Sunday, January 22, 2017

Third Sunday after the Epiphany

 Matthew 4: 12-23

Almighty God, who didst give such grace to thine apostle Andrew that he readily obeyed the call of thy Son Jesus Christ, and brought his brother with him: Give unto us, who are called by thy Word, grace to follow him without delay, and to bring those near to us into his gracious presence; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Good morning.  The reading from St. Matthew today is certainly familiar to us.  It is the reading appointed in the lectionary every year for the observance of the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle.  I hear those words, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men, and I almost instinctively look over to the transept and expect to see our good friends of the Syria Highlanders.  If we listen carefully, perhaps we can hear the echo of bagpipes in the far distance!  The calling of the Andrew and Peter and James and John out there by the Sea of Galilee is always a wonderful launching place into the themes of our annual parish patronal festival, as we are invited to follow Andrew as a mentor and inspiration in willing, heartfelt response to the invitation to new and full and eternal life in relationship to Christ Jesus, as his disciples.  That the symbolic action of this moment would be a kind of point of reference for each of us.  I always find the hymn so powerful, “They cast their nets in Galilee.” Based on a poem by the early twentieth century Roman Catholic poet from Mississippi, William Alexander Percy, who was the uncle of the famous mid-century novelist Walker Percy.    One of my favorite writers.

In any event, this morning: to hear his voice, the voice of Jesus--to put down our nets, however that image might expand into our lives, to follow him, to dedicate ourselves to this new and different kind of fishing enterprise, making space in our lives for him to work in and through us to build up his church and accomplish his purposes.  Whatever it may cost us along the way. 

The four gospels give us different perspectives on and share some distinctive memories, each of them,  of the first days of what we sometimes call the active or “earthly” ministry of Jesus:  that stretch of the story that begins more or less around the time that John the Baptist was arrested and then executed and then continues of course through the memories of Palm Sunday and Holy Week and Good Friday.  This period of time in the story that begins with Jesus connecting in some way with this small group of men, his inner circle, who were like him mostly men from the Galilee, from the hinterlands, and who were formerly followers of John the Baptist.  They seem to have scattered perhaps in fear and certainly in great disappointment when John was eliminated from the scene in that horrible story about King Herod Antipas and his wife Herodias and her daughter Salome. But soon after that Jesus seeks them out and connects with them in a new way.  Here in Matthew 4 Andrew and Peter and James and John have returned to their old lives, lying low in the countryside, hoping to stay under whatever radar Herod’s authorities might be turning in their direction.  But once Jesus meets them and invites them to join him, there is immediately a sense of a fresh start and new beginning.   A sudden boldness, an enthusiasm.  They thought the story was over, but in reality it was just getting started.  Matthew’s quotation from Isaiah 9 in this context seems to capture the moment.  “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.” 

Last week we had the reading from John that remembered these tumultuous early days slightly differently.  As the authors of the gospels collected the stories from those who had actually been there, there might have been some varying memories.  When was it that we really become Jesus followers?  Was it when we first met him, back at the time of his baptism, before John was arrested, or was it after John was arrested, when he came out to Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee and recruited us for his new mission?    In all that, though, there was certainly consistent agreement about this sense of a revival of spirit, of a new start, a new direction.  Last week as we read in John’s gospel they remembered Jesus inviting them to “Come and see.”  Come and see. And this week in Matthew, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

One thing the memory recorded by Matthew and then lifted up in our sermon hymn captures for us is I think not just the energy moving forward, which we get also in John’s story, but also again that somewhat tender reminder of what we might call, to echo Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous book title, “the cost of discipleship.”  Something about the pile of nets left behind in the boat by Peter and Andrew.  The old way of life.  The old securities.  For us that would be like, I don’t know: our wallets and checkbooks, our car keys.  Our laptops.  Our toolbox.  Jobs, hobbies, commitments, relationships.  The things that are in some way for us the instruments we use to support and navigate our lives.   Leaving it all behind, to go with him.  The peace of Christ, it is no peace, but strife sown in the sod.

In our story from Matthew 4 I find myself pausing and just taking in the expression on the face of old Zebedee, the father of James and John, as he is left behind to finish the work of cleaning the nets by himself.  This doesn’t mean that over the next days and months and years the disciples would never see family and friends again, of course.  And we know that they did keep fishing, at least occasionally.  Perhaps when the group’s cash flow situation was running low.  We know they even stayed right there in Capernaum for quite a while, perhaps mostly at Simon Peter’s house.  And their missionary efforts were at least for a good while really centered in the same neighborhood.  But there was a real break with the past in this moment nonetheless, a real sense of separation.  It’s not a sabbatical, a summer internship.  It seems to happen pretty suddenly, but there is clarity from the beginning that this is for the long haul.  You’re all in, or you’re not, but nothing half-way.

So Third Sunday after the Epiphany, and continuing to sort through the implication of the story we heard Christmas Eve.  The Shepherds came into town to see what the angels had announced with such fanfare, the newborn baby in the manger.  And then they returned to their flocks.  The Magi from the East have knelt before the Holy Child and offered gifts and worship.  And then they returned to their homeland.  We never hear of any of them again.  They disappear into the mists of history.  Yet I think we know somehow deep down that if their experience was anything like the experience of Peter and Andrew and James and John, if their experience was anything like our experience, everything must have been different for them from then on, until the end of their lives.  Those minutes or perhaps a few hours in the presence of the Child who was and is the Savior of the World must have been a regular, a daily, a constant element of thought and feeling and memory, wonder and prayer, awe and worship.  Not something that you ever would forget.  A moment that would put everything from then on, relationships, work, everything, in a new light.  I am absolutely sure that for each one of them, as years and decades passed, in the countryside of Judea, in the ancient cities of Persia, for all of them, shepherds and magi, as they lay on their deathbeds, there  must have been even in their last moments of thought this one image and certainty: that they had seen him, knelt in his presence, somehow over all the years since continued with him until the very end.

Time for us, in these weeks between Epiphany and Lent, to think through all this and to pray through all this again, as he comes to us now in Word and Sacrament, as we study and pray and worship.  As we kneel in his presence.  To look to our mentors and guides.  Shepherds and magi and Andrew and Peter and James and John.   Finding ourselves somehow in the picture when he says: come, follow me.

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