Sermon Seeds: A Call to Follow
Third Sunday after Epiphany Year A
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
A Call to Follow
2017 Updated Reflection:
by Kathryn Matthews
The great evangelist 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” (New Proclamation Year A 2008). 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.” This shining 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” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).
Family values and radical commitment
We might wonder how to connect this sort of abandonment of family with our contemporary claim to put our “family values” at the forefront of our public and spiritual lives (however much we fail at this). But is it possible that we use our faith, or at least our religious commitments, to put our lives in respectable, orderly comfort? According to Thomas Long, the Reign of God isn’t about increased productivity and the rewards the world offers for it, including security: “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 (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).
God is still speaking to us in the midst of our efforts to focus on living comfortable, orderly, pleasant lives, and 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, perhaps the privilege we enjoy without being aware of it.
Radical renewal v. prosperity preaching
We note that this theology of radical renewal and even abandonment seems to contradict “prosperity”-driven preaching, if it under-emphasizes, for example, the call to work for justice for the poor and doesn’t speak so much about “loss” or about “the cost of discipleship,” instead focusing on the shower of blessings (especially financial wealth) that God presumably offers to those who simply open their hearts and lives to such riches. (I personally believe that prosperity preaching is not identical to abundance theology, which recognizes the overflowing generosity of God that we’re called to share with one another; it seems to me to be instead a “me-and-mine-first” approach to life, however positive, however grateful it sounds.)
I think we’re being challenged by today’s reading from Matthew in ways that we often miss when we listen to it being read in church, or even when reading it alone. It has always struck me as a “nice,” almost romanticized (perhaps too easy, or too simple?) version of call. Are these first disciples selfish, me-first folks? I don’t think so, but they do seem hungry for something more than the food they work so hard for each day, and they just walk away from the labor that brings everyday survival, perhaps in order to thrive, spiritually as much as (or more than) materially.
What do we hunger for?
Of course, we can’t know what was in the hearts of those disciples on that seashore long ago, but we can ask how this kind of story works today, in our lives and in the life of the church. What is in our hearts when we encounter a call from God, individually and communally? What’s on our minds–what are we focused on? What do we hunger for, when we stop to think about the big picture of our lives, not simply our next meal or our next achievement? What does it mean for us to “thrive spiritually”? I notice that the word “thrive” is connected with “prosperity” in the dictionary, as is the word “growth,” but financial meanings are invariably attached, as in “getting rich.” I think we could reclaim words like “growth” and “thriving” (and perhaps even “rich”!) for our spiritual health, and for God’s plan for us as individuals and communities.
We also have to wonder how willing we are to have our lives turned upside down in order to experience the kind of repentance that turns away from materialism and self-interest, both communal and individual. Jesus provoked many of his listeners with such expectations, and he inspired a number of them to leave everything–to let go of stuff–for exactly such a reorientation and renewal, as we would say today, a “re-set” of their lives. Their lives were never again the same, and probably not as comfortable, either.
Is God calling us to a “re-set” of our lives?
There is an important distinction, of course, between being comfortable and being comforted. And many of us who long for the good news of the gospel live lives of struggle to make ends meet, or lives filled with anxiety about the future. What does God call us to, in that situation? What would a re-set of your own life look and feel like, today? Is it needed, or have you already set out on such a path?
I have Zacchaeus on my mind here, and maybe Joseph of Arimathea, and certainly “the women who followed Jesus,” even though we don’t always know their names; they are remembered for providing resources to support Jesus’ ministry, and we have to assume that that sharing and that traveling transformed their lives. And then there are all those interesting people in the Acts of the Apostles, and in the Epistles, whose lives were changed because they heard God’s call.
Do we really want to hear this call?
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. Before him, liberation theologians troubled by the abject poverty of people in Latin America had made the following “discomforting” observation: “The poverty of Third World countries was the price to be paid for the First World to be able to enjoy the fruits of overabundance” (Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, A Concise History of Liberation Theology). But Francis and liberation theologians are not just “making this stuff up.” They draw 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 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. (We note that our weekly theme is “A Call to Follow,” not “A Call to Simply Bask in the Light of God’s Love.”) 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), and produce that poverty: 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.”
Galilee, at the crossroads
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 (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). At the crossroads of international trade routes, Galilee knew the heel of foreign armies as they marched through, or stopped to occupy the land. (In his 1-11-11 Christian Century reflection, Lueking says that Isaiah’s use of these towns “signaled to eighth-century BCE hearers what Vietnam, Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay signal to our ears–the hellishness of war and the darkness engulfing those who live in its aftermath.”)
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 (New Proclamation Year A 2008).
Longing for the light to break forth
Sometimes help comes from the most unexpected of places and the most unlikely of people. When have you 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 who “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.” Commentators 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” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).
The promises are true
This may not be the most popular wording for our congregational mission statements, yet in this Epiphany season we are reminded 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 for them, too), and shines even today in the ministry and faithfulness of communities gathered in Jesus’ name, churches just like your own, from the smallest to the largest. As 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” (Christian Century 1-15-2008).
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. As Lueking writes in his Christian Century reflection, 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.” May that light in all its loveliness reach to the depths of each of our hearts in this beautiful Epiphany season.
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in July after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
Pope Francis I, 21st century
“Find new ways to spread the word of God to every corner of the world.”
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.”
Barack Obama, 21st century
“A change is brought about because ordinary people do extraordinary things.”
Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, 21st century
“The trouble with deep belief is that it costs something And there is something inside me, some selfish beast of a subtle thing that doesn’t like the truth at all because it carries responsibility, and if I actually believe these things I have to do something about them. It is so, so cumbersome to believe anything. And it isn’t cool.”
Madeleine L’Engle, 20th century
“We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
Tyler Edwards, Zombie Church: Breathing Life Back Into the Body of Christ
“The problem that we are facing in the church today is that we have so many Christians who have made a decision to believe in Jesus but not a commitment to follow Him. We have people who are planning to, meaning to, trying to, wanting to, going to, we just don’t have people who are doing it.”
Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone, 19th century
“I am an average good Christian, when you don’t push my Christianity too far. And all the rest of you–which is a great comfort–are, in this respect, much the same as I am.”
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 comprehend…some things are the same: the world and the church desperately need [our] energy, imagination, passion, impatience, intelligence, and love…one of the great biblical themes is that God calls…all 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.”
But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
God is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
God is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
One thing I asked of God,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of God
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of God,
and to inquire in God’s temple.
For God will hide me in God’s shelter
in the day of trouble;
God will conceal me
under the cover of God’s tent;
God will set me high
on a rock.
Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in God’s tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to God.
Hear, O God,
when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me
and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says,
“seek God’s face!”
Your face, O God,
do I seek.
Do not hide your face
Do not turn your servant away
you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off,
do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation!
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
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 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 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.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday”–not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”