Matthew 4:12-23 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 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.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
Do these words confuse you as much as they do me? Drop everything – your job, your family, your familiar life, your safe life – and “follow me”, says Jesus. Jesus doesn’t ask a whole lot, does he?
You might think that this is only about ordained ministry. There is certainly an element of that and I can speak to my own sense of call and what that entailed in my life. But, this is a bigger picture question that we are glimpsing in these words – a tapping on the shoulders of each one of us no matter what path we have felt called to follow. In this reading the call and response may seem rather simply implied: The call is extended, and the response is immediate. I think, however, that might be creative literary license at work by the gospel writer.
This is what I think. We are all called to a variety of tasks, each of us equipped with varied gifts that are needed in this world that lead to justice and mercy and reflect God’s love in this hurting world.
Jesus’ invitation for everyone is simply the same: “follow me”. Many did respond and turn away from their lives of comfort – they let go of the old comforts and way of life and thinking, to be reoriented to a new way of being – what theologian Kathryn Matthews calls is a “re-set” of our lives. (ucc.org/sermonseeds.) Are we capable of the re-set of God’s call to us? I think of the rich man who asked Jesus what he needed to do to earn eternal life. Jesus told him he had to walk away from all he had – just like Simon Peter and Andrew and James and John did – just walk away and follow him. He, like many, was unable to do that – to re-set his thinking and his life and his lifestyle – this re-set was just too difficult for him. He was not a bad person. We may read that into the script – but he was not a bad person. He too was seeking a better way to be – a deeper spiritual way, but he was just not ready for the re-set Jesus was asking of him. Maybe that came later. Maybe not.
Answering the call of God is not only a re-set, but the potential for an incredible transformed life. And this does not necessarily mean a bed of roses either. Well, it might, but the thorns will not have been removed. Kathryn Matthew notes: “Lives both upturned and transformed are not always ‘good news’ to those who prefer a comfortable, undisturbed life of faith. For example, consider the backlash the current Pope, Francis, has received for his clear and deeply inspiring words about economic justice.
Francis and liberation theologians are not just ‘making this stuff up.’ They draw on the gospel itself, the good news that Jesus proclaimed to compellingly, in word, in deed and even in his own person, that people did radical things like walk away from everything familiar and safe to know more, and perhaps even do more, because of his teachings, because of who Jesus was to them, to his people, and to the world.” (ibid)
There is certainly a split in this country between Democrats and Republicans, between left and right. And it’s ok by me if I’m tagged as a bleeding-heart liberal, but at the heart of the matter is the gospel call – not any particular political ideology. That above all else influences my life. That is risky business.
Matthews asks: “What would it cost us, especially in the affluent West, to drop everything and follow Jesus? Pope Francis is a great illustration of the words of another Latin American church leader and theologian, Dom Helder Camara, who said, ‘When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.’” (ibid) Taking a deeper and longer look at the cause of systemic injustice is risky business. Following the gospel call can certainly be a threat to the status quo both within and out of the church, or should I say, what has grown into being the institution of the church.
The words from the prophet Isaiah are echoed in this gospel’s reading this morning reminding us that “life can be difficult and seemingly dark – that even those who sat in darkness have seen a great light. The hope found in these verses is announced at a time when Israel had chosen darkness. They [as we] know that hope is not limited to the future. God is our light and salvation now.” (M.Daniel Carroll R, sojo.net/livingtheword, Jan 2020.) Right now. This verse is also woven into today’s scripture at a dark time in Jesus’ ministry when John the Baptist is thrown into jail. We all need reminders of God’s light and presence.
Because we all hunger for good news in the land of despair and darkness in which we may too often find ourselves and into this darkness in the world is the person of Jesus, and that light is experienced as compassion for the suffering and hungers (both physical and spiritual) of the people (ucc.org/sermonseeds; F. Dean Lueking, The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels.)
As a community of disciples, then, we are light bearers in the midst of darkness. As writer Kathleen Norris has observed, ‘We may be unable to bring to fruition the wholeness envisioned by Isaiah, but we are asked to imagine it nevertheless, and believe that God can make it happen’ (ucc.org/sermonseeds; Kathleen Norris, Christian Century 1-15-2008.)
Kathryn Matthews reminds us that the story continues, and that God’s ancient promises as the great prophet Isaiah expressed them are true: light breaks forth in the most unlikely of places, in the midst of the most unlikely people, and shines even today in the ministry and faithfulness of communities gathered in Jesus’ name, churches like ours and those of varied sizes – from small to large because we too are called to be carriers of light.
“We ourselves are those most unlikely of people, the mostly unexpected sources of help and hope, and good news for the world even in the most troubling times. In a Christian Century reflection it is noted that the bad news that surrounds us should not make us miss ‘Epiphany light,’ and ‘God’s saving reign, which is continually on the move to the ends of the earth as well as to the innermost reaches of the human heart.’ (ucc.org/sermonseeds, F. Dean Lueking, Christian Century, 1-11-11)
“Follow me,” Jesus said. To do so may seem daunting and overwhelming and exhausting because there are so many needs around us. God’s call for justice always seems just out of our grasp. This call, however, does not mean that God wants us to sacrifice our own lives to do so.
“Follow me,” Jesus said. We are each of us called, but we are not called to do any of these things without being called to feed our own well-being, tend to our souls and hearts and to thrive in our own spiritual lives. Enriching our own spiritual lives gives us a life-empowering, soul-connection with God as well as others. When we don’t care for ourselves we may feel depleted and stop thriving. The reality is that spiritual burnout is a real danger among clergy and non-clergy alike. We are not called to sacrifice our own lives. God’s call is not meant to deplete us, but to enrich us – not necessarily in financial ways, but in depth of heart and mind and soul – a flourishing of our own being. Healthy spiritual connection can allow us to thrive in the world and to be open to God’s call to us, not only as individuals, but as community to do the work. So, a reminder: Self-care is not selfishness. This is one of the reasons why clergy in the Southwest Conference and in many denominations are required to take boundary training classes every five years, because, like so many other care providers, it is easy to overlook our own needs.
Each of us is called in our own way with our own gifts that lead to justice and mercy and shedding light in this dark and hurting world – God calls each of us – as unlikely as that may seem. “You [each of you] have a gift and we are incomplete without it” (Clergy Coaching Network).
May God’s light and love bless each of us this day to do the work we are blessed to do and to be the blessing we are meant to be. Amen.
Copyright DMC 2020