Meditation on Matthew 4:12-23
Pastor Karen Crawford
First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown
Jan. 22, 2023
One of our members gave me an amaryllis bulb in a pot for Christmas. It touched my heart, not only because I love flowers in winter, when it is cold outside, and the beautiful red or pink blooms on my windowsill lift my spirits. But it reminded me of a wonderful couple in my former congregation in Ohio. They not only brought me a new amaryllis bulb in a pot every Christmas, but the wife took them back every spring after they were finished blooming and were dying back. Then she planted them in her own yard and nurtured them through the necessary period of rest in darkness until the next Christmas, when they were ready to bloom, once again. It was literally a gift that kept on giving and growing every year, until I had 3 different amaryllis flowers blooming in my office last January, without my needing to care for them the rest of the year.
Of course, that couple gave us many other gifts over the years, in addition to the gift of friendship and shared meals in their home. The husband, a former pastor, preached for me when I was away. And the wife visited Jim and offered Scripture and prayer when he had his knee replacement surgery.
The couple didn’t serve on Session or the Board of Deacons or Trustees during my tenure, but they were people with strong faith whose ministry calling was not only caring for their family and church family, and the employees and their families through the local business they owned; they also cared for the pastor and her family.
The call to follow Jesus and learn to minister with him came on an ordinary day of fishing. Christ comes to their place of work, calling to them from the shoreline, “Follow me! I will make you fishers of people!”
When I see this scripture every January, I am thrilled by the stories of ministry beginnings and the call of his first disciples—often coming when we are ordaining and installing church leaders. At the same time, I say to myself, “Not fishing again!” Talk to me of birds and flowers! I can more readily identify with spiritual connections to farming and gardening than I can with fishing, which, in my experience, can be incredibly boring and monotonous. In the case of commercial fishing in the first century, it was also time consuming and hard, physical labor, casting and pulling in large nets in all kinds of weather, then having to mend the broken nets when they are bone tired. And there’s always the chance that the fishermen could work all night and not catch a single fish, as they do in the fifth chapter of Luke and the 21st chapter of John.
And yet, most of the population is relying on fish as a staple in their diet, so this is an important and worthy occupation. We can even say that it is a kind of ministry that they will leave behind—immediately, when Jesus calls to them. They are already feeding the world! Now they will be trained to provide nourishment to new, abundant and eternal life for everyone, including the Gentiles!
What strikes me in this passage is the urgency Christ feels to leave his home of Nazareth at such a time as this. Is it no longer safe for him to be there when he abruptly withdraws to Galilee, saying goodbye to his family and moving to Capernaum by the Sea? Or does he simply decide that now is the time to shine the light of truth and love in what is becoming an increasingly evil and oppressive world for those living in the Roman Empire.
For whatever reason, John the Baptist’s arrest is the signal to begin his public ministry. John has prepared the way for the Messiah. People from all over Judea have come out to the wilderness for a baptism of repentance in the Jordan. Jesus himself has been baptized there to fulfill all righteousness, with John protesting, “I need to be baptized by YOU!” Christ’s early preaching sounds much like John’s message when he calls others to repentance—”for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
I find myself wondering if the fishermen who answer the call to follow from the shoreline that day ever regret their decision. And then I think, “Of course they did. They are only human beings—just like us.” I wonder, did Jesus ever regret calling them? He certainly did feel frustrated with them, at times. Did they know what they were signing up for? Of course not. They might have just been thinking, “Finally, we don’t have to go fishing anymore!”
But I think it was more than that—that Jesus chose them because of their spiritual hunger, their willingness to commit to the work and to him and serving the people in need, and the sheer ordinariness of them—so that we would have the perfect example of those Christ calls to ministry.
In the beginning, the change from fishing for fish to fishing for people is like going from darkness to light. How joyful it must be to follow Jesus in those early days and weeks, when they go with him throughout Galilee. Christ is teaching in synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom AND curing every disease and sickness among the people. And they are right there with him! Christ’s fame will spread throughout Syria, and they, through their association with him, will become known, as well. The people will bring to Jesus and the most ordinary of ordinary disciples those who are afflicted with pain or paralyzed, have seizure disorders or are held captive to demons. AND HE CURES THEM ALL.
The disciples couldn’t possibly anticipate the difficult path ahead—leading to the persecution and violence of the cross. They can’t imagine their own self-giving lives as they seek to follow in Christ’s footsteps—ministering in his name and the Spirit’s power, when Jesus is no longer with them in the flesh.
Today, when we install elders and deacons, I want you to remember the call of the fishermen and that beginnings are always beautiful. There will be miracles for us! And we will say, “Praise God!” We will see healing! We will grow!
But the path of righteousness, serving Christ and His Body, will be challenging. As Paul says, we see in a mirror, dimly, now. Not like we will one day see Christ, face to face! It won’t always be easy. There might be some days, when our elders, deacons, or trustees ask themselves, “Why did I sign up for this, again?” They might feel unappreciated and be tempted to give up. There will be times of sorrow and weariness—when the fishers of people metaphorically work all night and catch no fish. That’s when we will learn to trust, more and more, dear friends, in our callings and the God who loves us and has a wonderful plan. That’s when we will have the opportunity to encourage one another in the faith and good works, especially our deacons, elders, and trustees, much like the couple did so tenderly for Jim and me in Ohio.
You who we have been or will be ordained and installed to ministries in the church have been called by God through the voice of this congregation. You have been chosen as Jesus chose his first disciples—for your spiritual hunger, your own willingness to commit to the work and to Christ and serving the people. But you have also been chosen for your sheer ordinariness. You are the clay the Great Potter can mold for God’s purposes. This is our perfect example of those whom Christ chooses and equips. We are ALL ordinary people—loved by God and transformed in Christ’s image!
I saw the amaryllis yesterday—the one that one of our members gave me this Christmas. And though it had already bloomed gloriously, and my cat had pruned off the dried flowers and left them in pieces on the rug, I saw that it is getting ready to open a rare, second flower! Maybe a third! I am delighted.
As I pause from my sermon preparation to give the plant on my windowsill some water, I think of my flock here—SOME who serve quietly behind the scenes and OTHERS more officially, as deacons and elders. Some have just finished 6 consecutive years of service, including the last three during the trials of the pandemic. Here’s the amazing thing! They want to continue serving, unofficially. They are living into their lifelong call and ordination to the Church of Jesus Christ. Other trustees, elders, and deacons have already served three-year terms, the last three during the pandemic. They have volunteered to serve another 3 years! We will officially install some to active service in our congregation today, though they have never stopped caring for us. We will promise our prayerful support while they labor with, for, and among us.
As we install our leaders, let us remember that we are all called to be Christ’s disciples, which is a humbling thing! The first step of following Christ faithfully is to recognize our need for repentance, as Christ preached. For all of us have fallen short of the glory of God. But look, here is the good news: By grace, we have been saved, through faith! AND the kingdom of heaven has come near!
May the Spirit empower us all to put down deep roots and grow healthy green leaves in our community, centered in Christ, flourishing in the fertile soil of our shared mission and faith, watered by Word and Sacrament, and nurtured by God’s love revealed by our church family.
May we all bear good fruit and bloom like the amaryllis, not just once, but again and again.
Let us pray.
Holy Spirit, we come to you with repentant hearts, knowing that this will draw us closer to you and bring us joy. Fill us now and empower us so that we may do your will and follow Christ more faithfully. May we all be stirred to bear good fruit and bloom, again and again. Amen.