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Third Sunday after the Epiphany – Sermon by Deacon Nailor

Mark 1: 14-20

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Present at the Lakeshore (1433 words)

Grace, peace, and forgiveness to us all through our Lord Jesus Christ! Amen!

Thanks to Father Paul for inviting me to spend this Sunday morning with you and thanks to you all for showing up to hear this deacon preach this morning. Allow me to begin with a presumptuous question. What keeps us coming back to church? Whether we are here weekly, monthly, or just a few times per year… what causes us to show up? Thinking together about the people who do show up runs counter to the trends of media in our church. Barrels of ink and hours of workshops, conferences and podcasts are spent on the folks who are not here – but who spends time thinking about those of us who show up? This focus on “the absent” neglects, I think, celebrating, respecting, and challenging those of us who are present. It’s a bit like in my old life as a teacher when I would complain to those present about the students who failed or missed class. Not a promising practice to ensure learning!

In this morning’s Gospel Jesus gives us a starting strategy for honoring those who show us. He focuses on the importance of the present moment – not proclaiming about ancient stories of the Hebrew scriptures, or the 40 days he has just spent in the wilderness or the recent arrest of John the Baptist. Instead “Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives and trust this good news!” Don’t repent because of the fulfilling of some long past prophecy. Don’t repent because of the fear of future punishment. But change your way of life because God is right here, right now. God has drawn near to humans.

Saying YES to God surely does imply saying NO to some of the world’s ways of life. But the turnaround in our behavior is linked to happiness, to joy. God drawing nearby. God wants, for some inexplicable reason, to dwell intimately with human beings. I am not sure if I were God that I would bother with us – but the great message of the Incarnation is that God wants to bother with us. As a result, we are drawn, perhaps even compelled, to change our hearts and lives and live in accord with God’s will for us.

The word and the concept of “REPENT” has gotten a bad reputation in recent years. Those who run around screaming “REPENT” have come to be suspect. But as German theologian Helmut Thielicke suggests “REPENT” shouldn’t have such a negative connotation. In his sermon titled The Waiting Father on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Thielicke gives a beautiful portrayal of repentance: “The repentance of the lost son is therefore not something merely negative. In the last analysis, it is not merely disgust; it is above all homesickness; not just turning away from [the seductions of this world], but a turning back home. Whenever the New Testament speaks of repentance, always great joy is in the background. It does not say, ‘Repent or hell will swallow you up,’ but ‘Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’

“[The prodigal son’s] disgust with himself could never help him. … It was the father’s influence from afar, a byproduct of the son’s sudden realization of where he really belonged [that brought him home]”

The four disciples who are called away from their livelihoods and their families by Jesus teach us some interesting lessons about living in the NOW of God. First, this is the nearest that God has ever come to humans and yet God does not demand that we make a journey towards God. Rather, Jesus comes to the fisherman just where they are. In this case he comes to the lakeside where they are working. In our case, perhaps he comes to us in our pews at church, in our jammies on the couch at home, in our sportswear on the jogging track or the soccer field where our children are at play. God comes to us.

Second, Jesus calls us to follow. He doesn’t provide answers to all our struggles – maybe he even provokes more questions. He doesn’t provide us with security – maybe there is rejection and danger ahead. He doesn’t reveal the destination – he simply asks that we follow. In this moment of meeting Jesus, the reaction of the fishermen is truly remarkable.

Is it even clear that those men respond out of faith? They are not said to believe in Jesus or to understand his mission. As the story of Mark unfolds throughout the Gospel, these important characters persistently misunderstand Jesus, they question Jesus, they give in to doubts about Jesus and at the most crucial time in Jesus’s ministry – they disappear entirely when he is crucified. Whatever they understand or believe at this point in Mark’s story, they must eventually forget.

Walter Brueggeman, one of my favorite contemporary theologians, puts it this way: “Nothing in verses 16-20 tell us why the fishermen do what they do, why they leave their nets…and follow Jesus. Somehow, they are compelled to follow him, a man whom they cannot understand, on a journey that will perplex and confuse them, to a destination yet unspecified. The fishermen, now disciples, act in faith – not a faith that understands, takes only calculated risks, or seeks after reward, but a faith that responds to a call from an unknown, a call that must remain unclear and even frightening.” The journey of faith, however, begins with this step – this response to a simple, yet puzzling invitation.

The third and final observation I’d suggest about the encounter on the lakeshore has to do with the phrase – “I’ll show you how to fish for people.” While this might have been just an interesting twist of language or a bit of humor on Jesus’s part – it highlights that Jesus starts with the talents that people possess and puts them to use in the kingdom’s work. He’s saying to these men, “You’re good at this – now let’s use these gifts for a bigger purpose. I recall a priest in my own parish – after a fairly regular Sunday Eucharist – stopping me on the way out of the church door and asking, “Have you ever thought about becoming a deacon?” My startled response was: “What’s a deacon?” in 35 years of attending St. Matthew’s in Sunbury I never remembered crossing paths with a deacon. And now – here I am – by virtue of a priest who saw in me some talents that could be put to work for the kingdom. In case you are as perplexed about the term as I once was – deacons are one of three orders of ordained ministers in our tradition along with bishops and priests. Though we have specific roles – which you will see me perform in the celebration of the Eucharist – that is not our primary call. A deacon exercises “a special ministry of servanthood” directly under the bishop, serving all people and especially those in need emphasizing social care and service. I see my role as empowering others to serve God as they hear our Lord’s call and respond. I’d be happy to talk with you after the service – or any time – about my love for this ministry.

Like Simon, Andrew, James, and John, I said yes to a call that had very little context for me. It has presented me with challenges and perplexities. Like those at the lakeside – I have no idea where this call will take me. I only know that God is calling me now and God is calling others to the sacred order of deacons in our church.

Perhaps the best way that we can celebrate, respect, and challenge those who show up Sunday after Sunday in our churches – those who are present – is to discuss and affirm their gifts. Like Jesus the church needs to come to us where we are, call us and support us in meaningful Christian service, and highlight and put to good use the talents that each of us has to share.

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