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Follow What Matters

“Follow What Matters”

January 22, 2023, Cobleskill United Methodist Church -Pastor Anna Blinn Cole

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Psalm 27

1 The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

4 One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

5 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.

6 Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

7 Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! 8 ‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, do I seek. 9 Do not hide your face from me.

Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus[a] heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet 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.’

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

A researcher recently found that the average person makes about seventy conscious decisions every day. That’s 25,550 decisions a year. And over seventy years, that’s 1,788,500 decisions. Now most of those decisions will be something simple like choosing what to wear for the day or what TV show to watch. Other decisions are a little more weighty, like whether or not to spend your day’s wages on a single carton of eggs, or the very serious matter (if you have any money left) of how many cake pops to order after church today from the youth group… Decisions like these fill every moment of our day. Even right now, you are making the small, conscious decision to actually listen to my words rather than tune them out. (At least I think and hope that’s a decision you’ve made.) In the grand scheme of things, these are relatively small decisions that fill our days with minor consequences. But every so often, we are faced with large decisions that have incredible and sometimes unknown consequences.

Decisions like caring for our own health or the health of a loved one in ways that change life as we know it. Decisions about where to go to school or when to change jobs, or at what point to retire. Decisions about how and where to spend precious resources. Difficult decisions regarding our children or our parents. How do we make life-altering decisions? And what about that decision ultimately matters?

We’re talking about this today because we’re in the midst of a sermon series on renewal in the new year. It’s about how we can help our body and soul recover wholeness in a culture that is demanding and draining on so many levels. Where do we turn for direction when we feel lost? Like it or not, the decisions we make every day, the big ones and small ones tell a story of loyalties. With our decisions we are saying what is important in our life. What matters most.

Jesus knew about loyalties. In fact, he has some advice for us today in how we make decisions and where our loyalties lie.

But before we get to the advice, let’s paint this picture. Jesus, who we just celebrated being born less than 4 weeks ago is now a grown man. It puts new meaning to the phrase, “they grow up so fast.” In reality this is what happened. Jesus had a childhood and a young adult chapter, we just don’t have a lot of stories about it and so the scriptures feature the birth stories, and then skip pretty quickly to a 30-year-old Jesus when he’s just beginning his ministry as a teacher and a leader, today’s scripture. Despite the large missing chunks in his biography, we do know some pretty significant things about Jesus at this point. His good friend, mentor and cousin, John the Baptist who prepared the way for Jesus with his preaching and teaching and even baptized Jesus, has now been arrested by the political authorities connected to the Roman occupation. His talk about God and Jesus threatened the powers that be. This was a huge loss for Jesus, but it probably also wasn’t a surprise. The fact is, Roman occupation and a culture of violent oppression was a reality that had been with Jesus his whole life. He was born in Bethlehem only because of an enforced census for purposes of taxation by the Romans that had brought his parents there. His family then fled to Egypt when he was a baby because Herod, one of Rome’s client kings, had put a death warrant out for him that eventually led to the infamous slaughter of the innocents. Rome and their oppressive, exploitive ways of conquest was the ruling empire under which Jesus had come of age. The arrest of his friend wasn’t a beginning, it was a tipping point for Jesus. It was a major life decision point.

Jesus decided to speak out knowing full well that his ministry and his words could also, and probably would also, lead to his own arrest eventually. He starts to preach anyway. Because he has something to say that he thinks the people need to hear. What was it? The words to his first, short sermon were this: “Repent, the reign of God is near.”

Now when I hear that, it’s hard not to picture a street preacher with a bullhorn and a sandwich board. But this line is often interpreted that way in order to scare people into action when I believe it was actually meant very differently by Jesus. “Repent,” literally means to turn. The reign of God? That was an intentional use of language to compare what God offers to what the Romans were currently doing. It’s like Jesus is saying this: “Turn toward God’s reign and away from the reign of Rome. God’s kingdom is actually closer than you think, and a whole lot better.” Jesus spoke these words against the backdrop of an oppressive Roman regime that was defined by tyranny and violence. This announcement, this first sermon, was a declaration by Jesus that there was an alternative. A different kingdom. God’s kingdom. And In God’s kingdom, tyranny and violence are replaced with peace and solidarity.

Jesus lived in a world where the people were conquered and overcome by Roman occupation that made life unrecognizable. They had given up hope that they had any agency left. Jesus could see this and he entered the scene with the purpose of giving them an alternative: Suffering and injustice wasn’t the only way. God’s way was better. The two kingdoms could not have been more different. One was about control and greed. The other is about humility and sacrifice for the sake of justice. And you couldn’t be loyal to them both. Jesus wanted to open a window onto God’s world so that people would have a choice. Choosing God’s reign meant turning away from the power and oppression of Rome’s ways and choosing instead the way of peace and salvation.

So what happens next? Jesus, almost immediately understands that his job needs to be about extending this choice to everyone he can. And so almost immediately in the story he goes to the edge of the Galilee Sea where there are fishermen in their boats and he calls out to them. Why fishermen? The Bible doesn’t exactly tell us. But what we have learned about fishermen in Jesus’ day is that they were at the bottom of the bottom in Rome’s economy. Jewish fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were no longer free to just fish for themselves, but instead were forced into contracts with the Roman Empire and required to supply a certain number of fish every day. They were essentially trapped in a system they couldn’t escape. They had no choices.

So Jesus showed up. And he called out to these fishermen and said, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately, the scripture says, they dropped their nets and followed him. This was probably the biggest decision they’d ever faced in their entire life… to leave their livelihood, their family, their boats, their required fish quotas, and instead they immediately chose to walk away from it all. Why? Because that life had no meaning. In fact, that life was soul sucking. And when presented with an alternative path, the decision became clear. Follow what matters. It was an assent of the heart and a profound break with business as usual. They were ready to follow someone who offered hope.

This is an extraordinary story. But chances are, you have probably also, at some point in your life, had or will have to make a decision as big as the disciples made that day. A decision where you are faced with either continuing on with “business as usual” in a system you know is unfair either to yourself or to others, or instead, choosing a different path that will certainly disrupt the status quo.

Maybe it was a job you knew you couldn’t continue doing for ethical reasons. Maybe it was a living situation that was no longer healthy or safe. Maybe it was a loyalty to a person or an organization that had gone too far. Maybe it was a choice to take care of yourself in the face of constant expectations to perform more and better.

Whatever big decision you have faced in your past, or whatever decisions you have coming in your future, you need to know what advice Jesus gives us. When we feel like we’re at the end of our rope and that we have no options, there is always another way. In fact, Jesus’ whole life and teachings could be summed up by this. He sacrificed his own safety and life so that we would know we have options. That we have agency. That we can turn away from situations that are unhealthy and from systems that oppress. We have the power to choose kindness in a world of apathy. We have the power to choose self-care in a grind-culture. We have the power to choose collaboration in a world of competition. We have the power to choose humility in a world of selfishness and greed.

It's not always easy to see where God’s kingdom fits into the decisions we face in our own lives. Speaking for myself only, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation where I could make a life-altering decision in a split second like those disciples did. And that’s okay. Discernment is a process. The important thing, though, is to understand that Jesus wants us to see that in any situation there is an option to choose God’s kingdom over the status quo. Finding what matters and following it becomes the radical way we can be Christians in our daily lives.

Two tips if you are facing a big decision:

  • Figure out what matters most. What are you prioritizing in each choice? The values of God’s reign stand in pretty stark contrast to the values of the rest of the world. Is there kindness? Is there compassion? Is there love for neighbor and self?

  • Second, if you are in the process of discernment, know that you don’t have to do it alone. It can be hard to make sense of the options and where God fits into it. Ask a good friend. Ask your pastor. Ask someone you trust at church. You don’t have to do this alone. Most of all, never forget that God is close, all the time.

Speaking of that, let’s pray.

Grace and Peace,

Pastor Anna

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