Joyful Servants

Sermon preached for the Third Sunday after Epiphany at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.

Isaiah 9:1-4
But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.

You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

Matthew 4:18-23
As [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea 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.

***

Last year I had the privilege of serving as a small group leader at both the high school and middle school versions of the Montreat Youth Conference.  I had about 20 high schoolers in the one group and about 13 middle schoolers in the other, and in each case it became apparent almost immediately who my eager beavers were.

You know the type. The second I began to ask for a volunteer, their hands were raised. In group work, they took the lead. Aaaand if there was chatting during the lesson, they were probably part of it.

I have to admit, it was easy for me to get a bit frustrated with these two. Any of you who have been in charge of a group know that managing group dynamics can be tricky, and that you want to make sure everyone is included and participating, not just those eager beavers. And as someone who would never have raised her hand in a group of strangers, as the quiet, introverted kid, I have a lot of sympathy for kids who never get picked because another kid is being louder.

But today I want to give a shout-out to all the eager beavers of the world, those who raise their hand high and wave it around, those who jump up to be part of whatever silly thing the leader wants of them, those who are excited to answer the call—whether that’s in a Montreat small group, or in the wider world.

Our gospel lesson today is familiar, but I was struck anew this week at how fast Andrew, Simon, James and John’s life changes. There they are, fishing, mending their nets, just another day at the office, and a man walks along the shore and says “follow me” and they do. Immediately. No hesitation, no questions, no negotiation.

That word, immediately (euthus), is an important one in the Greek. Mark uses it all the time to show the dynamic nature of Jesus’ ministry. Matthew is more sparing, so when he uses it, he means it—these four disciples step off the boat and fall in step with Jesus, just like that.

We don’t get what was going on inside their heads, only that something about Jesus was so compelling, so exciting, that they upended their lives just for the chance to see what he was about.

But I know from my own life—and I say this as someone who is deeply hesitant to try new things, who wants to do all the research beforehand, who never raises her hand unless I am sure I’m prepared first—the only thing that I have that kind of reckless, joyful excitement about is my own call to ministry. I experienced that call my freshmen year of college and immediately I knew my whole life was changed. And instead of fear, it brought me joy. That’s how I recognized the call was from God.

There’s a famous quote in Christian circles by a Presbyterian writer named Frederick Buechner. Buechner was writing about vocation, about call, about how to figure out what God is calling you to do, especially when God isn’t being terribly explicit about it. We don’t all get Jesus walking by with a clear set of directions.

The quote is this: The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.[1]

In the larger passage that this quote comes from, Buechner was responding to two differnet misinterpretations of what God’s call on your life should be like. One he called “wearing the hair shirt”—the idea that being a servant of God, a disciple of Christ, means that you should suffer. That you are not truly following Jesus unless you’re doing work you hate in a place you hate with people who make you miserable. Your call should bring you joy, Beuchner says. In another quote, he says that your God given work will be the thing you can’t not do, because it is so much a part of who you are.

On the other hand, Buechner also rejected the idea of what he called “the soft berth”—that God’s call will be to the easy life, the comfortable path. He says that if your deep gladness is in making lots of money off other people’s pain or toil, that’s probably not call. That’s just personal ambition.

You need both parts of the equation, he says. Your deep gladness, meeting the world’s deep hunger. You joy meeting, transforming the world’s pain.

Debbie Thomas is a Christian Educator, and I loved her comments this week on the call of the fishermen. She wrote about how the famous command from Jesus, “I will make you fish for people,” never hit home with her, both because she hated fishing, but also because it was so often paired with a very particular vision of what fishing for people was, and it was a very extroverted vision: knocking on doors, chatting up strangers, flaunting evangelical charisma. As a shy and bookish kid, she got the sense that Jesus needed her to become someone she wasn’t before she could properly serve him.

But now, as an adult, whose shy, bookish tendencies have led to an ability to write about scripture in ways that inspire preachers all over the country, she sees it differently:

“[W]hat strikes me now,” she writes, “as I think about Jesus calling Simon, Andrew, James, and John into lives of discipleship, is how familiar and close-to-home his call actually was.  Jesus did not invite them to abandon who they were; he invited them to become their most authentic, God-ordained selves.  …

By which I mean: Jesus’s invitation to his first disciples was specific and particular, rooted in the language, culture, and vocation they knew best.  What metaphor would make more sense to four fishermen than the metaphor of fishing for people?  Simon and Andrew would have understood the nuances of that metaphor in ways I never will. James and John knew from years of hard won experience what depths of patience, resilience, intuition, and artistry professional fishing require. …

When Jesus called these tried-and-true fishermen to follow him, they understood the call not as a directive to leave their experience and intelligence behind, but to bring the best of their core selves forward — to become even more fully and freely themselves.

In other words, [she continues] I don’t believe anymore that I’m meant to follow Jesus into a self-annihilating abstract.  We’re not supposed to heed his call “in general,” as if Christianity comes in a number of pre-packaged, cookie-cutter shapes we have to pummel ourselves into.  If we’re going to follow him at all, we’ll have to do it in the unique particulars of the lives, communities, cultures, families, and vocations we find ourselves in.  We’ll have to trust that God prizes our intellects, our memories, our backgrounds, our educations, our skills, and that he will multiply, shape, and bring to fruition everything we offer up to him in faith from the daily stuff of our lives.  “I will make you,” he tells the fishermen.  I will take cultivate, deepen, magnify, purify, protect, and perfect the people God created you to be.

I don’t mean to suggest that discipleship won’t require sacrifice, or change, or risk.  It will.  But I am convinced these days that God is gentler with us than we are with ourselves.  The spiritual transformations that have had the most traction and power in my life have been the ones that also feel the most organic, the most ordinary, the most close-to-home.  Surrender to Jesus isn’t only about renunciation.  It’s about resurrection.  It’s about abundant and authentic life.  When Jesus promises to “make us,” it’s a commitment to nurture us, not a threat to sever us from all we love.  It’s a promise rooted in gentleness and respect — not violence and coercion.  It’s a promise that when we dare to let go, the things we relinquish might be returned to us anew, enlivened in ways we couldn’t have imagined on our own.”[2]

When I think about the people whose vocational lives I most admire—who seem to be serving God in everything they do—I think about people who appear to be most deeply themselves. Who have learned what their joy is, based on what their gifts and skills and passions are, and have found a place where it is needed to lift the darkness of pain. People who serve God not the way they think they’re “supposed to,” but the way they were made to.

I think about my eager beavers from Montreat small groups. Alex was a senior in high school. Smart, good-looking, athletic, charismatic, funny, and, well, rich. Like, he boated from his family’s island to meet up with the bus to Montreat. At first glance, I wondered whether all that privilege would have stunted his empathy or kindness; privilege can do that. But as I watched Alex draw other students in, not push them out, over the course of the week, I was amazed. And when we talked about how we served others, Alex shared that his love for boating led him to a nonprofit that takes veterans who have lost limbs or mobility out on the waters again. Alex said he lets the veterans do as much as they possibly can, but if they need an extra arm or set of hands, he’s there for them. He says the water is freedom, and those who fought for it should have the chance to feel it again.

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

In middle school, my eager beaver was Trayvon, a seventh grader with plans to be a mechanical engineer, a history professor, and president of the United States. It sounded like he was in every sport and every club and church activity known to man. He too used his infectious enthusiasm to draw other kids into the small group games and conversations; he was especially good at rallying the middle school boys, a few of whom had a too cool for school attitude. Trayvon shared that he’s the go-to math tutor for his basketball team. “I love math,” he said, “and not all my friends get it as well. So we make it fun together.”

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

A few years ago, a friend and I stopped into one of the little nail salon places off of Buttermilk for a pedicure. I confess I don’t really like getting my nails done, but I’ll go with friends when they want to. It turned out the owner of the salon was my manicurist that day, and we got to chatting. When she found out I was a minister, she said, “you know, I see my work as ministry too. Taking care of people. Letting them sit and rest for a few minutes, letting them chat. Sometimes I think a manicure is as good as therapy, if people just need to talk. And especially with widows, or people who don’t have many friends, I get to touch them. I hold their hands, I care for their bodies. People need that, they need touch. Some of these women come here every week, and they’re like my family now. I just love what I do. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

There’s a friend of my brother’s, an autistic man who convenes a group of young autistic people to share struggles and joys with people who understand. There’s Marge, whose love of animals led her to be a secretary at a vet, where she comforts folks facing loss and grief. There’s Simone from college, who fell in love with Zambia in the Peace Corps and still teaches in a village in the Eastern Province. There’s the quilting group at my friends church, making bright colored blankets for children detained at the border. There’s George, who retired from a lifetime at a saw mill only to take up his tools again repairing ramps and porches for his neighbors. There’s the members of CPSC in the kitchen at First Christian last night, making hot food for people who are cold and hungry.

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

I ask you to think about that quote this week. Think about where your deep gladness is, where your joy is found, what are the things that your soul would shrivel up and die without. What tasks, what places, what people have God put inside you to love?

And then the second question. Where can that joy be put to use in a world of pain? Where can that joy become the light for the people who walk in darkness?

Scripture promises that God is a God of joy, abundant joy. To be God’s servant, therefore, is to be joyful. Maybe not every minute of your life. But overall, to live in the joy of knowing that who God made you to be is exactly what is needed to heal the world.

For the God who calls us just as we are, I give thanks. Amen.

[1] https://garynealhansen.com/your-deep-gladness-and-the-worlds-deep-hunger/

[2] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay

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