I wrote this sermon at a time when several of our Morton children were launching their lives as young adults. We certainly can imagine this Sunday’s Gospel lesson from the point of view of Zebedee as he watched his sons leave home with Jesus. But it’s not only the young that are called to leave home. Just ask Abraham and Sarah. Just ask a church that’s trying to figure out where God wants it to go.
A Sermon on Matthew 4:12-25
Jesus knows all about leaving home. He knew what he was asking of Peter, Andrew, James and John and asking of their families. Jesus had recently left home himself. Until he was about thirty—middle aged in that day, Jesus lived at home in Nazareth. Carpentry was his trade. It was a good, honest, working class life. The movie The Passion of the Christ imagines Jesus remembering that life. It shows a flashback of Mary coming to call Jesus to a meal, and the two of them joking together about the table Jesus was making.
Matthew says that hearing about John the Baptist’s being thrown into prison was what prompted Jesus to move. He moved some twenty miles away to the city of Capernaum on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, which happened to be a place where you could meet all kinds of people, Jewish and Gentile. Luke tells us another reason for Jesus’ leaving home: rejection. When Jesus preached a challenging sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, the home folks angrily chased him to the edge of a cliff, but he slipped away.
Moving to Capernaum was a big move. Twenty miles was too far away to see his mother and other family members very often. When Jesus saw the two pairs of brothers at the lakeshore, and called them to leave home and follow him, he knew what he was asking of them. Peter, Andrew, James and John would have to leave their family businesses; other hands would be needed to take their place. They would leave a secure, steady income, predictable schedules, familiar routines. They would literally leave their families. When Jesus called these brothers to leave, he was also calling their families to let them go, to release them, and rearrange the way they did things at home and work. “Follow me,” Jesus said. And immediately they left their nets, their boats and their families and went with him. James and John left their father Zebedee.
Zebedee stood and watched his children go. How we can feel for him. Our children are literally leaving home now, seeking to follow Jesus’ call in study and in work, in marriage and families of their own. One child of our congregation is getting married on in April, and then next fall, another child will be leaving for Chapel Hill. We rejoice to think of how Christ is using our children where they are now, and wherever he takes them in the future. God’s got wonderful purposes for each and every one, reaching out to serve God and neighbor with their own unique gifts. But I think those are tears I see sliding out of the corners of Zebedee’s eyes, don’t you? Pass the kleenex.
But it’s not just younger folks that God calls to leave home. God called Abraham and Sarah to leave home when they were seniors. Abraham was seventy-five years old when God called him to leave family behind, leave security behind, leave their settled way of doing things and travel to an unknown destination. God had a mission for them that would be a blessing for all the families of the earth. And it’s not just individuals that God calls to leave the place of security. He called the whole nation of Israel to move out of their familiar, though painful, life of slavery in Egypt, and live as nomads in the wilderness until they reached their new home in the Promised Land. Leaving the known for the unknown was not easy, and there were times in the wilderness when the Israelites had a hard time believing God had their best interests at heart, and that it really was going to turn out for the good.
Leaving the known for the unknown is never easy. God called our congregation to leave a secure place and take a journey into the unknown with the building renovation. God led us forward, to make this building serve God and his people better. There were some surprises along the way, but it’s clear that God was always with us, and we’re grateful. One surprise was that we had resources left over, which are now going to be used to create a comfortable, useful space for our musicians, and one for me.
God is still calling us forward into the unknown. “Morton Church, follow me, and fish for people,” Christ calls.
God has a long history of calling people to leave the place of familiarity, the place of security and go where he leads. At the very end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his followers to go into all the world. Don’t stay home. Don’t just stay with the people you already know and are comfortable with. Go everywhere and make disciples!
How do we fish the seas for people we haven’t met yet? It takes prayer and effort and courage. And creativity. Last week we raised the question this way: how do we get out there and mix with people who need the Lord? When we invite people to Sunday School and worship, they rarely take us up on it. The fish aren’t biting, not that bait, anyway. It’s hard to get them to come where we are.
It’s easy to drive right past this building without noticing it, especially when you’re driving 55 and aiming at getting somewhere else. Coming from one direction, this church home is hidden around a curve; from the other it’s hidden by trees and bushes. At the PW meeting last Sunday afternoon, two or three people reported having to explain how to get here to people that you would think would already know. One reported that someone actually said to her, “I’ve been by there many times and never noticed it before!”
So how do we raise our profile? We are going to have to seek God’s answers for us. Somebody else’s answers won’t fit our situation. And yet, it’s inspiring to hear stories of how other congregations are trying to interact with people outside the church walls.
Recently I have been following the story of the Baptist Church in Chatham, Virginia, a little town of about 1300 people in between Lynchburg and Danville, and to the East of Roanoke and Blacksburg. That area is experiencing some of the same economic distress that areas of NC are experiencing: industry drying up and moving overseas. Economic distress causes social and personal distress.
I came across this small church when I was looking around on the internet for weblogs—blogs—written by small church pastors. I was looking around to see who else is like me: believes the small church is a great place to serve God. The pastor of the Chatham Baptist Church, Chuck Warnock, has a blog he calls “Confessions of a Small Church Pastor.”
The Chatham Baptist Church is about twice our size, which is still small. And with a population of 1300, the other churches in Chatham can’t be but so big, either. This church has found a fresh sense of call by making new connections with other churches and community groups.
The upswing began after the Tsunami of December 2004. The church gave $5,400 for relief, and several folks realized that other people in town wanted to help. Music is very important in this church and town, so they organized a benefit concert called Chatham Cares. The proceeds plus gifts came to over $15,000. After Hurricane Katrina, Chatham Cares organized into an official community group.
The Chatham Baptist Church is seeking to be a tangible, noticeable blessing to the life of the whole community, whether people are church members or not. They have especially been seeking ways to have impact on the lives of children. There was a lack of music education in the area, for example, so members of the church pulled together interested people in the community and arranged a partnership with the music program at Virginia Tech and started a community music school housed at the church. They even offer scholarships, and hope to establish a community orchestra. One of their fundraisers for the music program was a chair rehabilitation program. The church had about forty unused wooden chairs. People around town decorated the chairs, and they were sold, with proceeds going to the music program. The church also hosts concerts to enrich the life of the community.
Church members also realized that there were no organized afterschool activities for children in town except for those who played on school athletic teams, so a team of people from the church and community united to form a boys and girls club. It now meets at the Baptist church, but sometime this year it will begin meeting in a new community center, again a group project of many churches and community organizations. Together, they applied for a 3 million dollar grant to build the center, and they got it! And there’s even more to the story than I have time to tell. The quality of life for the people of Chatham is definitely going up.
Here’s how Chatham Baptist’s pastor puts it: small churches and their pastors need to see the community around them as their responsibility. Working for the good of the community is good for the church.
Are people coming to know Jesus Christ in the middle of these activities? Well, they are certainly getting to know some of Christ’s people. You have people who know Jesus mixing with people who don’t know him yet, and that sounds like a good opportunity for fishing. There is definitely the possibility of a catch. We need find ways to form relationships in the sea of people around us. We see Jesus himself doing that everywhere he went. He told
It seems that Peter and Andrew, James and John quickly and easily said, “Yes” to Jesus’ call to fish for people. In his telling of this story, Mark says that when Jesus saw them, he immediately called them. But Matthew says that when Jesus called them, they immediately left and followed him. Which also meant that their families had to let them go immediately. Maybe they were captivated by the urgency of the mission. Following Jesus meant change for everybody.
But Jesus doesn’t say, “Leave home, and you’re out on your own, all alone.” Jesus doesn’t say, “Release your children to me, and they’ll sink or swim.” He doesn’t say, “Now get out there and reach people however you can, and good luck. Jesus says, “Follow me. Come with me. I’ll be there for you. I’ll be there for your children. And my people will be there.” Matthew puts it so clearly in chapter 28—“Yes, go into all the world, but remember I’m with you always, always to the end of the age.”
Wherever Christ takes our children, he will be there, always. Wherever Christ takes us as a church, he will be there, always. Think of the joy of new friendships he has in store for us as we cast our net as a congregation.
And there’s another wonderful reassurance in this call story. Jesus doesn’t call Peter and Andrew, James and John to do something they aren’t suited for. He frames the call in a way that fits them. “I’ll teach you to fish for people,” he tells the fishers. When he calls us to follow him into the future, he takes us as we are. He uses who we are, strengths and weaknesses—yes, warts and all! Each one has something special to give in ministry. Each church has something special to give in ministry.
Christ Jesus knows what it means to leave home. He left home in a big way, not counting equality with God as something to be grasped, but let go. He let go, humbled himself to come to us in the darkness, to live among us as one of us, even accepting death. God raised him and will raise us with him.
“My people,” he says, “I am your security. I am your way. I am your home, now and forever. So you and your loved ones can follow me.”