially like tossing a small bomb into the neighborhood – without ever letting the neighborhood rebuild. But you do not learn that kind of information from the thick blue line that conveniently cuts through town and gets you from point A to point B much faster.
Our gospel lesson today tries to give us that same kind of insight. What sounds like a basic cartography lesson quickly becomes a socio-political lesson. Matthew tells us, “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali…” Most of us hear all those town and territory names and tune out. We keep racing forward, looking for the action in the story. Now the map lovers among us might pull out one of those bibles with a map and pinpoint Galilee, Nazareth, and Capernaum. We probably won’t find the territories of Zebulun and Naphtali on the same map, but we figure we at least have a mental picture of the setting.
In this case, skimming means we miss Matthew’s subtlety. You see, we could certainly find Galilee, Nazareth, and Capernaum on a map relative to Jesus’ day. But the reason we don’t see the territories of Zebulun and Naphtali is because that is the land of Abraham’s sons – over 700 years prior to the time Jesus lived. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali represent a land that was once promised land, but for centuries has been a land of unfulfilled promise.[i] The Assyrians were the first to conquer the land. But they were followed by Babylon, the Persians, the Greeks, and eventually the Romans. That kind of perpetual occupation and oppression does something to your psyche. Generations upon generations have lived under the shadow of a dream deferred. They have lived in darkness.
Long before Jesus, Isaiah prophesied that things would change. We hear in Isaiah speaking that very promise today. “There will be no gloom for those who were in anguish,” Isaiah says. “In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness–on them light has shined.” To this place – this place where grandparent after grandparent promised their grandchildren that we would know a brighter future – to this place of darkness, Jesus goes to start his ministry. What seems like a superfluous geographical information is actually of singular importance in understanding what Jesus is about. The particularity of his ministry matters. Where he goes as God made manifest says something about the kind of kingdom that is inbreaking. His location – a land of longstanding darkness – will become a land of great light. His location will be the place where the people of God can actually pray the psalm we prayed today, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?”
This week has been a loaded week. We started off by honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose passionate pleas for justice for all inspired a nation. Dr. King understood how much location mattered. His march from Selma to Montgomery meant something to the people who lived in Alabama at the time. His references to freedom ringing from the mountains of New York, the Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado, the curvaceous slopes of California highlighted how different regions of our country experienced racism.[ii] He understood the value of geography when he gave his “I have a dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial – a president who presided at the time of the Civil War. And his famous speech there inspired thousands of men and women to walk yesterday in the same location – because they knew that in order to talk about injustice, you go to the most famous place where speeches about injustice have been offered. Even the inauguration this week in front of the Capitol Building in DC signified something – that no matter how we felt about this presidential election, the new president would do what every president has done – be sworn in just like all the others. The location mattered.
I highlight all of this because I know many of us read these texts today and are feeling like we are in a place of darkness. Some of us see our new President as bringing in a new era of light. But others among us see the opposite – some of us here feel like we have welcomed in a new oppressor who will keep us in the darkness. As I have prayed with you all this week – both in person, in conversation, and in my private prayers, I kept going back to the geographical lesson of Jesus and the beginning of his ministry. If geography matters, what does that mean for us? Where do we see the light dawning in our time?
No matter which candidate was yours last year, I keep remembering that no candidate would have been the bearer of the light. Only Christ does that. But that does not mean any of us are off the hook. Democrats or Republicans, Southerners or Non-Southerners, Women or Men – God positions each of us in a particular geography with a particular mission to bring light to where God has planted us. Whether you are thrilled or devastated by the state of our country’s leadership, God tells us today that our work is not done.[iii]
We often say about Hickory Neck that our mission is to keep burning our light on the hill. This hill that we are planted on has a history too. Over 200 years ago, the people who lived and witnessed to Jesus on this hill left. They sided with the British and the British lost. Talk about a devastated people! But the light never went out. Students came to this hill to learn and grow and play their part in this location’s narrative. Soldiers and medics came to this hill to tend the sick, mend the wounded, and bury the dead during the Civil War. When that war was over, students came back, to continue their learning and formation. And, around 100 years ago, the people of God came back to this hill to start shining Christ’s light again.
Knowing that we have been planted on this hill in this time has given me hope. No matter how divided we are as a country – no matter how divided we are within these very walls – God has asked us to be light on this hill. That means that when our neighbors are freezing in the cold nights of winter, we are going to open our doors, cook some meals, pull some all-nighters, and witness Christ’s light and love. That means when we start developing our vision for Hickory Neck, we are not looking for a vision for St. Swithins of anyplace, USA.[iv] We are going to be looking at how we can make an impact on Toano, Upper James City County, Williamsburg, and Southern Virginia. Whether we build that multigenerational day center or we find something else that matters to this particular geography, our location is part and parcel of our work to bring the light of Christ out into the world.
The darkness that many of us feel about our country is not likely to dissipate any time soon. But that darkness does not eliminate our hope. Our ancestors walked in the darkness for over seven centuries before the light of Christ came to them. Our own country – from its treatment of native peoples to enslaved Africans – has been a land of darkness despite the many reminders of the light. We can become overwhelmed in the vast story of history. But our hope is in our geography – the current moment and place where God has placed us to beacons of hope and agents of change. This space, with its many windows that pour in light, is meant to be a place that warms you by Christ’s light every week. But this place is also a place that needs to shine its light off the hill – to be an agent for change, compassion, and care. Our invitation this week is to drop our nets, and to take up our work being agents of light on this hill and beyond. Amen.
[i] Karoline Lewis, “Mapping God’s Promises,” January 15, 2017, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4796 on January 18, 2017.
[iii] Fritz Wendt, “The Politics of Inauguration and Surrender—Matthew 4:12-23,” January 17, 2017, as found at http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-inauguration-and-surrender-matthew-412-23-fritz-wendt/ on January 18, 2017.