Third Sunday after Epiphany (26 January 2020)
JoAnn A. Post
Now 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, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“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.”
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
The steeple was leaking. Last Sunday. The steeple was leaking.
It took awhile for us to figure out why, early on a Sunday morning, there might be drops of water on the communion table. But we weren’t worried. It was only a few drops of water. We wiped them off. And then, over the course of the morning, they returned. Slowly. Almost imperceptibly. Drip. Drip. Drip.
If you had happened to look into sanctuary after worship last week, you might have seen a handful of us, like geese in a pouring rain, peering at the sanctuary ceiling for clues.
I think I was the first to say, “I think the steeple is leaking.” My keen observation was met with skeptical though respectful silence.
What made me think the steeple might be leaking? I am far too familiar with the ways of water, having had our home in Connecticut nearly destroyed in a winter weather pattern of snow, wind, thaw, snow, wind, thaw. Our otherwise water-tight home fell victim to the insidious pressure of freezing and thawing. And that’s how I know about water.
But since I received my roofing contractor credentials from an ad on a Cheerios box, we decided to ask the experts.
I was smugly cheered to learn from our vendor, Raincoat Roofing, that I was right. You see, the church steeple stands directly over the communion table. A vent in the ceiling allows circulation in the steeple, and vents on the steeple itself prevent moisture from sneaking in. But under the right conditions of snow, wind, thaw, snow, wind, thaw, the water found a way.
The roof would certainly be more air- and weather-tight if there were no steeple on it. And some churches in a similar situation might just lop the thing off. But without the steeple—even an occasionally drippy one—how would people know who we are?
There is no obvious connection between our dripping steeple and today’s gospel reading, at least not at first glance. But like the slow drip, drip, drip of wayward water, if you wait long enough, look carefully it will come into view.
Previously on “Matthew’s Gospel” Jesus was born in a barn, feted by astrologers, and then spirited out of Nazareth to protect him from a murderous King Herod. After that, Jesus dropped out of sight.
When next we encounter him, in chapter 4, he is an adult, standing in the Jordan River being baptized by John the Baptizer. He is then again spirited away into the wilderness (Jesus makes a lot of hasty entrances and exits in Matthew) to be tempted by Satan.
It appears that while he was wasting and wrestling in the wilderness, John the Baptizer was getting himself arrested. Disorderly conduct? Impersonating an officer? Shooting off his mouth without a permit. We don’t know.
But this is where today’s episode of “Matthew’s Gospel” opens. And Jesus, upset by news of John’s arrest, immediately, true to form, finds the nearest exit.
I know this is all terribly interesting, but you’re wondering, where is this alleged steeple? Its coming. Wait for it.
Mind cleared by the fresh, salty air on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus did an unexpected thing. He picked up where John the Baptizer left off, preaching John’s sermon as though it were his own: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!”
Up and down the shore. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” He took a break from preaching only to grab a smoke, stroll the beach and fish for followers before returning to his task: “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.”
And there it is. Standing by the sea, wind whipping sails and fish filling nets, Jesus starts setting a steeple, crafting a cathedral, building a kingdom. One sermon at a time.
You see, when John the Baptizer promised the kingdom of heaven, he was pointing to Jesus. When Jesus said those same words, he was pointing to himself. “I am the kingdom of heaven come near,” he said.
Houston, we have a problem.
The problem with Jesus’ metaphor of himself as a “kingdom come near” is that the ground on which he stood was already part of a kingdom. A kingdom called Rome, 1400 miles away. In spite of the distance, the whole country of Israel trembled under Roman occupation. Roman soldiers patrolled their streets. Roman mercenaries bivouacked in their homes. Roman tax collectors drained their pockets. Roman governors made the laws. Roman police enforced them.
Though naming himself and his work a “kingdom” might seem innocent enough to us, those words, that image were fightin’ words in 1st century Israel. After all, there was only one king. And his name was Tiberius, under whose clenched fist Israel was crushed with disease, poverty and fear. By claiming a kingdom, naming himself its king, Jesus challenged Tiberius and the whole Roman system of domination and control.
Jesus will get his way. By the end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus will rule as king. From the highest steeple in the land. Jesus will be crowned and hoisted on a cross. The Jesus story would be easier to take if weren’t for that cross-shaped steeple on the horizon. But without it, how would people know who he was?
Tomorrow marks the 75th anniversary of the freeing of prisoners at Auschwitz, the most famous of a system of Nazi concentration camps during WWII. A survivor of that camp remembers being informed of his father’s death there this way, “he went up the chimney.”* “The chimney” in question was the smokestack on the gas chamber which claimed the lives of millions of people.
A beloved member of a former parish was a young American GI when the camps were liberated. He and his unit were sent to Mauthausen, a death camp on the Danube River. He reported smelling the camp before he saw it—the gas chambers had been working night and day to destroy the evidence. As soldiers neared the camp, they could see the smoke stack. And then they saw . . . well, it wasn’t quite clear what they saw. Jack tried to tell me this story a couple of times, but never got much farther than this: “And then I saw the people, but I couldn’t tell if they were people . . .”
That ash-belching smokestack was a steeple of sorts, the highest point on the horizon, erected by the would-be king of an evil kingdom. And because of that smokestack, that sinful steeple, we know exactly who they were.
Whether perched on a church roof, or belching ash in a death camp, or casting a shadow on a lonely hill, the steeple tells the truth of who lives under it. Or, in Jesus’ case, who hangs on it.
Though Sunday’s drip, drip, drip was no threat to our steeple, the day will come when this steeple will fall. From age. From weather. From a wrecking ball so that this corner can be repurposed. Who knows what will become of us? But, as long as it stands, this steeple tells the world who we are.
That steeple tells the world that we are loving, we are welcoming, we are forgiving. We are that way because we have ourselves been loved, welcomed, forgiven. We look like the One whom we serve.
Mercifully, most of the gas chamber “steeples” in Europe have been dismantled. But a few of them still stand. Not to celebrate their purpose, but to warn the world about what happens when we become like them—when we worship a false god, when we spew hatred, when we treat people like animals.
And the steeple on Jesus’ kingdom? It will stand forever.
Jesus built that kingdom, chose that throne, climbed that cross to tell us who he is. And who we are.
He is the savior of the world, friend of sinners, healer of our every ill.
All steeples fall. All steeples but this one. It stands to remind us of who, and whose we are. And that, in spite of evidence to the contrary and competing claims, the kingdom of heaven is the kingdom in which we live.
*“It’s like going to the family cemetery,” NPR, January 24, 2020