January 26, 2020
3rd Sunday after Epiphany, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you.
What do you make of a stranger, coming up to you in the middle of your work day, and saying, “Follow me”? What do you make of seemingly contented, employed, connected people, who drop everything they’re doing, and abandon their colleagues and families, to follow someone they’ve never met?
This is one of the most frightening and perplexing passages of scripture for me[i]. It’s just so hard to picture myself in this scene. I can’t imagine letting go of everything to follow a stranger into some sort of new path. I can’t imagine anyone – except maybe those who have experienced very oppressive or abusive situations — being able to do it.
The stranger doesn’t even pretend that the road ahead will be safe or secure. We start with that ominous information that John has just been arrested, and we know that there’s nothing comfortable awaiting him. Jesus seems to be picking up right where John left off, and his prospects aren’t much more assured.
How would you respond?
I think part of my problem in understanding this story is that I’ve thought of it as a job offer. Jesus comes by to people who are gainfully employed and says, “Hey, I’ve got a better offer for you. Now, there’s no job security. You’re going to be working with a bunch of misfits who don’t know what they’re doing, whom you’ll distrust and with whom you’ll argue. And actually, the job may lead to persecution and ridicule, or in fact, a cross, but come on, what do you say? It’ll be great!”
So. What was so ugly about those fishing nets and their father Zebedee to make this a better offer?
In fact there may have been some things about their current situation that were less than rosy. If you happened to be at our podcast[ii] recording a few weeks ago, or if you listened in this past week, you’ll remember that Pastor Bradley referred to an article he had read about this text[iii].
It explained how in reality, the pictures many of us have had of contented fishers in Galilee may have glossed over a truth that Matthew and his listeners would have known all too well. The people who live in Galilee have once again been forced to live under foreign rule which abuses the local economy to enrich those in control[iv]. Herod has been exploiting and over-commercializing the fishing industry in Galilee to support his own luxurious lifestyle, so that fishers, along with farmers and other laborers in the area, are left with little resources to make a living wage[v].
When Matthew tells us that Jesus has fled to Capernaum, using the ancient names of Naphtali and Zebulon, he’s alerting us to remember Isaiah’s trust in the unending promises of God. Isaiah had lived when these same lands were also under oppressive rule; at that time, it was the Assyrians. But Isaiah sang that these were the very places would be the place where God’s freeing light and grace would shine again.
Now some 700 years later, the region of Naphtali and Zebulon is controlled by Rome. As had been true long ago, Jesus and these fisherfolk once again live in the shadows of an imperial state which oppresses the people living there under a repressive power structure.
But Matthew knows that Isaiah had it right. Imperial powers will never ultimately get to claim us. We follow a God who constantly leads us out of oppressive situations into freedom and light. The good news Isaiah described is still valid for God’s people.
Jesus isn’t offering the disciples a new job; he is inviting them into a whole new way of life, into the Resistance. Jesus is providing them a new way to remember that neither Assyria nor Rome, nor any imperial power will ever have the right to subject or extort or control daily life of God’s people. Jesus is offering them a lifeline, a rescue, a new hope.
Maybe Zebedee, the father whom James and John leave behind in the boat, isn’t experiencing his children abandon him to a solitary existence. Maybe he’s witnessing them step into the life of freedom and hope he has always envisioned for them. Maybe he has the look on his face that parents do when they bring children to the font, watching their little ones washed in a sea of new life and hope, and seeing fresh light shine into their stories. Maybe like them, Zebedee is glowing in the renewed promise that the love of God can never be suppressed or restricted for any of God’s children.
It was also pointed out during our podcast that Jesus actually invites them to pursue that new life using the trade they already know. He doesn’t call them to be carpenters, or architects, or farmers, or delivery-people, he invites them to continue to fish but with a new purpose, a new objective.
I will make you fish for people, Jesus proposes. No longer fishing so that Herod can get rich; no longer working so that the empire can exact huge profits from our daily wages, no longer participating in forces that enrich the few and subject the many, I will make you work on behalf of the well-being of people. I will help you structure your life so that the common welfare of others can be your central goal. Follow me, and I will free you to live a life worth living.
This isn’t a frightening new job description, it’s our baptismal birthright. And Jesus still invites us to follow.
Some 20 years after Jesus called these first disciples, Saint Paul writes to a new group of followers in Corinth. We heard his letter in our second reading[vi]. The young church he established there is quickly sliding into factions and divisiveness. Only one generation away from Jesus’s ministry, they’re already losing focus.
Paul writes to remind them of the unifying nature of baptism, the way it connects us all into one body. He encourages the Corinthians to recognize that they belong to each other, and that they all are created to share one mind and purpose.
Baptism connects us all to the life and ministry of Jesus – and invites us all into caring for one another as living members of one body. Our baptismal heritage invites us to follow Jesus, to make sure all people are honored and fed, recognized and valued, healed and made whole, and to proclaim the good news that the reign of God has come near for all people.
Sometimes it feels as if not much has changed since Jesus called his friends. The economic situation in too many parts of the world is still being exploited so that those in power gain more power, wealth, and prestige while those who are trying to make a living wage can barely make ends meet[vii]. We still live in times of incredible disparities, divisiveness and acrimony. We wonder how to resist powers of domination and subjugation, powers that use deceit and privilege to ignore the needs of their neighbor.
It’s easy to point fingers at people who are in the news, and presume they’re the ones that need to get with the program, but we’re here today because Jesus invites every single one of us to a new way of life. This isn’t about others, it’s about you and me, being called to follow Jesus into a reconciling love that serves the neighbor, heals the sick, feeds the hungry, claims the lost, affirms the forgotten, and works for the common good.
Rather than be frightened by the prospect of leaving behind everything that seems comfortable and predictable to me, Jesus invites me to recognize that love has claimed me from the start, and to follow him in a life that works so that everyone might know that love. That’s not scary or perplexing. That’s abundant, joy-filled, cross-shaped life.
Many of you have heard the news that my mom died this past week, at the age of 92. She had a long, full journey, and was loved to the end. I like to think that the nets she spent a life repairing were rewarding and good for her. She lived a life of witness and service, and found ways to care for others throughout her life.
But I also trust that when Jesus smiled on her these last few days, she was all too ready to drop her work in the boat and jump up to follow him. She had already been claimed years ago, and this was simply following through on the promise made for her by the sea of her baptism.
“Come with me,” Jesus told her, “and I’ll give you life in its abundance. For the people who sat in the shadow of death, light has dawned. Come, live in the new day,” Jesus called, and so she did.
And so shall we. Thanks be to God. Amen
[i] Matthew 4:12-23
[iii] Warren Carter, Commentary on Matthew 4:12-23, Preach this Week, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3138
[iv] “The Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition,” by K. C. Hanson. Originally published in Biblical Theology Bulletin 27 (1997) 99-111 (© 1997 Reprinted here by permission of the publisher) https://www.kchanson.com/ARTICLES/fishing.html
[v] Fishing Economy in the Sea of Galilee, by Alicia J. Batten, Bible Odyssey. https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/places/related-articles/fishing-economy-in-the-sea-of-galilee
[vi] I Corinthians 1:10-18
[vii] “World’s 2,153 billionaires hold more wealth than poorest 4.6 billion combined” by Morgan Chalfant, The Hill, https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/479019-worlds-2153-billionaires-hold-more-wealth-than-poorest-46?fbclid=IwAR0H4cdzE9OKOJ_UQnZD8l8mSsWd7kDKJeJt3YlX3YEiTuKtiHWq4lgDoWQ