January 22, 2023

Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 22, 2023, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer

Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen.

Wednesday evening as we were setting up for confirmation, Katie LeClair, our youth director, let us know of a troubling situation. One of our parents had notified her of a shooting in the recreation center across the street from Central High School. Some of our youth had been in lockdown at school while the police responded. Some of them may have known the victim. Perhaps some knew the suspect. Things were still unfolding. Please leave time for prayer, the parent requested. Please leave space for youth to process this; please leave space for all of us to process this.

I was so grateful that we had heard about this before we began to teach, but I worried that nothing I did would be adequate to meet the challenge.

A few minutes later, I began the confirmation session with a quiet time, and then a prayer, asking God to wrap the victim and their family in comfort and healing, and to pour wholeness and reconciliation down upon our city, to teach us the way of peace, to lead us to new hope. And awkwardly, I began to lead the rest of the lesson.

Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in the room. Those young people were very respectful and attentive. Additionally, it was a night in which each of our 9th and 10th graders was paired with their mentor, and I could ask all of those mentors to please check in with their student, to see if they needed to talk about what they were feeling, if they needed time to consider what any of this meant.

By the time I walked through the building later that hour, I witnessed the power of the church. In every corner, young people and their mentors were engaged in conversation, were being encouraged to share their ideas, were hearing from each other about their experience of faith.

Some were reflecting on the news they had heard. Some were discussing how they wanted to use the gifts and time God had given them to care for the earth or to serve their community. Some were wondering about their Credo project and how to pull it together. Some were simply discussing life and interests and school and family.

Call it foolishness if you will, but after three years of not getting to see too many confirmation meetings like this in person, it was a powerful sign of how God’s reign comes near to us. Even when things seem most broken or troubling, the reign of God is at hand, inviting us into relationship, asking us to share in each other’s stories, and restoring us to wholeness.

“Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested,” our gospel story begins[i]. Jesus begins his ministry just as Rome notices that there is trouble afoot. John had been preaching about repentance and justice. He had called out Herod for corruption and injustice, and was being punished for it.

Jesus hears about the response of violence against his friend John, and retreats for a time apart.

And then he begins his ministry. Notice that he doesn’t begin in places of power or familiarity, but out in a small fishing village in Galilee. He moves to Capernaum and begins to preach, “The reign of heaven is at hand[ii].” He begins calling disciples into a life of reconciliation and relationship, into a life serving a greater good.

We are often struck by the radical sense of commitment those first disciples seem to exhibit, dropping all their nets, leaving their boats and their families, and embarking on a new ministry as they encounter Jesus.

But scholars tell us that their life on the shores of Galilee was probably not the idyllic fishing career we might envision. In fact, first century fishers often worked under extraordinarily unjust labor structures. They were forced to overfish their local seas, not so that they could feed their neighbors, but rather to enrich Herod’s coffers. Taxed at an extreme rate, the Galilean fishing industry didn’t support the local economy, but was designed to build wealth for the Roman empire[iii].

Jesus invites them to drop those nets and to follow him, a chance to resist the power of subjection. Jesus calls disciples into a community of wholeness and love, acceptance and welcome, into the Reign of heaven.

It feels like an unlikely beginning to a movement that would change the world. These new disciples were not overly qualified or talented. They lived in lands that had been forgotten and ignored. Matthew uses the ancient names for the communities, Naphtali and Zebulon, the names used for these areas hundreds of years before.

Early in Israel and Judah’s history, this land had been overtaken by foreign powers, and had been seen as less valuable. Naphtali and Zebulon were not the key players in anyone’s game of conquest; they were small pawns easily overrun and exploited: people who dwelt in darkness, and had been dismissed as insignificant[iv].

Jesus comes to a community long ignored and disregarded and shines new life and possibility into the lives of ordinary people. Jesus starts on the margins, with insignificant fisher people, who were being exploited for foreign profit, and invites them into a life worth living.

Follow me, he calls, and instead of fishing for Rome’s wealth, fish for the well-being of your neighbor.  Follow me and instead of being held in patterns that breed violence and fear, join a community that stitches together hope and promise. Follow me and mend nets around the broken edges of our world. Come with me so that together, we might proclaim good news.

Jesus is still calling ordinary people, people with no special training or expertise, even in times of fear or trial. Jesus is still calling in simple, ordinary neighborhoods and communities, in confirmation classrooms and recreation centers, even, and inviting us to change the world. Jesus still invites us into something bigger than profit or power, something more meaningful than prestige or personal comfort, something more lasting than cruelty or despair or hopelessness. Jesus is calling us to be love in a loveless world, to be light in the darkness, to be compassion in the face of hatred, to be goodness in our daily lives.

Australian pastor Sue Lodge, of the Companions on the Way blog, quotes Rumi, the Sufi poet and wisdom teacher who says, “Be a lamp, a lifeboat, a ladder. Help someone’s soul heal. Walk out of your house like a shepherd[v].”

Reverend Sue continues, “We get to live with our hearts outside our bodies…  invested in a world where all are valued and included, where wonder is more important than success, where joy is as welcome as respect, where light overcomes darkness, and love quenches hate[vi].”

Foolishness?  Or the power, the wisdom of the cross[vii]?

Jesus calls us to live our lives in the awareness that the Reign of Heaven has already come near. We get to live every day like a shepherd, caring for the sheep around us, mending the nets of the world with the kindness and healing of Jesus, sharing time and heart and goodness with our neighbor. Like the ancient prophet, we can declare: There will be no gloom for those who were in anguish[viii].

We get to witness the reign of God in those who strive for justice, who work for healing in communities overrun with fear. We get to sing of God’s love to those who have heard too much despair in their lives. And if we’re really lucky we get to overhear conversations between youth and volunteers in church corridors on cloudy winter nights, and give thanks that the reign of God has come near.

Thanks be to God. Amen

[i] Matthew 4:12-23

[ii] https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/matthew-412-23b/#notes-41, ἐγγίζω, engizo, “come near”. From eggus (nearby or near in time). This is extremely close by – approaching, at hand, immediately imminent.

[iii] https://www.kchanson.com/ARTICLES/fishing.html

[iv] Isaiah 9:1-4

[v] https://www.companionsontheway.com/post/the-call-is-always-to-be-kingdom-people

[vi] ibid

[vii] 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

[viii] Isaiah 9:1