Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 26, 2020 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

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

Back in 1995, my life was in a shambles. My marriage had come to an end, I suffered the first really serious period of depression in my life, I was very poor, and all in all, life was pretty bleak. Into the midst of this disaster, I heard a voice. It was not really a voice that I heard so much as a word that I sensed, but it resonated deeply within me, and it said, “Elaine, you are to be a priest in my Church.”  Now, I know that sometimes people with mental illness or those going through really rough times often have deeply spiritual conversion experiences, they imagine that they are suffering “for a reason,” and that something more important is lying on the other side.

I did not think that at all. I thought it was absolutely ridiculous that I could think I had heard such a thing or had such a call, and so I ignored it. I didn’t tell anyone about it for a few years. But it didn’t go away. It gnawed at me like an empty stomach. When I finally told Tim, who I was then seeing, I told him he could not repeat what I said, not even to me, and it was most definitely not open for discussion. Ever.

I thought I was doing just fine serving as an organist and choir director, leading people in worship and inspiring them with hymns and anthems and voluntaries. Yet, I started to feel really uncomfortable, like I was in the right building but sitting in the wrong chair.

I did a lot of things to try to get around this. I got myself trained in chaplaincy so I could visit people in nursing homes and jails. I chaired a spiritual growth committee in the Diocese of Pennsylvania and started leading retreats and quiet days. I tried everything I could think of to scratch the itch that was God calling me to ordained ministry. And nothing worked.Finally, in frustration and desperation, I made an appointment with my rector and told him (whispers) that I thought I might be called to the priesthood. And he laughed and nodded and said of course you are and sent me off to the bishop. It was not in any way straightforward after that. In fact, it took another nine years before I was ordained a priest, which means that from start to finish, it took me 19 years from that first whispered invitation to having a bishop lay hands on my head. 19 years.

Finally, in frustration and desperation, I made an appointment with my rector and told him (whispers) that I thought I might be called to the priesthood. And he laughed and nodded and said of course you are and sent me off to the bishop. It was not in any way straightforward after that. In fact, it took another nine years before I was ordained a priest, which means that from start to finish, it took me 19 years from that first whispered invitation to having a bishop lay hands on my head. 19 years.

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 lake—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. (Matthew 4:18-22)

Immediately. Not the next day or two weeks later or ten years later. Immediately.

I can’t help wondering what they thought they were getting themselves into. Maybe they were just young men looking for adventure. Maybe they had no intention of taking over dad’s fishing business and were a little tired of that backbreaking work. The way Matthew tells the story, this is the first encounter these four have had with Jesus. Was he that charismatic that he could just say “come” and they went?

And what about Jesus? Why was he interested in gathering a bunch of nobodies around him as he launches his ministry proclaiming God’s reign?

At the end of the last chapter, the part we read two weeks ago, Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River and named God’s beloved. He is then led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, fasting for forty days. When he returns, undoubtedly weak, disoriented, emaciated, the first thing he hears is that John, his cousin, has been arrested. And he knows he can’t stay where he is. John is his cousin, the leader of a movement in opposition to the Roman Empire and its local henchman, Herod Antipas.

So after six weeks in the wilderness, Jesus does not get to go home to relax and recuperate. He has to be on the move, heading to the shores of Galilee, right in the midst of Herod’s oppression, not withdrawing but entering the belly of the beast, and there he says to anyone who will listen, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Repent. Turn around. Return to the Lord your God and give up the ways of empire, the practices that trample on the poor and abuse those on the margins.

In this context, it makes sense that Jesus will not go to the powerful. He goes to those very people who are most vulnerable to the abuses of those on the top of the economic and power-structure heap. This is how movements start, and Jesus basically becomes a community organizer. Herod’s not going to help us. The rich aren’t going to help us. We have to organize, and so he starts surrounding himself with others to help do the hard work of changing the culture.

But Jesus is calling them to repentance, too. They’re not upholding the empire. They’re not the oppressors. They’re the victims. What do they have to repent of? Maybe Jesus is inviting them to turn around from despair to hope, to give up their victimhood and claim their agency as beloved of God. Maybe their repentance is because they had given up on God to help, given up on God’s promise. He invites them to follow, and they do, and apparently they turn from hopelessness to hope. And all because Jesus said, “Follow me.”

I was not so quick to say “yes” to that invitation. Yes, I was churchy and faithful and believed in God’s promises with all my heart. What I didn’t really believe was that God could use me to do this. My repentance was also about not believing that what God said was true.

I’m here to tell you that God does not lie. God not only calls you beloved, God calls you to follow. Maybe it’s not a call to ordination, but God calls all of us to follow, in whatever way and using whatever gifts we might possess to use in service to God’s reign.

Today, even now, Jesus is inviting us to come and follow. How will you respond?

ASEPSermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 26, 2020 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas