Making calls

a sermon for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C]

Luke 5:1-11

It is hard to tell exactly how long it is from the way the gospel writers share their stories of Jesus, but we know for a while his ministry is a solo affair. Maybe it’s days. Maybe it’s weeks. Maybe it’s months. There’s no way to figure it out, really, but for some period of time after his baptism he is the only one in the area around the Sea of Galilee (or, as it’s sometimes called, the Lake of Gennesaret) announcing the kingdom of God through his preaching and teaching and demonstrating the power of that kingdom through healings and exorcisms.

And then one day he suddenly recruits some helpers. One day he starts choosing people for his team. One day the news about God’s kingdom becomes something that other people are involved in proclaiming.

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“Miraculous Draught of Fishes” (Raphael, 1515)

That may seem to be old news to you and me but it’s a pretty big deal because what that means is that God’s kingdom goes from being something that happens to people—something that heals people or changes them—to something that people actually take part in. God’s reign of mercy and peace and justice goes from being something that Jesus is bringing to the world and giving to people to something that actually enlists people in its spread. It goes from being an idea or the cause of one person to a movement that has followers.

Jesus’ cause becomes a movement down among the ordinary people of Galilee, down along the shore of Lake Gennesaret where the fishermen pull in their boats and are consumed with the tasks of daily life. These are not especially educated or powerful people. These aren’t royal court, well-connected folks. God’s kingdom in Christ first becomes a group endeavor among the day laborers and people who are in the middle of what they’re always in the middle of.

I think that’s why Jesus’ kingdom turns into a movement so quickly. God is holy and righteous and utterly different from humankind but humans are created in the image of God, after all, and so are able to embody the love and mercy of God in their words and deeds. Jesus embraces those unpretentious first followers as equals. He steps right into Simon Peter’s boat without even asking. He just commandeers it in order to continue talking to the crowd about the word of God as if it were his own. Simon’s everyday tools and trade are good enough for Jesus, the Son of God. Are you aware that the divine steps into your life just as you’re going about things, that Jesus can commandeer any dinner table, office workroom, any conversation? God is ultimately other than us, holy and mighty, but he comes into our presence and sees us as partners.

This, of course, can be accompanied by a sense of “I’m not worthy.” It’s like that old routine from Wayne’s World skits and movies: “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” Wayne and Garth are asked by Alice Cooper, their idol, to hang around after a show. They can’t believe it! Likewise, Simon sees this miraculous catch of fish that Jesus helps bring about and he immediately thinks “We’re not worthy!” He’s overwhelmed by a sense of his own inferiority, of his sinfulness, and yet Jesus still chooses him.

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In fact, this is a theme when it comes to taking part in God’s work. Isaiah, in our first reading, is ushered into the very presence of the Holy Lord and he, too, is overcome with how out of place he feels. He experiences the rush of angels and the whole temple shaking with God’s glory, and he says, “I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy!” And the apostle Paul, in our second lesson, talks about being “untimely born” and “unfit to be called a disciple”—that he is an unlikely bearer of the news of Jesus’ resurrection because he spent so much time working against the Jesus movement. But Simon will learn what Isaiah and Paul both learn, and that is Simon will be able to carry this message of God’s love in Jesus just as he is  and in the middle of things he’s in the middle of.

In addition to accepting his followers as equals, Jesus also does not ask them to download a whole lot of doctrine or information about him before they start. His only words are “Don’t be afraid,” and “from now on you will be catching people.” They leave everything and follow him. By following Jesus—watching him, imitating him, trying and failing and trying again at the same things he does—this is the way the kingdom of God begins to take root in the world.

There is a danger, though, in thinking that following Jesus is going to be one miraculous catch of fishes after another. What I mean by that is that we can get drawn in to this idea that the life of faith is a constant rush, one long drawn-out joy ride. In this age of where we grade everything on how authentic it feels, where the perceived “realness” of our experience is so important, this is hard to stomach. For some people it does sound like the life of faith is constant excitement, a constant “speaking straight from the heart,” but more often than not the work of God’s kingdom and bringing more people along, as Simon Peter and James and John will find out, is a daily slog with lots of duty. The miraculous, blow-your-socks-off experiences come every once in a while, but the overall bulk of their discipleship experience is putting one foot in front of the other, in showing up and trying again. Fishing, after all, is monotonous, chore-like work, especially if you do it to put food on the table. Jesus doesn’t say that part is doing to change. It’s just the focus that shifts.

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I am constantly amazed at the ways in which this culture can pressure people and their children to learning a sport or a musical instrument or some other hobby almost to mastery. And yet when it comes to faith and following Jesus we often think it’s just supposed to “happen.” Faith formation comes through practice and prayer, through being graciously open to the work the Spirit wants to do in us, in the daily life of home and work, not just at church. Discipline and disciple. Same root word. Not by accident.

You might hear a lot even in faith circles about the desire to “make a difference” in the world, or the longing to be impactful, to go viral. I always feel great to that something I’ve done or begun has affected a change somewhere. But isn’t that really about me? Jesus never says, “From now on you will be making a difference in the world.” Jesus never says, “Don’t be afraid. From now on you are going to have an impact.” His kingdom will make a difference and will have an impact, for sure, but that’s not your or my main concern. Our main concern is to follow him and embrace people the way he embraces us.

Howard Thurman, the civil rights leader and theologian who served as a mentor for Martin Luther King, Jr., and went on to co-found the first major interracial congregation in the U.S. might have said it best: “Don’t ask what the world needs,” he said. “Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

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Howard Thurman (1899-1981)

It is Jesus who has made us come alive. And he does not do this just once, as if our life of faith consists of just trying to recapture the magic we felt of when we first sensed the call or that first time we handed our life over to the Lord’s work. Jesus calls us over and over again. The grace of our baptism greets us each day. In the middle of whatever we’re in the middle of.

My first paid job was working one summer in high school as a telemarketer for a carpet cleaning company. These were the days before robocalls and cell phones and this job was boring with a capital B. We worked at fold-out tables in some back room with shag carpet and faux wood paneling on the walls. There were broken Venetian blinds on the windows that let in light unevenly. Each day our supervisors would literally rip out a page from a cross-reference phone book and hand it to us. Cross-reference phone books were books that listed people in a region by the street they lived on and then in the order of house number. Our task was to pick up our phone, go down that page and call the people at home, one-by-one, and recite a script when they answered.

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We were expected to make about three hundred calls a day. As you can imagine, we got hung up on a lot. We also got a whole lot of answering machines. A good day was getting just one person to agree to have their carpet cleaned. There were some experienced ladies who worked there that could get five or six and I never could figure out how they did it. If we got an answering machine, we were supposed to put an asterisk by that name. I remember the first time I finally finished a page. I proudly presented it to my supervisors, thinking I’d get a fresh page ripped out for me. Instead she handed me a used page from someone else and said, “Call the ones with stars beside their names.”

One time I got a sheet that had streets that I knew because they were in my school district. I was going down the list and I saw a family I actually knew. Their son was on the swim team with me. I had driven by their house countless times. I was so embarrassed I had to call them and was worried they might recognize my name. They didn’t, but lo and behold, that was my sale that day! I couldn’t believe it! I remember going to their house afterwards for a swim party and seeing their carpet and feeling this strange sense of pride.

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Jesus calls and calls. If he gets our answering machine, if we’re still too focused on ourselves and our own impact, he still calls and bids us to join the movement. He calls and suffers with a strange sense of pride in us, pride in how he’s changed us. He offers bread at the table and says it’s himself, sustenance for when the days get long. He himself seems to get a little disillusioned at one point, pleading that God might change the storyline and remove the cup. And Simon Peter—bless him—the guy who caught all those fish, who rung up hundreds of carpet cleaning sales that one day,  well, even he says, “Heck with it” later on and denies he ever knew the guy who stepped into his boat. It’s a strange movement, friends.

And it is still going on, my friends. Right here when we’re in the middle of whatever we’re in the middle of. This movement rises up, even when we think it’s dead and buried, and sweeps more people in.

We are not worthy of it. Not worthy at all—our lips are unclean and we fight against him way too often. But by the grace of God this holy movement rises up and brings us to life. God rips out another sheet of paper, hands it to us and says, “You. I want you on my team.”

Thanks be to God!

Bozo fisherman using a net on the River Niger, Mopti, Mali

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Hometown boy

A sermon for the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C]

Luke 4:21-30 and Jeremiah 1:4-10 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

I don’t envy Jesus. There he is, in his hometown synagogue, giving his first recorded sermon, and he ends up almost getting pushed off a cliff for what he says. Last time I checked, that is not typically what happens when preachers give a sermon in front of their home congregation, especially their first sermon. What I’m accustomed to seeing is pride and joy and extra guests out in the pews for moral support. This congregation has sent four of its own members to seminary and one young adult to global mission in the past seven years, and each time one of them has come back to preach in this pulpit there’s been a bit of a buzz…a happy buzz.

For example, I remember when Nate Huffman, the husband of our former Faith Formation Director, who is now serving as a chaplain in our armed forces preached for us for the first time. It was on a Thanksgiving Day and we used to have Thanksgiving Day worship in the Chapel, but we knew so many would come to hear him that we held worship in here. Sure enough, there were quite a few more in attendance that year than usual, and we hung on every word. There have been similar reactions each time Ginny or Daniel or Alex or Emily have preached. We listen, and we love to hear them share the gospel.

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Daniel Hess (on right) preached at Epiphany, his home congregation, at the end of his first year at seminary.

I still have a copy of the first sermon I ever preached, which was nineteen years ago in front of my home congregation in Winston-Salem. I read that sermon a while back and, quite frankly, it should be shredded. Nobody should ever be reading that. But my hometown crowd acted like I was speaking in the tongues of mortals and of angels. I suppose it was simply because I was one of them—because, like in this sanctuary, the pulpit and baptismal font are right beside each other and many of them that day had seen me get wet 25 years prior. It was as if I had risen straight out of those waters to the place of preaching, the direct path of a disciple so clearly laid out that day. Of course, I basked in the glow of their loving comments and congratulations. But in all honesty, preachers probably like that kind of stuff way too much.

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Augsburg Lutheran Church, Winston-Salem, NC

And so I don’t envy Jesus that day in his hometown synagogue. They really end up thinking he’s a stinker. So what goes wrong? To begin with, we have to read between the lines a little bit and picture what’s going on. Jesus stands up and reads a portion of the Hebrew Scriptures from Isaiah about the coming of God’s kingdom and then declares “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The people in the synagogue are a little shocked and impressed that one of their own would be so bold as to suggest that God and God’s kingdom are encountering them right there and then. They would have been waiting on that moment for centuries, so Jesus’ words are quite a claim, even for a hometown boy. There are some mutterings in the crowd, some shifting around. A handful of people get on Twitter. And then I imagine they start to wonder if he can back this up. If Jesus heralds the arrival of God’s kingdom, what about the signs and wonders he performed in the next town over? If hope of God’s kingdom has shown its glorious face in Capernaum, why can’t we have a little taste here in Nazareth? It would be nice to see a blind person be given sight or some other miracle to go along with this sermon.

And instead of just making them happy and giving them something to really talk about, he gives them two examples of when the Word of God came first to other, foreign people—that is, to people from the next town over, people on the other side of the wall, so to speak. Jesus says that if they remember their Bible stories, they know have several examples of when God showed some kind of preference to people different from them.  He names first the widow at Zarephath, which we actually just heard in a lesson in our worship back in November. She was a non-Jewish woman living way out in Sidon, outside the territory of Israel, and she was the one who got to host the great prophet Elijah and witness the miracle of the jug of oil and jar of meal that never ran out. And Naaman was a Syrian commander, and he was the one God decided to cleanse of leprosy, even though there were plenty of people in Israel with skin diseases.

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“Elijah and the Widow and Zarephath” (Gerrit Willemsz Horst)

These were been stories they would have been familiar with, no doubt, but they seem provocative that day in the synagogue, spoken with the tone that reminded them that God’s Word cannot be controlled, and is not always comforting, either. As the professor Cleophus Larue of Princeton Seminary says, “The gifts of God’s grace are not bestowed because of nationality, tribal loyalty, or hometown connections,”[1] and that is disruptive to us because we love our nations, our tribes, and our hometown connections.

It reminds me of a story I once heard from a colleague about a pastor who was sent to an urban church—this was somewhere in North Carolina, I believe. As my friend tells it, the pastor realized that while the neighborhood around the church was mostly low income and people of color, the congregation itself was made up almost entirely of middle class white folks from the surrounding suburbs. After a while the pastor began some outreach ministries in the neighborhood and before long there were some community members coming to the church and getting involved in activities.

Several weeks later, a person who had been a member of the church for a long time made an appointment to come see the pastor. She sat down and said, “Pastor, there are a lot of members of the congregation who are just not comfortable with all these people from the neighborhood being here in our church.”

And the pastor said, “Well, I am doing this because I don’t want these people to go to hell.”

The woman said, “Now Pastor, don’t say that. We know that God loves everybody, including the people in the neighborhood.”

And the pastor replied, “No, you don’t understand, I’m talking about the members of this church.”

Jesus does not label the people of his hometown as racist, or stupid, or beneath him. He merely points out to them with their own stories a truth we all need to remember: God’s kingdom is going to take root and prosper wherever it is received and believed. And when we, too, hear and receive this, we are saved—saved from our own inward thinking, saved from our own dead-end roads of vanity and narcissism, saved from the hell of a kingdom where we always think we’re the center of God’s attention and no light breaks in.

Jesus escapes death this time, but our mutterings and selfish demands for something spectacular and powerful will find him again and our kingdom of death will nail him to a cross. And he will still love us. He fully knows us and he will still love us just like he knows and loves all the people God has created the world over.

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Jesus’ first sermon in one sense does not go well, but in another sense it goes perfectly well because it gets his message across loud and clear. Just because we don’t like the sound of something we hear in church doesn’t mean it’s wrong. The goal of the Word of God is not to announce something meaningful or pleasant, but to announce something that’s true, and the truth can be uncomfortable. Talking in our faith communities about complex topics that are current in our culture, like that of abortion and women’s health and when life begins, can make us uncomfortable. And yet we hear the word of God come to Jeremiah this morning and say “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”

Mentioning damaging things like racism and white privilege and our governor’s yearbook photo might make us uncomfortable. We might want worship to shelter us from such topics, but this morning we hear Jesus himself lift up people of other ethnicities and races as people who matter, so it’s kind of with us whether we like it or not.

Pastors I talk to often say they take heat when people think sermons are too political or that the preacher pushed a social agenda. Perhaps you have discovered that too, in your own preaching. Because you know what? It’s not just people wearing stoles that are given the task of proclaiming the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, of bearing this often uncomfortable word. There is a direct line from this font to where you’re sitting in the pew, too. Do not say, “I am only a boy,” or “I am only a girl,” or “I am only a non-ordained person.” God doesn’t think that’s an acceptable response. You were ordained in your baptism to share this message. “You shall go to whom I send you,” God says to the prophet Jeremiah, and God says to each one of us. “You shall go to whom I send you…and I have put my words in your mouth.”

To the middle school lunchroom, where people it’s clear who is shunned and ostracized…

To the neighborhood on the other side of town, where the public services and roads might not be as good…

To the friend on social media that posts things you can’t tolerate.

There is a difference, though, between the way others might share uncomfortable truths about God and the way followers of Christ do: love. The apostle Paul says our words and actions for Jesus, however prophetic and however bold they may be, are to be done in love, which is never boastful or arrogant or rude. And we can do it, folks! That love has been poured into our hearts. Our gestures and overtures can be acted out with kindness and patience, without resentment or irritability. Those claimed by Jesus don’t ever rejoice in wrongdoing, they rejoice in the truth. It’s unfortunate Twitter influences so much of our public discourse these days. Twitter and cable news is a lot of rejoicing in wrongdoing and arrogance. It’s about 90% clanging cymbals. It’s a muttering crowd wanting to hurl someone over a cliff and in many cases succeeding.

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Yet Christ is going to catch us all, the mutterers as well as the ones hurled over in hatred. He’s going to reach out and holds us all, the ones who detest the prophecy and the ones who prophesy it. That is the truth we must share above all: somehow he manages to catch us all with those arms so wide with faith, hope, and love…arms that can bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.

And in this embrace maybe one day we all someday see we’ve come to our true hometown.

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Thanks be to God!

[1] “Living by the Word” in The Christian Century, January 2, 2019. Cleophus J. LaRue