Worship 7/19/20

Call to Worship/Psalm 145:3-4, 10-11, 21

Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; there is no end to his greatness.

One generation shall praise your works to another and shall declare your power.

All your works praise you, Lord, and your faithful servants bless you.

My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord:

Let all flesh bless his holy name for ever and ever.

Opening Prayer

God of the ages: we thank you for the faithful witness of your apostles, prophets, and martyrs throughout the history of your church and throughout the world even today. Through their witness we see and hear your truth. We bless you for all who bless your name through their writing, speaking, art, and music. Through their work we glimpse your beauty. We praise you for all who serve you without recognition or honor, offering encouragement to the lonely, the sick, and the fearful. Through their lives we see your faithfulness and sense your comfort. Now we pray that you will even use us to reflect the glory we see in Christ. May the voices of all your saints, made holy in Christ, swell in joyous praise to you, the giver of all good gifts, through Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Scripture/Luke 6:12-25 (NRSV)

12Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.  13And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: 14Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, 16and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.  17He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  18They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  19And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

20Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.  “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.  22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.  24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.  “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

Message/Simon the Zealot

When we hear the stories of those first disciples, we are immediately drawn to their miracle of their conversions, the immediacy with which the left their livelihoods and families to follow this unusual but compelling teacher and wonderworker named Jesus.  We marvel at their willingness to embark on a journey that would lead them into an unknown future, traveling not only beyond the boundaries of their familiar communities, but also beyond the boundaries of their thinking, their perceptions, their understandings about God and what life in God’s kin-dom ought to look like.  Author J. Ellsworth Kalas calls this “stained-glass syndrome.”  We picture saints through the colors of the glass as light trickles through to illumine them cathedrals and other spaces of worship.  We see them as fully formed in their faith and theology and single-minded in their quest for God’s righteousness.   And yet, to our detriment, we forget that these were not superhuman individuals.  They were very human.  They were diamonds in the rough, so to speak.  They had many questions, just like you and me.  They struggled with the radical nature of God’s love and the demands that it placed upon them, just like we do.  Even as we have looked at the stories of these disciples over the course of this summer’s worship series, we probably need to stop and consider that some of the disciples may have followed Jesus with very mixed motives.  It is important to remember that the Spirit of God does not operate in a vacuum.  God meets us where we are and speaks to us in the circumstances of our unique, individual lives. 

Simon the Zealot might offer a helpful example.  What might have been going through his mind when he decided to follow Jesus?  While we know little of his story, we do know that when he is identified in Scripture, he is always listed as “the Zealot” or as “The Cananaean.”  The term Cananaean isn’t a geographical term as we might think—say, someone from the land of Canaan being a Canaanite.  It’s not about his birthplace, but rather his life pursuit.  The term Cananaean simply means “Zealot” in Aramaic.  The New Revised Standard Version capitalizes both Cananaean and Zealot, to indicate that the words are identifying titles.  Today, we use the word zealot, that comes from the Greek word zealotes, to describe a person who is passionate for a cause or a movement.  But in the first century, it was the name of a particular movement and so it is capitalized just as we might capitalize a political party in our time.

First century zealots were a particularly fierce group of people.  Birthed in Galilee near the beginning of the first century, the zealot movement was initially a grass-roots reaction to Roman taxation.  A certain Galilean named Judas called for a revolt against the Romans, gathering a band of Galilean zealots around him.  As this movement grew, it’s fervor took on a more religious flavor, reasoning that the tribute that was being paid to the Romans should be paid only to God.  A Gentile government calling for taxes then, was tantamount to asking the Jewish people to violate their faith.  This revolt was crushed by the Romans and Judas was killed, but the movement quietly continued under the surface.  Their slogan was “No king but the Lord; no tax but the temple, no friend but a Zealot.”  The Zealots would continue as a threat to the imperial establishment, using guerilla tactics to lash out against the Romans whenever the opportunity arose.  It was this movement would eventually bring the full power of Rome down upon them when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in 70 AD.

When we read about the Zealots in the works of the great historian Josephus, we learn that they weren’t always fond of their fellow countrymen.  While the Pharisees and the Sadducees, maybe begrudgingly so, paid their taxes and dealt with living under Roman domination, the Zealots looked down upon them for capitulating to the powers that be.  So, one wonders why a Zealot might consider joining Jesus’ movement?  I think what clouds our understanding of Jesus sometimes is our preconception of Jesus as “meek and mild.”  The songs that we sang growing up in Vacation Bible School and the flannelgraph images of Jesus to which we were exposed in Sunday school offer us a rather domesticated view of Jesus.  And we still fight these battles as I view often view them in interactions between Christians on social media.  I keep hearing the phrase “Jesus wasn’t political” bandied about and find myself quite frustrated by it.  My quick, gut-felt response that I want to post, but refrain myself from stirring the stew, is to ask, “what part of ‘Thy kingdom come’ isn’t political?!”  When I once responded in this way, the person with whom I was debating replied that Jesus was establishing a “spiritual” kingdom, to which I quickly replied with part of the next petition of the Lord’s prayer “on earth as it is in heaven.”  Jesus was highly political.  He was tried by a political court of law presided over by Pontius Pilate and he died on a Roman instrument of capital punishment, a cross.  Had it been purely a religious issue, Jesus would have just been taken outside the wall and stoned to death, which was the preferred method of execution by Jewish law.  Indeed, Jesus was highly political, but what he wasn’t was partisan.  He came for everyone.  Jew and Gentile, Galilean, and Samaritan, Roman and Greek, and dare I say it, Democrat and Republican.  His concept of God’s love was so radical that it transcended any of the boundaries that any of us desire to apply in order to keep others out.  God’s grace is radical and to say that Jesus is Lord, is to say that Caesar is not—that is a political statement, one that may have gotten you killed if you said it in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In our modern, democratic efforts to separate Church and State, we do not read the Scriptures through first century eyes that saw the two entities highly intertwined.  Politics and theology were merged into a single whole.  The Exodus event was as much a political one as it was a theological one.  The lessons we learn from the Judges, Kings, and Prophets of the Old Testament continually remind us of how faith and politics as two sides of the same coin.  Simon the Zealot as others of his time never bifurcated religion from politics.  For example, as we heard Elsie Lawrence read in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus shares what scholars call the Lukan beatitudes.  While we are more likely to be familiar with the beatitudes found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, specifically in chapter 5, Luke has Jesus sharing this teaching on the plain.  Imagine if we were Simon the Zealot hearing these words of Jesus:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled…  But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (Luke 6:20-21, 24-25).  A Zealot hearing these words would certainly be inspired by them.  It was as if Jesus were wagging his finger at the great Roman Empire with all its power and wealth and lifting up those on the margins of that society who are suffering under the weight of the Roman oppressors.  I can almost hear Simon exclaim “Hallelujah!”  Even after all of Jesus’ teachings and his eventual cruel death on the cross and glorious resurrection on Easter morning, we find the disciples questioning, just before his ascension, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).  Certainly Jesus’ message had found a hopeful heart in Simon the Zealot, who probably had envisioned a great new movement that would challenge the Romans and free Israel to be the people of God without the restraints of Roman taxation and influence. 

Scripture tells us nothing about Simon the Zealot after the resurrection other than that he remained with the group of disciples.  Several different traditions speak of his work in North Africa, specifically in Egypt, and then later experienced martyrdom in Persia.  Another tradition, which I’m less inclined to believe as factual, is one that claims Simon travelled as far as the British Isles.  It is also supposed that Simon and another disciple, Jude, served as companions in their missionary activities along the way.  Simon is often portrayed with sticks in his hands to represent his martyrdom by the club.  Other tools used as instruments of his death from competing traditions such as a saw and a falchion which is a short, curved sword, also represent him symbolically.  In a statue sculpted by Francesco Moratti in St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome, Simon is pictured examining a book while holding a human length saw.  Another legend goes so far as to say that Simon was one of the shepherds who came to the nativity scene at the birth of Jesus and still another depicts Simon as the bridegroom at the wedding in Cana where Jesus turned the water into wine.  Among all of the legends of the apostles, Simon the Zealot and Jude are the only two disciples to die together in any story. Simon is the patron saint of tanners, lumberjacks, and woodcutters for the tradition of his martyrdom by a saw.  He is also considered the patron saint of masons, weavers, and hen-pecked husbands.  He shares a feast day with St. Jude on October 28.

As we have discovered in our worship series, Jesus welcomed folks into his small band of disciples who may have held a variety of political viewpoints, and maybe, given our currently polarized nation, they can help us to move beyond these boundaries and see the bigger picture of God’s inclusive kin-dom of grace and compassion.  Imagine what it would have been like for Simon the Zealot to sit down around the fire in the evening with the other disciples and talking about the news of the day.  Think, for example, of Simon’s relationship with Matthew who had been a tax collector for Rome.  Zealots traditionally viewed tax collectors as traitors.  They were in cahoots with Rome, collecting the taxes in Roman coinage engraved with the profile of the emperor himself, a graven image, and a means of extracting wealth from common wage earners.  Within this small group, Simon the Zealot found himself in close proximity to one whom he perceived as an enemy.  They would share meals together and pray for one another.  To a Zealot, the only person lower than a Roman was a Jewish person who collaborated with the Romans.  And yet, here they were, learning, growing, figuring out how to be in community as brothers in Christ.  Perhaps if, in the strength of God’s Spirit, Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector could not only co-exist but serve closely in ministry with each other, in that same Spirit, we can too.

Prayers of the People

God of heaven and earth, through Jesus Christ you promise to hear us when we pray to you in his name. Confident in your love and mercy we offer our prayer.

Empower the church throughout the world in its life and witness. Break down the barriers that divide so that, united in your truth and love, the church may confess your name, share one baptism, sit together at one table and serve you in one common ministry.

Guide the rulers of the nations. Move them to set aside their fear, greed, and vain ambition and allow your Spirit to guide them. Inspire them to strive for peace and justice, that all your children may dwell secure, free of war and injustice.

Hear the cries of the world’s hungry and suffering. Give us, who consume most of the earth’s resources, the will to reorder our lives, that all may have their rightful share of food, medical care, and shelter, and so have the necessities of a life of dignity.

Restore among us a love of the earth you created for our home. Help us put an end to ravaging its land, air, and waters, and give us respect for all your creatures, that, living in harmony with everything you have made, your whole creation may resound in an anthem of praise to your glorious name.

Renew our nation in the ways of justice and peace. Guide those who make and administer our laws to build a society based on trust and respect. Erase prejudices that oppress. Change attitudes and behaviors that dehumanize—that deny your image in which everyone is created. Give us a new vision of a life in which the beauty of our differences and our shared humanity are appreciated and blessed.

Strengthen this congregation in its work and worship. Fill our hearts with your self-giving love, that our voices may speak your praise and our lives may conform to the image of your Son. Nourish us with your Word and sacraments, that we may faithfully minister in your name and witness to your love and grace for all the world.

Look with compassion on all who suffer. Support with your love those with incurable and stigmatized diseases, those unjustly imprisoned, those denied dignity, those who live without hope, those who are homeless or abandoned. As you have moved toward us in love, so lead us to be present with them in their suffering in the name of Jesus Christ. Sustain those among us who need your healing touch.

Make the sick whole. Give hope to the dying. Comfort those who mourn. Uphold all who suffer in body or mind, not only those we know and love but also those known only to you, that they may know the peace and joy of your supporting care.

O God, in your loving purpose answer our prayers and fulfill our hopes. In all things for which we pray, give us the will to seek to bring them about, for the sake of Jesus Christ who taught us to pray:

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

Benediction

Go out into the world in peace: Have courage; hold on to what is good; return no one evil for evil; help the suffering; honor all; Love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. And the blessing of the Triune God—Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer—be upon you and remain with you forever.  Amen.