Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 22, 2023 – The Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

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(Tobit 13:11-17)+Psalm 22:23-31+1 Timothy 3:14-16+Matthew 4:18-25

Last week, we explored Jesus’s reasoning for not returning to his home in Nazareth following the forty days he spent in the desert. Herod had arrested John the Baptist, so maybe it was best for Jesus to make himself scarce. He chooses a spot at the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee, a place with which he has no known connection and where, presumably, he doesn’t know anyone.

We all know how Matthew is intent on making us understand that Jesus was the fulfillment of ancient prophecy. Isaiah had foretold that the people of Zebulun and Naphtali had seen a great light. These two were sons of Jacob and inheritors of the portion of land that included Galilee, so in heading to that region – Zebulun and Naphtali – Jesus was fulfilling that part of the prophecy, at least according to Matthew.

Once he is in that region, Jesus begins to call his disciples, and the first four are pairs of brothers, fishermen, and they will be the ones closest to Jesus throughout his ministry.

Now, I don’t know if we have any fisherfolk in this congregation, but I don’t know of any who fish for a living. It is a sweaty, smelly occupation even today with modern boats and techniques. At the time of Jesus, fishermen were laborers. If they didn’t work, they didn’t eat. Most likely they were never able to completely wash the smell of fish from their hands, and they often worked through the night when the fish were running. They were not the kind of people we might invite to our next cocktail party.

But Jesus did.

Jesus comes to this out-of-the-way village telling people that they needed to repent, and who knows if Peter and Andrew, James and John had gotten wind of this. But when Jesus called, they came.

They left their livelihoods. James and John left their father without help with the boat. And off they went.

But why? Was Jesus that charismatic? Were they that sick and tired of life as they had been living it? Were they young and in need of an adventure? We know that Peter, at least, was married, and he doesn’t seem to have consulted with his wife whose name we don’t even know. What was it?

In the time of the prophet Isaiah, the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom of Israel, scattered the people, and made life wretched for those who remained. In the time of Jesus, the Romans occupied the land and made life wretched for everyone. Every bit of commercial activity was controlled, including who could and could not fish and what happened with the proceeds of that activity. Perhaps these first four of the disciples heard Jesus proclaiming that God’s reign was near and decided to do their part, rejecting their complicity in the Roman economic system, a small and symbolic act of resistance against the might empire.

Or maybe that’s just what I would like to think.

There are many scholars who believe that John the Baptist was the leader of a sect that rejected Rome and wealth and worldly concerns, who called folks to repentance and a new way of living. And these scholars claim that Jesus and at least some of the disciples were followers of John the Baptist. Jesus, who had been called beloved at his baptism just a short time before, assumed the leadership of this sect so that Peter, Andrew, James, and John were ready to follow him.

The fact is, we don’t know.

What we do know is that they gave up everything to follow Jesus.

In the study of liberation theology, it is a given that the poor – those who have nothing to protect and who are most vulnerable to the abuses of the powerful – they are the ones for whom the gospel is intended. They are the ones who would commit their trust to a message of Good News that tells them that they are beloved of God, that they – not the rich and powerful – are closest to salvation. It’s called God’s preferential option for the poor. It’s what Mary sang about in the Magnificat, and it’s what Jesus demonstrated throughout his public ministry.

If Jesus had known anything about church growth, he would have gone to the ones with money to assure the success of his operation. But he didn’t. He went to these working-class people with nothing much to show for their lives and labors and said, “follow me.” And I sometimes wonder if that is something we can ever fully understand. If we look around the world at where Christianity continues to grow by leaps and bounds, it’s in those places where people don’t have anything to protect, where the lifegiving waters of baptism promise that they are Christ’s own beloved ones.

Marx may have claimed that religion is the opiate of the masses, that it keeps people docile and accepting of their lot in life, but rarely have I seen people more capable of persevering from adversity to triumph than through faith. It happened in the earliest days of the church when they couldn’t even publicly witness to the saving power of the gospel. It happened during 400 years of chattel slavery in this country, and it continues to compel people around the globe to do those small, persistent acts that declare their full humanity as creatures of God.

Maybe those of us here today have too much to lose, too much to protect. Maybe we aren’t desperate enough. But death comes. Sorrow comes. The diagnosis comes. The economic catastrophe comes. None of us is immune. And what then? How does anyone withstand such without a community of faith to support and love and listen and work to make things better?

So when Jesus calls, what will we say? Will we leave our security and comfort behind? If God’s reign has really come near, we would be foolish not to.

allsaintsadminSermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 22, 2023 – The Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas