Father Nicholas Lang
Third Sunday After Pentecost
Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Crafton, has written about how people are prone to “rank” each other. “People from one part of the country are better than people from another part. There are right schools and wrong schools, right neighborhoods, and wrong neighborhoods. There are right accents and wrong ones. The quick shorthand of ethnicity or gender or nationality feels like a reliable index of a strangers worth…
“Galileans were the hillbillies of ancient Israel,” she says. They were not the right people—they had the wrong accent, lived far from the center of power. They were easily suspected of being political misfits and rabble-rousers. Just being identifiably Galilean could be a problem if you ventured too far from home…”
Jesus has a deep sense of the world’s hostility to him, his followers, and his message. In our conflict with the world, we are not to be closed-minded and judgmental—but rather, as we are told in the Gospel today: resourceful. The passage is a continuation of last week’s orientation for the disciples as Jesus is sending them out on their first missionary journey. He has gathered them together to give them several points of advice and even warning.
Much of what we hear in Matthew’s Gospel today is directed more to the disciples who were the first to receive these words—a people who were exposed to persecution because of what they believed in and stood for. We don’t have to fear persecution for our belief in Christ. We are free to practice our faith and to believe or not. But the admonition Jesus gave to his disciples still holds true for many people today who are ranked by some as “less than.”
In 1965, those who marched for voting rights for African-Americans from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama were attacked by state and local police, in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” On the same day, Stanley Kramer’s 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg, a dramatization of post-World War II trials Nazi war criminals, aired on ABC-TV. That night, many stations interrupted regular programming to show clips of the violence in Selma. Some viewers actually thought that the footage of police in military-style helmets and riot gear, brutally beating protesters, was a part of the movie.
One newscaster was later to say that the violence in Selma was so similar to the violence in Nazi Germany that viewers could hardly miss the connection. Although the Judgment of Nuremberg was a reenactment, it included actual footage filmed by American soldiers after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. The horrific parallels were not lost on the American public watching their TV sets. Many responded with an outpouring of support for the next march in Selma. Truly amazing things can happen when we take the admonition of Jesus in this Gospel seriously: “Do not be afraid!”
We are not living in first-century Palestine nor are we exposed to persecution like the first disciples of Jesus. But that’s not true for everyone. We still “sort and rank.” Barbara Crafton’s remarks about Galileans should not be lost on us. People today can have a problem if they venture too far from home, out of the “wrong” neighborhood into the “right” one. There will always be someone, some people in desperate need of justice and deliverance and of our willingness to facilitate it. No one, no one should have to live in fear, in the dark, in secret, in the closet. Every beloved child of God can be proud of who she or he is because we are all made in God’s image and we all disciples of this generation, here and now, striving to help build the Kingdom of God.
Crafton concludes that “we miss so much when we dismiss one another. When we refuse to know one another, relying instead on our lazy shorthand. Our lives are so much smaller than they can be.”
Why did Jesus so often preach this same kind of sermon? Why preach about it so often to those who follow Jesus today? Iconic American singer, Harry Belafonte, once recalled how after a rousing speech delivered by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King during a 1960’s Civil Rights rally, he turned to King and asked what was the point of speaking to these people. Wasn’t it just preaching to the choir? “Someone has to preach to the choir,” King replied, “Otherwise, they might stop singing.”