Have you ever been on a trust walk? You either have a line of blindfolded people being led by one person who can see really well, or you have people in pairs taking turns as blindfolded or leading. This is an activity that is most suited for a camp. For the young, the idea of a trust walk is scary because you do not know what could happen. For the old, the idea of a trust walk is scary because you know exactly what could happen, and it usually involves a trip to the emergency room!
Although it is usually designed to be a safe experience – affirming one’s ability to trust – mistakes can happen, even at a camp with trained facilitators. Like the year I saw a leader (no it wasn’t me) lead a line of blindfolded kids under a sign that had a bee’s nest inside the post. We got lucky on that one. No one was allergic and the stings were minimal. What we learned was that it is possible to trust, even when trusting gets you hurt. It is possible to forgive, even when someone else’s choice might cause you to suffer.
Of course, these are easy things to say about a bee sting and an adrenaline fed rush of panic. It gets harder when the stakes are higher like when she says, “I love you. I’m just not in love with you.” Like they are when doctors use words like “inoperable”. Like they are when the jobs just aren’t available and the bills keep coming in. Like they are when you lose what you love. Like they are when someone you love gets hurt. Yes, it is harder to trust when the only outcome you can see looks nothing like anything you can imagine wanting it to be.
I guess that makes me think about poor old Zebulon. I’ve always wondered how that went. Was fishing that bad? Was he that terrible to live with? Was he really OK with both of his sons just wandering off with this stranger from Capernaum? We don’t know. The text doesn’t say. It just says that Jesus calls them and they go.
It’s interesting to me that the story moves from a certain place (Jesus made Capernaum his home) to no certain place (Jesus went throughout Galilee). So much of what we do in the church is about securing, maintaining, and protecting this place in which we come together, and yet everything that Jesus did involved uprooting, moving, and challenging the status quo. Of course, it is hardly fair to expect our actions to parallel those of an itinerate Jewish Rabi.
The question is not whether or not we are able to follow in the same way as the first disciples. The question is “How do we follow as disciples of Jesus here and now, today?” Asking that question leads me to the brink of looking for a simple solution or a step by step process. Somehow, I think discipleship is messier than that.
The author of Mathew’s Gospel knew that. He knew that there is scandal and incredulity in the gospel. Things in the Jesus story just do not happen the way we want them to. Matthew was writing to a mixed audience of Jewish and Gentile God-fearers – or so we believe. Just as Luke knew that it mattered to highlight Bethlehem as a contrast with seats of power, Mathew knew how important it was to connect Jesus with the ancient scandal of Zebulun and Naphtali.
Do you know their story? They were two of the original twelve tribes. During the conquest of Canna they chose to intermarry with foreigners and were never considered pure. In the time of Judges they would not fight the Philistines unless Debra, the Prophet and Judge, went with them, and their victory was never counted as their own. During the Babylonian conquest they were some of the first to be enslaved. The land marked with the shame of Zebulun and Naphtali was not a place to expect blessing to come from.
So in walks Jesus from a place representing people who get what comes to them for not trusting God. And he is telling people to repent – to stop denying God and to deny themselves instead – because the Kingdom of heaven has come near!
Then he comes to Peter and Andrew, and they drop their nets and follow him to “fish for people.” So it seems we do have some things that we can do to follow Jesus as disciples today. The first is to expect him to come out of places of pain and suffering and ask us – no, he will demand of us – that we consider the part that we play in the suffering of this world. He calls us to repent – not just to say that we are sorry, but to truly make a change of heart that truly results in a different way of living.
Many of us get to certain points in our lives where we just don’t want to make any more changes. The reality is that change is upon us, and the issue is not whether we will change but how. And for that the Gospel asks us to consider what nets we need to let go of. What good and purposeful tasks of maintenance and basic survival are getting in the way of living, proclaiming, and connecting with God through our relationships with others? What are the nets we must drop in order to go fishing?
This congregation has been wrestling with questions like these for over a year now. Many of us were involved in small group studies under the New Beginnings program, and we came to a decision to redefine our mission – even though a lot of us did not fully understand what that meant. As we have struggled with this question in church councils and parking lot conversations, it has become apparent that we are essentially saying that we need to be “Reformed and Always Reforming”.
These are words easily said, but they carry with them the weight of making changes in our character that are very real and very significant. Redefining our mission has been described as making a course correction – changes that are as small as a few degrees that will eventually move us in an entirely new direction. That does not mean that we are going to stop being and doing who and what we are. It means that we have to bring the best of who we are as followers of Jesus into a new future that we have no way of seeing.
Unless forced by some disastrous event, cultural change can take 4-7 years or more. Actually, it can still take years even when it is forced by some disastrous event. Our church council – the Session – witnessed this yesterday at Northwood United Methodist Church where we held our annual retreat. About 5 years ago their sanctuary and education space burned to the ground. The pain of rebuilding was too difficult for some of their membership, and yet they stand today as a congregation that is more unified than ever through a particular experience of death and resurrection.
As I looked at the cross made from timbers salvaged from the old building, I was reminded of a symposium on art and faith featuring Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, photographer and widow of Arthur Ashe – the pioneer of African American tennis players who died tragically after receiving AIDS through a medical procedure. In reflecting on their struggles, she said, “It is remarkable how an image [this was before digital photography of course] that is absolutely dependent on light must be created in an environment of complete darkness – and so it was on Calvary in the cross of Jesus.”
So, I want to assure you that all of the work we have done in darkened rooms toward a New Beginning is not in vain, and also tell you that it has only just begun. Of course, ideally, we will always be evaluating how we can follow Jesus more closely. We will always be redefining our mission. If we ever stop, or if we ever decide that we know exactly how to do church and be the Body of Christ, then we will probably find that we are actually back in the boat with Ol’ Zeb.
As we grow in faithfulness, and as God adds to our numbers, let us remember Paul’s words to the church in Corinth. “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”
Paul goes on to talk about divisions in the church based on allegiances. I love his disclaimer on baptisms. It seems to me that the point he is making is that our “church family” relationships are only blessed if they move us into greater unity. And the point of unity is not simply to bring others in, but to be sent out – to proclaim the Gospel!
As our Session wrestled this weekend with the idea of getting any number of Presbyterians to agree on any form of change, we seemed to agree that the issue is not simply “Who do we reach out to and how?” or even “What do we do to engage the community?” The issue at hand is the opportunity to internalize the Gospel more fully – to engage the community of our own souls – so that who we are and what we do flows through our sanctuary doors and out into the world like life giving waters.
In the mean time, let us always pursue greater unity so that people who never even thought that light could come from this place can be lifted from the darkness into the light of Christ. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.