Get Out Of The Boat
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 Zebedee. 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 itinerant 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 his audience would understand the importance of the location of this story. 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 Canaan 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.” And he comes to James and John, who leave their father with nets that needed mending in order to follow Jesus.
What, then, can 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 – to go with him into those places. Next, 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.
That’s not something that just happens once. It’s an opportunity that confronts us everyday that we are alive. 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 what things that seem like basic survival needs are actually 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?
Each of us must answer this question in our own way, but thank God that we also have one another to help create those opportunities. Truly, we are ever and always part of something greater than ourselves. Often we talk about the connectional nature of the Presbyterian Church and the collective witness of our Presbytery. Those sound like fancy words until you realize how much power is behind them.
Consider this: Our Presbytery supports ministries that include affordable housing complexes for the elderly, group homes for those with special needs, adoption services, retreat ministries, and three different flood relief sites. That’s what unity under Christ looks like!
But it can’t stop there. Oh, no. Unity under Christ moves in waves across this nation. It has brought believers to us from Missouri this week, and next week they’ll come from Webster, TX. Not only that but next week they’ll come from across our city. They’ll come from congregations and agencies that want to find a way to care for children in poverty, because even though we cannot fix the problem ourselves we can be part of a solution together.
Being willing to submit to one another – to admit that we need one another – is a big part of what Paul calls the folly of the cross. It is the power made perfect in weakness. It is the realization that God Almighty became vulnerable so that we might know how beloved we are to God.
In this day of conflict over ideology – conflicts that are spurred by technologies that serve to alienate as much as they unite us – we must remember that we are all part of a greater whole. We must be willing to have conversations that involve listening in order to understand, not just in order to respond with a counter point. We must be willing to get out of our boat in order to follow Jesus into the world, into real relationships where we don’t always get what we want unless what we want is to have real, authentic relationships.
That kind of reminds me of another trust walk. It happened in the late Fall. The pool in the back yard was not covered, and it was full of leaves and green muck. My brother and sister had been fighting, and my mom had this great idea to have them go outside in the evening to do a trust walk. Unfortunately, when my mom called out to check on them, my sister turned her attention to my mom and my brother ended up in the pool!
That obviously did not work out the way that my mom had intended. I’d like to tell you that it created a new appreciation between the two of them and they’ve never had any other friction. The truth is that they have always had such a deep and abiding love as siblings that near drowning did not touch it. And so it must be with those who follow Christ. For how are we to be people of light unless we are willing to let the friction between us demonstrate the love that holds us together? How are we ever to “fish for people” unless we go out looking for Christ in them instead of expecting them to come to us like some spiritual vending machine?
Let me tell you where I’ve seen this recently. Louisiana Avenue United Methodist started going out to public parks once a month to feed the hungry. They began small, but now they serve a few hundred. They’ve started providing worship to feed them spiritually as well. During this time their church has grown from around 50 to about 200. I asked the Pastor how important this ministry was to their growth. He said, “It’s crucial. People come because they know the church is producing results that they can be a part of.”
Now, that’s getting out of the boat. We’ve been doing our own stepping out with flood recovery, and I remain hopeful that it will lead to deeper connections and relationships in the community. My hope is that someone else will be moved by what we are doing and use it as an example of what God is doing. My hope is that someone else will tell our story the way that I just told theirs.
What matters most is that we continue to trust in God to lead us, that we continue to look for Jesus to be revealed in the most unexpected places, and that we continue to find ways to let go of our nets in order to follow Jesus. For the Kingdom of God has come near, and we will see it when we let go of our agendas and pick up God’s. We will see it in the healing that takes place in our lives and in those we meet. We will see it when we see Christ in the powerful and the powerless. We will see it when we see all people as expressions of the divine, rather than categories or demographics or ideologies.
Yes, beloved of God, all who follow Christ are united under the cross, but unfortunately it is our response to the cross that so often divides us. Let us, then, make our response one of hope and love and faith even as we leave nets unmended and boats on the shore. This new wave of hope and love starts here. It starts now, with you and me. You can trust me on that, and to God be the glory. Now and always, amen.