Wednesday, December 18, at 7:30 pm
We are all carrying something that feels heavy. Even in a festive season like the time leading up to Christmas, we carry the weight of grief or worry or fear. Join us for a special worship service the week before Christmas that will provide a space of hope and healing for anyone who is grieving the death of a loved one, trying to make sense of a difficult relationship, or struggling to stay spiritually grounded in our crazy world. The service will include prayers, time for reflection, and music, including portions of the beautiful Holden Evening Prayer setting. There will be an optional opportunity for individual prayer and anointing with Pastor Christa at the end of the service.
5:00 pm – Worship with Youth Ensemble and Kids’ Choir
10:00 pm – Candlelight Service with Adult Choir and Violin
Third Sunday After Epiphany
“For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord.” Nehemiah 8:9b-10a
It was a time of deep political upheaval, when enemies were [all around] and questions raged within the country about who really belonged and what it meant to be patriotic…Ideas about what faithful adherence to traditional religion looked like [seemed to be constantly changing]. Charismatic leaders stepped forward, some arguing one way and some arguing another, but all claiming God was on their side, until many people were confused.[i]
That’s how Professor Cory Driver sets up his reflection on this week’s readings. His description, as we will see, provides an accurate backdrop for today’s First Reading and for today’s Gospel. But isn’t it interesting how much it sounds like our own time? Political upheaval. Changing religious practices. Leaders arguing. Widespread confusion.
The book of Nehemiah comes from the Hebrew Scriptures, what we usually call the Old Testament, but Nehemiah not a book from which we read very often on Sunday mornings. Today’s passage is set in a time when the Jewish people have returned from exile. Decades earlier they had been conquered by the Babylonians, who separated them and sent them away from their homeland. The Babylonian king and his armies had also destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. Having been scattered far and wide, having lost the center of their communal worship life, the Jewish people endured a difficult period of dislocation.
By the time of today’s reading, some things have changed. The Persian Empire has defeated the Babylonians, and the Persian king has allowed the Jewish exiles to return home and to rebuild the temple. Imagine how it would feel to return to a homeland you had been forced to leave, reunited with neighbors and friends and loved ones. What would you want to do first? Probably gather for some meals together. Share stories of children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Talk about what you’d been through. Remember those who died while you were in captivity.
One of the things that the people want to do is hear from the Torah, the law of Moses, the holy scriptures that have shaped who they are as a people from the very beginning. Ezra, a priest and prophet, brings the law before the people gathered in the town square. Everyone is there at the Water Gate – men and women included – as Ezra dives in. He reads for hours – from early morning until midday. Think about how hard it is on some Sunday mornings to focus on listening to all of the readings, which takes only a few minutes. Could you pay attention to the reading of scripture for hours and hours? It would be a challenge.
But notice how the people respond to that public reading of God’s holy word. They stand up. They cry “Amen! Amen!” They bow their heads with faces to the ground. They weep. They weep. And not just a couple of softies in the crowd. It says: “All the people wept when they heard the words of the law.”
Who knows what prompted the tears? Maybe it was the joy of being together again for worship after so long. Maybe it was the memories that surfaced while hearing these sacred stories read aloud again. Maybe it was the realization of how far they had fallen short of how God wants us to live. I suspect it was a combination of all of those and much more.
But notice what happens next. The people are told to let their grief and struggle turn to joy. To go out from that time of hearing God’s word to eat good food and drink sweet wine. And then what? To share that food and wine with those for whom nothing is prepared. In other words, be fed with the scriptures and be fed with an actual meal and then make sure you share what you have with others who don’t have as much.
If we were to read a couple of verses beyond today’s passage, we would hear this: “All the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.” They celebrated together, and they shared their abundance with those who needed it the most.
Scripture does something to the people who gather to hear it. It transforms them from a traumatized community struggling to make sense of the political upheaval they have experienced to a rejoicing community that takes care of those in need.
Centuries later Jesus stands up in the synagogue of his hometown and unscrolls a different part of the scriptures, this time from the book of Isaiah. The Persian Empire was now a distant memory, but living in the time of the Roman Empire wasn’t all that different. There were still power struggles all around – and obstacles to being able to worship together in peace.
Jesus could have picked any part of Isaiah to read as he looked into the faces of the people who have known him since he was a little boy. But he chooses this passage: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim year of the Lord’s favor.” And then Jesus tells them that he is the fulfillment of that long-ago promise. The regular synagogue-goers have heard those words from Isaiah countless times, but on this morning Jesus tells them that he’s there to make sure it actually happens – release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed.
Jesus is essentially saying: “The word of God is a living Word, and it is standing right in front of you.”
We’ll hear in the coming months how Jesus’ embodiment of those words from Isaiah will unfold in his earthly ministry. As we know, he’s not making empty promises here. And we’ll hear more next week about how the people reacted to what Jesus says. For now let me just say that there are many different responses, all of them passionate.
What is true in Nazareth in the time of Jesus is also true in Jerusalem in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. God’s word provokes a response. People may feel confused and overwhelmed, they may find themselves in difficult political and economic circumstances, but they do not remain neutral. The words of scripture summon them to act on behalf of those who are in need, especially those who are crushed beneath power structures they cannot control.
I have a little homework for you. I encourage you to read the first four chapters of the gospel of Luke between now and next Sunday. You can do it a little bit at a time – a chapter a day, perhaps – or you can do it all in one sitting. Parts of these chapters will be very familiar; they include the Christmas story, for example. Other parts will be less familiar. Don’t worry about understanding every detail. But ask yourself these questions as you read:
- What do you notice as you read? What stands out?
- What questions do you have? What are you curious about?
- What might God be saying to us today through these scriptures? How might God be asking us to respond?
What do you notice? What questions do you have? What might God be saying to us? I’ll put those questions on our Facebook page and in the Weekly Word, and they’ll be in the sermon when it’s posted on our website so you’ll have access to them throughout the week.
We have this gift of God’s word. God uses it to teach us, to shape us, to move us to act in the world.
And so: “Go your way, eat the fat and drink the sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]I have adapted this opening from Cory Driver’s lectionary blog entry for this Sunday as posted here: https://www.livinglutheran.org/2019/01/lectionary-blog-what-scripture-does-to-and-for-us/ I have also drawn on his reflections throughout the sermon. I am also grateful to Bishop Mike Rinehart (https://bishopmike.com/2019/01/20/epiphany-3c-january-27-2019/) and Debie Thomas (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2060) for their reflections.
“And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.’” Mark 1: 17-18
I am not an impulsive decision maker. I tend to agonize over decisions. Sometimes it feels like I need a multi-level algorithm just to buy a pair of socks. Black or blue? Solid or stripes? Wool or Cotton? Ankle-length or knee-high? It’s silly, really.
For decisions that are far more important than a pair of socks, like making a career change or moving to New Jersey, I’ll deliberate in several ways. I pray about it. I consult with people I trust. I make a list of pros and cons for the different options. I pray some more. I try to figure out what my gut is telling me. And it seems to work. All of the big leaps of faith in my life have opened the way to new adventures and relationships that have profoundly shaped my life – not without some struggle along the way, but I have no regrets about the big decisions.
Every time I hear this story of how Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James, and John to follow him, it absolutely knocks me over. They follow him immediately. Immediately. They drop their fishing nets and hit the road. We don’t hear anything about packing up their belongings or saying goodbye to loved ones or staring wistfully over their shoulders as they walk off with Jesus into the sunset. Jesus says, “Follow me,” and off they go.
It’s true that most things happen quickly in the gospel of Mark. By my count the word “immediately” appears 28 times throughout Mark, two of them in today’s passage. It seems to underscore the haste with which these four men change their majors from fishing to discipleship.
But come on. Deciding to leave your home, your family, your livelihood in a split second? I can’t imagine it.
That’s the thing about this story. It’s tempting to look at the rapid response to Jesus’ call as a kind of spiritual heroics – to think, “These guys were so faithful, so brave, so committed that they immediately set off on this new path without hesitation.” Maybe they deserve some credit, but we miss something when we make it solely about what those four guys did.
The first thing we miss is the role of Jesus. His voice is powerful. As we keep reading, we learn that Jesus rebukes an unclean spirit and brings it out of a man with just a sentence. He heals Simon’s mother-in-law, cures many other sick people, and chases off more demons. He cleanses a leper. He tells a paralytic to stand up and walk. He does it all with very few words.
When Jesus speaks with a command – “Follow me” – it doesn’t sound optional. So rather than make the disciples into superheroes, we should give credit to the power of the One who summons them. Jesus is where the call originates. He gives them the ability to listen and obey.[i]
Besides, as we know, the disciples were not perfect. There will be times throughout Mark’s gospel when they will be confused, stubborn, and downright difficult. In the end, as Jesus is being led to his death, these guys who seemed so eager to put down their fishing nets and follow him will run into the darkest shadows and hide out. In a crucial moment they will not defend their friend and teacher. They will not even admit that they know him. It’s right there in Chapter 14: “All of them deserted him and fled” (14:50).
To be called to follow Jesus does not mean that we will do so perfectly. That’s important to remember as we consider what Jesus is calling each of us to do and to be in the world. Too often in the church we speak of “being called” too narrowly, limiting it to discussions of those who are called to public ministry in official roles like pastors or deacons.
The language we sometimes use is vocation, from the Latin vocatio, which means “calling” – a special role to which we are summoned and by which we contribute to the world.[ii]
Every person is called. Each and every one of you. And furthermore, each and every one of you is called to multiple vocations – as you work, as you volunteer, as you go to school, as you play on a team. You are called as a family member, a friend, a leader, a colleague. We have so many callings that balancing our vocations can often feel overwhelming. We worry that work is keeping us from being the best parent. Or that being engaged with our families keeps us from volunteering more. Or that working hard on algebra keeps us from improving our hockey game. I find that when I’m feeling the most guilty about juggling vocations, it’s usually because I’m trying to rely on my own energy and motivation rather than leaning on the One who gave me these vocations in the first place – the One who says “Follow me” every day.
The person in today’s gospel who usually gets overlooked is Zebedee. This week I’ve thought a lot about the ways Zebedee was called. He was called to be a fisherman. Maybe he learned how to fish from his own father. Maybe his parents wanted him to be something else entirely, but he felt the call of the sea and loved the idea of hauling in the daily catch and working until his hands were calloused.
Zebedee was also called to be a business owner. We hear that he has hired men, so part of faithfully living out his vocation as an employer would be to treat those workers with dignity, pay them a fair wage, and mentor them in the trade he knew so well.
And Zebedee was called to be a parent. We don’t have any idea what kind of father he was, but I like to imagine that his guidance as he raised his sons prepared them to be people who could set out into the world with Jesus. It would have been much better for Zebedee if his sons had stayed home and continued the family business, but Jesus has other ideas. Zebedee, like every parent, had to let his kids follow their own path.
You may find it strange to think of your daily roles and responsibilities as vocations, but they are. They are holy work, blessed by the one whose voice is calling you to follow him. So follow him. Follow his commitment to doing all things in love. Follow his way of finding the people who need the most help. Follow his path of forgiveness – which includes forgiving yourself when you feel lousy at your vocations.
Writer Debie Thomas observes:
We don’t follow Jesus in the abstract. We don’t heed his call “in general,” as if Christianity comes down to nothing more than attending church or being a nice person. If we’re going to follow him at all, we’ll have to do it in the highly specific particulars of the lives, communities, cultures, families, and vocations we find ourselves in. We’ll have to trust that God prizes our intellects, our muscle memories, our backgrounds, our educations, our skills, and that [God] will multiply, shape, and bring to fruition everything we offer up…in faith from the daily stuff of our lives.[iii]
The daily stuff of our lives, however messy or imperfect it might be. That’s where faith matters most.
Listen. Do you hear it? It’s the voice of our Savior saying “Follow me.” Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] I found this essay by Debie Thomas helpful: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=1623
[iii] From Debie Thomas’ essay cited above.