January 22, 2023 ~ Third Sunday after Epiphany
Rev. Beckie Sweet
In some parts of the country it doesn’t matter, but in our area, the snow and ice which fall during this time of the year can bring things to a decisive halt. Schools close. Events are canceled. Travel becomes tricky, if not treacherous. If the conditions become severe enough, the decision may be made that not everybody should try to get to work. When I lived in the North Country, there were times when it was so cold that even ice hockey practices were cancelled!! In such times of bitter cold and treacherous travel conditions, it is announced that only those who are absolutely necessary should report to work. For those occasions we have coined an interesting phrase to describe these people upon whom we depend so much. This phrase sends some people out into the cold to scrape ice off their windshields while others return to the warmth of their beds. This phrase compels some to slip and slide to work at all costs while others do little more than watch Friends and Big Bang Theory reruns on television.
Even for those who live where it rarely snows, the phrase is a familiar one. When budget talks collapse and the government shuts down, this is the phrase that is trotted out. When the earth suddenly moves under the people of California, often a certain group of people are called out while the rest are told to stay at home. When tornadoes blow and hurricanes roar, only certain people should risk the dangers involved. These are maintenance people, road crews, ambulance drivers, fire fighters, electric and gas company workers, medical personnel, and a whole host of service people who are taken for granted when things are running smoothly. We call them “ESSENTIAL PERSONNEL.”
Think about that phrase. Think about what it means to be essential personnel. I learned during the early days of the COVID lockdown that I am not considered to be essential personnel. It is humbling to think of oneself as non-essential personnel. Does it mean that the world can go on without some of us?
The good news is that we are all, or at least all can be, essential personnel. We are called to be a specific group of people and to do some important things. In today’s scripture passage from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus called some ordinary fishermen to do the work of Kin-dom-building. Jesus calls ordinary people like you and me to love and service. And, as in the case of these fisherfolk, many times we do not need to learn new skills or receive extensive training. Jesus said, “You fishermen have been casting your nets into the sea. Follow me, and you will fish for people.” And they did! They were fisherfolk before, they were fisherfolk afterwards, but with Jesus, the focus and priorities changed.
Jesus says to you and me, “Follow me. You are essential personnel. Come as you are. Bring whatever gifts and talents you have and use them in my name. Bring your excitement and enthusiasm and I will channel them in the right direction. Bring your commitment and I will show you a place where you can make a difference. Bring your love and hope and watch them change lives.”
Jesus’ disciples were NOT a panel of experts. Jesus took people whom the world had labeled in many ways non-essential – fisherfolk, tax collectors, notorious sinners, women who were never considered essential before – and used them and their gifts in doing the work of love and issuing the call to others to follow in the way of Jesus. People who before never felt wanted found a place. People who doubted the world even knew they existed were suddenly essential personnel. You and I have been made essential personnel, not by our own merit, but because of a “Follow me” we once heard that included us and accepted us and affirmed us. Most of us have heard that voice and those words somewhere along the way: The minister told us she thought we would be good working with the youth. A Sunday school teacher encouraged us to consider ministry. The woman who sits in front of us at church said we would be great in the choir. The Church Council endorsed our idea to help the needy in the community. – Some scripture pointed to an area of our lives in which we could grow in our understanding and service. It happens in many different ways, so do not be surprised if you hear these words, too.
Jesus said, “Follow me,” and the exciting thing is that they did! Simon and Andrew, James and John decided to follow Jesus, but they weren’t the only ones. All kinds of people responded. Not everyone decided to follow Jesus, but a lot did. From Simon and Andrew to us, women and men, young and aging, people of all colors and classes have heard that invitation in the places where they live their lives. In fact, Jesus could not stop saying, “Follow Me.” It is one thing to ask some fisherfolk to come along for a stroll along the Sea of Galilee, but it is another proposition altogether to utter those words “Follow me” so freely, almost carelessly, that anybody might answer. We know God loves everybody, but just because God loves everybody does not mean everybody is going to follow around after Jesus. Nor does the fact that God loves everybody mean that WE want to see all of them in the crowd with Jesus, and with us! So here is where we must confront our prejudices!
You see, every time Jesus says, “Follow Me” it affects us. We don’t mind Jesus trying to help the prostitute build some self-esteem, but that doesn’t mean we want to be sitting next to her in church. We aren’t bothered by Jesus spending time with the mentally ill, but that doesn’t translate into our willingness to be more tolerant of the outrageous behavior that horrible disease sometimes causes. We are glad to see Jesus healing the sick, those who are on death’s door, but that doesn’t mean we want the house in our neighborhood converted into a hospice for AIDS patients. We sort of like the idea of Jesus letting children sit on his lap, but that is a long way from appreciating the gifts and presence of children and overlooking the messes created in their celebrations. When Jesus bypasses the church on his way to eat at the house of the most offensive person in town we are a little miffed, but not nearly as miffed as when Jesus holds that character up as a better model of faith than us.
Suddenly, our excitement over being claimed as essential personnel, people that we would like to think God cannot do without, is tempered by the presence of people who all our lives WE have not only shunned, but tried our very best NOT to be like. Right out in public where people came to draw water, Jesus was seen talking to a Samaritan woman who had been married five times and now was living with another man. Instead of Jesus condemning her, he said, “Here, have a sip of this living water.” One day Jesus came upon a woman caught in adultery who was receiving her just punishment. Jesus not only sent the self-appointed jury away, he let the woman to, too! “Neither do I condemn you,” he said, “so go your way and sin no more.” At the most crucial moment Peter denied knowing and following Jesus. So, what did Jesus say to him later? “Feed my sheep!”
The temptation is to think that Jesus used exceptional insight when he looked our way and said, “Follow me.” It is even a greater temptation to wonder what in the world Jesus was thinking about when he called some of these others, but that is not Jesus’ problem. That is our problem, and Jesus wants to confront those uncomfortable feelings with us.
In calling these others – in inviting the poor and the lazy and the trash of the earth to the great banquet – Jesus has deemed them essential personnel as well. And some of us are offended by that. Life in the church would be a lot more comfortable if it were just us, but Jesus can’t stop saying, “Follow me.” Not only can he not stop, he makes this invitation in such an undiscriminating way that most anybody might show up! At a time when churches are knee-deep in marketing techniques that are geared to attract people like those who are already here, Jesus is down at the soup kitchen inviting the homeless family to church. At a time when literature abounds on who we can and cannot expect to come to our church, Jesus insists on knocking on every door in every neighborhood in every section of town. Jesus calls people that we have forgotten about and welcomes people we too often have treated as non-essential, and we are affected every time.
We are affected because the call of God through Jesus is a call away from a divided, fragmented world and into one family of God where all have a place and all are welcome. It is a call to share a way of life together that the world has said is not reasonable or desirable. But in the church of Jesus Christ, we endeavor to see all as essential personnel. We strive to value what we can learn from one another. We can speak vulnerably about our past and what we have learned. We can respect one another’s fortitude in the midst of unimaginable circumstances. Persons of any age are identified as wise. Persons who disagree with one another can safely share thoughts and views as all journey toward discerning God’s truth.
The opportunities to live into God’s will are even richer in churches with diversity of race, culture, sexual orientation and gender identity, educational experience, economic state, age, religious background, and the list could go on. Jesus is saying to each and every one, “Follow me.” We are not only essential personnel in the work of spreading good news, we are essential personnel for and with one another. There may be no greater grace-filled moment than when we find ourselves sitting with people we have tried to avoid all these years and learning from them, even as they learn from us.
To you and to me, to all of creation, Jesus says, “Follow me.” That is not a call to trail along behind Jesus without any intent to share life with one another. It is a call to love as Jesus loves, to welcome as Jesus welcomes, and to take our place alongside our siblings as the church where, for the sake of us all, every one of God’s children are essential personnel.