St. Paul’s Congregational Church
January 26, 2020, Epip3A
Isaiah 9:1-4; Matthew 4:12-23
The Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
There’s a story about a farmer from a very rural part of the country who goes to visit a relative in a major city – they’re walking down the busy and noisy main street, amidst the clamor and confusion and traffic and general hubbub of the city at rush hour. Just then, a fire truck goes by, siren blazing. And the farmer says, “Listen: I hear a cricket over yonder.” The relative — the carefully conditioned city dweller — replies, “How can you hear a cricket in the middle of all this?”
The chirp of a cricket in the very core of a buzzing city — there’s no way we can hear that, right? But the farmer, unfazed, says, “I figure you hear what you’re listening for.” And with that, he takes the spare change from his pants pocket and drops it on the ground. And at the almost imperceptible sound of a few coins hitting the sidewalk, children stop in their tracks, heads turn, and they take notice. Sounds real, doesn’t it? Most of us would hear the coins and miss the crickets. I figure you hear what you’re listening for.” That’s a powerful statement for us as a Christian community.
Jesus said it another way, in last week’s gospel: “What are you looking for?” And, he gives the invitation to “come and see.” Today’s gospel continues with Jesus’ invitation, “follow me.”
This is the challenge before us today, in fact, every day – to consider our spiritual priorities: what are we looking for, who are we listening to, what are we valuing most in our common life together?
These are questions that require us to consider our past. These are questions that lead us to a full, honest, and accurate assessment of our current situation. Mostly, though, these are questions that inspire us to look to our future.
First the past: when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he began to preach: repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. We don’t like to hear this repentance stuff much, but we are all of us sinners, we have each one of us and all of us together failed to live up to our true calling, we have made mistakes, we have fallen down. Sin is separation from God and each other – and we’ve all done that, haven’t we – over and over again.
But Jesus says, over and over again, “Get up and try again.” Repent. We are forgiven, loved, and free. And so repent, turn around at the sound of a cricket, try again to hear God’s voice.
God calls us, each in our own setting, to repent, that is, to turn in a new direction, to open our lives to a radical renewal that may upset and re-orient our neat little, hard-won patterns of comfort and familiarity. We heard the story of the calling of the first disciples – Simon and Andrew are casting a net into the sea – Jesus comes by and simply says, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And then comes the calling of James and John: they’re on a boat with their father mending their nets. They too, immediately left the boat and their father and followed him.
Repent – let go of the past, listen for the crickets.
We have to wonder how willing we are to have our lives turned upside down in order to experience the kind of repentance that turns away from materialism and self-interest, both communal and individual. Jesus provoked many of his listeners with such expectations; he inspired a number of them to leave everything--to let go of stuff--for exactly such a reorientation and renewal, as we would say today, a "re-set" of their lives. Their lives were never again the same, and probably not as comfortable, either.
We have to wonder what a “re-set” of our life together here at St. Paul’s would mean – to have our life turned upside down to experience the kind of repentance that leaves the past behind for a reorientation and renewal of what it means to be the Body of Christ here and now in this world. What’s on our minds? What are we focused on? What do we hunger for, when we stop to think about the big picture of our life together? What are our dreams?
That brings us to the present: the Season of Epiphany celebrates that the light has come! In today’s passages from both Isaiah and from Matthew, there are echoes of advent, aren’t there: right along with the images of light we hear throughout Epiphany:
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.
What is really important is that Jesus has come, lived among us, to proclaim that God’s mercy, justice, and love are already here — manifest, in this place, now. So close we can touch, taste, smell, see, and hear — if that is what we are listening for.
There are – we all know - painful realities of our world – hunger amidst so much waste, homelessness amidst economic vitality, or sickness amidst amazing healing power, war rages around the world. But the good news is this: the light has come to allow us to make a choice whether to dwell on our problems or to look for our opportunities: opportunities to become agents of healing, agents of peace, agents of reconciliation, agents of change. We’re called to come and see – see what the power of love can accomplish.
And as for the future: Jesus says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” We are called — each and every one of us, and all of us together — to bring the light of lights into the world, to proclaim to all people the Good News of salvation, to make known the glory of God’s marvelous works.
Our calling as a Christian community is not to repair the roof, or balance the books, or print up the bulletin. Oh, these things are important — even essential to the maintenance of the institutional church for sure. But budgets and reports and achievements — they are not our mission, they are not what Jesus calls us to listen to, they are not what Jesus commands us to value.
When we follow, Jesus makes us fishers of people, ambassadors of Christ, evangelists. When we follow, it’s like suddenly noticing a light that has been burning all along, or hearing that cricket that has always hidden under the noise of our existence – the only thing that changes is our attitude, our perception, our choice.
So, this is our charge today. “Let it shine!” Look for signs that the kingdom has drawn near. Follow Jesus and it will shine. Let’s put first things first. What happens if we let it shine? What will we let shine, exactly?
Will the bills get paid if we don’t open our mail? Will we continue to maintain our building, change the lightbulbs, have a Sunday School class, enjoy our fellowship time after worship, keep up with the maintenance of our beautiful gardens if nobody volunteers to help? Will the copy machine repair itself? Probably not. We need to take care of these things for sure – and there is a reality that we have people in our congregation who are called by God to serve in this way – and that’s a blessing. But are these things the most important in our life together as church, as the Body of Christ gathered to follow Jesus?
All these essential things support our mission and ministry here - but these activities are not our mission and ministry. Our mission is to foster love of God and love of neighbor – to follow Jesus. Our ministry is to live out our mission through worship, teaching, and service.
Are we focusing our efforts too narrowly?
Many of you know I chair the Association Church and Ministry Commission – that body that is responsible for clergy standing – both support and accountability. And we walk with churches through all phases of their lives:
Two weeks ago I attended the final worship service of the Stanley Church in Chatham – it was a profound combination of sadness, of course, but also excitement for the future ministry that will be empowered by this church – the theme of the day was “Rising to New Life”. They’ve had to sell off some of their buildings over the past years, their membership has been declining as well – but their ministry will continue in a whole new way. Their building will become a community center in Chatham. Their remaining assets will be distributed: ½ to the Association, the Conference, and the denomination to be used in new church starts. The other half will be distributed to 4 agencies supported by this church over the years – Family Promise, the Boy Scouts sponsored by this church – one of the first to include girls in their program, GreenFaith, and Bridges Outreach. We prayed together, for blessing as we acknowledged the change and asked God to be with us as we transition to a new reality in our lives and in the life of this community.
And Church and Ministry is responsible for working with churches including those who wish to affiliate with the United Church of Christ – an exciting ministry for sure – and one that inspires me greatly.
This week we met with a pastor who is transferring his standing to New Jersey, who is called to a Korean church as minister of education. This is a tiny church but what a sense of excitement he showed at our interview. They meet in the pastor’s home on Sundays. Remember those early house churches? They’re at a point, though, where they need more space for worship and are talking with other churches near them about possibilities. Their ministry is growing – educational programs he has brought to this church are incredibly well attended – by all the church members and a significant number of people from the community. In addition, he has an online program with participants from around the world!
At the same meeting, we met with representatives from an Indian church looking to affiliate with the UCC – what a wonderful conversation we had about their ministry, how much we have to learn from one another: they’re the only ones who offer their worship services in English – they get over 100 people in worship each week. Come and see. Follow me.
Sometimes help comes from the most unexpected of places and the most unlikely of people. When have you felt that you were a person "sitting in darkness," longing for light to break forth in your life, longing for something to happen, for someone to come along, that will transform everything? Were you ever surprised by the way God sent help, or by the person bringing it?
In what ways has our congregation sat in darkness, and then experienced the light of God's love? What kind of radical reorientation did this produce or require? What new and unexpected things has God done in the life of our church? How do we plan to share it? As we look around our community and around the world, what new works and wonders is God about?
Is God calling us to a "re-set"? What will that look like? Come and see. Follow me.
Together my friends, and with the help of Jesus, we can do anything! We all have a calling! Every one of us – no matter our age, our profession. How will we nurture the call in each other? Will we hear the crickets chirping?
Jesus will come to each of us as we tend our own nets and will call to us, “Follow me. And I will make you fish for people.” And hopefully we’ll respond as Simon and Andrew did – “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
This is a good time to be church, friends – the world needs the light of Christ – may our light shine brightly today, tomorrow, and for years to come! Amen