Rev. Danielle K Bartz January 22, 2023
Matthew 4:12-23 “Ordinary”
“I strive for mediocrity.” That is something I said to my friend and colleague Pastor Rachel the other day in the car. I was driving her to our weekly text study gathering with other clergy and we were talking about her baby – who should arrive any day now. Rachel was wondering out loud if the child would be gifted (the baby isn’t even born yet and she is already assuming there is a strong chance they will be gifted). We were joking about it when I said that since gifted people seem to often have some social struggles, she should probably just wish for her child to be ordinary. “Like me,” I said, “I strive for mediocrity.”
It was a joke of course. I tend to be professionally competitive and am a perfectionist. Neither trait being useful for ministry, in fact they can be a barrier to effective ministry, I am working on it, but I will admit not very enthusiastically. So, to say I strive for mediocrity is not true. And Pastor Rachel knows this of course, so we both laughed and moved on. Except, it turned out our conversation was a foreshadowing of the conversation we had a bit later with the rest of our colleagues.
In discussing today’s text, we all quickly started to lament that the call stories of the disciples are so unrelatable. In today’s text, we hear of two sets of brothers who immediately gave up their entire livelihoods and family connections to follow Jesus, after nothing more than a casual ask. And clergy can stand in pulpits like this one and try to normalize the text. We can remind you that the Gospels are not a perfect re-telling of events exactly like they happened, that they are in fact stories about these events that are told in compelling ways to make them more enduring. I can explain to you that the two sets of brothers had likely heard of Jesus before, and they certainly would have heard of John the Baptist – who was telling people to watch for one to follow him that would be the Messiah. Jesus was continuing John’s same message, “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.” Peter and Andrew, John and James did not encounter that message or Jesus for the first time and immediately give up everything they knew to drastically change their lives and follow. It was probably much more subtle than that, but subtlety doesn’t really make for a memorable story, so the gospel writers told it differently.
So, preachers of the Gospel today can remind you of all that, assure you that your call to follow God and the lessons of Christ will likely never be quite so dramatic – and yet the call is real. And you all will nod and agree, and say, “Well, obviously, pastor, we know that.” And yet, we will continue to doubt. We will wonder if we are not worthy enough because nothing so dramatic has happened in our lives.
Or, perhaps more insidiously, we will know that we are indeed called to serve God and Christ – but we will worry because we think the only way to do that is to do so extravagantly. To do grand things for the will of God to be on earth as it is in heaven. We read the call stories of our scriptures and feel diminished because we have no intention to give up everything in our lives like the disciples. We will listen to the stories of the saints of our faith and say, ‘I can never be like that.’ We will learn about the ancient and modern-day prophets, judge our prayers alongside theirs, and droop our heads in shame. We will look at this world full of need and, feeling a call to make it better, fret because we cannot in fact fix it all. The faithful of this world, of this congregation, who care deeply about the needs of our neighbors and strangers, about the continuation of our faith in a changing world, and who want to bring peace and hope to all those trapped in shadow – the expectation we have for ourselves and for our church is the extraordinary, and we can get frustrated when all we achieve is the ordinary. But, the truth is my Beloved Community, the ordinary is enough. In fact, it is more than enough.
During this season of Epiphany, we hear these stories of Jesus calling the first disciples. But, if we pay attention, we notice we only hear a couple of stories. We hear about Peter and Andrew, John and James. We hear about Matthew and we know a lot about Judas and Thomas. But there are other disciples who we know hardly anything about – Thaddeus and Bartholomew for instance. Their names are listed, but the Gospels don’t record much about them. Scholars have and continue to speculate about them. For example, we aren’t even sure if Thaddeus is a name or a nickname. Some accounts call him Jude. Is that Judas, or Jude a brother of Jesus? Nobody knows for sure. All we know is that he, like the Peter and Andrew, James and John, was one of the original twelve – whoever he was. Various eastern traditions have gone on to claim him and he is credited with bringing the Gospel to the Armenian people – but the Gospels don’t tell us anything of substance. He was, at least as far as the Gospels are concerned, ordinary. An ordinary disciple – with no recorded grand stories to compel the generations of followers to come. But that doesn’t make him any less in the eyes of God.
The call stories in the scriptures are extraordinary. They are compelling and we cannot help but compare ourselves to them. But we mustn’t forget that the Jesus Movement, the entire Christian Church was not built by the extraordinary few, but instead by the ordinary many. The ordinary many who did what they could, and helped when asked. The ordinary many who did one small thing and did it with passion. The ordinary many who, when the great prophets were in their pulpits, were behind the scenes making sure the tables were set for a meal. The ordinary many who followed, listened, prayed, and every once in a while did something good for their neighbor. That is what it means to be Christian. It was how the nascent Christian community was described in a letter dated 130 AD. The Letter to Diognetus, an early epistle whose author and recipient are not known, describes the Christian community as having a “wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.” Another writing from the same time by Justin Martyr describes the Christians as caring for their neighbors and welcoming the strangers. Notice, neither say the Christians were extraordinary. Neither say the Christian ‘method of life’ was something otherworldly. It was striking, yes, but not unachievable. It was an ordinary life of service that was attuned to God and the lessons of Christ.
I want to conclude with one more story. It was February 12th, 2022. Two refugees from Afghanistan were moving from Wisconsin to Winona, but they were going to arrive to Winona a couple of hours before their apartments were ready, so the community needed a place for them to be until then. First Congregational was approached and we opened our doors for a small open house for people to meet Masouma and Hassain Ali. While I had known the stories of the other refugees moving to town, and was a neighbor to one family for a while, this was my first opportunity to be in extended conversation with two of them. Both of their stories were incredibly difficult to hear. And at this same time, Russia was marching to war with Ukraine, and while it would not start for another week, the world knew what was coming.
So that morning, I was feeling over-whelmed by the needs of the world. And I was feeling wholly inadequate to do anything to meet those needs. I lead a prayer every week for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, but that morning God’s kingdom felt further away than ever before, and I had no idea what could be done to turn that prayer into reality. I, like so many ordinary Christians around the world, felt like God had not equipped us to do what God was calling us to do. “How could I possibly fulfill the teachings of Christ from Winona, MN”, I asked myself.
That morning in February of last year was a cold one, and it was before our new gas insert was installed in the fireplace. In order to warm the space, both physically and emotionally, I built a fire in the fireplace. If you recall, in order to keep a wood fire going in there, it had to be fed frequently. So, I parked myself near the fireplace and every 20 minutes or so I threw another log onto the fire. Other than unlocking the church, that was my job that Saturday morning. Several people commented on how nice it was to have a fire, and I agreed, but when Masouma and Hassain Ali were finally able to head to their temporary homes, I left feeling defeated. I couldn’t do anything more for them. I couldn’t stop the march to war that was happening in eastern Europe. I couldn’t do anything extraordinary, and I was sure God was disappointed.
It wasn’t until later that I began to realize God did not, and has never, required the extraordinary from me or anyone. All God requires is the ordinary. And, that day, the ordinary way of following God was to keep the fire going so our new neighbors would be in a warm and welcoming place. That was it. And that was enough.
I continue to work on learning that lesson. And I will continue to ‘strive for mediocrity,’ as I told Pastor Rachel. And I hope you will be able to embrace and celebrate the ordinary ways you serve God and this community, and follow Christ. The world does not ask each and every one of us to be extraordinary. In fact, I think that if that were to happen, we would just be constantly getting in each other’s way and nothing would ever get accomplished. But, if every Christian were to embrace their ordinary ways of following Christ, and to celebrate the ordinary ways of those around us, then the ordinary will build upon the ordinary, and that would be extraordinary. It would be a ‘wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.’ It would be enough. It would be enough to bring about the Kingdom of God here as it is in heaven. Amen.
Good and Generous God, you have created us each in your image and hope for each of us to follow your will for our lives. But you have not set before us a path that is impossible to follow. Instead, you have created for us possibilities to embrace, each according to your deep and true knowledge of who we are. For this, we are grateful and it is in this gratitude that we come before you in prayer.
God, we are very aware of the needs of this world and we are very aware that we are asked to meet those needs however we can. When we are feeling overwhelmed, give us peace. Whenever we are feeling conflicted, give us resolution. When we are feeling exhausted, give us rest. And when we are feeling inadequate, give us assurance.
One of the great ways we serve you God is by coming before you in prayer for not only ourselves but all the world. In these moments of silence we open our hearts and spirits to you, trusting that you hear and respond…
Loving God, we pray all of this and so much more in the name of Jesus Christ, who showed us what it means to live a wonderful and striking life of faith. We pray in his name and in the way he taught…Our Father…