05 February 2007


Follows my sermon beginning the "40 Days of Discernment" process at our parish.

V Epiphany, Yr. C
St. Luke 5.1-11
4 February 2007
“40 Days” – Sermon 1
St. Joseph of Arimathea

And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.

Yesterday afternoon I wrote a long and ponderous and not very good (even in my own opinion) introduction to this sermon. But – as ever – country music to the rescue! Last night Ashley and I went to the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium. Vince Gill performed, and he sang a song I had forgotten about. It’s about a man who has fallen into a romantic relationship with two different women, and the time comes when this situation is no longer tenable. And so the refrain asks the aching question, “Which bridge to burn, and which bridge to cross?”

“Which bridge to burn, and which bridge to cross.” Now, in one way or another, all of us can identify with that refrain; we can all call to mind a time when we we’ve found ourselves caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. But now think about Simon, the man who would become St. Peter, sitting on the gunwale of his boat, looking up at a beckoning Jesus. It’s decision time. On one side is everything he has known – his business, his family, comfort, security, and familiarity. On the other is Jesus calling him into an unknown future, a future where nothing is sure, nothing is promised, nothing at except the promise of Jesus himself. One thing is for sure, though – a choice is necessary. Choosing not to choose is the same as choosing to stay. So, which bridge to burn, and which bridge to cross?

We at St. Joseph of Arimathea have also come to a day of choosing; and again, choosing not to choose is choosing to stay, choosing the status quo. What will our relationship be with the Dicoese of Tennessee and the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion? My concern is that, on the one hand, some among us will feel forced to make a choice on their own, and perhaps choose in anger and in reaction. On the other hand, I am concerned that we not simply default into the status quo, by putting off the day of decision until tomorrow, and the day after that, and then the day after that, until we fall into a settled complacency and events simply wash over us. So, my pastoral concern is that whatever we do, whatever decision is made – that we take responsibility for making that choice. This is serious business, maybe the most serious decision made in this parish in its 40 years of existence. And so we need to be careful to discern options and weigh them carefully. And so today we begin six weeks of intense prayer and study and conversation. This sermon then is to serve as an introduction to this period of discernment.

I’m not going to catalogue this morning the long series of events that has brought us to this point; I’m not going to detail some Episcopal Church syllabus of errors. Instead, I just want to frame the question, to lay out the stakes, to give the context in which this decision – in my opinion, anyway – must be made, and that is simple enough to do. Because there is really only once choice, one ultimate option, whatever the details of its outworking may be. It is the same choice faced that morning long ago by the fishermen Simon, James, and John on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Our decision has to be the same as theirs: They left everything and followed him.

This decision is not about buildings, money, signs, symbols, names, or labels. It may include and affect all those things and more. But if those are the considerations on which the decision is based, or – worse – if those are the things we are deciding for, then it will be necessarily a bad decision, whatever it is. No, the decision has to be for Jesus, for following him come what may and with no promise for the future other than him and his companionship. And it is always that way; it is always Simon Peter’s choice: Everything I’ve known or Jesus and who knows what?

And so right at the beginning we have to ask ourselves, following Simon Peter’s example, what are we willing to leave behind so that we can follow Jesus – buildings, money, security, personal history and emotional bonds? Can we leave those things behind for Jesus’ sake? Or, how about this – the comforting and seductive illusion of greener grass on the other side of the ecclesiastical fence. Can we leave that behind?

Am I making myself clear? What we need to discern among ourselves is the call of Jesus in this moment of controversy and confusion, and then to leave behind whatever we must to follow him wherever he leads. We’ll need to talk more about how that kind of discernment happens. And let me just mention now a point we’ll need to develop on another Sunday – that choosing Jesus is always choosing his Body, the Church, the company of the redeemed in its apostolically ordered life, stretching around the world and through time. Remember, we got a hint of this two weeks ago in our lesson from 1 Corinthians, when St. Paul speaks of the Church and Christ almost interchangeably. In fact, for Paul (and for our salvation), Christ and the Church are just not separable: “Just as the body is one and has many members,” Paul wrote, “and all the members of the body, though many, are one, so it is with Christ.” We expect to hear something like, “so it is with the Church.” But no, Paul tells us, “so it is with Christ.” The Church and Christ are joined together and cannot be torn asunder. So following Jesus always means seeking the unity of his body the Church.

But again, Jesus beckons us to follow him, and inevitably, that means leaving everything else behind and daily taking up a cross. Can you think of any time in the Gospels when following Jesus didn’t entail leaving everything behind?

- There is the rich young moralist who wants eternal life. Jesus tells him, “Go, sell everything you have and distribute to the poor . . . and follow me.”[i]
- There is the man who comes to Jesus and says, "I want to follow you; I want to be your disciple! But first I must go bury my father." But Jesus tells him – incredibly to our ears, “Follow me. Let the dead bury the dead.”[ii]
- To others who think they want to follow Jesus, he says, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”[iii]
- And in another place, he says that “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven.”[iv]

Now, I know that all of us in theory want to do that; we want to follow Jesus, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. But we all know, certainly I know too well, the daily compromises we fall into in our individual lives, and how hard it is to leave everything behind and follow Jesus. Don’t our bank accounts tell us this? So it might be helpful here, at the outset of this “40 Days of Discernment” to look at what happened to Simon, James, and John which led them to leave everything behind to follow Jesus.

Simply put, they came face to face with the Lordship – the “Boss-ship” – of Jesus Christ. Christ is presented as Lord throughout the New Testament, and what we have here in this Gospel lesson is one of those annoying passages in which we see the Jesus does not just assert his authority over what we have compartmentalized off as the “religious” sphere of our lives. Instead, he claims to be Lord, asserts his dominion over, every aspect of our every day lives. The normal Christian life is one of submission to Christ, which brings us to Simon Peter and this miraculous catch of fish.

Jesus wants to teach the crowd that has gathered by the shore, and so he hops in Simon’s boat and asks him to put off just a little bit from the shore so that the people can see and hear him. (The shore on this part of Galilee is dotted by sharp little inlets that form natural amphitheatres.) And so Jesus sits down, as the custom then was for a rabbi, and he begins to teach the people. Now Galilean fishermen work the graveyard shift; the fishing was and is best there at night, so they generally worked from 2 till 10 in the morning, returning to shore to repair their nets as the sun began to scorch. One of the boats by the shore that morning belonged to James and John – like Simon, not yet disciples of Jesus. Peter already knew Jesus – his brother Andrew had brought him to hear Jesus teach, and in the end of the last chapter we learn that Jesus had healed Peter’s mother-in-law. But Peter was not yet Jesus’ disciple; he was interested in Jesus, curious about Jesus, probably was interested in having Jesus for a friend. But he did not yet know him as Lord of all things.

Now, as long as Jesus wants to use Peter’s boat as a pulpit, things are fine. Peter was indebted to this teacher and healer, but then Jesus begins telling Peter how to fish. Jesus the preacher begins to tell Peter the professional fisherman how to fish, how to do his job. I think we can imagine how exasperating this must have been for Peter. I grew up in central Florida, and we native Floridians tend to develop a certain amount of bitterness toward those good people from the upper Midwest who move in unending droves to our balmy state. When I was a teenager, there was some reaction against all this mass immigration, and as so often, that reaction was expressed by means of bumper stickers. I remember one in particular that became common. It was a plain white sticker and in black block letters it said simply, “I don’t care how you did it in Ohio!”

No one likes to be told how to do his or her job. As long as Jesus wants to use Simon’s boat as a pulpit, then Simon has no objection to Jesus saying whatever he likes. But when it reverts to being a fishing boat, it is Simon’s once more, and Jesus no longer has any say in how it is used.
[v] Now, as the saying goes, Jesus has quit preaching and gone to meddlin’. He has entered into Simon’s area of expertise. C.S. Lewis one time called Jesus “the Transcendental Interferer”, and that is what is happening here. He is interfering with Simon’s work. Simon is plainly put out – “Master, we – we professional fishermen who do this for a living – toiled all night and took nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

Out of respect, Simon does as Jesus asks, and what happens? He experiences a miracle – almost more miracle than he can stand. They catch so many fish that the nets begin to tear and the boats begin to swamp. Which brings us to a basic point of Christian living, a principle we can expect to hold up. It is as Peter obeys, as Peter submits to Jesus’ judgment – even though he thinks it is pointless and likely counterproductive, even though Peter is sure that he knows better – it is as Peter obeys that Jesus reveals himself in power. Martyn Minns puts it this way – Jesus guides the church as it is in motion. And Bishop Minns gives this example: Have you ever tried to change the direction of a stationary vehicle? You can climb into a parked car and tug on the steering wheel with all your might, but you can’t make it face a different direction. It is only as the car is moving that it can be turned, that it can be guided.
[vi] Or think of the Great Commission that Jesus has given his Church: Go into all the world and make disciples, and I will be with you always. It is as we go, as we move forward in obedience, that he is with us, that he makes his Presence known to us.

But this is hard, because we all want to be our own Lord; we want to call the shots for ourselves. Self-employment is every working man’s dream, right? What’s your goal? “One day, I want to be my own boss,” we say.

Some of you will remember my friend Pastor Brian Habig, the Presbyterian minister who spoke to us during our Lenten program a couple years ago. Brian told me a funny story about his family. Brian and Dana have three children, and at the time of this incident, the oldest, Henry was about 6, and the next eldest, John, was 3, and then there was a newborn, Betsy. Of course Brian and Dana weren’t getting much sleep because of Betsy’s feeding schedule, and then they ran into another sleep depriving problem. John began waking up screaming in the middle of the night due to nightmares. When this happened one night, Brian picked up John and was trying to comfort him. Brian wanted to understand what was happening, what it was that was scaring John so badly. Monsters? Boogie Man under the bed? So he asked John what was so bad, what he was dreaming about. And through the tears and sobs John choked out, “Henry told me what to do!

That speaks to something primal, doesn’t it? None of us likes to be told what to do. We all want to be our own lord.

We are beginning a time of discerning, a time of asking where it is that the one Lord is calling this parish family - which bridge to burn, which bridge to cross? We want to follow Jesus, whatever the price. How can we do that? Well, right here, right at the beginning, let’s be clear that following Jesus means following him as Lord. It means being willing to bow before him, and to obey, even if, as it seemed to Simon Peter, the call he gives makes no immediate sense to us, even if it seems counter-productive and a waste of time and resources. Here at the outset, it’s very tempting to say (indeed some of us, myself included have said), “I know what to do! I know what has to happen, and if it doesn’t happen my way, then… whatever.” Instead, let’s let Jesus be Lord over this decision; let’s take a step back and with prayer and fasting seek his will, and then bow before it and do it. By God’s grace, we can do that – we can follow him though it means leaving things behind – because we know that as we follow, Jesus will give us himself, and doing so give us everything. And, after all, is he not the Lord who himself laid aside everything, even his life, for us and our salvation? + + +

[i] Mt. 19.13-15; Mk. 10.17-31; Lk. 18.18-27.
[ii] Mt. 8.18-22; Lk. 9.57-62
[iii] Mt. 8.18-22; Lk. 9.57-62
[iv] Lk. 9.62
[v] John Stott. The Message of Luke, ad loc.




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