Called Together/Call: A Challenge and a Gift

January 26, 2014

Sunday, January 26
Third Sunday after Epiphany

Weekly Theme
Called Together/Call: A Challenge and a Gift

Prayer
God of Blazing light, through the power of the cross you shattered our darkness, scattering the fears that bind us and setting us free to live as your children. Give us courage and conviction that we may joyfully turn and follow you into new adventures of faithful service, led by the light that shines through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Focus Scripture
Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, 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 Gentilesó

 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 lake 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.

All readings for this week
Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 4-9  
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

Focus Questions

1. What is your own experience of having been called into a Christian community?

2. When have you been an unlikely and unexpected source of help for another person?

3. In what ways has your congregation sat in darkness, and then experienced the light of God's love?

4. Would you describe your experience of faith and call as ever having a "gut-wrenching" moment?

5. Who are the followers of Jesus who have been "called together" with you? How have they made a difference in your life?

Reflection by Kate Huey

John the Baptist "goes before" Jesus in more ways than one: he proclaims the reign of God coming near in the person of Jesus, Herman C. Waetjen writes, but he also precedes Jesus on the path to "rejection and death in Judea." There are many indications here at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, just as there were in the Nativity stories, about where this story will lead.

Epiphany is the season of light, and the first disciples seem to be like Isaiah's "people who walked in darkness" but now "have seen a great light." The light seems to blind them to all that has gone before, to their everyday pursuits and previous commitments. Waetjen describes the first two disciples, Simon and Andrew, as poor (they have only nets, no boat), and the sons of Zebedee as more affluent because they have a boat (in Mark's version of this story, they even have employees; they're a small family business, and their father undoubtedly needs their strong arms). Thomas Long sees these four disciples as "representative" of those who will follow Jesus in the future: "Jesus summons people from the fabric of family relationships and from the midst of the workaday world into a new set of relationships and a new vocation." The same can be said, then, about followers of Jesus today: we come from all sorts of backgrounds, all sorts of families, all sorts of faith journeys (or none at all), and yet Jesus calls us together, to leave our old lives behind, and to be one community even in our diversity.

We might wonder how to connect the abandonment of one's past family relationships with today's emphasis on "family values." But is it possible that we use our faith or at least our religious commitment to put our lives in respectable, orderly comfort? According to Thomas Long, the Reign of God isn't about making us "more effective and productive in our jobs. Our work is truly effective when it serves to express the will of God. The patterns of our lives are not made secure by the kingdom of heaven; the kingdom of heaven rearranges them into the new design of God's own making." But Long says that all this disruption is "not to destroy but to renew," and our lives are transformed in the process.

Upsetting our peaceful lives

Perhaps God is still speaking to us, then, in the midst of our efforts to focus on living comfortable, orderly, pleasant lives, in the midst of our attempts to use the gospel, in the face of our expectations that the church undergird such a life. God calls us, each in our own setting, to repent, that is, to turn in a new direction, to open our lives to a radical renewal that may upset and re-orient our neat little, hard-won patterns of comfort and familiarity, the unquestioned assumptions, the privilege we enjoy without even being aware of it. Perhaps this radical renewal will contradict middle-class, prosperity-driven theologies, for example, that seem to under-emphasize the call to work personally and systemically for justice for the poor. How willing are we to have our lives turned upside down in order to experience this kind of repentance? Jesus provoked many of his listeners with such expectations, but on the other hand, he inspired a number of them to leave everything for exactly such a reorientation and renewal. Their lives were never again the same, and probably not too comfortable, either. (There is an important distinction, of course, between being "comfortable" and being "comforted.")

For example, consider the backlash the current Pope, Francis, is receiving for his clear and deeply inspiring words about economic justice. But Francis is not just "making this stuff up." He draws on the gospel itself, the good news that Jesus proclaimed so 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, experience more, and perhaps even do more, because of his teachings, because of who Jesus was to them, to his people, and to the world. Perhaps what so many of us find invigorating and even life-changing--the gospel--is the same thing that caused Simon, Andrew, and James and John as well, to leave everything they had (whether it was a little or a lot, it was all they knew) and follow this teacher, Jesus, on a path they could not begin to imagine. A gentle spirit, filled with humility and kindness, can also challenge and provoke those who would rather focus on "other" dimensions of the life of faith. Francis may seem most popular when he's seen in photographs that show his tenderness to the poor and those who suffer, but the static begins when he questions the things that influence our lives (perhaps even more than the gospel does, if we look honestly): materialism, militarism, unbridled capitalism, classism. What would it cost us, especially in the affluent West, to drop everything and follow Jesus? 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."

Throughout his Gospel, Matthew teaches us "who Jesus is." According to F. Dean Lueking, Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah to explain why Jesus goes to the land of the two tribes (Zebulun and Napthali, in Galilee) that had first experienced "the wrath of God" in the form of Assyrian oppression. In fact, at the crossroads of international trade routes, Galilee knew the heel of foreign armies as they marched through, or stopped to occupy the land. There were many Jews there, mixed with the Gentiles, hungry for good news, and it's a wonderful image--again--of what is to come as the gospel spreads to the whole world, for all of God's children. Out of that place of Gentiles--Waetjen calls it "the land of contempt"--comes light for the world in the person of Jesus, and that light is experienced as compassion for the suffering and hungers (both physical and spiritual) of the people.

Help from the most unlikely places

Sometimes help comes from the most unexpected of places and the most unlikely of people. Have you ever felt that you were a person "sitting in darkness," longing for light to break forth in your life, longing for something to happen, for someone to come along, that will transform everything? Were you ever surprised by the way God sent help, or the person bringing it? In what ways has your congregation sat in darkness, and then experienced the light of God's love? What kind of radical reorientation did this produce or require? What new and unexpected things has God done in the life of your church? How do you plan to share it? As you look around your community and around the world, what new works and wonders is God about?

The message that Jesus embodies, Lueking says, isn't about judgment; it isn't even about the light. Instead, Jesus is the light: "He is light and will give light, by his teaching and healing, by his suffering and his rising, and through the community of his disciples...." Lueking calls this "a magnificent Epiphany message," but one that is "news that is both gut-wrenching and glad beyond all expectation." Scholars seem to agree about the importance then of the community of followers (those of us who have abandoned our nets and boats, and had our lives changed forever) as, in Lueking's words, "a countercultural force, untamed and raw, summoning us away from all easy ruts to the new life of righteousness." This may not be the most popular wording for our congregational mission statements, yet the story continues: light breaking forth in the most unlikely of places, in the midst of the most unlikely people (and for them, too), and light shining even today in the ministry and faithfulness of communities gathered in Jesus' name. We ourselves are those most unlikely of people, the mostly unexpected sources of help and hope, and good news for the world.

For a preacher's version of this reflection (with book titles), go to http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/january-26-2014.html.
For more materials for reflection, go to our Sermon Seeds Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection

Helen Keller, 20th century  
"I must not just live my life; I will not just spend my life. I will invest my life."

Francis de Sales, 16th century
"In the quest to know God, may we do ordinary things extraordinarily well."

e.e. cummings, 20th century
"Bon Dieu! may I some day do something truly great. amen."

Oliver Wendell Holmes, 19th century:
"Alas for those who never sing and die with all their music left in them."  

John Buchanan, 21st century
"[T]he world and the church are changing more rapidly than we can comprehendÖsome things are the same: the world and the church desperately need [our] energy, imagination, passion, impatience, intelligence, and loveÖone of the great biblical themes is that God callsÖall of us to walk into the future without knowing exactly where we are headed, to let go of old securities and certainties and trust the God who promises to be with us wherever we go."

Pope Francis I, 21st century
"Find new ways to spread the word of God to every corner of the world."

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CONTACT INFO

Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey
Dean of the Amistad Chapel
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-3855
hueyk@ucc.org