For many people, reading the Bible is a struggle – not the least because there are names and places unknown to us. Not only are they on the other side of the world, and far removed from us in time, but we can’t even pronounce them! We have no frame of reference for these places and people and events. And so we get discouraged, put off, because it all seems so strange. How can we possibly connect to them? Part of our challenge, then, is to both not let ourselves be dissuaded, and to make an effort to learn some of the geography, some of the people, the way God’s story in the Bible hangs together.
We see that in this morning’s Gospel: we know who Jesus is, “John” refers to John the Baptist, we know Galilee, we may even know where Nazareth is. But Capernaum, Zebulun and Naphtali? What the heck? Zebulun and Naphtali were the names of two of ancient twelve tribes of Israel. When the land was divided up between the tribes (presumably in the 13th century BC), each area was named for one of the tribes. The region for Zebulun and Napthali formed part of what was later called Galilee, especially along the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. And Capernaum was a bustling fishing town on the northern shore, much bigger than the village of Nazareth, 20 miles to the southwest.
Now if all this sounds like a geography lesson, it is. It was important for Matthew, as he told Jesus’ story, to connect it back to the Hebrew Scriptures; specifically, to what Isaiah had to say to and about that region: “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." This is the place from which Jesus launched his public ministry – the hinterlands, a place of oppression from larger surrounding powers – whether Assyrian or Babylonian or Roman, not the center of Jewish worship and government. In other words, a very unlikely place to find the Messiah if one was looking for him, to find the dawning of God’s great light. Geography, in God’s big story, is always important.
So, what about us, what about our geography? There is a school of thought that says churches get planted where God wants them to be – and planted is an intentional word, because planting a church is not just about building a building. It’s about gathering and growing a congregation, a body of people who are committed to following Jesus, to worshiping together, to making the Kingdom of God a reality in their own time and place, to ordering their lives and their life together as a reflection of God’s purposes for the world and their community, to be part of God’s light to the world. The word for church in the New Testament is ekklesia, “called out” – it’s where we get our word ecclesiastical. The church is the body of people, the Body of Christ, who have been called by God out of their secular and civic lives to be transformed by the love of God in Christ, and then sent back into that same community to be agents of God’s healing, love, blessing, goodness, light, and transformation.
So we can ask the question again: what about us, what about our geography? Prior to 1906, the intersection where All Saints’ stands was remarkably similar to what it is now, at least in way the roads were laid out. If you look at some of the old photos you can see that. Long Hill Road has been here since the 18th century, and diagonally across the intersection from us was both a blacksmith shop and an old coaching inn, where extra horses used to be added to coaches before going down the hill into Basking Ridge. Old Forge Road was lined with summer bungalows going down to the river. The road to the station ran past the Millington School House, and eventually to a Main Street that is no longer there, and the Acme Harrow factory and its workers’ houses. And Church Road was a private carriage track, which served the homes of the Nash and Nishwitz families, and the Millington Field Club. A busy crossroads, even then. And when a group of people decided, after a number of years of worshipping in Basking Ridge and holding Sunday School classes in homes and in the school building, to see if an Episcopal church could be planted in Millington, this was the spot that seemed good to them and to the Holy Spirit. The land was given by the daughters of the Nishwitz family, but why here and not another location? I don’t know.
Perhaps this crossroads was deemed central, and a reasonable walking distance for families on both sides of Long Hill. What I do know is that since 1906, when the building was consecrated, All Saints’ has served its neighborhood and community. The specific shapes of some of the ministries has changed over the years. Even the buildings have been expanded, modified, repurposed in some ways, but continuing to house our worship, to shelter those who come seeking solace and peace, to provide space for our ministries and the community beyond our crossroads; to be a light of God’s love.
We know clearly how much our front-lawn Rummage Sale is a benefit and a neighborhood fiesta every fall. And when we held a bake sale and hotdog sale on the same lawn on this past Election Day while voters came to the Parish House, and had the church open for prayer, we showed up for the community on a day filled with a variety of emotions and uncertainty. Nearly every night of the week there is some meeting or activity going on in the Parish House or the Church Undercroft that is not a parish-based event, but benefits our neighbors. We send parishioners out from here to work with Family Promise homeless shelter, to supply the food pantry at St. John’s in Dover, and some local families. And we welcome our friends in the Christian Community as they worship in our buildings, and partner with us in hospitality to Vets from Lyons and from Long Hill – all forms of bearing the light of Christ.
This not to say, “Hooray for us” as much as it is to recognize that God still has mission and ministry, work, for us to do – the Church at the crossroads. It is always a work in progress; it is always an experiment that we try, then reflect on and evaluate (the failures as well as the successes). It is always a process of listening to the Holy Spirit in the voices of our neighbors, in the words of Scripture and liturgy, in the “still, small voice” of our own heart and mind.
The work of God’s kingdom continues, and we are called to it as much as Peter and Andrew were, as much as James and John were. As we are “fishers for people,” we are sent into our neighborhoods and communities offering a word of hope, an expression of love, a hand of reconciliation, an encouragement of peace, a blessing of friendship, a prayer of healing, an invitation to this body of worship and service, a welcome in this place as we stand together in God presence and grace.
This is our geography; this is where the light shines in the darkness. This is where God has planted us for the sake our neighbors, our corner of God’s Kingdom. Let us, like Peter and Andrew, James and John, follow with eagerness and haste on the adventure Jesus continues to call us to.
Let us pray in these words, written by Bishop Thomas Ken in the 17th century:
make the doors of this house wide enough
to receive all who need human love
and fellowship, and a heavenly Father’s care;
and narrow enough to shut out
all envy, pride and strife.
Make its threshold smooth enough
to be no stumbling block to children,
nor to straying feet,
but rugged enough
to turn back the tempter’s power:
make the doors of this house
the gateway to your eternal kingdom. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 22, 2017