January 22- sermon- Matthew Wooster

Sermon Text...


January 22, 2023

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Federated UCC


Dedicated to my wife, Rev. Betsy Wooster, on the day of her installation as Pastor of Spiritual Formation at Federated Church, UCC; and always to the glory of God.


Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—

The people who sat without light

   have seen a great light,

and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death

   light has dawned.

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the dominion of heaven has come near.” 


Then walking by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishers. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed Jesus. 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 Jesus.


Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the dominion of heaven and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.


Introductory remarks

It is good to be here, and I bring you greetings from Plymouth United Church of Christ, on the border of the cities of Cleveland and Shaker Heights, with gratitude for the ministry of Federated Church in this community – and reaching out into the world – and for our covenantal relationship in the Living Water Association of the United Church of Christ.

Thank you to Rev. Hamilton Throckmorton, for the example and witness of your ministry, and for graciously sharing this pulpit with me today.

It is a joy to celebrate my beloved spouse Betsy’s installation with you today.


Let us Pray:

O God, may the words of our mouths, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable to you, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.


In the ministry of Jesus, he taught sometimes in parables:

There was a farmer who sowed seeds, and some seed fell among rocks, or among weeds, or on the road where it was eaten by birds, and some fell in good soil.

Or: there was a man on the road to Jericho was attacked by robbers, and then a priest and a Levite passed by before he was finally helped by a a person who was a Samaritan.


Sometimes Jesus taught with commentary on the scriptures:

You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, if someone strikes you, turn the other cheek.

The greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is like it: to love your neighbor.


And sometimes Jesus taught by giving words of blessing:

Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the dominion of God.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.


However Jesus taught, all of these teachings reflected and deepened the very first message that Jesus gave, right at the beginning of his ministry, the message that is central to all that God has done in Jesus, and the message that is still the center of the church’s ministry:

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the dominion of heaven has come near.” 


Repent, for the dominion of heaven has come near.


That’s it. One message. No twenty minute sermon with three points. This is the entire message that Jesus first proclaimed at the very start of his ministry, at least as recorded in the gospel.

Repent, for the dominion of heaven has come near.


Although I think that the way this is translated in English makes it hard for us to hear it as Jesus meant it.


For me, and maybe for you, that word Repent has really been damaged by a history of judgmental religious types who wield the word like a weapon – “repent!” – demanding of people that they conform to their way of being…or else. The way some people use the word, the “or else” is implied: Repent, or else!


I fear that when we hear, “repent, for the dominion of heaven has come near,” it sounds like a demand, as if the very first message from Jesus is about what you have to do. What’s more, the word repent has negative connotations – it’s about what you’re giving up instead of what you’re receiving; it’s about what you’re leaving behind instead of what you’re going toward; it’s about being sorry for the past instead of grateful for the future. And it sounds like this giving up, leaving behind, and being sorry is what Jesus demands of us.


That’s not the message of Jesus. I think we’ll hear it better if we remember that the word Jesus uses is metanoia – that’s the word in the original Greek language of the gospel. It means to change your mind. Change your mind, and this means not just your thinking but also your heart, and your whole orientation of being. Metanoia is a change and a turning toward something.


Now, to really hear this better, let’s also switch the order, so that we know what it is that is causing this metanoia – this holistic change of mind.
Instead of ‘Repent, for the dominion of heaven has come near,’ try this:

‘The dominion of heaven has come near, so change your mind and heart to dwell here and now with God.’


The message of Jesus does not begin with what you have to do; it begins with what God has already done. God has come near. God is near, and the dominion of God is being made real right beside you, ready to include you. This proclamation is not judgment or demand, it is good news and invitation: The dominion of God has come near! So repent. Make the change!


The dominion of God has come near, so don’t look to dominion of the ruling Roman Empire. Don’t strive for making it in this world by collaborating with the imperial injustice as a Roman tax collector, for example. And don’t let yourself be defined by the exploitation of the fishing industrial complex.


Yes, the fishing industrial complex of the Roman Imperial territories. I’ll have to check, but I think that I made up that term myself. The reality was that families who fished – like Peter and Andrew, and the Zebedee family – they had to keep fishing the sea, not to feed themselves and take care of the poor in their community and give offerings to God, as the Hebrew scriptures envisioned, but only to make enough to pay the tributes and taxes that were demanded by the regional imperial authorities. These were not free market entrepreneurs fishing in the sea of Galilee – this was not like the Bubba Gump shrimping company, starting with one beat up boat and with hard work and perseverance and a bit of luck, growing into a shrimping empire. These were subsistence workers, more like sharecroppers in Jim Crow south, or, for that matter, like factory workers in the supposedly liberated north. They were trapped in a dominion where they could never work enough or catch enough fish to make a difference for themselves or the people they cared for.


Is it any wonder that when Jesus called them to follow him with the message “change, for the dominion of heaven is near,” that they were ready to leave behind the dominion of Roman Empire?


Now they were fishing for people, joining the ministry of Jesus to make known the dominion of heaven and call others into it.


Neither we nor our neighbors are fishers – at least not in the way they were – nor are we caught up in the dominion of Roman Empire.


But there are other dominions that influence the world. There is the dominion of success—the way that you are defined by the things you’ve achieved: the diplomas on your wall, the job title, the salary range, the car you drive, your home you live in. Now, living in this dominion might work for your for awhile for you, but there’s always more you’re expected to do. Any failure marks you down, and there’s no emphasis at all on spiritual well-being, or the quality of relationships. Have you spent too much of your life in that dominion?


How about the dominions of world-weary cynicism, or self-centered indulgence, or partisan anger? Have you spent too much of your life in these dominions that diminish your spirit instead of feeding it?


There’s good news! The dominion of heaven is near, come and change.
Take your place within the dominion of heaven – not at some later time but here on earth, in the company of Jesus and those who have answered Jesus’ call. Take your place in the dominion of heaven, where the measure of your worth is that you are a child of God, not whether your diploma says Yale or Dunkin Donuts College.

Enter the dominion of heaven, where there’s no need to put up the façade that everything is perfectly ok, because here there is comfort and care for your sorrows and losses. The dominion of heaven, where your spiritual well-being is central, and there is deep joy in genuine relationships, and those who are great are those who serve.


God has been at work for year to bring the dominion of heaven near both within the community of Federated Church and in the ministry of Rev. Betsy Wooster, and God will continue to be at work among you and in her ministry.


God has called her to ministry, and you, the members of Federated Church, have discerned Betsy’s calling to be a minister to you, and to serve in ministry with you.

When we think about this, we have in mind specific acts of ministry: sharing the sacraments of baptism and communion; offering sermons and prayers and invitations to faithful lives in worship services; teaching in group discussions and classes; attending to details of ministry programs; making pastoral visits in lunches and coffees, to homes and hospitals; solemnizing the vows of marriage and blessings for those who have died.


But in all of these specific acts of ministry, what she is really called to do is dwell within the dominion of heaven, to enlarge the dominion of heaven, to invite and welcome people into the dominion of heaven.


And with the power of God’s Spirit, she will do this. You have called a person with years of ministry experience, a person of deep emotional intelligence and empathy, a person with a mature spirit, a minister who is authentic and genuine, a person of great compassion. Believe me, I know.


Now, if we think about that scene in the gospel as an allegory – where Jesus is walking by the seaside and calls people to become his followers and fish for people in the dominion of heaven – as an allegory, would we say that Betsy is one of the people called by Jesus to join in the ministry of the dominion of heave?

Or would we say, allegorically, that Betsy’s ministry is to represent Jesus, and that you, the members and neighbors of Federated Church are the ones who are called by her to join in the dominion of heaven as she invites, encourages and equips you to leave your boats, to leave the competing dominions that do not value you?

Or would we say that it is all of you, it is the Christian Church, that takes up the place of Jesus, going out into the world, the seashores and neighborhoods, schools and offices and voting booths, and brings others into the dominion of heaven.

Yes, yes, and yes.


The dominion of heaven is near.

Be changed in your head and your heart and the shape of your lives; and leave the rest behind.