“Engaging Jesus”

3rd Sunday after Epiphany, 1/23/11; Matthew 4: 12-23

Rev. Jane McBride, First Congregational Church of MN, UCC

I tossed and turned in a cold bed. Near dawn, just as I entered a restless sleep, the wailing tones jarred me awake. What’s wrong? I wondered. As a sheltered Midwestern college kid, I had never heard the Muslim call to prayer before. Over the month I spent in the Muslim quarter of the old city of Jerusalem, this haunting sound grew to be familiar and give reverent shape to the day.

The holy month of Ramadan also intersected with my time in Israel/ Palestine. I noticed a change when the street vendors, who had churned out endless falafel sandwiches, suddenly focused their energies on slender crepes. Apparently, after fasting from sunrise to sunset, it is traditional (at least in that part of the world) to break the fast with these little pancakes. I recall hiking through the desert landscape of Petra with our guide, a devout Muslim. As we sipped water and ate our lunches, he refrained. I said to him: “I’m sorry that we’re eating in front of you. Is it hard to fast all day long?” He smiled a peaceful smile and told me not to worry; he didn’t mind that we were eating; he was used to the fasting, had been doing it since his youth.

We traveled throughout Jerusalem, the Galilee and Jordan, viewing this holy land both through the eyes of tradition and faith and the lenses of archeology and historical criticism. We learned from Muslims, Jews and Christians not only about faith, but about politics and peace-making. In particular, I found my new engagement with Islam to be a threshold that led me toward a deeper engagement with my own tradition. I was drawn to the depth of commitment and fullness of spirituality that frames life for those who practice prayer 5 times each day and fast throughout Ramadan. I began to think about Lent as our version of Ramadan, and to explore the Christian practice of fasting, reclaiming it for myself.

In today’s Gospel reading, Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ engagement not only with his own people and tradition, but with the wider world. Our text begins as John the Baptist is arrested by the Romans. Remember that Jesus’ story has been enmeshed with John’s from the earliest days. Mary and John’s mother, Elizabeth, were relatives; they swapped pregnancy stories in the months before the births. John’s ministry blazed a path for Jesus, and John baptized Jesus in the Jordan river. Now, John’s voice is silenced and Jesus is on his own. For Jesus, this is a moment of shifting perspectives and crossing thresholds. Jesus moves his home from Nazareth, the village of his youth, to Capernaum, on the northwest shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Capernaum was a Jewish city, but it lay at the very edge of Israel’s historic territory. This city grew up in an area conquered swiftly and decisively by the Assyrians during the time of the exile. For this reason, it came to populated with many non-Jews and to be known as “the Galilee of the Gentiles”, Capernaum also is located, as the text says, “on the road by the sea”, Known as the Via Maris, this road was an ancient highway, a major trade route that linked Egypt with Syria. In other words, Jesus positions himself in a town that is literally a gateway, a cultural crossroads, that links him and his message to the wide pluralism of the ancient world.

A Christian Century article by Amy Frykholm caught my eye recently. In a piece entitled Double Belonging, she writes: “Americans have become accustomed to picking and choosing among various religious traditions and practices… A person may occasionally attend a Christian church but also find meaning in yoga and in forms of meditation inspired by Eastern traditions— and enjoy attending a Seder at Passover. None of this seems extraordinary. But some people have taken religious pluralism in a deeper and more radical direction. They have embraced two distinct religious traditions and have tried to be faithful to both at the same time. This is a demanding and in some ways confounding path— hardly a cafeteria-style spirituality”.

Frykholm tells shares stories of some of these spiritual pioneers. Paul Knitter is the author of Without Buddha I could not be Christian. He says: “I have a primary relationship to Christianity and specifically to Jesus of Nazareth that is central to my life.” And yet, Frykholm explains: “he feels that through Buddhism he became a more faithful Christian, not a less faithful one.” Ann Holmes Redding, spent 20 years as an Episcopal priest. “I didn’t know I was heading toward becoming a Muslim,” Redding recalls. “Christianity certainly seemed to be a path of sufficient challenge and passion. I could have spent my whole life becoming a Christian in the fullest sense of the word. I ¬wasn’t seeking. That’s why I call what happened to me ‘convergence’ instead of ‘conversion.’ I didn’t leave anything behind.”  (January 25, 2011)

Yesterday, First Churchers spent a day “engaging” our local community. Some laid floors and built shelves at a Habitat for Humanity house or organized the food shelf and made food deliveries for Community Emergency Services. Others focused their energies on learning from a panel of organizations that address issues of housing and homelessness or advocating for justice through the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition. And still others modeled how this household of faith might express our deepest values: by attending a training around becoming an anti-racist church, by cooking a meal of sustainably grown foods.

We chose the name “Day of Engagement” carefully. Engagement can encompass both action and reflection, service but also spirituality. Engagement suggests the willingness to be fully ourselves but also to express a genuine curiosity about our neighbors. It signals a serious commitment to relationship, relationship that brings mutual accountability and mutual transformation. Engagement means, as theologian Gordon Lathrop puts it, cultivating both “a strong center and a wide open door”.

When Jesus calls to the disciples, and us, “Follow me!” I believe that engagement is what he is asking for. He is inviting us to journey with him from Nazareth to Capernaum, to travel beyond the threshold of home and to stand at the crossroads of a diverse and hurting world. Jesus is asking for a radical commitment, not to doctrines but to relationship. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James and John, into a new line of work, work with people, rather than fish, and yet he uses the language and metaphor of the work they know already.

“Immediately” the text tells us, they left their nets and their boats, and they followed Jesus. It sounds like their new life has no relationship to their old life, But I don’t buy that. We find them in boats and working with nets throughout the Gospels. Storms at sea, long nights without a catch, fish breakfasts on the beach… My hunch is that they, like us, still did their daily work, still raised their families, still struggled to define their priorities. And yet, amid all that ordinary stuff, they find themselves engaged with the message and the mission of Jesus. The good news of one who comes teaching and healing and liberating becomes the purpose through which they measure all other commitments and magnify all other loves.

As we embark on our visioning process, we seek to hear and follow the Spirit’s call for us in this time and place. With the disciples, we find ourselves in a place of creative tension. On the one hand, we stand in continuity with all the gifts and struggles of previous days and honor the work of prior generations. On the other hand, we are nudged beyond the boundaries of our imagination into a new dimensions.

As the church, this particular church, as well as the wider Christian church, we stand at a threshold. No longer is faith something that we simply inherit, or take for granted something that we do out of obligation, or that is part of our civic life. Faith is now something we get to choose and claim for ourselves. In the diversity of this age, we may each define our belonging to Jesus differently. At the crossroads of culture and religion, we can depend on the riches of other faiths to help us interpret our Christian identity. We may even find ourselves belonging to two spiritual traditions at once. But above all, Jesus calls us to follow; this means not narrow faith, but faith that is engaged, that is and relational and life-shaping.

Jesus affirms us “as we are” AND summons into “what we will be.” May we cling to the strong and passionate center of this radical love and through us, may God throw open the doors of this love ever more widely and freely and generously. Amen.