Jesus Calling, Here and Now

Sermon: “Jesus Calling, Here and Now”
Texts: Mt. 4:12-23; 1 Cor. 1:10-18
Date: January 26, 2020
Rev. Chris Delmar, guest preacher

Every year around this time, I am behind on my New Year’s resolutions. Anyone else having trouble with theirs? Mine were: Lose all the holiday weight gain; get more exercise; try to be more patient. And for my growing distress over our divided country and the world: Cut back on social media and the 24/7 “bad” news. Focus on the good. Like many folks, I’m trying to shake off the shadow we’ve been sitting in the past few years. Some of us are sitting in darkness of a more personal nature— illness and loss, or concern about loved ones facing tough challenges or transition—where it can be hard to trust in God.

A global research firm, YouGov, recently listed “being more spiritual” as one of America’s top ten resolutions for 2020. I heard this surprising bit of news while listening to an NPR broadcast of Here and Now. A resolution I did not expect in our increasingly secular culture. Here and Now cited what Dee mentioned last week. That the number of spiritual but not religious and those totally done with church—the “nones” and the “dones”—continues to grow. Now 25% of all Americans, including my adult children. But I think resolving to be more spiritual shows there is a longing for deeper connection, perhaps especially in these divisive times. A need that may actually be built into our brains. Some scientists at Yale and Columbia have identified the “spiritual part of the brain”—a neurobiological area that lights up during experiences of transcendence. Through traditional religious feelings of God, and also through secular and spiritually meaningful connections with nature or humanity. Today’s readings remind us of the spiritual connections we have to God and each other through Jesus Christ. And they invite us to reflect on, how might Jesus be calling us to follow him, here and now?

One way I do get a little exercise is through Tai Chi, which my teacher, Tim, says takes a lifetime to master. A couple of weeks ago, as our small group was feeling like we had finally made progress, Tim said he wanted to go back to some basics, because that would help us with the next steps. When he saw our frustration, he said, “That’s how it is. Just when you think you’ve got it, the teacher shakes things up, moves you back a bit to move you forward.” Our Gospel text also brings us back to what we think we already know. Some basics about who Jesus is, what God’s kingdom of heaven is about, and what Jesus has in mind when he commands the first disciples to follow. It’s also a preview of what Jesus will teach and do throughout his ministry.

So, to review. Jesus starts out in Capernaum in Galilee, a region populated by Jews and non-Jewish Gentiles. Land of the ancient Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, where, eight centuries before Jesus, the prophet Isaiah said God would shine a great light on those living in the darkness of Assyrian oppression. It was a promise that a righteous king would bring God’s justice and peace.

The Gospel witness is that Jesus fulfills that promise. But not as any ordinary king. He is God’s shining light—God with us, Immanuel (Gospel of Matthew); the Light of the World (Gospel of John). Sent by God and with God’s power in another time of oppression: When the Romans ruled Galilee with brute force, controlled all trade, with little concern for the poor and powerless. And physical and mental illness was widespread, commonly believed to be caused by sin.

Into this socio-economic-political and religious darkness Jesus comes to shine God’s light. Declaring the kingdom of heaven—God’s rule and saving presence—is at hand through him. To begin bringing all closer to the freedom, justice, peace, and well-being God seeks for the world. When Jesus commands “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” he doesn’t mean just being sorry or remorseful about something we’ve done. The Greek verb that is translated “repent” [metanoew] means to change one’s mind and direction towards the good. Jesus is calling for a turning away from the harmful ways of the world towards God’s life-giving vision.

Then Jesus summons his first disciples. Ordinary fishermen in their ordinary circumstances. We don’t know anything more about them at this moment; just their names and that they are common folks. The four also don’t know who Jesus is, or why he wants them to follow him. Yet they respond to his powerful command—immediately! Leaving boats, nets, and for James and John, their father Zebedee. One can only imagine what Zebedee must have felt! “What do you mean you’re abandoning me and everything for someone you don’t even know?” The text doesn’t tell us why they respond without considering the impact on their lives. Are we to follow like this?

As an itinerant teacher and healer, Jesus was calling these four fishermen to leave home and livelihood, and join him on the road, to form a new community that would help carry out his mission. He puts God’s claim on their hearts, time, and energy so they could turn to a different sort of fishing. Instead of mending their nets, they will be joining Jesus in mending the world. And they will be learning how as they follow.

And here’s the preview. On the road with Jesus, they will come to understand that he was calling them into a new relationship with him, God, and with each other. They will begin to see everyone and everything through God’s will for the world. That doing God’s will involves service to others, mercy, love for enemies, reconciled relationships, peacemaking and non-violence, caring for the least of these—the hungry, the lonely, the sick, and imprisoned. (Mt. 5 – 7; Mt. 20:26-28; Mt. 25:35-45) Shining light before others through the good they will do. (Mt. 5:14-16) Being sent out in mission and facing persecution. (Mt. 10:5-24) Incredibly, they seem to go along with little hesitation or doubt. But we know from the Gospel of Mark, written before the Gospel of Matthew, that the first disciples did not immediately get what Jesus was asking of them. They were wondering and stumbling as they followed. And trying to trust where Jesus was leading.

Biblical scholar Marcus Borg helps us understand the Gospel is meant to be taken seriously, but not literally. The dramatic response of those first disciples is to get us to see what Jesus is after: a trusting, whole-hearted commitment to follow where he leads, for the sake of God’s kingdom. Borg says Jesus invites us on a lifelong “journey in a company of other disciples” to teach us who God is and about God’s ways. All of which are grounded in the “the central quality of God” and Jesus: Compassion. And that the defining mark of discipleship is “being compassionate as God is compassionate.” As Gregory Boyle, the Jesuit leader of a gang intervention mission, says so beautifully: “Compassion was the wallpaper of Jesus’ soul, the contour of his heart…” And as his followers, we should “just assume that the answer to every question” we might have “is compassion.”

As Jesus did with his first followers, he calls us in our own circumstances: Our relationships, responsibilities, concerns, joys, talents, resources, strengths and limitations. All that makes us who we are. And like those early disciples, we are called to trust and whole-heartedly follow, but not to leave everything and everyone behind. Or our own self-care.

When I was in seminary, on the path to becoming a Presbyterian minister, I had trouble balancing the coursework, ordination requirements, and my family life. When I met with the Dean, he told me that while I was responding to this new call to ministry, not to forget my first call to be lovingly present to my family. That “call” is not so much about one call over another, he said, as much as it is about understanding the well-being that God seeks in all dimensions of life. And that we need to rely on God’s grace to find a right and faithful balance when Jesus calls.

Each of us is on a lifelong journey with Jesus, learning how to faithfully lean into God’s ways. We do so by listening to Jesus’ teachings—sometimes getting it and sometimes not quite getting it. Sometimes needing to go back and review the basics. Needing God’s help to follow in a right and faithful balance. And by remembering the connection we have to God and each other.

Which brings us to the Corinthians. Twenty years after Jesus’ ministry, that early community of followers was divided to the point of splitting apart. Fighting over differences about worship, morality, and conflicting loyalties. They were treating each other more like enemies than brothers and sisters in Christ. Each faction sure it was absolutely right. So, Paul brings them back to some basics. That they are spiritually united in the same mind and purpose: To witness to the self-giving love and life-giving power of God through Jesus Christ. Most memorably, in 1 Cor. 13—heard so often at weddings—Paul will remind them how they are to treat each other as they go about following Jesus. With other regarding love, kindness, patience, humility, forbearance, and forgiveness. So being compassionate with each other, even as they disagree.

Now, Paul was addressing conflict that fractured church relationships. But I think his words also apply to other broken relationships, that Jesus might be calling us to mend. When my mother died last November, I dreaded going back East for her funeral. Not only because I was sad. I did not want to be around my older sister Mary. I had long ago concluded that she was absolutely wrong and I was absolutely right in our differences, and that the best way to deal with her was to avoid dealing with her. But as I sat a few seats away from Mary in the funeral home, I prayed for God’s help to get through the weekend without conflict. And something happened that I can only attribute to God’s grace. I began to see my sister with some compassion. Her deep grief over losing our mother and the pain she seemed to be in generally. And for the first time in a long time, I could see beyond our differences.

At the reception following the funeral, I publicly thanked her for all the love and care she had given to our mother for so many years. And after I spoke, Mary came over to my table and gave me a hug. God’s life-giving power beginning to mend what had long been broken. A little bit of God’s kingdom come near. Does this mean my sister and I now agree on everything or that our relationship is completely healed? No. There are still significant issues between us. But we have begun to reconnect in a kinder way.

In the broadcast I mentioned earlier, Krista Tippett, founder of The On Being Project, talks about how we have become stuck in outrage at those on the opposite side of the partisan divide. Because we are trained to fight and wield our opinions. But, she says, there is room for “bridge people”—passionate and secure in their own positions— but who can also wonder “in the space between the poles.” Tippett advises, “When you are really struggling with someone…move in, get curious, get closer, ask questions, try to connect. Remind yourself of that spiritual belief of inextricable connection. And ask yourself, how am I connected to you in a way that is bigger and more primal than our politics?” Or, I would add, whatever else is dividing us from others.

To bridge such divides, Tippett says think about what goes with compassion. Being kind. Being curious without assumptions about the other. Imagining how the other might be feeling, and the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation, or simple acts of presence, hospitality, or generosity.
And being willing to see beauty in the other. Compassion for those we seriously disagree with is not easy, especially as we grapple with hard issues in a very complex world. And as we deal with difficult situations in our close circles of family and friends. We need God’s help to begin to see and respond with compassion and all that goes with it. But if we can, the healing and peace of God’s kingdom will come a bit nearer for all our sakes.

Friends, we each have gifts of heart, time, talent or resources to join in God’s mission to mend what is broken and to shine light for others. And there are many ways to answer the call of Jesus, as you already do. By participating in social justice and mission projects, so passionately and wholeheartedly. By personal witness that God is still at work in our lives and the greater world. Or by praying and caring for those struggling to see God’s light in whatever darkness they are sitting.

The mission field of the kingdom of heaven is both broad—out there—and closer to home. All around us. Exactly where Jesus is calling you to shine light in that field now is for you and him to discern together, with the company of this community of disciples. Jesus may be calling you to continue just as you are. Or, perhaps he is inviting you to see if anything is out of balance as you follow. Or to mend relationships that need mending. Maybe he is calling you into something new and completely different. Perhaps shaking up your status quo a bit to lead you forward into the next steps of your journey with him.

As life circumstances change, so may your sense of call. When Muriel, an elder member of a church I served, could no longer do her driving ministry, her call became prayer and kind-hearted listening at her assisted living for those dealing with loneliness and other challenges. She shone light into their darkness by being compassionately present and holding the hope and promises of God for them. And when Muriel became seriously ill, her call was to rest and trust in God and in the caring light the church shone on her. My own journey with Jesus has had many twists and turns as my life has changed. I am retired and no longer in an official clergy “call.” But as with everyone here, Jesus is still calling for me to see where he wants me to shine light now. And I am still learning along the way as I trust in his leading.

Reflecting God’s light is the “fishing for people” that Jesus calls each of us to. It is how God works through us to bring the world closer to the justice, peace and wholeness that God intends. Let’s ask God to help us see everyone and everything through God’s lens of compassion. And may God open us to seeing, hearing, and trusting where Jesus is calling us to go. Here and now.

1 NPR, Here & Now, “Spirituality Without God,” January 13, 2020 https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510051/here-x26-now.
2 Ibid.
3 Marcus J. Borg, Convictions: How I learned What Matters Most (Harper Collins, 2014), p.110-11.
4 Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (Harper Collins Paperback Edition, 1995), p. 133-36
5 Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 46, 54 and 136.
6 Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (Free Press, 2010), p. 62
7 See https://onbeing.org/
8 NPR, Here & Now, “Spirituality Without God”
9 Krista Tippett via TED Talk link, “Reconnecting through Compassion,” https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2020/01/13/spirituality-krista-tippett

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