Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sermon for Epiphany 3A

Sermon as prepared for delivery at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Ithaca, New York on Jan 23, 2011

Text: Matthew 4:12-23 (Inclusive Bible)

When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he went back to Galilee. He left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum, a lakeside town near the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. In this way the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, the way to the sea on the far side of the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: the people who lived in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
From that time on, Jesus began proclaiming the message, “Change your hearts and minds, for the kindom of heaven is at hand!”
As Jesus was walking along the Sea of Galilee, he watched two brothers – Simon, who was called Peter, and Andrew – casting a net into the sea. They fished by trade. Jesus said to them, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of humankind.” They immediately abandoned their nets and began to follow Jesus.
Jesus walked further and caught sight of a second pair of brothers – James and John, ben-Zebedee. They too were in their boat, mending their nets with their father. Jesus called them, and immediately they abandoned both boat and father to follow him.
Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the Good News of the kindom of heaven and healing all kinds of diseases and sicknesses among the people.


Will you join me in prayer? O God, you tell our hearts to seek your face, and it is your face we seek. Open the eyes of our hearts that we may see you. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, our Rock, and our Shelter, Amen.

          I was raised in an evangelical church in a denomination very prominent in the South, including Texas, where I grew up. When I was 14 years old, I went to a weeklong summer camp at Lubbock Christian University. While I have many memories that speak to my love, from a very young age, for God’s church, it was at this summer camp that I first experienced what I would describe as a “call” to ministry. There was no lakeshore, and I wasn’t fishing. Well, I wasn’t fishing for fish! Like many 14 year olds, I was fishing for boys, and there was one boy, named Tilden, on whom I had a HUGE crush.
          One night after a worship service, a missionary from Africa said that he would be talking about his experience if anyone wanted to stay. Well, Tilden was staying to hear this missionary, so of course I had to stay too! I listened to this man talk about sharing the good news about the light Jesus brings into the world, and I was transfixed. I came away from that weeklong camp with a vision of myself traveling to Africa to save the lost. You see, in my childhood faith, only those who were Christian – and we had a very narrow definition of who was a Christian – could go to heaven. And I felt a deep yearning in my soul to share my faith so that no one would be excluded from heaven.
          In our Gospel story today, five people experience what may have been their first sense of “call.” Now, I know you can all do the math, and that there are only 2 pairs of brothers, which adds up to 4 people. But Jesus is the first to begin to live into his own identity and calling. Before this scene in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has had a remarkable start in life. His birth was heralded by astrologers or magi from the East. Then his family fled to Egypt, and when they returned to Israel, they decided to make their home in Nazareth, on the Sea of Galilee. Jump ahead to when Jesus is a young adult, and his cousin John is making waves by baptizing and preaching repentance –calling people to redirect their lives in line with God’s purposes.
          Jesus responds to John and is baptized by him. Matthew continues his theme of pointing to Jesus’ identity as God’s Anointed – the Messiah. Like the Magi, John recognizes who Jesus is. And then while Jesus is being baptized, the spirit of God descends like a dove, and a voice declares that Jesus is God’s beloved child. Jesus carries this knowledge with him into a time of testing in the desert.
          And so we come to our story for today. The narrative begins in an interesting place – “when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” Then it goes on to say that Jesus moved from Nazareth, where he had grown up, to Capernaum. Matthew, who loves to quote prophecy, draws a parallel between this move and the prophet Isaiah, who said that the Gentiles in Galilee “had seen a great light – on those living in the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” I’ll return to that later. But for now, I want to point out this sentence that comes after Jesus’ temptation, after John’s arrest, and before Jesus calls the disciples: From that time on, Jesus began proclaiming the message, “Change your hearts and minds, for the kindom of heaven is at hand!”
          This is where today’s story begins – Jesus recognizes his own identity and begins to live into his vocation. Vocation, from the Latin vocare or “to call” is described by Frederick Buechner as "the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet" (from Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC).  Jesus had found that place, and his next task was to set out and find people who would join him.
          I shared with you earlier about the first time I remember recognizing my vocation. Determined to live into that, I went to a Christian university and majored in Bible and Missions. In my childhood faith tradition, many women, myself included, who felt called to ministry, saw that as a call to missions, because the mission field is a place where gender boundaries in church leadership are not as strict.
          When I was 19, I went with 5 other students to live with missionaries in Togo, West Africa. This summer internship was a bit unique, because rather than being expected to share the Gospel, as we understood it, with the local people, we instead spent most of our time learning from the Eve people of southern Togo – they taught us about their language and their culture and how God was moving in their lives.
          One thing about Togo that I vividly remember is the beach – the water is a lovely sea green, and just out on the horizon, you could see where it drastically changes to a deep blue. This was where the continental shelf begins, so the water quickly becomes very deep. I learned that there is a rich supply of fish right along this line, and the Togolese people, like the fishers of Jesus’ day, use nets for their catch. Often when we hear Matthew’s story, we think of fly fishing or rod and reel – using bait to catch just the right fish, and cutting the line if it gets snagged or you don’t like what you’ve caught.
          But this scene by the Sea of Galilee – which was really a large, freshwater lake, is not an idyllic scene like we might imagine right out of A River Runs through It. Like in Togo, fishing was tough work, and it involved large nets that could get snagged or torn and that didn’t allow for discrimination in choosing which fish to catch. In Togo, if the net gets caught on something, people risk their lives to swim down and free it. They could get caught in a current, or attacked by a shark that has come to feast on the trapped fish.
          While Simon, Andrew, James, and John did not have to deal with sea sharks, their fishing trade had sharks of its own. New Testament scholar F. Scott Spencer describes life for Galilean fishers: “At every turn, family fishing businesses, like those of Jesus' disciples, were caught in (Herod) Antipas's conglomerate net, forcing them to procure fishing licenses and leases, to produce demanding quotas, and to pay taxes, tolls, and other fees to an extensive bureaucracy monitoring the whole fishing enterprise, from catching to processing to shipping” ("'Follow Me': The Imperious Call of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels," in Interpretation, April 2005).
          And those of you who have been down to Back Bay Mission, or who know anything about fishing as a profession, know that it is dangerous, bloody, back-breaking work that can be profitable but can also be bankrupting or even deadly. Last summer Syed and I were in New Orleans not long after the beginning of the massive oil leak that devastated the Gulf Coast. Even then, restaurant owners spoke of their fear that they would not be able to sustain their business.
          At the same time, there was a remarkable resilience that was born out of having taken risks and lived through challenges. There was a sense of, “We made it through Katrina and Rita, and we can get through this again together.”
          Jesus knew that, like John the Baptist, these two pairs of brothers were no strangers to risk. They had faced the hardships of the fishing life, and they had found a way to survive and even thrive. Jesus chose these men to be his companions and disciples because he knew that they could weather the storms that were sure to come.
          This congregation is no stranger to risk. You have lived through changes of pastors; you have started new ministries and developed a plan for growth and leadership development. You have declared yourselves to be open and affirming. And, you now stand in a place that holds some financial risk.  Yet you also have incredible resilience and spirit – you know you’ve got the strength to get through these challenges together.
          Here we stand on the threshold, the liminal place, beside the Sea of Galilee, near the Finger Lakes, with the opportunity to heed Christ’s call: “Follow me!” This liminal place can be filled with darkness – and this is where I get back to Isaiah’s prophecy about darkness and light –  for “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 image had great power for the first readers of Matthew’s gospel. When I was in Togo, most people in the village of Tabligbo did not have electricity.  If we needed to walk anywhere in the dark, we needed a flashlight or other light source to safely travel. Without light, we could have stepped on a green mamba snake, or fallen into a hole, or been attacked by a person or animal. Light was our security and our salvation.
          Today’s Psalmist (Psalm 27) wrote, “God, you are my light, my salvation – my fortress and my hiding place.”  Jesus calls us to take great risks, but he also promises to accompany us and light the way. We are called to cast our nets wide, to make room for all God’s beloved, to find where the world’s deep hunger and our deep gladness meet. We are called to join in Jesus’ ministry of healing and caring; and sharing the Good News that the kindom of heaven is not something that we have to strive to “get into,” for it is already here, among us.
          We are in a place where the path forward may seem dark and unknown. A wise friend once told me that sometimes God gives us just enough light to take the next step. And then the next, and then the next. May we seek together to discern that next step, knowing that the light of Christ will continue to show us the way. Amen.

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