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Called to companionship…

January 25, 2011

Epiphany 3A
Scripture readings: Matthew 4:12-23; 1 Cor. 1:10-18

She came to EMU intending to be a pre-med major. She thought she could be of service if she was a doctor. She also loved to sing, but thought it was a self-indulgent thing. When she took organic chemistry she hit a wall.

When you grow up in the Mennonite community of Virginia and Lancaster County you are taught the value of service to others in a direct way. Somewhere along the way, you get the idea that the arts are impractical—maybe even frivolous. And so you struggle to reconcile your love for singing with what you understand the values of the community to be. You know that the world needs food and tuberculosis shots, but does the world need opera singers?

When you hit a wall, you are blessed if you are in community with others who can help you listen for God’s call. You go to a trusted mentor with your existential question.

“Should I do pre-med, or should I do music?”

The answer comes: “You need to be a singer.”

And so Madeline Bender has lived into that name and calling—singing in opera houses all over the world—London, Brussels, New York. Last night she returned to Lancaster—the place she is from—to sing in a benefit concert for MCC at the Fulton.

The gospel lesson (and season of epiphany) calls us to consider what incarnation looks like. When Jesus returns from a 40 day silent retreat in the desert, he hears the news that John has been arrested. Coming back from retreats can be difficult. It is a perilous political climate for radical preachers of repentance. Jesus withdraws to Galilee.

He moves from Nazareth—the town where he grew up—to make his home in the seaside village of Capernaum. (Excavation projects in the last 130 years have unearthed remains of a first-century synagogue in Capernaum—possibly the very synagogue in which Jesus preached)

We wonder about the house where Jesus hung his hat. What does home look like for an itinerant rabbi who has no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58)? How does the laundry get done? Do Joseph and Mary come to visit often?

The gospels do not include these details of incarnation—but we are told that Jesus begins to proclaim the same message as John. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

The term “kingdom of heaven” occurs 31 times in Matthew. Although it appears nowhere else in the New Testament, it parallels “kingdom of God” used in the other gospels.

So Jesus begins his ministry with the proclamation that the kingdom of heaven has come near. Proclamation is accompanied by demonstration. He cures diseases and eats with those who are ritually unclean. But even with Jesus’ ministry the coming near of the kingdom is not final or totalitarian. Life goes on. People who are healed—die. There is freedom to choose your own path.

The commentaries tell us that the Greek word translated “come near” in the NRSV is eggizo. The linguistic implication is of being perpetually in the state of happening. The kingdom of heaven is always in the midst of drawing near.

When does the kingdom of heaven come near? Yesterday, today, tomorrow…

I think of the U2 song that begins: Heaven on Earth, we need it now…I’m sick of all of this…hanging around. Sick of sorrow…I’m sick of the pain…I’m sick of hearing…again and again…that there’s gonna be…Peace on earth…Where I grew up…there weren’t many trees..where there was we’d tear them down…and use them on our enemies…

So we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven—this day. If we pray in this way, of course the question follows: how shall we live?

Our readings remind us that following Jesus is a call to companionship. From the outset, Jesus gathers a community that will incarnate the kingdom of heaven come near. We notice that Jesus does not start this community with the elite of society—he calls four working-class, salt of the earth fishermen. He will also call wealthy tax collectors…he will call women. But his movement will not depend on strategic social networking.

I don’t know what the “men’s issues” were of Jesus’ day. I suspect that there are some primal similarities between men then and now. Whether it’s found in fishing boats or fire halls, male energy is often associated with action…getting things done in the real world. It is not primarily about relationships.  (At least, male relationships are expressed differently than female relationships.)  Whatever is involved in being male, we notice that it didn’t stop Jesus from calling men to follow. In calling Simon…Andrew and the sons of Zebedee, the male energy is marshaled into matters of the kingdom of heaven.

The call of Jesus is simple. Follow me. Anabaptists have been keen to notice that the gospels speak of salvation in terms of following Jesus. Jesus does not speak of salvation in terms of a “spiritual transaction.”  Jesus is more focused on how the kingdom of heaven comes near, then on how the inhabitants of earth get to heaven.

Jesus always calls for a decision—to follow, to sell all you have (Luke 18:22), to hate father and mother (Luke 14:26), to take up crosses, to love neighbor, to love enemy… Following Jesus has everything to do with our life in this world. It has to do with politics, economics, vocation, relationships…

We are told that Peter and Andrew immediately leave their nets. It seems that they didn’t sell their boats. Boats and nets will continue to pop up throughout their apprenticeship with Jesus. Jesus will teach from the boats. They will take a stormy ride across the lake in the boats. Another time they will fish all night in their boats with nothing but empty nets to show for it.

Leaving their nets to follow Jesus should not be heard as a call to deny who they are or where they are from. We bring who we are and where we are from to following Jesus.

So what happens when you decide to follow Jesus? What then? Go to church? Teach Sunday School? Lead worship? Go into missions? Well…yes… But these things are far too narrow an understanding of what it means to follow Jesus.

Walter Brueggemann says that “we have to help people see…that when the local congregation meets, we are engaged in an act of alternative imagination.”  (Perhaps young adults are not streaming into the church because we have become far too safe…too predictable…too market-driven…too establishment…too unimaginative)

So what might following Jesus—companionship—look like if we would engage in the act of alternative imagination?

The gospels and the early Christian movement make clear that (among other things) alternative imagination is about relationships. It is about ordinary things like getting along. We see tension and conflict among the first disciples. The letter to the church in Corinth indicates that the quarrels didn’t go away.

After we decide to follow Jesus, sometimes we begin to argue about who has the right teaching.  Whose baptism is valid–or whether you even need to be baptized…  We disagree about where the kingdom is to come and what it looks like. We disassociate with others who challenge our truth.

Still the question comes: Has Christ been divided?

The call to companionship with Jesus and others is a call to a journey of repentance—daily…hourly. Companionship has to do with gospel…cross…reconciliation.  It takes humility and alternative imagination. It is much easier to respond to others who push our buttons with passive-aggressive behavior dressed up in pious language or open hostility. Jesus calls us to see the image of God in my enemy, in my friend—in the one baptized by a different teacher…in a different part of the body of Christ. Jesus calls us to companionship with the other—the shape of which we cannot know.

Across the church this week has been a time for focused prayer for Christian unity. What does Christian unity look like today? Perhaps it looks a bit like a crazy quilt. God the master quilter is piecing together old, tattered stories…stories that no longer hold together. Imperial stories about domination. Pure church stories about separation. Consumer stories about me, myself and I.

The crazy quilt requires alternative imagination, because the pieces do not seemingly go together.

The crazy quilt includes the story of Glenn Lapp who worshipped at Community Mennonite, enjoyed cycling and volleyball, travelled the world, and was a companion to Afghani Muslims.

The crazy quilt includes Phil and Maria Minnich—whose stories are shaped by Lancaster County farm life faithfulness, church planting in New England and Germany, a relationship which grew in Harrisburg…Germany and is now rooted in Southeast Asia.

The crazy quilt is about your story…my story…the story of the other being pieced together.

How has Jesus entered your story? What is he saying?

Have you decided to follow Jesus?

Are you willing to be a part of God’s crazy quilt?

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