Sermon for 01/22/2023

Matthew 4:12-25

In today’s gospel, Jesus calls the first four disciples. So, I want to talk about being called.

(Slide 54) Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me. I invite you to think and pray this week about that promise. Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me.

First, Jesus chooses to work this way. He announces the Good News. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This isn’t about feeling sorry for our sins.

This is about seeing the world in a whole new way. This is about seeing the world as the place where God is in charge. This is about seeing the world as a place of hope and healing, of possibility and promise, of peace and justice.

Jesus could do this all by himself. But God made us to be partners in life and creation. Sin, death, and the devil disrupt that partnership. When we are God’s partners, that’s when we are most fully human. That’s when we are once again the image and likeness of God. Jesus chooses to work through you and me because that’s what God has always wanted.

Jesus chooses to work in the world. He sets up housekeeping in Capernaum – an out of the way village alongside the Galilean lake. He starts in territory that has been a spiritual wasteland for centuries. He calls some pretty ordinary folks to do some pretty extraordinary things. He heals everyone who comes his way. His fame spreads throughout the land.

Jesus chooses to work in the real world. He doesn’t travel to a distant country. He starts at home. That’s where our calling starts too.

Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me. Jesus calls each of us to mission and service. You were called in your baptism to let your light shine before others. When others see your good works in the name of Jesus, they will glorify God.

Jesus starts with what the first disciples know – fishing. And he starts with what you know and where you are. No one else can answer your call, or mine.

Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me.

Today isn’t really about being called into public Church ministry. Today isn’t really about being called to be a pastor or a deacon. Except, sometimes it is. I stand before you as living proof that Jesus can use the least qualified, the least interested person in the world, to do ministry. If God can use me, trust me, God can use anyone.

So, I do want to talk about the call to public Church ministry. Next Sunday at our annual meeting we will put in place a “Call Committee.” That’s another step in what we often refer to as “The Call Process.” But that process is probably not quite what you think it is.

What is the first thing a call committee does? You might think they will get right down to hiring a new pastor. That’s not the first thing. The first thing the call committee does is to discern the call of this congregation.

Remember, Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me.

The first thing the call committee does is to discern the call of this congregation. If the call committee gets that right, the rest of the call process goes pretty smoothly. If the call committee skimps on that first step, the rest of the call process does not go well.

I know this because I’ve been the pastor who gets called. I know this because I’ve helped congregations call a pastor or deacon. Most of all, I know this because I understand and appreciate how we ELCA folks understand what a call to ministry really is.

You might think this is an unnecessary delay. You might think this is a waste of time. But I want you to think about how people get hired for jobs.

Sometimes, we have a job opening, and we just fill it with the next person. We can do that because we already know what the job is. We already know what the job is because we know the goals and mission of the business. We know the goals and mission of the business because that’s usually pretty clear. Or at least we think it is.

Sometimes we make a bad hire. We get a mismatch between what the job needs and what the person brings to the job. When that happens, we can blame the new hire. We move that person on and try again. If we do that, we’ll probably just get another bad hire.

Or we can take some time to assess where we’re at in the business. What’s our mission? What are our goals? Is this the same job it was five years ago or ten years ago or forty years ago? Are we the same company and the same people? What do we imagine we’ll be in the next five or ten or fifteen years?

A business that asks these questions makes fewer bad hires. More important, that business is better prepared to get the most out of the new employee. Most important, that business is better prepared for the future.

Calling new pastoral leadership isn’t exactly like hiring a new employee. I could preach a whole other sermon on the differences. However, the analogy is close enough for today. Bishop Halaas and your church council have asked me to assist the Call Committee here in their work. I’m honored by that request. And I’m glad to help.

Calling a leader is not about hiring a pastor or deacon. It’s about discerning the mission and ministry of a congregation. Remember, Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me.

The first task for the call committee is to complete what’s called a Ministry Site Profile. Usually, we refer to that document as the MSP.

The MSP is a detailed and discerning description of the mission of the congregation now and into the future. That’s the first task because the Call Process discerns the call of this congregation first. Then the Call Process focuses on calling new pastoral leadership.

Think back to Paul’s words to the Corinthian church. People at Corinth are having a church fight. Some of them claim allegiance to Paul. Others claim allegiance to Apollos or to Cephas. Some of them say they claim allegiance to Christ and reject all human leadership.

Paul says this church fight dismembers Jesus – that it tears Jesus apart. That Corinthian congregation puts personalities before purpose. That Corinthian congregation puts fame ahead of fellowship. That Corinthian congregation puts hiring ahead of ministry and mission.

That’s why Paul calls them back to their theology. Paul calls them to discern their unity and purpose as a congregation. The word of the cross is the power of God. When the Corinthians focus on that word, questions about leadership will be easier to resolve.

Paul offers this encouragement in 1 Corinthians 1, verse 9 – “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” The first call we discern is the call of the congregation.

Remember, Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me.

You should expect members of the call committee to ask you questions in the coming weeks and months. That’s part of their task. But don’t expect them to ask you what kind of pastor you want. That’s not the first question.

The first questions go more like this. What makes us a healthy and vital congregation? And how is God calling us to use that health and vitality for mission and service now and in the future?

Those are the questions I ask you to reflect on and pray about in the coming weeks and months. If we discern those questions properly, calling new pastoral leadership will go much better.

I invite you also to reflect and pray on your own sense of call to mission and service. When congregational members do that, a call process goes much better. This is about the call of the congregation, not just the call of an individual.

How is Jesus choosing to work in the world through you right now? How will Jesus choose to work in the world through you in the coming months and years? Maybe the answer is the same as it’s been for years. Or maybe Jesus has something new in mind for you. Now is a good time to ask the questions.

It’s always possible that someone here is being called to public ministry in the Church. New pastors and deacons come from somewhere – why not from Mamrelund Lutheran Church? If you’ve ever wondered about becoming a public leader in the Church, I’d love to talk to you. Talking is not the same as doing. We can just see where it goes.

Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me. How is Jesus calling you today?

Let’s pray…

Text Study for Matthew 4:12-25 (Part Three)

See Charles W. F. Smith. “The Mixed State of the Church in Matthew’s Gospel.” Journal of Biblical Literature 82, no. 2 (1963): 149–68. https://doi.org/10.2307/3264991.

“Come after me,” Jesus says to Simon Peter and Andrew, “I shall make you fishers of people” (Matthew 4:19, my translation). That’s all well and good – but fishers of what kind of people? “All kinds,” the Matthean author answers. Jesus tours the whole of the Galilee. Jesus heals all the diseases and maladies of the people” (Matthew 4:23). None are excluded or left out.

Charles Smith notes that the community addressed by the Matthean account appears to have been a mixed group. This reality seems to present some challenges to the community, since the issue is addressed in a variety of ways in the gospel account. This is, after all, the gospel with the parable of the weeds among the wheat, the wise and foolish bridesmaids, and the sheep and the goats.

Most important for our purposes, this is the gospel with the parable of the fishnet in Matthew 13:47-50. “Again,” Jesus says, “the Kingdom of the heavens resembles a fishing net thrown into the lake, and out of which every variety was gathered together…” (Matthew 13:47, my translation). The first four disciples had been casting nets into the lake when Jesus called them to fish for people.

The NRSV translation misses, I think, some of the nuances in this little parable – beginning with that opening sentence. When the net is thrown into the lake (the Galilean one, we can presume), what comes out is “all kinds.” The word for “kinds” is genos. There is actually no explicit mention of fish here, although it is fair to insert that.

However, the Matthean audience would certainly have caught that word. “Genos” primarily means ethnicity or tribe, or extended family, or nation. Only in a derivative sense does it mean kind or type or class. And all of these various kinds (of fish, for now) were “gathered together.” The participle is a form of “sunago.” Yes, that’s the root, for example of “synagogue.” There is more going on here than just a fish story.

While I think about it, I’m thinking that my message will be entitled “It Takes All Kinds” or something like that. The Matthean author is using the call of the disciples in chapter four to set up this theme and concern which is pursued throughout the gospel account. We preachers can use the text to do the same for our folks as we read through the Matthew gospel for the balance of this liturgical year.

“Clearly this is a marked emphasis of Matthew with no such concentrated reiteration in other sources,” Smith writes. “Has it a connection with some particular controversy and, if so, how can we identify it?” As we pursue these questions, we can think about how our own communities deal with “the mixing of all kinds” (or the lack thereof).

Smith points to a scholarly commonplace that wonders how much of the parable is original with Jesus and how much comes from the Matthean author. Many would suggest that the “inclusive” note of verses 47-48 comes from Jesus. And the “exclusive” turnabout in verses 49-50 comes from the Matthean author. That could be, but later studies have shown that this division may not be as obvious as it first appears.

In any event, these parables and related materials declare that a separation is inevitable. However, that separation will be eschatological in nature. It will take place at the end of  the age. It is not up to the church of this age to make such separations. For now, at least, it takes all kinds.

But how does the Matthean author (and/or the Matthean community) see this issue? It could be that there’s way too much “judging” going on in the community. That would fit with some of the language we find in the Sermon on the Mount, appearing on the textual horizon. It could be that the mixed crowd has become a bit casual and that the Matthean author wants to remind them that Jesus will sort them out in the end.

These are diametrically opposed conclusions, but each can be drawn from the text. I think that the former interpretation – too much judging, too much premature separating – fits better with the overall Matthean narrative arc. Repent, for the Kingdom of the heavens has drawn near. But, friends, there’s still time to respond to God’s invitation to life. It ain’t over till it’s over.

Of course, if you’re like me and have profound doubts about non-universal views of salvation, then a whole other set of questions is raised. But that set of questions is for another day.

Text Study for Matthew 4:12-25 (Part Two)

In one of the “Sermon Brainwave” podcasts, Matt Skinner strongly suggests that we should read through Matthew 4:25 for this Sunday. He notes that these verses are the bridge between the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, Skinner notes, the crowds that Jesus sees in Matthew 5:1 are described in Matthew 4:24-25.

“And many crowds – from Galilee, and the Decapolis, and Jerusalem, and Judea, and across the Jordan – followed him” (Matthew 4:25, my translation). Jesus’ reputation had spread throughout the Roman province of Syria, according to the Matthean author.

As a result, those who heard of him “were bringing to him all who were sick, having various kinds of diseases and torments, together with also the demon-possessed, those suffering from epilepsy, and those who were paralyzed…” (Matthew 4:24, my translation).

Jesus healed them, the text declares. So, this “mixed multitude,” saturated with those healed by Jesus and comprised of a variety of ethnicities, are the ones who hear the Sermon. They are the ones who hear, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” If for no other reason than to prepare the listeners for next week, we should read those last two verses of Matthew 4.

I think we can see and hear once again the Matthean author’s efforts to portray Jesus as the new and fulfilled Moses. In Exodus 12:38, we read that a “mixed crowd” followed Moses out of Egypt and into the wilderness. This could mean a variety of things, but I think it reflects the ethnic make-up of the crowd that accompanied Moses.

I don’t think that the book of Exodus is an historical chronicle of the events of what we call “the Exodus.” Instead, it seems likely that this reflects the historical situation of the community that composed the narratives we read. Those who made up the Chosen People in the land of Israel were not of one ethnic background. Instead, they too were a “mixed multitude.”

Archaeological evidence supports this view of the Exodus accounts. To be a “Hebrew” was first of all to be a formerly enslaved person who left Egypt behind. That may have been a literal leaving. Or it may have been a political leaving on the part of some of the “natives” the Israelites encountered as they entered the land.

To be part of Israel, therefore, meant to embrace the God of Israel much more than to be part of a particular ethnic group. This is a major part of the impact of the book of Ruth. Ruth the Moabite becomes part of the lineage of David – not so much by marriage as by embracing the God and the faith of Naomi – more even than does Naomi.

The mixed multitude that meets Jesus (in Capernaum?) strongly resembles the crowd that follows Moses into the wilderness. And just as that crowd received the covenant at Sinai, so Jesus invites the crowd into a new relationship with God and God’s law on that mountain in Galilee.

This probably should not be surprising in a Gospel that concludes with the commission to preach, teach, and baptize “all nations.” That commission is foreshadowed and launched here in Matthew 4 with the strange crowd walking up the hill to hear Jesus teach.

Text Study for Matthew 4:12-25 (Part One)

I’m beginning to think about the message for a week from Sunday. I’ll post this Sunday’s message in a day or two. I’ll be reading Matthew 4:12-25. That text offers a great variety of events, perspectives, pronouncements and questions. I’m beginning with Matthew 4:18-22.

I would commend to you Warren Carter’s 1997 article in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly. Carter reads the text from an “audience-oriented” perspective. That is, he seeks to discern the issues and assumptions of the Matthean audience based on what is hit or missed in the text.

Carter argues that the Matthean community is a “marginal minority” in the larger community of (most likely) Syrian Antioch in the late first century. While the community lives in this marginal status, the Matthean author does not advocate either withdrawal from or acquiescence to the larger culture. Instead, the Matthean community lives on the boundary between those two options.

“The narrative does not present perfect discipleship,” Carter argues, “but it does legitimate the experience of following Jesus as a difficult way of life in which one participates in prevailing societal values and power structures, but challenges them in the pursuit of an alternative existence which manifests the presence of ‘the reign of the heavens'” (page 74).

The Matthew text proposes, according to Carter, a life that involves both participation in local social and economic structures and “a life of wholehearted commitment to doing and obeying God’s will which prevents disciples from being whole-hearted participants in societal structures” (page 71). This is, therefore, a liminal position in and ambivalent attitude toward the larger culture and power structure.

The community I serve, however, is definitively not a “marginal minority” in the local community. Instead, this congregation is a locus of social power and networking. That’s a function of history, size, and context. The call from the Matthean text requires some additional reflection and discernment in our social setting.

One reminder in this regard is that we must always “read” our own social position as the current audience as well as the social position of the “original” audience. If we simply assume that we are in the same position as the original audience (or vice versa), we are certain to get our reading wrong. The Matthean community may have been marginalized and somewhat under the gun. The community I serve is not. That difference makes a big difference.

It’s not surprising that the Sermon on the Mount comes next in the Matthean narrative. The Sermon functions as a “manual” for the marginalized Matthean minority. In particular, I think the metaphors of “salt” and “light” help me to understand this. It would seem that being “the light of the world” and “the salt of the earth” describe two different functions. Part of our mission discernment, I think, requires us to decide which element is the more needed one in our missional context.

In the one where I currently serve, I think we are called to emphasize the “light of the world” aspect of our serving role. I serve a community that is relatively resource-rich and has the opportunity to continue to do a great deal of good with those resources. We can take some real risks in our community without fear of a lot of pushback because in large part we are that community.

The danger is that we can confuse our mission with a comfortable and self-serving status quo. Instead of being the salt of the earth in our space, we likely need to have some salt rubbed into our tender places so we don’t get too comfortable with our privileged position. If the proper place of the disciple community is that of “voluntary marginalization” (see page 58), that is a challenge for a community like ours that has been at the center of the local system for as long as there has been a local system.

How do we discern the God-desired balance between salt and light in our contexts? How do we balance detachment from the demands of that context while maintaining healthy participation in it? This is the ongoing challenge presented by the Matthean texts.