Epiphany 3A 2005 Matthew 4:12-23
We have just had our first snowfall in these two counties of ours. For those of us who have lived in Northern Europe or
the northeastern United States or Kansas, it wasn’t much of a snowfall. But it brought everything to a screeching halt
it seemed. Schools were closed for two days, every restaurant I called Wednesday night, to include Indian Creek, was closed,
every one of them. Government wide, I imagine, in the counties only certain people were on duty, police, fire, and medical
In some parts of the country it doesn't matter, but here snow brings things to an immediate screeching halt. Not only do
schools close but also other events are canceled. Travel becomes tricky. If the conditions become severe enough, the decision
may be made that not everybody should try to get to work. Only those who are absolutely necessary should report. 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 nothing more than watch television or turn over and go
back to sleep.
Even if we live where it rarely snows, the phrase is a familiar one. When budget talks collapse and the state or federal
governments shut down, this is the important phrase that is heard. When the earth quakes under the people of California,
only certain people are ordered out while the rest are told to stay at home. When tornadoes strike and disrupt everything
in their course, only certain people are ordered risk the dangers involved. These are maintenance people, road crews, ambulance
drivers, fire fighters, electric and gas company workers, truck drivers, and a whole host of service people who are taken
for granted when things are running smoothly. These are the folks who keep the infrastructure alive. We call them “key
and essential personnel" -- sometimes just essential personnel.
Essential personnel. For almost all of my Army career except when I was in school, I was a key and essential personnel because
of the jobs I had. I couldn’t wait to reach a status where I was no longer an essential personnel. And now even my
standby retiree mobilization orders to report to Fort Bragg have been rescinded since the day of my 60th birthday. I think
I’m happy about that. Most days I’m glad not being essential personnel for government anymore.
But the good news is that in the eyes of God we are all on call to be essential personnel. We are called to be a special
group of people and to do some important things. It may callus in unexpected ways, ways far different than the normal essential
routine of the work of the church we are usually called to do here.
For example, several years ago there was a story in the media about Debi Faris-Cifelli who established Garden of Angels cemetery
near Los Angeles – the City of the Angels – for the bodies of those babies discarded in Dumpsters or along highways.
She has seventy tiny bodies of little souls buried there now. She said that even if they were here only for a moment they
were here for a purpose. For her, these babies are key and essential personnel in God’s eyes. She gives each child
a name and a proper burial. And when she and her husband won 27 million dollars in the California lottery, they used the
bulk of the money too establish scholarships, each in the name of a baby buried in the Garden of Angels cemetery.
Debi Faris-Cifelli is truly a key and essential personnel in the work God has given us to do on this earth. An ordinary person
called to an extraordinary task.
In this passage from Matthew, Jesus called some ordinary fishermen to do the work of kingdom building. Jesus calls ordinary
people like you and me to love and serve. And, as in the case of these fishermen, 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 fishermen before, they were fishermen afterwards, but with Jesus the
focus and priorities changed.
Jesus' disciples were not a panel of experts. Jesus took people whom the world had labeled in many ways non-essential --
fishermen, tax collectors, notorious sinners, men and especially women who were never considered essential before -- and used
them and their gifts in doing God’s work and calling 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.
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 everybody 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 – and still cannot -- stop saying, "Follow me." It is
one thing to ask some fishermen 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.
You see, every time Jesus says, "Follow me," it affects us. We don't mind Jesus saving and forgiving the prostitute, but
that doesn't mean we want to be sitting next to her in church. Jesus spending time with the mentally ill doesn’t bother
us, but that doesn't mean we would like to have one acting out in church on Sunday. We are glad to see Jesus healing the
sick, those who are on death's door, but that doesn't mean we want to convert the Thrift Shop into a shelter for AIDS patients
– or even a hospice.
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 gave her of the living water." At the most
crucial moment Peter denied knowing and following Jesus, and Jesus restored Peter to the work he had been given to do.
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 he was thinking about when he called some of these others, but that is not
Jesus' problem. That is our problem, and no explanation on Jesus' part is forthcoming.
In calling these others -- in inviting us as well as the poor and the lazy and the trash of the earth to the great banquet
-- Jesus has deemed them essential personnel as well, whether we are offended by that or not. Life in the church would be
a lot more comfortable if it were just us, but Jesus can't stop saying, "Follow me" to everyone. Not only can he not stop,
he makes this such an unconditional invitation that anybody might show up. 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
considered non-essential personnel it shocks us every time.
We are shocked because God calls us into the family of God where all have a place and all are welcome. A call to share
a way of life together that to the worldly seems unreasonable or undesirable. Letty Russell, in her book Church in the Round,
uses a round table as the metaphor for the church. "The round table in itself emphasizes connection, for when we gather around
we are connected, in an association or relationship with one another." (2)
When the church is a round table, even if only figuratively and not architecturally, all are welcome and all have a place.
At a round table church, we look at each other without judgment or condescension, because we know that we need each other
and each other's understanding and pieces of the truth in order for our understanding of the truth to be complete.
The opportunities are even greater in churches like this one where urban and rural and people of all walks of life and from
different places come to the table to share in a common life. We are not only essential personnel in the work of spreading
good news, we are essential personnel for and with one another. We need each other, and there may be no greater grace-filled
moment than when we find ourselves sitting at the round table with everyone else.
Jesus says to you and me, "Follow me. You are my 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
To us and to people of every race and class, to folks of every land and language, indeed, to all of creation, Jesus says,
"Follow me." That is not a call to trail along behind Jesus and just watch without doing something, without loving God and
our neighbor as. It is a call to love as Jesus loved, to welcome as Jesus welcomed, and to take our place alongside our brothers
and sisters at the great round table where, for the sake of us all, all God's children are key and essential personnel. (3)
1. Reader’s Digest, February 2005, p. 16.
2. Letty Russell, Church in the Round (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), p. 18. as quoted in 3 below.
3. This sermon adapted from “Essential Personnel”, in And Then Came The Angel, by William B. Kincaid, III, CSS
Publishing Company, Inc, 1998, at eSermons.com.