Think Again, Epiphany 3(A) – January 22, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

Today is January 22nd and we are just about three weeks into 2017. Did you make any resolutions this year? If you did, how are they holding up?

New Year’s resolutions can be big or small. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • This year, I will eat less, drink less, exercise more.
  • This year, I will put down my phone and pay attention to the people around me.
  • This year, I will find a place to volunteer and make a difference in the world.

Making a New Year’s resolution is a kind of repentance. We make New Year’s resolutions because we recognize our ongoing need for conversion to the new life of God’s Kingdom. We know that we aren’t living up to the full potential God is calling us to. We are sorry for falling short, and we promise to do better in the future.

Now that three weeks have passed, we may already have to repent for not living up to the resolutions we made. But that’s okay: God always accepts our repentance. As long as we continue to turn toward God, God will be there to welcome us.

There’s more to repentance than personal conversion, however. Being sorry and promising to be better is part of it, but it isn’t the whole picture. In fact, the “being sorry” part of repentance really isn’t going to help you change your ways until you get an idea of what that the bigger picture is.

Let’s consider the word in the Gospel that is translated “repent.” The Greek word Jesus uses is “metanoia” (met-an’-oy-ah). “Meta” is a preposition that can be translated many different ways, but usually it means “after.” “Noia” is a verb and means “to think,” “to perceive.” Put them together and you have something like, “to think after,” “to see after.”

But—after what? The interesting thing about this word—about repentance—is that the word itself implies a two-way street. Repentance isn’t just something we do to or for God. We aren’t able to do it—to repent—until after God comes to us and opens our eyes and enables our response. Only then are we able “to think after.” Perhaps the English phrase that catches the meaning best is “to think again.” God enables us to think again about our actions, to think better about them, and to change our ways going forward.

In the Gospel of Matthew today, Jesus announces the beginning of his ministry with the words, “Repent! For the Kingdom of heaven has come near.” Or as we might translate it: “Think again! God’s Kingdom is almost here.”

This declaration is the starting point for all of Jesus’ teaching. Everything that comes after grows out of his idea that God’s Kingdom is coming to displace the Kingdoms of the world that have perpetuated injustice and impoverished God’s people.

Jesus comes out of the wilderness proclaiming this message, but we aren’t really told to whom. The assumption that most people make is that repentance is primarily a personal matter: I had better repent of my own personal sin. And of course, we had better— we are all better off when we do repent. But in this passage, “repentance” is not the message Jesus brings to individuals. Individuals like Peter and Andrew and James and John (and perhaps, you and me) get a different message: “Follow me.”

So then, who is the recipient of the “repent” message? Think again—the kingdom of heaven has come near! There is a challenge in this pronouncement. Who is Jesus really telling to step aside? It isn’t the common people, like Peter and John, the people down on the ground. The coming of God’s Kingdom is good news for the poor.

The person who’s got to be worried if a new king shows up is the old king. In this case it was Caesar, the Emperor of Rome, and all of Caesar’s client kings and subordinate rulers and hangers-on who benefited from his reign. Now why would Caesar need to think again?

This is a good question, and its answer is tied to another question you may be asking: why exactly were Peter and Andrew and John and the others so eager to quit fishing for fish and start fishing for people? It seems remarkable how quickly they respond to Jesus’ invitation. “Follow me,” Jesus says, and Matthew tells us, “immediately they left their nets and followed him.” They give up their livelihoods without a second thought to follow an itinerant preacher around the Galilean countryside.

This response is remarkable, but maybe not as remarkable as it seems. For us, of course, if we think of fishing at all, we are much more likely to think of a sunny mountain stream or a lazy afternoon on a boat. But Peter and Andrew and John weren’t fishing for sport—they were fishing to survive. They were merely cogs in the economy of the Roman Empire. In fact, fishermen were so heavily taxed for the right to fish the sea of Galilee that their backbreaking labor netted them just enough to survive, but little else.

You can begin to see why Jesus was put to death by the Roman authorities as a political revolutionary: the first act of his ministry was to tell the Emperor to “think again,” and in the next moment, to liberate some of the cogs in the Emperor’s great machine.

The Roman Empire seems long ago and far away—something fantastical and unreal that we know only from television and movies. The real Roman Empire wasn’t a good place to be a peasant. By Jesus’ time it was a totalitarian domination system. Which we like to think has nothing to do with us, safe in our modern western democracy.

Nevertheless, the picture God is trying to reveal to us through these stories from long ago—part of the thing that will help us “think again” and maybe alter our course—is that concentrated wealth and power still tend to be bad news for those at the bottom of the economic system.

There are still powers and rulers in our world today, in government or in business, who abuse their position to benefit themselves and their friends, to the detriment of the vast majority of God’s people. How are we to resist these powers? Especially when most of us benefit in some way because the system is set up the way it is. Can we build a world where resources are shared and not hoarded? Where God’s love and God’s justice rule? Where Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of heaven becomes a reality?

Jesus is calling us to join in this work. His invitation today is: Follow me. It is up to us to build God’s Kingdom, and Jesus tells us that we can. When we repent. When we think again. Every time we open our hands and hearts to share God’s abundance with those in need brings God’s Kingdom closer. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for it—your Kingdom come on earth, as in heaven.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Jason Cox. Cox has served as associate rector at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 3(A).

Fly fishing for Christ, 3 Epiphany (A) – 2014

January 26, 2014

Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

Sometimes landlubbers venture onto water in a boat with a “do-everything” professional guide. Country folk might view this as people “calling themselves ‘fishing.’” This kind of fishing includes little, if any, challenge. It is possible for a guide not only to provide the boat, rods and reels; but also to furnish bait and hooks, set lines at a proper depth, locate the fish (from experience or using sonar), and alert the customers when there is a hit. The “fisherman” simply reels in the catch. Then the guide also takes the fish off the hook, throws them into a cooler, and, once back on land, cleans the catch and places them in plastic bags for the trip back home.

Such a heavily facilitated form of sport is a far cry from the beautiful and artistic class of fishing portrayed in Norman Maclean’s novel “A River Runs Through It.” This story, rooted in the life of a fly-fishing family in rural Montana, portrays an activity that gives substance to nearly every scene in the book.

It begins with these words:

“In our family there was no clear distinction between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in Western Montana and our father was a Presbyterian minister and fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen, and that John, the favorite, was a dry fly fisherman.”

The author of this novel was, of course, not the first person to bid others join him in an activity that served as an extended metaphor for life, nor the first to compare fishing with religion. In today’s gospel reading, we encounter Jesus saying to the Galileans, Andrew and Peter and James and John, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

“Follow me,” Jesus demanded. “Follow me in helping people become God’s disciples.”

This simple, yet profound, command began a remarkable transformation in the Western World. Like cells dividing, Jesus, the human form of God, became the four fishermen and then the 12 apostles. The 12 became 500, the 500 became thousands, and thousands became millions.

Serving as a Jesus-kind of fisherman is evangelism: sharing the Good News by helping others find and live by the power of God’s love. It is helping them learn further to share with more people what they have found in our joyous and meaningful faith. This is easy to say; but how do we do it? How do we fish well for people?

Following the example of fly fishing might well provide a useful analogy for the ministry to which Jesus calls us, as he called the first disciples.

It is a necessarily hard task, but quite realistic and honest. Throughout his novel, Maclean reveals the intricacies of fly fishing as a way of helping the reader better understand the call to bring others to experience the joy and wonders of creation.

Maclean’s fly fishermen didn’t use boats or guides or sonar, but learned for themselves a lot about each particular species of fish they wished to catch. They had to think like the fish and know its habits, learn what it likes to eat, discover the depth of water in which it feeds, and figure out what it prefers at particular places and certain times of the day and seasons of the year.

The successful fly fisherman purchases the right rod, does everything imaginable to tie the exactly correct fly for each specific situation, practices casting, perfects timing and works hard to attract, hook and finally land the much-desired fish.

Like fish, people exist in many varieties. So, to become successful fishers of people, we can do well by copying good fly fishing. First we develop a desire to find what we seek because we want to share the love we have come to know in the Lord. We recognize and take into account individual differences, preferences, perspectives and cultures. We also remember that those of varying ages and generations were formed in distinctive historical eras and consequently often respond differently and have separate characteristic needs. Those we seek must be approached with the kind of respect and care that honors both their dignity and their particularities.

Following the example of conscientious anglers, we share with others the value we have found in following Christ, become conscious of where the needs of others lie, use appropriate methods, take care about proper timing and seek repeatedly to learn how other people think and communicate.

As the fly fisherman cannot force a trout to be caught, we also try to draw others into the Christian circle, not by coercion, but by loving attraction. We constantly study and practice and experiment, as we strive to present the gospel so it can become clear, understandable and meaningful to them. We find the best method to feed them spiritually so they can grow within the faith. In their own ways, they can continue the process Jesus began with Peter and Andrew and James and John as the newest in the spiritual chain of cell division, reaching out to others and expanding the great body of Christian disciples.

Maybe for us, the best example of fly fishing comes from the “catch and release method,” following the principle that a fish is more valuable in the water than on the angler’s dinner table. Let us imagine ourselves as Christians engaging others in the faith, keeping them alive, caring for them and teaching them to know the Divine One who loves us all. Then, imagine respecting them, regardless of how they choose to respond to our help in bringing them to a deeper knowledge of God, regardless of how they live out the faith we share.

Is this an appropriate way to engage today’s gospel? Does it seem like what Jesus means for us to do? Is it what he intended for Peter and Andrew and James and John?

Certainly, he did not want his disciples to use anyone we “catch,” but to embrace and serve them. The church’s task – as fishers of people – is to find the best ways to invite others to Christ, offering them what we have and letting them prosper if they choose to remain in our environment. We can follow Jesus’ call by meeting them where they are and fostering ministries and activities that are suitable for their needs. Eventually, we can offer them the opportunity to serve God and others as they deem best.

We Episcopalians do this because we understand that Jesus calls us into the most precious ministry there is: fulfilling the mission of the church, which we say is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

As fly-fishermen for Christ, we can gain strength in this task by remembering first the needs of others and praying ever and again the words of today’s Collect:

“Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

Discover your call, 3 Epiphany (A) – 2011

January 23, 2011

Isaiah 9:1-4Psalm 27:1, 5-131 Corinthians 1:10-18Matthew 4:12-23

Proclaiming the Good News is not something left only to individual evangelists; it is in fact the task of the entire church. Yet, we are often led to believe and act as though only individuals can tell the story of Jesus. Epiphany is a season about proclamation and the power of God at work in God’s people, to be sure; but it is also a season when the church examines its life and witness and how it understands itself to be the incarnated Christ planted in a local community.

In today’s Hebrew scripture from Isaiah, and in the gospel, there are echoes of Advent:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness –
on them light has shined.

In a small tourist town in the mid-South it is now winter; unemployment is high and there’s not much money in anyone’s pocket. A church decides to offer Sunday night suppers for the community, and local restaurateurs offer to prepare the food – all donated. As one chef said, “This is why I go to church,” and he and his fellow chefs generously donate good food each week to feed anyone who shows up between 4 and 6 p.m.

This is the light that shines in a land of deep darkness, and it is part of the gospel of Jesus, part of the Good News for folks who are living in the gloom of unemployment and the dark and cold of winter.

In another community, a church offers income-tax assistance to the elderly at no charge; still another decides to help people with special needs to pay their monthly bills and combines bill-paying times with a meal at the church.

These are tasks that can’t be done by individuals, but a congregation can easily develop a significant ministry of light that makes a difference.

Epiphany is a time of recognition; the recognition that Jesus Christ is present, “incarnate” as we church folks sometimes say, born into the world, made flesh, affirming our humanity. That’s the main theme of Epiphany.

There is also another theme: that of repentance, which again is an echo of John the Baptist’s preaching and an anticipation of Lent.

Repentance is often thought of as private, personal, nobody else’s business, between us and God alone. Well, repentance also has a corporate nature to it. In the reading from First Corinthians today, we hear Paul chiding those who have divided loyalties. He points out to the Corinthians, and to us, how this mocks the Good News. A church that is divided is not a witness to the gospel, and is subject to public ridicule. One parishioner in a conflicted church tried to keep the lid on the trouble, saying, “We don’t air our dirty linen in public,” only to find the “dirty linen” was already in the public awareness. Saint Paul knew the devil to be at work here, and that division was the antithesis of proclamation.

So, we find Epiphany a time of witness and repentance, personal and corporate. The readings today underscore both, and challenge us to set aside our petty differences so that the church can be a place not of sloppy agreement, but of vitality. Conflict drains the energy out of any organization, churches included. Our job is to look outward, to see the opportunities for mission and engage in them. That is how we proclaim the Good News to a community, and that is how we avoid pettiness and conflict.

In addition to witness and repentance, we find a third theme of Epiphany: the call. Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, finds Simon Peter and Andrew and simply says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

Is our church a place where people can discover their call? Are there ministries in which everyone can participate? Is our church multi-dimensional: inward and spiritual, outward and mission-focused, focused on the ones yet to come rather than only on those who are already in the fellowship? Creating a place for new people is often creating a place for people to be called, just like the chef who discovered he could use his talents on Sunday nights to cook food for others.

Epiphany is often a time for annual parish meetings. These meetings are frequently dreaded by clergy, endured by laity, and concluded with a feast of relief. The lessons for today are a forceful reminder that these meetings ought to be times when the church takes council for mission. They should never be times of complaint or hand-wringing over budget deficits. The community can benefit from being recalled to its mission, just as though it were Jesus coming by and saying, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

That call should be at the center of everything we do, every time we meet. When the call to follow Jesus is the agenda, then we will discover that any church, regardless of its size, average attendance, or age, can be a place of Good News.

 

— Ben Helmer is the vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church, Eureka Springs, Ark., a small tourist town in the mid-South. He and his wife live in nearby Holiday Island.