I’ve been happily retired for a year and a half now, with no plans to go back to teaching, but somehow this September I ended up back in the classroom at my old school, for a three month substitute job. When the offer came up I thought a lot about it and decided in the end that I was called to do this. I knew just what was expected and knew the people I would be working with – plus I knew it had a clear end date.
The disciples whom Jesus called by the Sea of Galilee didn’t know any of those things: what they were being asked to do, how long it would last, or even what the mission was. So I try to imagine how they ended up accepting Jesus’ call.
Jesus was the new guy in town – he had come down from Nazareth, in the hill country, to the shores of Galilee. He didn’t know these guys, so why did he choose them? Did he look at them working on their boats and think, well, these look like hard-working fishermen, so they’d probably be good helpers? Or did he think – and I kind of like this idea – as they’re sitting around mending nets, these guys don’t look like they’re doing much, I’ve got a real job for them?
And why did these men – Peter and Andrew, James and John – decide to pick up and follow Jesus? They don’t know him. Maybe they’d heard there was a new wandering prophet in town. But when Jesus says, “I will make you fish for people,” what does that even mean?
In retrospect, now, the statement makes sense to us, because we know the whole story. But what could they have been thinking? As I imagine the scene, I picture one of them looking at the other, not saying anything. The other one looks back, maybe shrugs and grins. There’s an unspoken agreement, “Well, what the heck, there’s not a whole lot happening here, why not check it out?” And maybe one of them turns to a boy nearby and says, “Watch our nets for a while – we’ll be back.”
Notice what’s happened: they had no idea what they’re being called to do, or how they’re going to do it, or where they’re going to go, or even what the goal is.
Why do they do this? There must have been some sense of trust in Jesus – the way he looked, how he spoke, maybe what little they’d heard about him. And then they had one another. You know how it is when you’re with friends or family and someone suggests doing something, and you say, “Well, I’m in if you are.” Also, there’s the very human sense of curiosity and adventure, the desire to try new things.
I think this is a good example of how God’s call actually works. It would be nice to think that God’s call to us would be obvious, like the blast of a loudspeaker, “Attention! I’m talking to you.”
But that’s not how it works. God is always broadcasting to us – God is like a 24 hour radio network – but most of the time we’re not paying attention because we’re too busy, too preoccupied with immediate concerns. It’s only when we can create a little space in our lives that we can really tune in to what God is saying.
And God calls to us daily: sometimes about big, potentially life-changing things, but most often about daily concerns. Maybe it occurs to us one day that it might be good to get in touch with someone we haven’t seen for a while, and it turns out we make contact at a critical time.
But we often resist the call. When I was thinking about ordination, I thought to myself, “I’m not the right person for this, I don’t know that I have the right gifts, it’s not the right time for me.” I think these are all pretty common responses to God’s call. But God doesn’t really care if we’re prepared, or if we think we can do what’s asked.
In the end, after much pondering, I decided to answer the call. I trusted that God would show me the way, I had friends who supported and encouraged me, and finally I thought, “Well, why not?”
In our lives as Christians, and in our common life, we are often invited to the unexpected, called to do things or follow paths that we feel unprepared for, that we hadn’t planned on, that we don’t think we have the gifts for. God doesn’t care.
In the life of our parish, maybe someone has suggested you’d be good on Vestry, or someone has said that Altar Guild could use some help, or you have a nagging idea that it would be fun to try cooking for the Friday dinner. If we trust that God will guide us and that others will support us, even if we’re not sure how we’re going to do something, maybe it’s still worth a try. The same is true for our parish ministry as a whole. If God is truly calling us to something new, even something that seems beyond our abilities, then, well, “What the heck.”
I know that in my life, when I’ve been able to say “yes” to God’s call, trusting that God will guide me, trusting that others will be with me, and with an openness to new possibilities, I have been richly blessed.
I’d like to start with a survey: how many of you remember the first time that you heard a story around a campfire?
For me, the memory is indelible – it is a huge part of my personal mythology. I was away at camp for the first time, sleeping in a cabin without my family for the first time. I was maybe my youngest child’s age, so about seven years old. And the whole experience felt full of joy and danger and possibility. We stayed up way later than I did at home – it was near the summer solstice and we went out at some impossibly late hour to see the stars in their ancient immensity.
And then having gazed in wonder at the sky, we sat around the campfire.
The teacher or counsellor who told the story that night was named Steve. And Steve shared with us a tale of horror. In retrospect, it was kind of a goofy tale of horror, a riff on Poe whereby this guy murders his neighbour and then he is haunted by his neighbour’s coffin as it comes thump, thump, thumping up the stairs. But when I was seven it might’ve been the greatest story that I had ever heard, it kept me on the edge of my seat or, I suppose, on the edge of my log.
The story ended, by the way, with the hopelessly hokey punchline:
The door burst open and the coffin came in and our hero thought all was lost.
But then he took out his package of Vick’s and he stopped the coffin.
A lot of years later, when I started encountering the stories of the Bible, the penny dropped for me: I realised that, in origin, around the campfire is where almost all of these stories of faith would first have been told. Before there were scrolls or books or e-readers these stories were shared from people’s memories and hearts.
Most scholars reckon that no fewer than 20 years elapsed between Jesus’ death and the first of the Gospels, Mark, being committed to paper. And unless there are older texts that got lost, unless that scholarly guess is right and there really is a lost document that predates Mark, that means that for two or more decades the story of Jesus’ birth, his life, his death, his resurrection was remembered and told by folks like Steve to people like me, sitting on the logs around the fire and listening hard for what happens next.
How is the story different when there is no physical text involved, when there is no paper but just the human voice around the fire? Well, for one physical context becomes part a way deeper of the story. When it is the night and you are under the immense beauty of the stars, when the darkness is all around you, your imagination is unlocked in a way that, maybe, it is not and cannot be inside a building with artificial light and a text on a lectern. Around the campfire, you touch something primal, and it is a little easier – a lot easier – to imagine that coffins might chase people around or that Jacob might walk away from the fire and wrestle with a stranger in the darkness.
The campfire is a place of holy possibility.
The other thing that is different around the campfire is that the story is interactive. The story happens, to borrow a phrase from the world of computers, in real time. Steve listens to our reactions and he alters the story accordingly. We ask him questions – what colour was the coffin, what did the house the guy lived in look like, how does a coffin climb stairs anyway, given that a coffin doesn’t have feet – and Steve responds. In a sense, everyone who sits around the campfire tells the story together.
When written text shows up, it changes all of this. Suddenly, you need enough light to read, and light lessens the magic and the danger. And suddenly the story is the same, it is consistent, everywhere and always. If I am reading Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World to my son before he goes to bed (which I am), it is the very same text that someone else is reading to their child across the country or across the world or even across time. Maybe I do the voices differently, maybe my pacing is different, but by and large the story is identical. I am not changing Dahl’s tale as my son says why or how or more.
Today, we hear this reading from Nehemiah. In it, Ezra the scribe has a book or, more likely, a scroll, and he gathers the people and he reads to them from the law of Moses. This scene likely takes place in the 6th or 5th century before the Common Era, so maybe 500 years before Jesus’ birth. This is the time when, in much of the ancient world, the stories of faith and of life and of being human are being committed to paper on a scale and in a way that they had not been before. Plato is writing around this time, so is the Buddha, so is Confucius.
Now, there are couple of a fascinating lines in the passage that we just heard. The first one goes goes like this: Ezra reads the law to all who could hear with understanding. The second line, a little while later, says that Ezra reads the law with interpretation.
Do these qualifications mean – and here and throughout the sermon I am drawing heavily here on the research of the wonderful scholar, Paul Nuechterlein – that the ideas are too complex for some of Ezra’s listeners to understand, that there is a theological nuance that some of his audience can’t quite track and, therefore, that he has to walk them through it? Or does it mean that we’re now living in a time in which not everyone can understand Hebrew and, therefore, Ezra has to keep on stopping to translate, that hearing this is a little like watching a movie in a language that you don’t know, so Ezra has to hit pause every couple of minutes to explain what the characters just said?
Either way, something is happening as Ezra reads from this text that doesn’t happen around the campfire – or, at least, that doesn’t happen when the storyteller is any good. Because Ezra is reading from a set text rather than telling a story or making an argument in a real-time collaboration with his listener, the mutuality that happens around the campfire is radically diminished. I suspect that we’ve all had the experience of hearing someone speak and being super engaged during the part of the speech when they are extemporaneously drawing on their own experience, but then losing our engagement, our eyes glazing over a wee bit, when the speaker starts reading from prepared remarks. The written text allows precision, but it also diminishes communion. It ramps up the likelihood that we will hear but not understand.
It seems to me that we encounter Ezra’s problem in church with some regularity. We have a set text that we read from the lectern or, if it’s the Gospel, in the middle of the aisle. Sometimes the text is confusing. If you’re like me (and I don’t know if I should admit this), that confusion comes up particularly often during the Epistle, during the second reading. That confusion can make it hard to listen. Occasionally, when I am travelling and I visit a church, I have the disquieting impression that not only do I not understand the Epistle, but neither does the person reading it. We are united in mutual incomprehension.
And sometimes the text is not so much confusing as it is hard, such as when it appears to paint a picture of God that we don’t like.
What do we do then?
Today in the Gospel, Jesus offers a possible answer to that question. And it is an answer that may be kind of shocking to us. What do you do when you are reading the Bible and you encounter something that is inconsistent with what you know about God? Well, you draw on your experience around the campfire and you edit the text.
Jesus’ quote from Isaiah is actually a combination of two passages. From Isaiah 61: The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor. And from Isaiah 58: Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
If you know your Bible, if you know Isaiah, you will know that, in addition to stitching verses 61 and 58 together, Jesus has omitted something from 61, he has stopped reading in mid-sentence. The original passage says:
…to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God.
The original text gives us what Nuechterlein calls the conventional messianic dream of an oppressed people. In other words, the Messiah is going to come, he is going to put things right for us, he is going to release our prisoners, he is going to heal our broken hearts. And then he is going to turn to those who have oppressed us and he is going to kick ass and take names.
And Jesus, like Steve around the campfire, knows that this line about vengeance isn’t right, it isn’t part of the story that his listeners need to hear.
And so, in his version, it is gone.
Here’s the question: Christians are called to be Christ-like, to imitate Jesus. But dare we emulate him imitate him here?
Jesus, well, he’s Jesus. He’s the Son of God, light from light, true God from true God. And if wants to edit the Word of the Lord, then he is probably qualified to do so. But could someone like you and me possibly do the same? If I just start editing the Bible, cutting out anything that I find strange or confusing or troubling, then what am I going to go except make God in my own image? This is what the scholars call eisegesis, where I project myself into the text, where I look down into a well and, without realising it, see nothing but my own reflection looking back.
And maybe that would be enough to stop the Christian from emulating Jesus when it comes to scripture. Except that, here too, maybe the campfire offers us a possibility. Because around the fire, the tale is never told alone, the editing is not done alone. The storyteller under the stars is not a novelist, putting their words into a machine and then sending them out to the world fixed permanently to the page. Rather, this storyteller is a collaborator.
If Paul is telling the truth and all of us together really are the Body of Christ, if we are Jesus’ hands and feet and voice in this hurting world, then maybe, together, we are qualified to edit this story. To shape the tradition we have received. To remind one another, as our friends in the United Church of Christ have it, that God is still speaking.
Together, maybe we can figure out how to be like Jesus. Together, maybe we can figure out which parts of the story we need to edit, to change, to add to. Together, we will proclaim the amazing story of God.
Jesus was raised in the Galilee region. It is a wonderful, beautiful region with mountains, hills, rivers and of course the Sea of Galilee.
Nazareth is near the Sea of Galilee, about 35 miles away. Our scripture today in Matthew says that Jesus began his ministry after John the Baptist was arrested. I am convinced that Jesus knew and related to the person and the teaching of John. And, that John was a very controversial voice in the contemporary religious conversations. Was John the messiah? What was God doing? Was there any way God could intervene with getting rid of the Roman occupation? People were frightened and had good reason to be frightened. The Roman occupation was cruel. Many of the inhabitants of the Galilee region were being killed. The religious authorities have given into the Roman occupation. The authorities had no power, no authority, and no way to speak out. Their answer was to accept the occupation of the Romans and to say to the people of Jerusalem and to say to the people of Galilee absolutely nothing. The religious ferment at the time of Jesus was without leadership from the authorities of Jerusalem. The religious authorities were puppets of the Roman occupation.
“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.”
So Jesus appears on the scene. Scholars think he was around 30 years of age. At that point in time it would have been equivalent to our 40 or 50 years of age because of life expectancy.
He moved to Capernaum, at the Sea of Galilee, about 35 miles from Nazareth. Did he go with family? Did he go with Mary? What about his brothers and sisters? What about Joseph? Jesus was a part of Jewish culture at the time. He was a part of human history. He was a part of a political drama within history and he was a part of what we believe to be the reflection the person of God in human history that informed us and continues to inform us of who we are as individuals within time and space…….otherwise known as history…….our story of human existence…..God with us.
Matthew tells us, “Jesus began to proclaim…..repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew uses the term kingdom of heaven while the other gospel writers use the term kingdom of God. Mark uses kingdom of God and Mark is written earlier then Matthew. So the proclamation of the kingdom of God within the gospels appears to be the central message of Jesus. So what is the kingdom of God? Is it beyond this world? Is it part of this world? How do we become a part of it? How do we live out our lives as a part of the kingdom of God?
Repent!…..seriously….does anyone here know what that means? It is a word we rarely use or relate to. It is old fashioned and is supposed to be for other people…..not for me.
But, it is a word meant for all of us!!
It means to stop……turn around and begin again…..admit that you as an individual, you as a part of society, you as a part of any decision, regarding our country, our culture, the way we treat each other, our participation in human rights, our inability to promote justice, our indifference to those we look down on for what ever reason, our indifference to the weak, the poor, the vulnerable, and on and on…….
It is not right.
It is wrong.
It is a mistake.
And it is time to begin again.
Jesus proclaims that message and in effect relates to it as becoming a part of God’s kingdom, God’s relationship with humanity.
What do we do?
How do we change?
Here we are. Sitting in a church pew 2000 years later.
History has unfolded.
Millions of people have lived and died.
Wars have been fought and are being fought.
The world has gone through discovery, chaos, experimentations, enlightenment, life and death. Saints have come and gone…. some known, most of them unknown, wonderful tributes to our humanity have lived and died, offering their gifts to us and we are the recipients of those many and varied gifts. People over many century’s have cared and have loved us into existence.
Evil has been present. Evil has prevailed and prevails at times with the freedom we have as individuals we have to choose between good and evil. Evil is so much a part of our story. History is filled with it.
But Jesus proclaimed.
“Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
The miracle message of the gospel of Jesus remains in the fact that Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee and saw two brothers, Peter and his brother Andrew.
They along with other disciples responded to a message of hope and relationship that continues to open doors to the future.
A future that is right here and right now before our very eyes. Right here and now. The kingdom of God is near. God’s presence is with us. We belong to the God who has created us for the purpose of love. Our lives are to be reflections of the One who came to us and comes to us to proclaim the kingdom of love.
(Tell the story of Passing the Peace in the 1970’s in Baker, OR at St Stephen’s)
It is not easy to look into the eyes of another human being or to have another person look deeply into our own eyes.
The miracle of the gospel story in the person of Jesus is relationship.
The kingdom of God is a relationship.
Here and now. Person to person. Within the presence of God. As scripture points out, when two or three are gathered together there am I in the mist of you.
I bet my bottom dollar that they knew each other and shared significant moments together. As least we know they caught fish together.
When Jesus said, “follow me” they knew and trusted him. They knew what it meant to move into the lives of others as they learned from Jesus the meaning of life, love, God, relationship, healing and what it meant to repent of that which was harmful to them and to others.
The disciples of Jesus knew what it means to be in the here and now….with you, with me, with each other, in community together…moving into a future…a future that always is God. And the God of the future is here and now.
The disciples of Jesus trusted Jesus. They knew that the future they proclaimed was a relationship in the here and now.
As we move into the future as individuals, as a community, as a part of this world within the universe, we hear the proclamation of Jesus, “Repent”. Think about what you have done and what you are doing. Stop. Start over. The kingdom of God is near at hand. We belong to God, we belong to each other, we relate to God and each other here and now.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
If you’re a movie watcher, I want you to think of one of the following movies: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Amadeus or Sunset Boulevard. If you’re more of a reader, one of these books: Ethan Frome or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. And if I’ve missed you altogether, I’ll move through this opening quickly so you don’t feel left out.
One of the things those five narratives have in common is structure – sometimes referred to as a fragmented narrative or a frame narrative. We don’t start at the beginning and end at the end, chronologically that is. Maybe, as in Amadeus and Frankenstein, we start at the end and are taken back to the beginning through the telling of the story by one character. Or, as with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the narrative jumps around and we, as the reader/watcher, suffer a bit of mental whiplash.
Well today with our Old Testament reading, we began in essence at the end of Nehemiah’s story, with a time of celebration for the completion of a significant undertaking – rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem. If we go back, though, and learn where the story began and where it’s been we see a much more complicated picture.
Nehemiah was a cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia in the fifth century BC. At first glance, not a great job, perhaps, especially if the king for whom you bore the cup had a long list of enemies. But while occasionally a cup-bearer might be called on to first drink from a cup to be served to the king to ensure it had not been poisoned, the essence of the position was to guard the king’s cup. The position brought with it a nearness to the king, a proximity to the king’s ear.
We first meet Nehemiah in the Bible when he introduces himself in the first verse of the book of Nehemiah. Reading from that first chapter: “The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah. In the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capital, one of my brothers, Hanani, came with certain men from Judah; and I asked them about the Jews that survived, those who had escaped the captivity, and about Jerusalem. They replied, ‘The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.’”
Let’s go back just a little bit further, and then we can finally start moving forward again. In the late 6th century BC, Jerusalem was laid under siege three times, resulting in the exile of Jews to Babylon each time and ultimately to the destruction of the temple in 588 BC. Fifty years later, in 538 BC, the Decree of Cyrus allowed Jews to finally return to Jerusalem. Nearly a hundred years after that, sometime in the middle of the 5th century BC is when we meet Nehemiah.
So, Nehemiah, his heart heavy from the news his brother brought him of the Jews that survived exile and returned, himself returns to Jerusalem, now governor of the province, appointed by the king. The task he has set himself is to rebuild the walls surrounding Jerusalem. The task is immense. The walls are in ruins. The gates have been burned. On a midnight survey of the walls, Nehemiah reaches a point where the destruction is so total that the animal he is riding can no longer continue. From enemies outside the walls – Ammonites, Samarians and Ashdodites – Nehemiah faces accusations of treason, attempts to slander his character and taunts…Tobias the Ammonite tells them, “That stone wall they are building – any fox going up it would break it down!” So the task is huge in scope, the threats from without are near and constant, and, then, perhaps most demoralizing, in chapter 5 we hear about an outcry among the Jews against many of their own relatives, those in power and with great wealth who are lending money on high interest, enslaving their sons and daughters, and taking possession of their fields and vineyards.
I have to tell you, as the director a non-profit, this is about the point where I would put in my two weeks notice. The cup-bearer job had to be looking plush to Nehemiah at this point. But we know, because we began at the end of the story, that Nehemiah had more conviction than that. He foils the plots of the Samarians and Ammonites, he gets a promise from the officials who were oppressing their own Jewish kinsman to cease their exploitation, and in 52 days the wall and its gates are rebuilt.
And so we arrive now at the end…of this part of the story at least. The scribe, Ezra, brings out the book of the law of Moses into the square where all the people are gathered and he reads from it from morning to midday. In the passage we heard this morning, I think one phrase rings out – “all the people.” It comes up eight times…about once a verse. “All the people were attentive,” “All the people stood up,” “All the people answered ‘Amen Amen.’” It sounds like church. Maybe more of a mega-, mega-, mega-church than our less-than-mega parish, but the image is the same…together, we all stand up, we are all attentive (more or less), we all say Amen. But contrast this with what Nehemiah was dealing with just weeks earlier – division, oppression, threats…within that same “all the people.” The wall took under two months to build so we’re not talking about years of reconciliation here. And they were busy, really busy, working. One whole chapter of Nehemiah just lists the names of the people and the tasks they undertook – repairing a thousand cubits of wall (admittedly I have no idea how much that it, but it sounds like a lot of work, right?), setting up doors, bolts & bars on the gates, laying beams. How did they find time to talk it all out, to become “all the people”? Was it really just as simple as it’s described in chapter 5? – Nehemiah spoke with those who were exploiting and oppressing their fellow Jews, and asked them to promise not to do so. And they did. A sneak peek ahead at the last chapter in Nehemiah suggests that no, this promise to turn from oppression did not end and flared back up as certain groups of people were not given their due and sent back to their fields. So was this “all the people” throughout the story? From conflict and hurt, through celebration and glorifying of God, and back to division again? I think so. And as much as the repetition of “all the people” in today’s reading reminded me of the church, so to does this cycle of togetherness and disunion. So how then do we live as the church – the body of Christ – if brokenness is always going to be a part of it?
For now we just keep moving, forward again, almost 2,500 years this time…to today. Just over a week ago, the majority of primates in the Anglican communion (the worldwide Anglican church, of which Grace and the Episcopal Church USA are members) agreed that for three years the Episcopal Church USA will not represent the Anglican communion, be appointed to its internal committees or take part in its decision-making. This in response to the Episcopal Church’s inclusion of LGBTQ people in the full life of the church, including the sacrament of marriage.
In response to the Anglican primates’ decision, our Bishop Michael Curry wrote, as Father Martin shared with us in last week’s email – “Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.” Bishop Michael when on to say, “The pain for many will be real. But God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow primates in the Anglican family.” I also love the church, and I struggle with the notion of unity in the face of such deep discord. How do we feel like part of “all the people” in the face of this? Can we? What other option do we have? Do we care? How could we not care?
These questions are more easily asked than answered. And they are more easily asked by me, someone with the privilege of not being directly impacted, in my own self, by this decision, than they are by those who are impacted, including LGBTQ Episcopalians, and the priests, bishops and other leaders of our church.
I know there are many who have asked these questions for many years, and I don’t presume to suggest any or even one answer this morning. I do hope to offer a few thoughts based on what we heard in the Word of the Lord this morning, thoughts about how we might continue to love the church in the midst of division, though our minds & hearts may not feel that possibility right now.
First, let us remember that as members of Christ’s body we live in the tension between the joy of the coming of the Kingdom of God and the pain of brokenness, as did Jesus Christ. We are called to be with one another in both of these times. Going back to Nehemiah, there is a stark contrast between Ezra the scribe’s injunction to the Jews at the end of the reading today – “do not mourn or weep…go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine…do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength,” and Nehemiah’s words to God at the very beginning when his brother brings him the dire news of the returned exiles and their city. Nehemiah weeps, mourns, fasts and prays for days. He prays, “O Lord God of heaven, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray for the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you.” Both the injunction and the prayer are corporate – do this together, we pray for all of us. But what is it supposed to look like to “be together” with those with whom it is hard to be together. And further, what does that look like when the thing that separates us is not an obtuse theological difference that has little felt impact on us but is in fact a very questioning of the full dignity of some of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. I will be the first to admit that the hardest people for me to be together with are often my fellow Christians with whom I hold stark difference on matters of theology, biblical interpretation, politics or the Christian life. As an example, I am part of another Christian community, in a sense, that I experience a strong desire to distance myself from – students, faculty and alums of Wheaton College. Part of this community – the institution – has, over the past several years taken positions on a number of issues that are profoundly important to me, positions that are contrary to those I hold. I have found it hard to love both the community and the individuals in the community with whom I disagree. I get more deeply worked up thinking about these differences than I do any others. There is only one thing that unites us now – the feeling of pain, hurt, frustration, anger. I lament in fellowship with others who feel the same way I do. I assume those with whom I disagree lament as well. Is that enough, our shared lamentation? I hope there will be a sharing in joy in time to come. There may not be. Our shared joy may be a thing of the past. But we are united – as long as we so choose – because we are together in the conflict and in the brokenness that results from the conflict.
Second, I suggest we understand the church, as the Episcopal priest Ephraim Radner says, less as a loveable body – though many of you are very loveable – but as a body that is loved. We heard a common metaphor of the church – as body – in the reading this morning from the first letter to the Corinthians. The description begins in quite a lovely way: “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” And then it gets a little weird – imagine as a child hearing these words – “If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body,” or “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” or “If all were a single member, where would the body be?” My mind at least conjures up something resembling Frankenstein, something not particularly lovable, desirable or ideal. I think the letter writer is describing for us both the ideal – the unity of the body of Christ – and the actual – the dominance at times of some over others, imbalance, difference. And the author concludes that in God’s love, God has so arranged the body that, ideally, “the members may have the same care for one another.” Notice the letter writer does not say that God so arranged the body of Christ that they may all come to agreement and vote unanimously on the issue at hand. No, the body of Christ is formed such that, again from first Corinthians, “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” We are loved – by God and by one another.
And finally, I am reminded of two aspects of our liturgy that speak to this tension in the church – the prayers of the people, in which we pray corporately, and the breaking of the bread. We take the bread which is broken for us and for many for the forgiveness of sins, as a reminder of the broken body of Christ. And we pray the prayers of the people with our voices aloud together, here at Grace, at other Episcopal parishes in Portland and the diocese, in our nation and in the world…prayers for reconciliation & healing, that wrongs will be made right, for forgiveness, in gratitude and thanksgiving. Implicit in the fact that this prayer is corporate and is being prayed in all times and in all places is the prayer of Jesus himself – that we all may be one. Amen.
In this scenario…..it is four o’clock in the afternoon and it’s still a busy day. You have been working through a multi-layer of tasks and yet sense only a little headway. You didn’t count on that long phone call, that need to attend to the dog, the long wait at the doctor’s office, the long unscheduled conversation…. and you still have a lot to do before you can say your work is done for the day…..whether you are at work or at home. And then someone walks in and, with a great sense of urgency, says “you have to come and see this….right now.” And you do…and you drop everything you are working on to go and see. Or you say….. “it will have to wait….I have work to do,” and you do not go to see. We all probably recognize elements of our own experience in this little scenario and there have been times when we made the right decision to keep our heads down and keeping working, or “going and seeing” turned out to be the best decision we could have made……perhaps to catch a beautiful sunset, or witness an accident in the street…..opportunities to see or not see an infinite number of happenings beyond ourselves.
It’s our own decision to make. We decide yes…or no.
I can share another scenario from my own life which you, too, might recognize. The family gathers, as did mine, at Christmas time. We enjoyed a lovely time together and vowed to gather more often in the coming year than we did in the year past. We all carefully found space in our calendar’s for times that seem to work best for us all. As I turned to the times that seemed best for us all, the pages of my calendar looked pristine….without a mark suggesting that there could be a conflict. Nothing, I vowed, not one thing would erase my writing on those clear pages….dinner with family. As time goes on, more and more entries appear on those pages. And…..as we come closer and closer to the date, the original entry, so neatly written “dinner with family” becomes harder and harder to find as more and more writing edges in….surrounding it with the shapes and shadows of changes……additions and subtractions…..and perhaps, an overarching obligation …..an event that cannot be avoided……that obliterates the entire page.
And we find ourselves at another place of decision. What will our decision be? How do we prioritize what we want to do, what we should do and to what we are called when there is urgency or deep importance in each direction we are called to move.
It is ultimately our decision to make. We decide yes…or no.
So it must have been for the disciples Simon and Andrew, James and John as they worked…fishing and mending nets. Their survival depended on their daily work schedule and the efficiency of the tools they needed for the job…their nets. Their day was probably finely timed with the coming and going of the tides and they needed to be ready. Their families waited at home for food and they depended on the market times for selling their catch of the day. Perhaps there was a special religious celebration scheduled, or a birthday….a birth….a wedding….an illness…..a homecoming of relatives….or many other events and activities they knew to be part of their day. So, while they may not have had a shared Google calendar or even a calendar made of paper, they most certainly had a schedule of events that needed to be counted upon.
And yet, for all these possibilities, when Jesus walked by Simon and Andrew and said to them “Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” they left their nets and followed him. Likewise, when Jesus encountered James and John, mending their nets and called them, they simply left Dad in the boat with the hired men, and followed Jesus.
How could they just leave their nets…how could they leave Dad in the boat? Could we do that? Leave Dad in the boat? “See you later, Dad. You’ll be OK with Hank and Billy….but I’ve got to go now. Let everyone know at home that I don’t know where I’m going or why, but I won’t be home for dinner.”
Typical of Mark’s Gospel the sense of urgency is palpable. There is no stopping to consider consequences…no weighing of the pros and cons…no wondering about how others might perceive decisions made…no sense of obligation to anything other than the call that they heard from Jesus.
The same urgency is heard in Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth. “The appointed time has grown short,” he writes. “The present form of this world is passing away.” So no need to worry about all that worldly stuff, like marrying, mourning, shopping for new furniture…..all that is very, very yesterday. And when God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah set out and went….albeit God had to ask him twice.
So it’s pretty clear from all our scripture readings today and from God that when we hear God’s voice calling us to act in some way we have a decision to make. Do we analyze the conversation or do we simply drop everything, in order to respond and follow the call. Sometimes we need to heighten our awareness of when and where the call comes. Are we called to begin something new? Or to be a part of something new? Are we entering into a deep unknown? Or do we have an idea of where our decision to go might take us?
And what is the price we pay to ignore God’s call? What will we miss and will our decision to forego the call leave us feeling somehow left behind?
When Jesus called to the disciples along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, he was just beginning his ministry. Just starting out. He had a good sense of God’s call to him and the direction his ministry was to take, but the disciples did not. Yet, somehow, Jesus was able to convey not only a sense of direction and focus, but a compelling urgency to act on God’s call rather than the world’s.
Jesus picks up the baton from John, now exited from Mark’s stage, with the proclamation of God’s good news. Jesus picks up the theme of repentance and the need for an urgent response to the theme. Jesus’ preaching highlights the kingdom of God and the urgency of our need to repent, or turn away from our worldly “yes” decisions to answer “yes” to God and God’s decisions.
In our world we might feel that our regular attendance at church on Sunday mornings is, indeed, a response to God’s call for our attention. Perhaps, however, we can look at this in a different way. Perhaps we are called to gather in community on Sunday morning so that, as a community, and individually, the voice of God is made more audible. Perhaps we come in order to hear God’s voice, rather than attending as a result of it.
Perhaps our attendance this morning is more about taking the opportunity to find out what God is calling us to do and less about thinking that, by our being present here this morning, we are fulfilling God’s call to us. The end.
No, my friends. It is not the end. Just as it was for the disciples who were found by Jesus at the edge of the sea….in the midst of their daily work….. so it is for us….a new beginning.
Sunday morning is just a part of an eternally evolving new beginning for us. New insights, new directions, new decisions, new growth into the Kingdom of God. As we grow into and become more part of God’s kingdom, the world’s hold on us lessens.
Written to the Glory of God
The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver+
January 25, 2015