Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sermon for III Epiphany

Trinity, Lincoln--Matthew 4:12-23

I have a rather enormous appetite for spy movies and suspense thrillers. Nowadays I mostly watch them when I need to be on the treadmill for an extended period of time. One of the frequent plot ingredients for such films involves a time bomb—sometimes even a nuclear time bomb. The hero, usually after several minutes of strenuous hand-to-hand combat, finally makes it to the bomb, which, invariably, is set to explode in just a few seconds. The hero is, of course, a hero. But he is not usually a bomb expert. Should he cut the red wire first, or the blue wire? Or the yellow wire? Or the green wire? If he guesses wrong, the device will explode in his face. If he hesitates too long, the device will explode in his face. He simply must decide and plunge ahead, without the benefit of sustained analysis or reflection.

The authors of these fictional scenarios may well have taken their inspiration from the fourth chapter of St Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is walking along the lake shore, having just arrived in Galilee after his baptism and forty days being tempted in the wilderness.
He sees Peter and Andrew, two fishermen who happen to be brothers, busy plying their trade. He says to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." And they drop their nets and follow him.

A little further up the beach, he runs across another set of brothers, James and John, who are fishing from a boat with their father. He calls them, and they also follow.
Matthew doesn't give us any evidence that Jesus asked if they were enjoying the weather, or how they were feeling that day. He doesn't mention anything about Jesus having to ask twice, or any of these four early disciples responding, "Follow you? What precisely do you mean by that?" Nowhere do we hear anything like, "Think it over. Take all the time you need" or "Let me sleep on it and I'll call you in the morning." It's a very sparse, very clear, very uncluttered narrative: "Follow me . . . OK."  Pick a wire and cut it; there's no time to commission a study.

Even a New Yorker would find their exchange exceedingly abrupt. Abruptness doesn't play well with most of us, does it? We consider it rude. We consider it an invasion of our rights. We like to make our own decisions, and we don't want anyone telling us when we have to make them. The pressure is unwelcome. It makes us feel like we're losing control.

Losing control. If there's anything that throws somebody in our culture into a panic, it's the idea of not being in control. We have FedEx and next-day-air electronic signatures to supply us with a constant stream of options, options that make us feel like we are in control. I want options, choices, alternatives. I want to find what works … for me. I don't want anyone forcing my hand prematurely.

Guess what, folks.

We're not in control.

Each of us is here today, here in church today, here in Trinity Church today, because Jesus is calling us. Maybe you're aware of that call and are consciously responding to it. Maybe you haven't heard anything resembling a call from Jesus, and think you're here because you chose to be here, because you're in control. Either way, you're here because Jesus is calling you.

What does the voice of Jesus sound like to you? What is he saying? Maybe you've been spiritually hungry for some time, searching for the kind of meal that will satisfy the deepest possible kind of human hunger. Jesus is saying, "Come. Follow me. Let me feed you. Be satisfied." Maybe you've been wounded by the changes and chances of this life, the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." Jesus is saying, "Come, follow me. Find healing and rest for your soul." Maybe you've been spiritually complacent, a little lax. You've stopped praying, you're stingy with your time and money. It isn't that you've become an atheist, but you've allowed yourself to be consumed by the things of this world, and you've pushed God to the margins. Jesus's voice comes to you today like a slap in the face, the kind you respond to with, "Thanks, I needed that." Maybe things have been going swimmingly well for you. You're doing just fine and you have every intention of staying on course. Jesus’ voice saying, "Follow me" is an abrupt intrusion, an unwelcome interference with the status quo.

Whatever position you find yourself in, you can identify with Peter and Andrew and James and John, because Jesus is coming to you from out of the blue, into your world, finding you where you are, doing what you do, and saying, "Follow me." He isn't presenting us with a proposal, or the results of an opinion poll. He isn't saying, "Give it serious thought and get back to me." He's saying, "Cut the wire." Cut the wire, because the bomb's about to explode. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Follow me. Follow me today.

What might it mean for you to follow Jesus—to follow Jesus today? For starters, if you have never consciously acknowledged the lordship of Jesus Christ over your life, if you have never said to him, "Jesus, you are my Savior and my Lord, and I will obey and follow you wherever you lead me,” it might mean doing just that. There are four people here, at any rate, who have come to that decision, and are about to say so quite publicly. Maybe, if you feel yourself weighed down by guilt and shame and a haunting sense of your own sinfulness, following Jesus today means asking for the courage to face those areas of your life that you keep in the dark. The fourth of the Twelve Steps in the Alcoholics Anonymous movement calls for a "searching and fearless moral inventory" of our lives. Like lancing a boil, it's painful in the short run, but necessary and therapeutic in the long run. Or, maybe Jesus's call to you to follow him involves, not seeking forgiveness for yourself, but you yourself forgiving someone who has wronged you. Are you harboring a grudge, nursing a resentment, cherishing an anger that, even as it feels good to wallow in, is eating away at your soul? Even as Jesus told those first four disciples to drop their nets and follow him, Jesus is telling you, "Drop that grudge, let loose of that resentment, cast that anger aside, and follow me."

Maybe following Jesus today is as simple as beginning to pray, or beginning to pray again. Do you pray daily? Do you know how to pray? (I had a teaching series on prayer in this parish less than a year ago, so I know some of you do!) There's no shame in not knowing how to pray. Maybe you couldn’t make it to the Thursday evening Lenten series last year, and no one ever taught you. It's OK. Ask me, or Father Mark, or some other mature Christian for help. Nothing would make us happier than to receive and respond to such a request.

Perhaps following Jesus today means coming to grips with the idea of stewardship, realizing that you're a renter, not an owner, that you're a tenant, not a landlord. In all seriousness, there are those for whom following Jesus today means writing an uncomfortably large check to advance the work and ministry of Christ's church. Or maybe your growing edge in stewardship is not stewardship of your finances, but stewardship of your mind. Maybe answering Jesus's call to follow him today means joining a class or a study group and becoming more mature in your understanding of the things of the Lord.

The list could go on, but you get the point. Ultimately, only you can answer the question—what does it means to follow Jesus today?—because you're the one who Jesus is calling. And if he's calling you, don't expect him to go away. He's gentle, but relentless, in his love and his call. St Augustine wrote about his experience of uneasiness before he answered Jesus' relentless call to follow him: "My heart was restless, O Lord, until it found its rest in you." Elsewhere he wrote, "I could never have found you, Lord, unless you had found me first." One of the old gospel songs that remains in my heart from my Baptist upbringing contains the lines, "Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me; … come home, come home, ye who are weary, come home; earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling; calling, O sinner, come home."

The clock is ticking, hero. Not to decide is to decide. Cut the wire. Follow Jesus.
Amen.

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