3rd Sunday after the Epiphany Sermon

January 22, 2023
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

There’s a simple line at the beginning of today’s gospel reading, so seemingly disconnected from the story that follows, that it’s easily overlooked: “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.”

Why’s it there? Why that little comment about John being arrested?

At one level, it simply roots the story that follows to a particular moment. It tells the reader, it was at this point in history that Jesus’ ministry began.

But at a deeper level, it tells us that – in the big scope of God’s redeeming story – a significant transition is now taking place. John was the one who set the stage for Jesus’ ministry. John was the one who prepared the way, who called Israel to repentance. Psychologically and spiritually, they were filled with expectation, ready for their Messiah to come. But now John has been arrested. So t’s up to Jesus to take up the task for which he, and all Israel, had been prepared.

And Jesus picks up right where John left off. In fact, Matthew describes his ministry with the exact same language he used to describe John’s ministry: “Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” The baton has successfully been passed from John to Jesus.

But I can’t help but think, from a human perspective, how dangerous and lonesome a position Jesus was in. He’d never been a Messiah before. He’d never had disciples, taught in the synagogues, healed people of diseases, cast out demons. He was facing it all for the first time. And not only that, he’d just emerged from the wilderness where’d he’d been tempted by the devil for forty days. He knew how dangerous his work could be, how vulnerable he was to temptation. And now, on top of it all, the only person who had any inkling of what his ministry was all about, had just been arrested. Jesus was starting out completely alone.

So what does he do?

He begins to form a small community of people who will join him in his work, this little team of disciples – just four to start with – who leave their careers behind and follow Jesus as he begins this ministry.

What Jesus is modeling for us, right from the start, is that we are not alone. Especially in ministry. What Jesus was doing in Galilee, what we’re doing in Gig Harbor – the work of God is rooted in community, in togetherness.

So much of this life is lonesome. In our work and in our relationships, we harbor so much anxiety and insecurity – that we’re doing it wrong, that we’re disappointing the people who depend on us. And it can leave us feeling so alone. But if God in God’s essence, is a community – Father, Son, and Spirit, One God! – it makes sense that the work of God would be rooted in that same reality.

Of course, it often isn’t. Surveys of clergy regularly reveal tremendous isolation. And I can’t point to how many times a parish leader has gotten discouraged and burnt out, bearing the responsibility of ministry alone, such that the work of the church, and therefore, the spirit of the church, becomes lifeless and lonesome and burdensome. Which then begs the question, “What are we doing here, if what we do isn’t creating hope and life and togetherness?” (Or to quote our Sr. Warden from yesterday’s vestry retreat, “if the ministry isn’t fun”?)

Now, of course, there are times when work is just work and we simply need to slug along and get it done. Fair enough. But the deeper reality, the deeper experience of ministry – be it in the context of the church or wherever we’re living out our faith – should be something meaningful and worthy, that does bring us into a deeper union with God and one another and this whole world to which we belong.

At the vestry retreat this weekend, that was one of the underlying values beneath all our mission plans: how do we foster real community, a real sense of being seen and known and cared for? Because a church that is healthy and alive is one where a generous majority of its members believe, “This is my church. So if I want it to be loving, then I will love. If I want it to be generous, then I will be generous. If I want it to care for those most on the margins, then I will see, and I will care for those on the margins” – be it the homeless teen, living in her car, or the person standing alone at coffee hour.

The responsibility of church leaders is to create systems and opportunities that facilitate love. But it is the church, who makes that love real.

And to be clear, it is a risk. Giving ourselves away to one another is always risky. It always comes at a cost. Our impulse will always be to pull back, to stay safe and comfortable. Like the words of a poet I recently read, “I just sit where I am put, composed of stone and wishful thinking.”[1]

But we want more than that. We need more than that.

Like in today’s gospel, we need to hear Christ’s call to lay down our nets and follow him. And, you know, sometimes you’ve just gotta do it. To just say, “yes,” without overthinking it. The same poet wrote, “Fear lives in the head. Courage lives in the heart.”

And there comes a point where faith truly is an act of courage, a courage that finally says, “Aaah! Okay!” and does it, like those first disciples who followed Jesus, those four fishermen. We don’t know anything about their backstory, or what they may already have known about Jesus. Matthew doesn’t give us any of that. Instead, he tells us about their nets. Three times, in fact:

Peter and Andrew were brothers, “casting their net into the sea.”

“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

James and John, were brothers, “in the boat…mending their nets.”

Now, from a literary perspective, it begs the question, “Why so much attention on the nets?”

And let me tell you how pleased I was at Tuesday’s Bible study. We came up with a theory: the nets are symbols. They represent the craft those fishermen already knew, the life they’d been living all those years. So when Jesus calls them to follow him, that he will make them fish for people, he’s saying, “You know how to fish; your whole life has prepared you for that, and who you’ve become is who I want for the work we’ll do together.”

Nothing is wasted. Their whole lives were forming them, preparing them to join Jesus in bringing forth the Kingdom of Heaven.

And look at the way Matthew cleverly weaves this idea into the story: Once the disciples join Jesus, his ministry is described in three distinct ways, each of which correlates to disciples’ work with the nets. “Jesus went throughout Galilee,” it says, “teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and sickness among the people.”

Now compare that with the nets.

To cast a net is to throw it out broadly where you think the fish are. Like teaching in the synagogue, where you cast out your words where the people have gathered, with hopes of making a catch.

To leave the nets behind and follow him, is to respond to the good news that’s been proclaimed, which Matthew defined earlier as the act of repentance – of leaving one way of life for another.

And then to mend the nets is to repair them, like Jesus curing every disease and sickness among the people.

“Come,” says Jesus, “I will make you fish for people.” Whatever you’ve been doing in this life, however you’ve shaped and molded – by your career, your travels, your relationships, even by your sufferings – God will take it all: “Your unique story, makes you uniquely qualified to be my disciple. Come, and follow me.”

It might be skills you have to offer – a book keeper can help out the finance team; a contractor can help with the building team.

But more importantly is the question, How have you been formed? How is your character now strengthened to do what needs to be done? Like the fishermen who knew manual labor, who knew long hours and storms at sea, who knew how to wait and endure disappointment when all their toil led to empty nets. Those are character building experiences – character they’d need in their life to come – following Jesus and growing the church in his name.

And so for us, how have our lives formed us in ways that have prepared us to join Christ in loving this world?

I think of my friend, Petronella. If you’ve ever been in my office and seen the black and white photo of a smiling old, wrinkled lady, that’s Petronella.

She was raised a British aristocrat, in wealth and privilege. She married and moved to Belgium, where she gave birth to three children under Nazi occupation, doing whatever she could to keep her family alive. She saved a Jewish family along the way. Although she’d been raised a faithful Anglican, in mid-life she had something of an adult conversion to faith where God and God’s holiness became real. She became more active in church, in Bible studies, in worship. Aware of her family’s historic complicity in the conflict between the British and Irish, she began praying for peace in Northern Ireland. And well into her 70s, she announced to her children one day, “I’m selling the family home in Belgium, and moving to Northern Ireland, to be part of the reconciliation movement.”

That’s when I knew her, in this community of Catholics and Protestants who lived and worked together, worshiped and prayed together, in the midst of the Troubles – a kind of living embodiment of the Kingdom of God, where swords had beaten to ploughshares.

And Petronella wasn’t extraordinary in leadership or skills needed to keep the community functioning. She had her little duties, as we all did. She prayed along with everyone. She told good stories. She justified her addiction of watching snooker on television in the middle of the day by knitting slippers for orphans while she watched. But it was her character that made her so essential, a kind of grandmother to the whole community. Her lifetime of formation – children, war, bereavement, faith – mingled together to make her who she was. And when Christ called, she dropped her nets and followed him to be part of his work of forging peace.

As can we all.

Your life has prepared you for this. So, come, and follow him.

 

 

[1] Louise Penny, The Long Way Home, 276.