First United Methodist Church
January 22, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
Stepping Out in Faith
When my daughter was little she used to have gymnastics practice several times a week and I would use that time to go for a short run. Her gym was located near a drainage pond and the more I ran past it, the more I kept telling myself, “I need to run down there.” It was surrounded by a grassy trail, and to a former cross country runner, it just looked inviting. This is what I saw:
And this is what I imagined.
So I worked my way down to this pond and discovered that the ground was really uneven, and although the grass was mowed, it was rough cut, making any actual running extremely difficult. In fact there were a few places where I had to stop running altogether in order to navigate the trail safely. I made it around the pond, but I knew after just a few minutes that it probably wasn’t a good idea to run down there.
A couple of weeks later, as I looked down at that pond, I noticed that it looked like someone had done some mowing. So forgetting about the uneven ground and forgetting about the fallen logs and other obstacles that I encountered the first time, I ventured onto the trail again, and as I ran along, I kept noticing a familiar plant:
I managed to tiptoe my way through the trail until I encountered a section of the trail about as wide as the aisle between our pews and maybe ten feet long. I avoided that patch by climbing into the trees alongside the trail and kind of crawling along, and then I when I got back to my car I used every wipe we had to scrub my lower legs. I was ok, but I told myself that it probably wasn’t a good idea to run down there.
Several weeks later, it was early fall by now, I looked down at that trail, and decided that poison ivy season was past, and it hadn’t rained for awhile, so the ground was probably sufficiently hard, and, yes, I went down there again. I got a tick that time. I think that if Jesus would have shown up at that moment and said something like, “Follow me and I’ll teach you to run for Jesus,” I probably would have been just like Peter and dropped everything and followed him.
Today’s passage has a lot of layers to it. It’s easy to pick out the top layers. It’s about responding to Jesus’ call. It’s about discipleship. It’s about leaving your past behind so that you can follow Jesus. Those are the easy points to figure out. It’s what’s hidden between these layers that actually has a message for those of us who have already responded to Jesus. How does this passage call us to deeper discipleship?
One of the things we hear in Matthew’s account this week is a reference from Isaiah of the territories of Zebulun and Naphtali in Galilee as “Galilee of the Gentiles” and “land of deep darkness.” (Matthew 4:15-16) There is a reason that Isaiah describes this territory like that, and there is a reason why was it still relevant in the Jesus’ time. And both these reasons speak to us now, in the 21st Century as we strive to follow Jesus and do the work of the church.
Let’s start with Isaiah. When Isaiah was a prophet in Judah, Tiglath-Pileser III, King of Assyria, had conquered and annexed the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali and exiled most of the people, never to be heard from again (726 BC, I Kings 16:29). At the completion of the invasion of Israel and its complete subjugation and exile, Shalmaneser V, King of Assyria, ordered multiple other captured people to be relocated into the captured territory, including Zebulun and Naphtali, which was already in ruins (722 BC, I Kings 17:5, 24 ff). This was typical Assyrian policy. Take over territories, exile the strongest of the natives, leaving the “poor of the land,” then resettle the area with people groups of other languages, cultures, and religions so that they are all thoroughly disoriented and demoralized, and thus unlikely to be able to work together to rebel against the king’s sway.
No wonder Isaiah called it “land of deep darkness.” It wasn’t an ethnic or racial epithet. It was a reference to just how difficult and gloomy life had become there, and there appeared to be no likelihood of any improvement in the near future. Things never substantially improved for this region of Palestine, even centuries later by the time of Jesus. It was still a multi-ethnic blend of peoples who had little wealth or power and no resources to defend themselves against whatever the next overlord (whether Babylon, or Syria, or Greece or Rome) would do to them. It was still “Galilee of the Gentiles” or “Galilee of (many) nation(alitie)s.” Under Roman occupation, it had become a place of relative peace – wars and resettlements had ceased. But the history had left its deep wounds. The scars were still everywhere and still wreaking damage on the image of these people. It was still a “land of deep darkness.”
And it was precisely to this place, in the heart of Herod’s territory-- Herod the governor who had just arrested John the Baptist-- that Jesus established as the center of his public ministry.
Hold on to that.
The other thing that speaks to us as “already called” disciples, is the fact that Peter and Andrew and James and John, four men who woke up every morning prior to that morning preparing to be fishermen, understood what Jesus meant when he said, “Follow me and I’ll make you fish for people,” and they willingly left their life vocations to follow him. Jesus saw these guys in the “land of deep darkness” and saw that they were passionate about what they were doing. He essentially said to them, “Why don’t you take all that passion you have for fishing and use it to serve in ministry?”
This week, I’m going to tell you a story about Scott. Scott attended a conservative Christian college, probably one similar to Taylor or Huntington University. He was on fire to spread the gospel and he described himself as evangelical. During his senior year, Scott began to feel strongly that God was calling him to the mission field. He spoke to his pastor about possibilities for service through the church, and a year after graduation he decided to serve through a Mennonite team that was known for their radical actions and their service in some of the world’s most dangerous war zones. Scott went through training and was soon reporting back from his post in Chiapas, Mexico, where he and other team members were serving as international witnesses to atrocities being committed against indigenous people by paramilitary groups. He became fluent in Spanish and he became fluent in issues of injustice and oppression that most of us have never even heard about. Scott continued to serve in Mexico for several years.
Then 9/11 happened. As the drumbeat for war in Iraq increased, Scott’s organization began making plans to serve as witnesses in the emerging war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. Even though his church family knew it was a possibility, nobody was really prepared when Scott announced that he would
be leaving for Baghdad so that he and others could be in place when the United States and our allies began making airstrikes in 2002.
As his church prayed and worried about Scott as they watched the twenty-four-hour coverage of the bombing of Iraq, they knew he was there, sitting alongside Christians who had lived in that city for many generations, joining in their suffering and putting his own life at risk to provide a witness. Scott survived the many weeks and months of bombing, and eventually was able to make his way out of Iraq, by way of Jordan, although the story of his escape is also incredible.
After Iraq, Scott went to Arizona to work along the border with Mexico for a number of years. Then he went to seminary. He did not pursue ordination, but instead continues to work as an advocate for the poorest among us in a major city in the United States. He has married a woman he met while serving in the mission field. They have settled down to a more normal life and are raising a son together, but these two people are different sort of Christians than I have ever been.
When I read this story about these four men—Simon, Andrew, James, and John—and others, men and women alike, who left their jobs and homes and families to become disciples of Jesus Christ, I think about people like Scott who do extraordinary things in ministry, but I also think about people like us, who have that same kind of passion but are here in Plymouth, just waiting for the right opportunity to fall across our paths.
Jesus calls some of us to the adventure of serving in the mission field in a foreign land. Others are called to take adventures closer to home, serving God’s people through service organizations and schools, through foodservice and legal assistance, through volunteering and voting, through offering prayer and healing. There are many ways for God’s people to follow Jesus
into the adventure of serving. Jesus began his ministry in Galilee. Plymouth isn’t exactly like Galilee, but there are people here who have lived in poverty for several generations and have limited resources.
Where this passage can really speak to us is that we have to be willing to take some risks. I told you my story about running around the pond to illustrate a human faculty that many of us have. We can be stubborn sometimes when it comes to church ministry and even if we take it to a more personal level, we’re stubborn when it comes to the sin in our personal lives.
Sometimes we know that what we are doing isn’t really what we should be doing, but we do it anyway, because it’s comfortable. We have this vision of what something should look like, but what we do never quite lives up to our vision. So we keep trying to make our experience what we want it to be, rather than trusting Christ to lead us in the direction he wants us to go.
The good news is that Jesus came to bring salvation to all people, no matter who they are, no matter where they live, and no matter what kind of life they have led. Jesus invites each one of us, no matter who we are or what we’ve done in this life, to join him in the work of discipleship, to join him in the work of transforming the world. Jesus calls us to follow him, to drop our nets and to prepare to do something new and different.
Paul tells us to be of one mind and to remember who we belong to. This doesn’t mean that we agree about everything or that everyone in the church is doing the same thing. But we should agree that we see the power of God at work in our lives and in our community, especially when we work together to carry out our mission.
Jesus calls us to drop our nets and follow him. To have the courage to step out in faith and try something new. All we have to do is answer the call in
the way outlined by Jesus’ own practices in the final verse, where he models discipleship for us:
Go throughout your community, teaching in many different contexts, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ through your words and your actions, and attending to every disease and sickness among God’s people!
Where do you hear God calling you to join Jesus in the adventure of being his disciple? How can you step out in faith? Let us pray…
God of love, we hear your call to follow and we desire to respond. Give us the courage to lay aside our differences for the sake of the gospel. With the power of your Holy Spirit, break through and open doors to new hopes, dreams and possibilities for our church and in our own lives, and we will surrender and faithfully follow Christ into your new and unknown future. Turn our hearts toward you and give us the wisdom to walk in your ways. May your will be done. Amen.
Invitation to Discipleship
Jesus calls us all to follow, and to join him every day in his work of healing, deliverance, and restoration, wherever he leads us. As you go out into the community this week, make plans to join Christ in his mission