The Road by the Sea

Prof. Stephanie PaulsellSermon by Professor Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and the Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies in the Harvard Divinity School. (Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)



Maybe it’s because we’re in the middle of winter that, when I read the lessons for this morning, one image in particular shone out: the image of the road by the sea. “God will make glorious the way of the sea,” Isaiah writes. Matthew echoes him, placing Jesus “in Capernaum by the sea” and describing the landscape of Jesus’s early ministry as the “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea.” You can almost feel the sun on your face in these readings, see its reflection winking on the surface of the water. “The road by the sea” recalls the freshness of creation itself, when, in the first chapter of Genesis, God separates the dry land from the water and calls it good. It’s no wonder that we head to the sea ourselves when we want to feel inspired and creative.

This beautiful image appears in both of our readings this morning because Matthew is quoting Isaiah, layering the prophet’s oracle into his story of the beginning of Jesus’s ministry along the shore of the sea of Galilee – which is not really a sea, but a freshwater lake fed by the River Jordan.

The gospel of Matthew is marked by its emphasis on the Jewish identity of Jesus and his first followers. Alone among the four gospels, Matthew opens with a genealogy that traces Jesus’s lineage back through King David and all the way to Abraham. Matthew’s gospel is punctuated with excerpts from the Hebrew Bible — especially from the writings of the prophets — that connect Jesus and his ministry to the fiercest hopes articulated in the ancient scriptures of Israel.  Matthew wants us to feel the layers of history beneath the story he tells and to understand the significance of the connections between the story of Jesus and God’s relationship with the people of Israel.

The sea Isaiah speaks of is the Mediterranean, and the road the one the Assyrians marched in on to conquer and annex and occupy the “land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali.” God will make this way glorious, Isaiah writes, because a new king is coming to lift the yoke of the people’s burden and to break the rod of their oppressors. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” Isaiah writes, “those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.” The way of the sea has been a place of suffering. But when God makes that way glorious, Isaiah promises, the road that their oppressors marched in on will be transformed from a place of terror into a place of glory, a place of beauty, a place where one could walk and admire the sun on the water without fear.

Matthew wants these resonances from Isaiah to echo in his account of the life of Jesus. After John the Baptist is arrested, Matthew says, Jesus moves to Capernaum, on the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee, and begins preaching John’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew’s road by the sea is the road that runs alongside, not the Mediterranean, but the Sea of Galilee, and the light that dawns on the people sitting in the darkness of a military occupation — Roman, this time — is Jesus himself, and his healing, reconciling work. 

If you were to go to Capernaum today, and walk along the road by the sea, you would find two ancient synagogues, one built on top of the other, the first from the time of Jesus, the second from around the 4th or 5th century, the religious lives of several generations layered into the landscape itself. And that is what these readings are like, too:  one built on top of the other, one story sinking its roots into the story that came before, drawing strength from the longings and hopes of an earlier age.

The roads by the sea invoked by both Isaiah and Matthew are also layered: layered with the experiences of everyone who has ever walked on them — all the pilgrims, the soldiers, the refugees, the children, the enslaved people, the fishermen, the dreamers out for a look at the water, everyone throughout history who has wept or laughed or sifted their thoughts in silence as they walked these roads. The road by the sea in Isaiah was travelled by a conquering, occupying army, and later by returning exiles. Matthew’s road by the Sea of Galilee was walked by Jesus and the disciples he called — and much later by the soldiers of the First Crusade who rode in from Europe to set up their own “Kingdom of Jerusalem.” All roads, all pilgrimage trails, even the ordinary, well-worn paths of our daily lives are layered with the presence of those who have loved the ground we walk on, or been forced off it, or come to it to begin a new life, or been forced to it against their will. There are more stories layered into the ground beneath our feet than we can even imagine, the secret life of the past beneath the surface.

On the roads to the sea in our readings this morning, and on the roads we travel each day, the kingdom of heaven has surely come near but so have the terrors of history. This is also true of the spiritual paths we walk.

Tomorrow is Holocaust Remembrance Day and also the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. It is an urgent time to remember the catastrophe of the Holocaust as anti-Semitic violence rises around the world, and in our own country. The shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, the shooting at the Poway, California synagogue, the attack on the rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York are only the most well-known.  During this past Hanukkah there were at least ten anti-Semitic attacks in the region of New York alone.

Anti-Semitism is also layered into the paths we walk, including the path that we will soon embark on as a community: the road to Jerusalem that stretches from Ash Wednesday to Easter.  This is arguably the most sacred route of the Christian year. But this road has also held terrors for Jewish communities in many times and places, from Shrove Tuesday, when masked revelers would often mark out Jews for mistreatment, through Holy Week, when Passion Plays that lay the blame for the death of Jesus on “the Jews” would often spill over into violence against actual Jews in the streets.

When we follow Jesus through Lent and Holy Week, this history will also be layered into our path. It’s not the only history we encounter on this road. But it’s a history whose consequences are still unfolding as it snags on the jagged edges of the imaginations of those who are looking for someone to blame for the troubles around them and within them.

With synagogues under siege, how will we walk our holy path this year? What layers will we add to a road that has been so marred by violence?

I used to teach the intro course for new MDiv students at the Divinity School with my colleague, Dudley Rose, the associate dean for ministry studies, and someone you may have heard from this pulpit. Our first assignment in the class was always for everyone, teachers included, to share a ten-minute spiritual-intellectual autobiography. We always cautioned the students that if their story was a story of beginning in one religious tradition and then changing to another, to remember that there was probably somebody in the room who had changed in the other direction.  Dudley always urged our students to ponder this question: how can I tell my story in a way that leaves room for others to tell theirs? Learn to tell your story, he said, without denigrating, or negating, someone else’s.

The denigration of Jews by Christians following the path to Easter Sunday is all too common throughout history. The internal debates within the Jewish community reflected in the gospels have been too often wrongly interpreted as a conflict between Jesus and Judaism itself. But there is no way to walk with Jesus without walking with our Jewish siblings. Because Jesus is Jewish, and the fishermen he called from their boats to join him were Jewish, and his gospels were all written by Jewish writers. If we think we are walking the way of Jesus by defining Christianity over against Judaism, we are fooling ourselves.

When Jesus walks along the road by the sea in Matthew’s gospel, he begins layering a new history into that road that continues to reverberate today, even here, in our own lives. The first thing he does is to call out to those on the shore to come and join him. Everyone he calls in our reading for today is working with a fishing net — Peter and Andrew are heaving their net into the sea; James and John are mending theirs, alongside their father. “Follow me,” Jesus says, “and I will make you fish for people.” It’s an extraordinary thing to say, and a little unnerving.  Because when I think of fishing, I think of the sharp hooks. But that’s not how these guys fish.  They are not fishing for one fish at a time and deciding whether it’s the one they want. They are throwing nets out into the dark, open water and pulling up what’s there. I think maybe that’s why Jesus was drawn to these fishermen — the way those nets gathered everything, all the fish jostling together.  

Jesus, too, gathered into the net of his attention everyone who crossed his path: teachers, sex workers, lawyers, foreigners, tax collectors, children, women, people living with illness, people in pain. Everyone worthy of engagement, everyone worthy of care, everyone a companion along the road. All of us caught up in the same net of existence, all of us with a story to tell. As we’ve been learning this year, a pilgrimage is also a kind of undiscriminating net that strains out the things that divide us from one another in ordinary lives and brings us into new relationships, new forms of community grounded not in the hierarchies that structure our lives at home but in our shared human needs for food, for shelter, for companionship, and for meaning.

As the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz approaches, I’ve been reading the diaries and letters of Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch Jewish woman who kept an extraordinary diary about her spiritual awakening during the occupation of Amsterdam by the Nazis. On July 14, 1942, a little more than a year before she was deported to Auschwitz, along with her mother, father and brother, and killed, she wrote: “sometimes I feel as if a layer of ashes were being sprinkled over my heart, as if my face were withering and decaying before my very eyes, and as if everything were falling apart in front of me and my heart were letting everything go. But these are brief moments; then everything falls back into place, my head is clear again, and I can once more bear and stand up to this piece of history that is ours. For once you have begun to walk with God,” she wrote, “you need only keep on walking with [God]…”

Etty Hillesum was a woman of tremendous courage who lived her life as a pilgrimage — eager to be of use to those around her, struggling to “stand up to this piece of history that is ours,” determined to “keep on walking with God.” She is a woman to fall in alongside in our own pilgrimage. You can read her diaries and letters in a volume called An Interrupted Life. Placing our pilgrimage alongside hers might help us find ways of standing up within the times we have been given, ways of walking with God and continuing to walk with God.

We’ll find, I think, that walking with God means walking with everyone, especially those whose humanity is under attack in these days, and that walking with God does not mean we fit our religious convictions into a more and more tightly defined space, but that those convictions lead us out into the world where we can walk the road by the sea with all who have been drawn to the way the sun sparkles on the water, all of us beneath the same sky.