Over the years, I have developed a pattern as I begin working on my sermon for Sunday. I try reading Sunday’s texts early in the week—one of my profs recommended reading them already on Sunday afternoon, but I never do that. Then I go back through my files to look at sermons I preached on the text in previous years. There may be a hint of something that I can build on, an idea I didn’t develop, that could be woven into this year’s sermon.
As I am now in my 14th year at Grace, and going on twenty years of preaching regularly, this practice has become something of a journey into my past, and into the recent history of Grace, as well. Just to give you two examples. In 2014, when I preached on this Sunday, I talked about how we opened our doors to the homeless on MLK Day that year when there was no other location for them to go. That experience catapulted me into the center of efforts to create a day shelter in Madison. In fact, a photo from that day showed up in my Facebook memories on Friday.
Three years later, in 2017, it was just after the inauguration of the last president, and the day after the Women’s March, another occasion when we opened our doors for people to gather, rest, and warm up.
Both of those events, and it’s just a coincidence that they occurred in conjunction with this Sunday’s lectionary readings, are evidence of our efforts to use our space for outreach and to support the community. If you’ve been around here for a while, you know that we have done many other things in this regard—opening our doors during protests, for groups to gather before and after engaging with legislators, for our food pantry, for the homeless shelter, for concerts.
Over the last year, we have engaged in conversations about our witness and mission in the community. These conversations have seemed especially urgent as the shelter’s departure at the beginning of the pandemic not only left a lot of vacant space in our building, it also left a gaping hole in our congregational identity and mission.
All of those conversations are beginning to bear fruit. Over the last few weeks, I have met with a couple of entities that are interested in using our space for their work. You will all hear more about this in the weeks to come, as proposals are presented and more details emerge.
As we reflect on where we have been as a congregation, where God is calling us in this present moment, it seems especially appropriate that today’s gospel reading points us directly toward the question of call. We often hear a text like this and want to interpret it light of our own lives, to reflect on God’s call of us, and where Jesus might be asking us to follow him.
Let’s delve into the text. First of all, a bit of context might be helpful. We’re dropped into Matthew’s story of Jesus after he was baptized by John, and after his temptation in the wilderness. So today’s gospel reading comes immediately after Jesus has been tempted by Satan. It’s the beginning of his public ministry, and it begins on an ominous note, after John’s arrest.
Matthew tells us that after hearing of John’s arrest, Jesus withdraws, he returns to Galilee, his home country, presumably having been further south, around the Jordan River, where he was baptized, where John was preaching, and where he himself was tempted.
In essence, Jesus is going back home; but he’s going there because Herod arrested John the Baptist. It’s likely that Jesus felt himself under threat and suspicion because of the action taken against John; after all, the two were associated.
So one might imagine that Jesus was feeling fearful, concerned about the future, concerned about his future. But he did not hide. He may have gone to Galilee, but in the midst of whatever fear he might have had, he chose at that very moment, in all of the uncertainty, to begin his public ministry. More than that, Jesus emphatically chose to continue John the Baptist’s ministry. Matthew reports as a summary of Jesus’ proclamation: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
Let me pause and make two observations because to twenty-first century ears, this language sounds overly pious and a bit old-fashioned. When we hear the word “repent” our minds go to the overt rituals and drama of repentance—feeling shame and guilt over sins and seeking God’s forgiveness, whether we do this individually and privately, or in the context of the sacrament of Confession. Similarly, “kingdom of heaven” sends our minds to pearly gates, angels with harps, and streets paved with gold. Both of those sets of images are misleading.
The word translated here as “repent” is the Greek “metanoiete” which literally means “change your mind.” So it’s not so much feeling remorse for one’s actions and seeking forgiveness, but a complete transformation in one’s point of view; the way one looks at the world, perhaps even, a transformation of who we are at our very core.
Similarly, while Matthew almost exclusively uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” it’s his wording for what in the gospels of Mark and Luke is called the kingdom of God and kingdom should be thought of not as a place, a territory or nation, but a qualitative existence—we could say “reign of God.” We will have a great deal more to say about the reign of God as we work through the Gospel of Matthew this coming year. Especially now, we might even translate it as “empire” and interpret Jesus’ proclamation of the “empire of God” as a direct challenge to Rome. God’s power and justice is present around us and in this very world, confronting and overturning the power and oppression of Rome.
From that brief summary of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, Matthew turns to the story of Jesus calling the first disciples. In its brevity and simplicity, it invites all sorts of questions. Why did Peter and Andrew, James and John, respond in such a way to Jesus’ call? Did they know Jesus? Had they heard about him? Was it something in his demeanor that motivated them? Were they so ground down and dispirited by lives caught up in the grinding poverty and oppression of Roman occupation that they jumped at the opportunity to break free? Or, as many scholars think, were they somewhat successful? If they owned their own boats, they may have had decent livelihoods. In any case, they left what they were doing, they left their families and homes, and followed Jesus.
We may think it was an individual call, but it was a call in community and to community. Peter and Andrew, James and John, heard the call together, and answered it together, and when they followed Jesus, they were the first members of the community Jesus was calling into existence, a community that includes us and all those throughout the generations who have responded to that call.
We gather here, in this place, on this square, and with those who join us remotely in response to God’s call. In the heart of this city, God is calling us to share the good news of Jesus Christ, to work for justice and peace.
Last Sunday, we heard Mark Charles speak eloquently about the injustices the people of the United States have inflicted on Native Americans over the centuries; how our most revered heroes and presidents participated in and perpetrated those evils. He called us, not to reconciliation because that word assumes there was a prior state of relationship or community. Instead, he called us to conciliation, to building relationships with indigenous peoples, to become their allies and to build a more just and equitable society.
In Madison, we are hearing a great deal about the need for affordable housing. We are also seeing how efforts to change zoning laws, to make it possible to build more affordable housing, are resisted by some of our most progressive leaders and media, because those efforts threaten neighborhoods and historic districts. We’re all for justice and equity, except when our home values might be threatened, or when people of different ethnicity or socioeconomic status might move next to us.
Jesus is calling us to leave our boats, to leave our complacency and comfort, and follow him into a future and into community that welcomes all and where all might flourish. May we have the courage to follow him into that unknown and possible future.