Let us pause for a moment in prayer…
God of all times and places we give thanks and praise to you.
You hold us with love and patience as we struggle
to find our way as people of faith and hope.
In Jesus you gave us an example to follow;
a way of seeing the world with eyes fixed on justice
and hearts filled with love.
We remember, and we offer our gratitude to you, O God.
I’ve been thinking a lot about context this week. Perhaps this is because I am new to this place and I’ve been remembering experiences that I’ve had in the past.
For instance, I remember clearly when I first moved to the Kootenay’s eleven years ago. It was my first week living in Nelson, not enough time yet to have learned all the local customs and idiosyncracies.
I was having a conversation with my co-workers, on the way to lunch, when one of them commented that the orange bridge was scheduled to be repainted. Orange not being my favourite colour I was quick to ask, “What colour is it going to be painted?” Dead silence and incredulous looks followed my question and then the answer, which was obvious to everyone but me, “Orange, of course!”. Being new to town I didn’t realize that the “Big Orange Bridge” or BOB as it’s affectionately known is synonymous with Nelson.
I had a couple of similar lapses in local orientation when moving to Kimberley. Just before the summer, Jody and I made a quick trip to check out the Kimberley real estate market. On the phone, before arriving in Kimberley, a real estate agent was giving me directions to find her office. She told me to go through the traffic light at the intersection and turn immediately right into their parking lot. Not having a picture in my mind of the location I asked which traffic light it was that we were supposed to go through because I wanted to make sure we got the right one. There was a long pause before I was told there is only one traffic light in Kimberley.
Then, when we arrived in Kimberley, the first time I parked in front of the church and turned around to face the clear-cut on the mountainside, I gasped. Then, I quickly remembered that Kimberley is known for its skiing not its logging. (I used to live on Vancouver Island when clear-cuts were a common sight.)
These experiences reminded me of the importance of context and also reminded me of an article I’d first read some time ago in the book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell. In a chapter entitled, “The Power of Context”, Gladwell recounts a study that was done by two psychologists, John Darley and Daniel Batson, some years ago at Princeton University in the United States. There were many details and variables contained in the study, which for simplicity I won’t talk about, but the gist of the study was that:
“Darley and Batson met with a group of theological students, individually, and asked each one to prepare a short, extemporaneous talk on a given biblical theme, then walk over to a nearby building to present it. Along the way to the presentation, each student ran into a man slumped in an alley, head down, eyes closed, coughing and groaning.” (Interestingly the biblical story the students were asked to reflect on was the Parable of the Good Samaritan.) “In some of the cases, as he sent the students on their way, the experimenter would look at his watch and say, ‘Oh, you’re late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago. We’d better get moving.’ In other cases, he would say, ‘It will be a few minutes before they’re ready for you, but you might as well head over now.” Of the students that believed they were in a rush and already late, only 10% stopped to help the man in the alley. Some of those who did not stop had to step over the man to get to where they wanted to go. Of the group who knew they had a few minutes to spare, 63% stopped and offered assistance. The words, ‘Oh, you’re late’ had a profound effect on setting the context and changing the behaviour of normally good compassionate people. (The Tipping Point, Little, Brown and Company, 2000, pg. 164-165)
With respect to our scripture readings today, when we know something of the context of a story it helps us to understand the complexities of the situation in which the account was written. And, we can discover some clues which help us to begin to understand the joys and challenges which faced the people of that time and place.
For instance, a clue to the context of the reading from Exodus is found at the beginning of today’s passage. The reading begins, “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” As you may recall Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers but rose in favour with the Pharoah because of his gift of understanding and translating dreams. The Pharaoh and the Egyptian people credited Joseph for saving them from famine and Joseph and his people (the Hebrew people) were welcomed in Egypt. Much later when a new Pharoah rose to power, who did not have the memory of that positive connection with these immigrant people, all he saw was a potential threat to his power. The Hebrew people had grown in numbers and Pharoah, seeing their population expanding, singles them out as an emerging threat to his empire. He fears that in the event of war the Hebrew people might join the enemies of Egypt and fight against him. In response to this fear, Pharaoh institutes a repressive regime against the Hebrew people which is as ruthless as it is violent. He begins by using these immigrant people as slave labour to build the supply cities of Pithom and Rameses to keep them poor, occupied and exhausted. When the Hebrew people continue to mulitply in numbers he escalates his violent repression with an order to the Hebrew midwives to kill all Hebrew boys at birth and when that fails he orders all Egyptians to drown any Hebrew baby boys they come across.
The irony of Pharaoh’s plan was that he did not see Hebrew girls and women as a threat to his empire’s security and yet it was the Hebrew midwives who, with courageous defiance, saved many Hebrew boys, most notably, Moses, who would eventually be Pharaoh’s downfall.
The context of the Gospel of Matthew is similar in many ways. The Jewish people, including Jesus and his followers, were living in a time of repressive and violent occupation by the Roman Empire. The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and the devastation of the Jewish people was profound. Any infraction of Roman law, however minor, was dealt with promptly and harshly. Executions were common with the bodies left on public display as a deterrent to potential malcontents. The Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, was enforced with extreme violence, forced labour, heavy taxation and fear tactics which were as effective as they were ruthless.
It is in this setting that Jesus wandered the countryside, teaching, preaching and healing those he met along the way. He travelled with a community of followers, both men and women, who shared his beliefs and his ministry. People viewed this itinerant preacher from many perspectives. He was known as a teacher of wisdom, a sage; a healer, of both body and spirit; a prophet, with a passion for social justice; a charismatic preacher who people flocked to listen to; a compassionate companion who would eat a meal with anyone regardless of class or status; a spiritual leader and prayerful person who embodied God’s love for the world. As time went by gradually people began to wonder if Jesus might be the long awaited Messiah (the “anointed one”) who would lead the Jewish people to liberation and the fullness of God’s blessing.
It is in this context that today’s gospel story is located. Jesus and his disciples were in the district of Caesarea Philippi and Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matt.16:13). The disciples’ response was to name important religious and prophetic figures of the past: John the Baptist; Elijah; Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Then Jesus asks his disciples, “But, who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15) That was a very important question for the early Christian community and is a crucial question for our contemporary Christian community. Their, and our, perception of Jesus affects belief, behaviour and action.
And so we can ask ourselves, “Who is Jesus for us as a Christian community of faith in 2011, in Kimberley, British Columbia, Canada?”
What is our identity as followers of the one we call Christ? How does this identity affect our lives, the decisions we make, and the mission and ministry we embody in our community? I hope we will grapple with this question in the coming months and years as, together, we seek to follow Christ’s way of love and service in the world.
In every day and age Christians have sought to understand and articulate what Jesus’ life and ministry means to them. In 2006, the General Council of the United Church of Canada approved our most recent statement of faith called “A Song of Faith”. I’ll close with an excerpt which focusses on Jesus:
“We sing of Jesus, a Jew, born to a woman in poverty
in a time of social upheaval and political oppression.
He knew human joy and sorrow.
So filled with the Holy Spirit was he
that in him people experienced the presence of God among them.
…Jesus announced the coming of God’s reign –
a commonwealth not of domination
but of peace, justice, and reconciliation.
He healed the sick and fed the hungry.
…He crossed barriers of race, class, culture, and gender.
He preached and practised unconditional love –
love of God, love of neighbour,
love of friend, love of enemy –
and he commanded his followers
to love one another as he had loved them.
…The Risen Christ lives today,
present to us and the source of our hope.
In response to who Jesus was
and to all he did and taught,
to his life, death, and resurrection,
and his continuing presence with us through the Spirit,
we celebrate him as the Word made flesh,
the one in whom God and humanity are perfectly joined,
the transformation of our lives, the Christ.”
Thanks be to God for the gift of faith
embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus.
Christine Dudley reserves all rights ©2011. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.