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Community: Called into Community

January 17, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday after Epiphany, January 15, 2017. This is the first of three sermons on what it means to answer the call of Christ by making three commitments to community, conscience and caring.

 Psalm 27:1, 4-9          Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 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.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Last Sunday my ten-year old son read scripture to the younger children during the children’s message. He read to them from The Family Story Bible, by Ralph Milton. I sat over there, with the choir, and felt such pride: my son, reading scripture, with meaning, for others. I thank each one of you who came up to him after worship and during fellowship time to tell him you thought he read well, or to comment on how much he has grown since he first came here at age four. And I thought to myself, “you-all have a stake in him, you really do, in his growth and development, in who he is and who he is becoming. You are the community that is keeping the promises made at his baptism. And when it is time for confirmation, that time for him to decide whether he will join the church as a member, he will be able to think back over his life to the many ways you have nurtured and encouraged him.  And we will look forward to his answer.

In our Gospel text this morning we find Jesus keeping God’s promise to bring light to those who sit in darkness. And right there we learn something important. There is darkness in the world, and there are people in it, sitting in darkness. Some are trapped in darkness, unable to find a way out; others have embraced the darkness, using it to hide themselves or their actions from the sight of others. In darkness, we are easily lost, stripped of one of our primary senses, one we depend on to make our way in the world. Biblically, darkness represents the absence of God’s guiding light, being cut-off from God’s overflowing and generous life. Darkness is that which is contrary to God’s life-giving purposes. Psalm 81 says those who walk in darkness are those who do injustice to (make life difficult for) the weak and needy, while Psalm 111 says the righteous are those who deal in justice, give to the poor, and are lights in the darkness. Darkness isolates us, though we were created to enjoy abundant life in community. Light allows us to see our neighbors.

It is interesting to me that Matthew does not say that Jesus brought light into the world by preaching, teaching, and healing, but my making a home in a particular place, beside the sea, and meeting his neighbors. It is with them that he will preach, teach and heal, talk about God and God’s love for the world, but he fulfills the prophecy by making his home – “He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea (a fishing village with a population of about 1000), so that the words of the prophet might be fulfilled: “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.”

Jesus proclaims repentance, for “the kingdom of God is at hand.” And the first sign of this coming kingdom is the calling of people to be a part of it – those who will learn to live this new way of life together, to walk in the light. And Jesus walked by the sea … saying to those he found there, ordinary people, going about their daily tasks, “follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

When we first moved to White Plains I was reading to my son from the same story bible he read to the younger children last week. And we were reading this story about Jesus calling friends. Ralph Milton calls it “Simon Gets a Job.” The story weaves together several seaside narratives, but says that Simon was tired. He had been trying to catch fish all night long. But there didn’t seem to be any fish.

Simon was cleaning his fishing net on the shore. He saw Jesus walking toward him. A crowd of people was following Jesus.
“Simon,” called Jesus, “may I use your boat?”
“Sure,” said Simon. “Why?”
“If you stop it near the shore, I can sit in the boat and talk to the people.”
When Jesus was finished talking to the people, he asked Simon, “How many fish did you catch?”
“There aren’t any fish out there,” Simon grumbled.
“Sure, there are,” laughed Jesus. “Get back into your boat and go where the water is deep. Then try again.”
“Wow!” shouted Simon after he started fishing again. “Look at all these fish. My boat is full. Look out! It might sink.”
It was hard to row that boat full of fish back to the shore. As he rowed, Simon thought about Jesus. He thought about the things he had just heard Jesus saying.
Then Simon felt sad. “I can’t live in God’s way,” he thought. “I tell lies. I get angry. I’m ugly. I do stupid things. Jesus wouldn’t want to be my friend.”
Jesus was standing on the shore waiting for Simon. “Simon,” said Jesus, “I’d like to talk to you.”
“You shouldn’t be talking to me,” Simon said to Jesus. “I’m not a good person. I do bad things. And I’m not very smart.”
“Simon,” said Jesus. “I helped you with your work. Why don’t you come help me with mine?”
“But all I can do is catch fish!”
“Fine,” laughed Jesus. “Come, help me catch people.”
That’s how Simon became one of Jesus special helpers. Other women and men also became Jesus special helpers. The Bible calls them disciples.[1]

The first time I read this story to August, when he was four years old, his response was hysterical laughter. Fall on the floor, don’t forget to breath, laughter. “Catch People. Ha ha ha. Jesus is so silly, dad.”  Which is probably true. But when he stopped laughing August asked me, “Was Simon helpful?”

Right there I gained a new appreciation for the power of story to capture our imagination and of a simple request to set in motion the stirring of our souls.  The story is as much about Simon’s willingness to follow as it is about Jesus’ call to him. It’s about call and response, both of which are necessary for following Christ. Was Simon helpful to Jesus? Yes. Yes he was.  He wasn’t always on target, he got some things really wrong, he even turned away from Jesus and denied him.  But Simon was helpful to Jesus.

To bring light to the darkness, Jesus began calling people together to share a holy way of being in the world. He calls each one of us, but not for ourselves alone, Jesus always calls people into community to reflect God’s light to the world.

Twenty years ago my wife Noelle was part of the planning team for a church mission fair at church I was serving. She suggested they design a T-shirt for the church. They wanted the shirt to reflect the values of the church, to invite questions about the church, and to use words that everyone could understand, but that, in combination, would suggest something new. Noelle came up with the words: community, conscience, and caring. Wearing that shirt for a decade while talking about what it meant to be church, those words settled into a very deep place in my heart and have come to describe for me what it means to respond to the call of Christ.

  • We are called into and commit ourselves to community;
  • When Christ stirs our conscience, we must act;
  • and we are drawn by Christ to a network of caring.

My stump speech for years and what it means to be a member of the church is: in response to the call of Christ, to make a commitment to community, conscience, and caring. Our participation in and belonging to the church of Christ can be measured by the visible ways we live this out each day.

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The church is not a membership organization. It is a mission, God’s mission, in a broken and fearful world. It does not have a mission, it IS a mission. It is the movement of God’s people on our way to reconciliation: Ephesians. It is the body of Christ, in the flesh, in our flesh, today. Every Easter we sing “Christ is alive, no longer bound to distant years in Palestine, but saving, healing, here and now, and touching every place and time.” The church is a response to God’s call, then and now, for when God calls, God always call us together.

One must be a member of the church to vote in congregational meetings. One must ordinarily be a member of the church to present a child for baptism. One cannot be elected to service in the church as a ruling elder unless one has declared a commitment to membership before the church council. But everyone may worship here. Everyone may ask for prayers from our prayer ministers, or come by for conversation with the pastors, or help out in church events.  While the church has members, the church is not a club or a membership organization.  The point of the church is not to “increase membership” but to participate in God’s mission.  When Jesus and Simon aim to “catch people,” it’s not about numbers, it’s about catching them up in God’s spirit – it’s about inviting commitment and courage in dark times, it’s about building community.  Unlike a shareholder in a corporation, one doesn’t become a member in order to “diversify your portfolio” or “increase your value;” you become a member because the values of this community and the values you hold, align.  When one becomes a member, you are making and intentional decision to join your life with a community of God’s people who are sharing a way of life.

Some of you here today are members, others have sojourned with us for many years but have, for whatever reason, decided not to join, still others here are exploring membership in this congregation, and others are visitors who happened in.  All are welcome.  And all are important.  But if you have ever wondered what it means to be a member, it means to make a commitment to this congregation that you will join your life with the life of this community. That you will make a home here; like Jesus did in Capernaum.  If that sounds like something you’d like to explore, do it.  Explore it.  And allow yourself to imagine how God might be calling you, as a part of this congregation, to help bring light to those who sit in darkness.  Amen.

[1] Ralph Milton and Margaret Kyle. The Lectionary Story Bible. Three Volumes: Years A, B, and C. Woodlake Publishers, 2007. Milton and Kyle have also published the one volume Family Story Bible, also with Woodlake Publishers, which is hands down the best “Children’s Bible” on the market.

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