A Call to Follow

Sunday, January 22
Third Sunday after Epiphany

Weekly Theme
A Call to Follow

Weekly 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 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.

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. What would a re-set of your own life look and feel like, today?

2017 Reflection by Kate 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.” 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 relationshipsÖand from the midst of the workaday world into a new set of relationships and a new vocation.”

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.

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 more like 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? Is a re-set of your life needed today, 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 Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, 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.” 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. 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 Guant·namo 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.

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

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 Jesusí name, churches just like your own, from the smallest to the largest. As Kathleen Norris has observed in the The Christian Century (1-15-2008), “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.”

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.

A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) is the retired dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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.”

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 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.”

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Weekly Seeds is a resource provided by the Faith Formation Ministry Team of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.