~ Matthew 4:12-17/Isaiah 9:1-4 ~
What were Jesus’ first words as he began his ministry? Last week we noted that in the Gospel of John his first words were, “What are you looking for?” But this week our gospel lesson suggests something different. Here’s how Matthew sets it up. First Jesus gets baptized by John, then he goes out into the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan, and then, upon returning from the wilderness learns that John has been arrested and so he goes to the town of Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, making it his home. Then, and only then, does Jesus begin his itinerant ministry by proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Curiously, Matthew makes note of the fact that this lakeside town of Capernaum is “in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.” Throughout the gospel Matthew has this penchant for incorporating into his story of Jesus references from Hebrew scriptures as a way of bolstering Jesus’ credibility. In this case a direct reference to the passage from Isaiah we heard today. True, Matthew says that Jesus moved to the town of Capernaum in order “that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.” It does sound like Jesus went to Capernaum just so this “prophecy” might come true. But I think it more likely that as Matthew gathered his materials for writing the story and, in this case, the fact that Jesus moved to Capernaum, he recalled this passage from Isaiah and incorporated it into the story. This, so he could make the profound statement that he found there: “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.” Jesus is that light. Also, not insignificantly, he notes that this is the territory of the “nations,” which was understood to mean the Gentiles. The “King of Israel,” as Matthew calls Jesus, is also for “the nations.”
Likewise, Linda and I are ‘withdrawing’ to another land, for a time. Not to the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, but to the territory of Aotearoa. Like Isaiah, this was prophesized long ago – NOT. However, it was several years back that the seed of this idea germinated and grew. Let me tell you the story.
About this time four years ago, Roy and Dawn visited Noe Valley Ministry for the first time. They made an instant connection with us. You see, they are from Wellington, New Zealand. It just so happened that on that Sunday the Prayer of Jesus we used, like in today’s service, was from the New Zealand Prayer Book. And one of the hymns we sang that Sunday was Take My Gifts, which we will sing at the end of today’s service. The author of that hymn is Shirley Erena Murray, a well-known and highly regarded composer of hymns in New Zealand. Indeed, all of the hymns we are singing today are written by her. Well, needless to say, Roy and Dawn were impressed. So, every time they came to San Francisco, which was quite often because their son and family lived here in Noe Valley, they came to worship here.
One of those times Linda and I went to lunch with them after worship. And were quite taken back to learn that Roy had just recently retired as ambassador to the United States! He was the ambassador at the embassy in Washington for five years. Before that he had been the ambassador from New Zealand in places like Israel and Mexico. He was a life-long diplomat for the government of New Zealand. Now retired, he does occasional temporary duties. For instance, he was serving in Jakarta, Indonesia the day the of the tragic mosque shooting in Christchurch last March. He said tensions were quite high that day. More about that a bit later.
Roy and Dawn are Presbyterians, members of Khandallah Presbyterian Church in a suburb of Wellington. It turns out there are a lot of Presbyterians in New Zealand; lots of Scottish immigrants in times past. So, we talked about our common heritage as Presbyterians. They expressed how wonderful our little church is – our emphasis on social justice, our warm community, and our LGBTQ inclusiveness. They told us, “you should come to New Zealand some time.” Indeed, we tossed around the idea of a pulpit exchange, where their new young pastor would come here for a time while I went to their church. They thought that their pastor would really enjoy and benefit from being here and in San Francisco. You see, whereas the nation of New Zealand is fully inclusive and has fully embraced gay marriage, the Presbyterian church has not. They suggested that their pastor might want to learn more about how the Presbyterian Church (USA) come to the place of full inclusion. More about that a bit later. So, a pulpit exchange? Sounded good to Linda and me. However, that idea did not come to fruition, but we kept in touch with Roy and Dawn as they continued their visits, the last time just this past summer.
Several months ago Linda said to me, “In your twenty years of being a Presbyterian minister, you’ve never had a sabbatical and I think it’s about time. And I think we should go to New Zealand.” And I said, “Why not?” So I worked up the gumption to present the idea to our Session. And while they may have initially been somewhat taken back at the idea, they didn’t shoot it down. Indeed, over time they embraced the idea, got the Presbytery to approve and here we are today, just a few short days until we leave for three months.
Over the course of the past few months, in preparation for our sabbatical, we have made really cool connections in New Zealand. I reached out to several Presbyterian ministers. As a result I will be working with, as of now, three congregations – one in Christchurch, Knox Presbyterian, and two in Wellington, Khandallah and Island Bay. Plus I’ll attend a regional Presbytery meeting in March and meet even more ministers. One of the Wellington churches is our friends, Roy and Dawn’s, church. Another one just so happens to be where Linda’s second cousin, Sally, is a member. A long-time San Francisco Symphony Chorus friend is married to a Kiwi and they have arranged for us to stay at the family beachfront cabin on the North Island for several days. Not to shabby! And, then, when we first arrive in Christchurch this weekend, we will be staying a couple of days with Peta and Andrew, who are Tim’s aunt and uncle. You know, Tim of Merrill and Tim? Tim grew up in Christchurch and introduced us to his aunt and uncle and they have graciously provided a place for us. Indeed, Tim and Merrill are their right now where Tim is introducing Merrill to his homeland as they tour the South Island. And when we get there Linda and I will take off on a tour as well, following the same itinerary they are following even as we speak. Pretty cool!
However, the first order of business when we arrive is to find a place to watch the Super Bowl! With the time difference the game will be on Monday afternoon there. Of course, rugby is the real “football” for Kiwis but I figure there are some NFL fans there. Go 49ers!
Now, you might be asking what I’ll be doing for three months in New Zealand. Why am I doing this? Well, in the spirit of our gospel text, I’m going there to proclaim, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” NOT!
Actually I have arranged with various Presbyterian churches a mutual give-and-take on a variety of issues. For instance, the first month of our sabbatical will be on the South Island, centered in Christchurch. Now, the first two weeks of February we’ll be going on a two-week car tour to see incredible scenic places, such as the New Zealand Alps, rain forests, Queenstown, and much more. The second two weeks I will be working with Knox Presbyterian Church in Christchurch. Pastor Matthew Jack and I have scheduled several events with the congregation. I’ll preach one Sunday, a couple of Bible studies, a couple of service organizations in the community, and some seminars – one on migration and race, one on LGBT issues, and one on earthquake preparedness.
The LGBT issues seminar is pertinent because, whereas the nation of New Zealand has fully embraced marriage equality, the Presbyterian church in New Zealand has not. This church, which is progressive and inclusive, would like to have a conversation about how our PC(USA) denomination came to endorse gay ordination and marriage.
The earthquake preparedness seminar is pertinent because Christchurch experienced a devasting earthquake in 2011, destroying much of downtown and almost reduced their church to rubble. The restoration of the church was completed just a couple years ago. I’m figuring my participation in Resilient Noe Valley here might provide some commonality.
March and April will find us in Wellington. That’s were Roy and Dawn live and Linda’s second cousin, Sally. They are helping with housing and the use of a car for the whole time we are there. In Wellington, I have made arrangements with two Presbyterian churches. Khandallah Presbyterian in a suburb of Wellington is Roy and Dawn’s church. Ryhan Prasad, who goes by ‘Raz’, is the pastor. As in Christchurch, we will participate in the ministry of this church in various ways. For instance, the pastor and I will team-lead a Lenten study on “Christian Faith and Indigenous Peoples.” Interestingly, Raz is a big Warriors fan and will be in San Francisco in February, hoping to go to a game. So, if any of you know of good deals on tickets to the Lakers game on the 9th, he would be very interested. Of course, that’s the one game this season in which tickets are hard to come by. Who wants to watch LeBron anyway?
The other church is Island Bay Presbyterian Church, Linda’s second cousin, Sally’s church. The pastor there is Nathan Parry. He has asked if I would preach and lead the service on March 15, which is the one-year anniversary of the terrible mosque shootings that took place in Christchurch. If you’ll recall, a white supremacist from Australia came to Christchurch to kill Muslims. Evidently, he chose New Zealand because of it progressive leanings. At two mosques he killed 51 people and wounded 49 others. This event shook the nation to the core. To be asked to lead this service of remembrance is both humbling and an honor.
Along with these two churches, I will attend a Presbytery meeting and have opportunities to engage with other churches. One church, St. Andrews on the Terrace Presbyterian Church, is the most progressive and can be said to be openly defiant of the current ban on gay ordination and marriage. They are daring the denomination to bring up charges. The actually know of Lisa Larges’ and Jamie Spar’s ordeals in our history.
But not all of our time will be church stuff. We will take another two-week excursion around the North Island, going up way north, past Auckland into the heart of Maori territory. We are eager to learn more about this fascinating culture. And, more significantly, study how the New Zealand experience with its indigenous peoples compares with how our nation was done – which, of course, it has done quite terribly. Issues of race, indigenous peoples, migration and structural racism are pertinent to our situation here. I hope to return with new insights.
On top of all that, I hope to do some writing – writing about our experiences there and about my own life. How did I get here from whence I came?
In the meantime, you will be in good hands. Our session is on top of everything – right? Our Pastor Emerita, Rev. Keenan Kelsey, will provide pastoral oversight, along with preaching, worship planning, Lenten study, Ash Wednesday, Easter, and more. Jeanne Choy Tate will preach a couple of times. Rev. Glenda Hope in on the schedule. And Music for the Soul services as well. So, I encourage you: Stay engaged. I promise to come back. In the meantime, you can follow Linda and I on Instagram at sfrevdab. We will be posting often.