Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A] - Matthew 4:12-23 and 1 Corinthians 1:10-18)

I don’t know if you caught it or not as I was reading the gospel lesson, but there is an awful lot of leaving involved in Jesus’ ministry, especially here at the beginning. As it turns out, there must be something about the kingdom of God that causes people to break with their past, and even move them around.

It’s Jesus that this happens to first. He gets word that his cousin and fellow preacher, John, is thrown in jail, and something about that news—it’s unclear exactly what that is—causes Jesus to leave the area around Jerusalem in the south where he has just been baptized and where he’s been hanging out in the wilderness, and head back up north to Galilee where he was raised. He goes back to Nazareth, his hometown, but then doesn’t stay there very long, either. Maybe he drops in to say hello to mom and dad, to do some laundry, pack a duffelbag, get a bit to eat, because then he hits the road again to a bustling fishing village known as Capernaum. As far as we know, Jesus never goes back to his childhood home. When he leaves, and leaves for good.

Once Jesus is in Capernaum, we see that there’s even more leaving. Jesus calls his first followers, and immediately upon hearing meeting Jesus and hearing him, they get up and leave their jobs as fishermen. The second set of brothers he calls, James and John, even leave their father in the boat in order to become one of Jesus’ disciples.

St. Andrew's Basilica, Ravenna
To be selected or called into the fellowship of a rabbi, or teacher of the law, was a very high honor for young men of Jesus’ day. Some historians note that typically what happened is that young men, once they finished their schooling in the scriptures, would apply to rabbis with the hope they’d be selected as a student. The fact that Jesus reverses that system by walking up and directly calling followers, even ones who haven’t “applied,” may explain why they are so quick to leave.

I realize my own launch into the world as a young man probably matches others in my generation and those after it. It had fits and starts where I’d head out on one adventure or another, only to have to come back to mom’s and dad’s for a while. It was very humbling and eye-opening, however, to hear many of the older men in the congregation this week share that their abrupt departure from home came with a draft notice. They left home to serve their country, never to return home again, having to fit their own life dreams and goals into and behind the command handed down from a higher authority.

One gentleman explained how the army bounced him around a bit at first, interfering with his plans to marry his fiancée. As soon as he finally arrived at his permanent post, he promptly reported to his commanding officer and boldly asked for leave in order to travel to Florida and have a wedding. Somewhat perturbed, the commanding officer eventually gave in, but under one condition: that he actually show him he had one ticket for the trip down to Florida and two for the trip back!

What about following Jesus, though? Leaving is somehow always involved, isn’t it? It doesn’t need to involve a geographical or physical shift, putting one or two tickets in our hand, but there is always some sort of departure coming our way. There is always some kind of dropping of the nets and stepping away from the old boat. Jesus comes to draw us into a new way of life that will affect our current relationships with other people, with the world, and even with ourselves. And on some level that requires a letting go.

Last Sunday at the second service we held a baptism for a sweet little girl who is just past her second birthday. Her parents had dutifully prepared her for what was going to happen, but when the time came for the water to be poured on her head she got scared and would not let go of her mom. She clung as tightly as she could to her mom’s neck so that she wouldn’t have to go through with it. There were a few milliseconds in there when I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but eventually we got her baptized and it all worked out just fine, but I think her reluctance kind of caught everyone off guard, including her parents. After the church service was over, I told the parents I happen to love that kind of baptism every once in a while. What may have been a temporarily awkward moment for them ended up being a perfect model for everyone of how most of us actually respond to the call to follow Jesus. It the call that involves letting go of some of our old ways of thinking, our old ways of dealing with people, our old values and priorities. Jesus offers us a place at his side and instead of willingly, blindly submitting, we balk. We waver. We get in that moment and suddenly remember maybe we don’t really want this whole new life all that badly and start realizing the former ways are more comfortable.

And, truth be told, they probably are more comfortable. The thing is, Jesus is rarely into offering us something more comfortable. But he is into offering us something new. He is into giving us the kingdom. You see, the call to follow Jesus, the Lord of life, the opportunity to respond to his kingdom, is not always about some career decision, or some big, momentous life choice or even the moment of baptism, which is how we often make it out to be. We hear these stories of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and one danger is to think we’re given this one chance, that our faith has to be traced back to one singular moment where it all made sense and when we held that draft notice in our hand. For some people, that may be the case. But for everyone, those already walking in confidence behind him and those still clinging to mama’s neck, Jesus walks onto the ordinary seashore of our lives in and every day, each and ever hour, really, offering us the chance to respond in each situation of our lives the way a redeemed child of God would.

The call to follow him comes when you wake up in the morning and get the chance to begin a new day. The call to follow him comes whether you’re out on your own or whether you wake up every morning in your parents’ house. The call to follow him comes when you’re trying to figure out how to make money and when you are trying to figure out how to spend the money you just got. The call to follow him comes when you are thrust into a new situation at work or at school and you can’t immediately figure out a way forward. The call to follow him comes when you realize someone has wronged you and you have to figure out how to respond. The call to follow him comes when you realize you’ve wronged someone and you have to figure out how to respond.

The call to follow and learn about God’s ways in Christ is always there, never really rescinded, at least for now, and is ready for new recruits, or old recruits. And it always involves leaving our comfortable sinful selves behind and grabbing onto something new. Because the call that Jesus issues to be a disciple is based on grace, which means Jesus is going to lay claim on you and all your gifts that you don’t even think you have before you even get a chance to apply and have a Teacher.

My guess is that if you’ve been watching the news this week, you’ve seen lots of photos of crowds. Maybe you’ve even been in one of those crowds, or wished you had been in one of those crowds. They are scenes of people who have left the comfort of home to be drawn into something larger than themselves. There’s also been lots of talk about sizes of crowds and the conclusions we’re supposed to draw when we are asked to compare those crowds.

Whether they were related to the inauguration of a new president or gathering in streets to march for other ideals related to women’s rights these crowds can give us a sense that movements are afoot. They give us the sense that we can be a part of something, or that we are a part of something that is happening—a march, an action, a change. And as exciting and empowering as any of those moments and movements are to some people, there are still a great many who stand on the sidelines, not knowing where they fit, or where there concerns are being voiced. And there is also the undeniable feeling that we’re being divided, not too unlike the folks in Paul’s congregation at Corinth, who started to make too big of a deal about which leader had baptized them, which leader they most resembled in stature and wisdom, among other things.

No one needs to make light of any movement these days, but the truth is, if you have heard the call of Jesus, if you have passed through these waters, if you have looked at the cross and contemplated its significance, you are already part of the greatest movement that creation has seen. You are part of a movement that draws people in, inexplicably, to get behind a man who dies in order that others might live, who denies his own so-called rights in order that we may live rightly. You are part of a movement that draws people like light attracts people who’ve sat a long time in darkness waiting for mercy.

You are part of a movement, to cite one example, that collected and spent over $43 million in agricultural, medical, and educational aid in 36 countries over the last year just through one of its charity organizations, Lutheran World Relief.

And you are a part of a movement that, to cite another, got 20 teenagers making quilts and clearing up a neglected East End cemetery this past Monday, on a day off from school. This is your movement…our movement…His movement…That fishes for people. I can’t explain how it works, but it does. It’s the Holy Spirit’s presence.

And whether we were baptized at 2 or 92, or baptized by Paul, or Apollos, or Pastor Joseph, whether we tiptoe in tentatively or can show our commanding officer we’ve got two tickets already, whether we march for the President or march against him, let us all be reminded today, at this table of mercy, we are part of a movement that is proclaiming the kingdom of God—a kingdom that began, of all places, on the streets of little a dusty ordinary fishing village with four ordinary guys who said. “We’ve got a Teacher. Let’s leave!”



Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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