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St. Paul's Episcopal | Ventura, CA
Sunday, 22 January 2017

Calling Disciples, by He Qi., from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

The following is the sermon preached by Rev. Susan on the Third Sunday after Epiphany at St. Paul’s Ventura, January 22, 2017 (Year A).

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It is my great pleasure to welcome our guests this morning, Imam Ahmed and members of the Islamic Center of Conejo Valley. We are honored by your presence and thank you for joining us.

Here at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, we have a mission statement that sums up who we are and what we do:  We follow Jesus, nurture ministries and welcome all. Today, as always, we continue our efforts to live up to that commitment.

At this time, I’m going to teach, comment, and share insights on the sacred scripture appointed for today. Later, I look forward to hearing about your faith and how you practice it.

Our Gospel lesson this morning tells us that when Jesus learned that John the Baptist had been arrested, he moved away from Nazareth and made his home in a small fishing village along the Sea of Galilee, the town of Capernaum which is in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. We are told that that he made this move so that the prophecy of Isaiah might be fulfilled,

Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—

the people who sat in darkness 
have seen a great light,

and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death 
light has dawned.
[1]

This lesson gives us two important concepts to consider: darkness and light. You might be wondering, what happened to the people of these lands that was so terrible? What does it mean that they “sat in great darkness…in the region and shadow of death?” Though claimed by the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, these lands were coveted and highly contested. Over time, they were conquered again, and again, and again. The people of these two tribes suffered greatly due to this long succession of foreign occupations.[2] For a long time, they sat in darkness.

Now let us consider the concept of light. Light is an interesting thing. Darkness is but the absence of light. Darkness can seem quite overwhelming but it is not stronger, it cannot overwhelm the light. Light shines freely into any space except those to which its path is blocked. 

Darkness was likely a much more powerful concept to those who lived in biblical times than it is for us today. For us, when darkness comes, we flip a switch and light appears or click on our cell phones and illuminate whatever we wish to see. For them, darkness posed a much greater challenge. They could light a lamp, if they had enough oil, but much of the time they just waited until the dawn. 

After moving to this region, Jesus picked up where John the Baptist left off. He himself began proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He left the life he had known and began the ministry that would eventually take him to Jerusalem, lead him to trouble, cause him to be unjustly accused, unfairly convicted, and eventually crucified. 

But, at this point in time, Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee taking in the beauty of everything around him.  As he walked along, he noticed the fisherman. Two of them were brothers, working together, casting their nets into the sea in the hope of bringing in a good catch, and providing for their families.

For a long time, they had been hoping, praying for the Messiah to come. They longed for the light to come as Isaiah had promised, and now it did, but not in the way that they were expecting. It came with no fanfare at all. He approached them in the midst of their daily tasks.

They probably weren’t expecting to have a life-changing encounter that day. They were just doing what they did; day in and day out.

That’s where Jesus met them and called them in a way, it seems, they could not refuse. How did he convince them to drop their nets and leave their homes and walk away from everything they had ever known? He did it with a few simple but powerful words, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

Often, when I read this passage, I am struck by how amazing and powerful Jesus’ presence must have been, how convincing his words, how compelling his offer, that these men would give up everything to follow him. This time, as I read the passage and meditated on it this this past week, I was struck by something else. I was amazed that Jesus saw such potential in them, these fishermen.

Ordinary people engaged in the routine of their everyday lives—that’s who Jesus calls to participate in God’s great plan for the salvation of all. I see that as very good news! Saints and prophets seem few and far between, but ordinary people surround us every day.

The challenge is to look for the light, the hope and the worth in the people all around us. This will help us recognize them as our neighbors, the people whom God calls us to love and serve in his holy name.

This is indeed a challenge because as ordinary human beings we are prone, at times, to become overwhelmed and fall into darkness. Once our spirits become downcast, we can easily fill with worry, depression, concern, anxiety, fear and frustration. We can become short-tempered, negative and stubborn. And once that happens, it’s hard to change, hard to see the good in people, hard, sometimes, even to carry on.

I’d like to share with you an old story that may give us insight into today’s lesson. The author is unknown but the wisdom is powerful and, I hope, inspiring.

High in the mountains was a monastery that had once been known throughout the world. Its monks were pious, its students enthusiastic. The chants from the monastery’s chapel deeply touched the hearts of people who came there to pray and meditate.

But, over time, something changed. Fewer and fewer people came to study there; fewer and fewer came for spiritual nourishment. The monks who remained became disheartened and sad.

Deeply worried, the abbot of the monastery went off in search of an answer. Why had his monastery fallen on such hard times?

The abbot went to consult with a person known to be very wise and insightful. He asked the master, “Is it because of some sin of ours that the monastery is no longer full of vitality?”

“Yes,” replied the master, “it is the sin of ignorance.”

“The sin of ignorance?” questioned the abbot. “Of what are we ignorant?”
The master looked at the abbot for a long, long time, and then he said, “One of you is the messiah in disguise. But, you are all ignorant of this.” Then, he closed his eyes, and fell silent.

“The messiah?” thought the abbot. “The messiah is one of us? Who could it be? Could it be Brother Cook? Could it be Brother Treasurer? Could it be Brother Bell-Ringer? Could it be Brother Vegetable Grower? Which one? Which one?

“Every one of us has faults, failings, human defects. Isn’t the messiah supposed to be perfect? But, then, perhaps these faults and failings are part of his disguise. Which one? Which one?”

When the abbot returned to the monastery, he gathered all the monks together and told them what the master had said.

“One of us? The messiah? Incredible! Which one? Which one? That brother over there? Or that one over there? Whichever one it was, he was, surely, in disguise.

Not knowing who amongst them was the messiah, all the monks began treating each other with new respect. “You never know,” they thought, “he might be the one, so I had better deal with him kindly.”

It was not long before the monastery was filled with newfound joy. Soon, new students came to learn, and people came from far and wide to be inspired by the chants of the kind, smiling monks. For once again, the monastery was filled with the spirit of love.[3] 

At the beginning of the story, the monks had downcast spirits, they fell into darkness and blocked out the light. With one simple idea, the blinds were opened and the light came streaming in. Hope does that, so does faith, it brings light. They began to look expectantly, straining to recognize the good in one another. And when they did, the Spirit of love, faith, hope and acceptance came streaming in.

We need to be like Jesus who saw past the humble circumstances and ordinariness of a couple of fishermen engaged in a hard day’s work. If Christ can see the good in them, surely, we can see the good in each other. But like the abbot and monks in the story, we need to open our eyes, our minds, and our hearts, for it is true: the Messiah can be seen in each and every person around us.

This weekend has been one of both joy and pain. We give thanks for the peaceful succession of power, and we recognize the despair of those who have been threatened, disparaged and demeaned in the process.

Our Presiding Bishop, The Most Rev. Michael Curry, in response the outcome of the recent presidential election, explained,

“As Christians, we believe that all humans are created in God’s image and equal before God—those who may be rejoicing as well as those who may be in sorrow. As the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement today, we Episcopalians are committed, as our Prayer Book teaches, to honor the covenant and promises we made in Holy Baptism: To proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.[4]

And so, this weekend, I sat with my children and explained that though we now have a leader who openly dishonors and disrespects others, who mocks and threatens and belittles people who do not meet his standard for beauty or worth, we will live up to a higher standard. We will honor God by respecting all people. We will stand up for those who are oppressed and speak for those who have no voice because we are people of faith.

Like our ancestors in the faith, we hold on to the words of Isaiah and lift our prayers for healing, knowing that in God’s time, all who live in darkness will see a great light.

God is light and God is love. There is no darkness strong enough to overpower the light and love that is God.  So, let us join together and do the sacred work of the ordinary person. Let us go out and fish for people and open the shutters which block the light and love of God. We need not convince everyone that we are right, but only give the assurance that God loves them and claims them as beloved children.

And so we pray,

O God, our help in ages past,

You have commanded us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. Grant that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace. And in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before your heavenly throne.

In the name of God who creates, redeems and sustains us. Amen.

 

[1] Today’s Gospel is Matthew 4:12-23

[2] The Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Seleucids, the Romans and others.

[3] “The Messiah in Disguise.” The Messiah in Disguise. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.

[4] “Following the way of Jesus: Statement from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.” Episcopal News Service. N.p., 01 Dec. 2016. Web. 21 Jan. 2017. 

Photo of Rev. Susan Bek.

The Rev. Susan Bek is a graduate of Claremont School of Theology as well as Bloy House, the Episcopal Theological School at Claremont. She received a Master of Divinity degree (MDiv) along with the Award for Highest Academic Achievement in 2009. Susan currently serves as Rector at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Ventura. She is proficient in both English and American Sign Language (ASL). Susan and her husband, Jon, live in Ventura and enjoy spending time with their four children and three grandchildren.

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