Epiphany 3a, Sunday, January 26, 2014

January 27, 2014

Immediate Captivation
Matthew 4:12-23

12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles 16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

If you want to watch a movie that portrays incredible sacrifice, profound endurance, committed partnership, and a miraculous reunion you need to watch The March of the Penguins. It’s not a new documentary, but I saw a portion of it again the other day, and I remembered how moving that story is. It’s got a little heartbreaking tragedy sprinkled in there, but it’s an amazing piece of storytelling and it documents the remarkable behavior of these Emperor penguins who utilize the most harsh and inaccessible place on the planet to hatch their young.

The mothers lay their eggs at this remote place, and the fathers hike around in a huddle for two months with the eggs on top of their feet while the mothers walk a hundred miles back to the ocean and gorge on fish for a while before they hike back to the huddling fathers who are famished and exhausted as the eggs start hatching. And while every bird looks alike and seem to be making the same screetching sound these mothers and fathers find each other and hand off the newly hatched chick. At that point the fathers drag themselves back to the ocean to do some fish gorging. You will find few films starring humans that will evoke as much empathy and inspiration as does this film that stars a bunch of penguins who all look the same.

And it is the way these birds reunite after being apart that is truly remarkable to me. While the sounds they make are pretty indistinguishable to my ears, they recognize the subtly unique calls of their partners, and it draws them back together.

There is some similar mystery in this morning’s scripture lesson. The way in which Simon and Andrew and James and John hear the call of Jesus and immediately respond reminds me of the way the penguins recognize each other. The way I see it, there are two ways to understand this story. There is this possibility that these men were simply programmed to be where they were and it was all pre-orchestrated by God to set up the plot for the events that would unfold over the next few months and then be told for thousands of years. But there is this other possibility, that isn’t entirely different, but with a subtle difference, and it is that Jesus had the capacity to speak in a manner that resonated so clearly in the hearts of people who were open to divine adventure.

I love the idea that there is this spiritual language that we don’t really process in our brains as much as we do in our souls. I love to think that Peter and Andrew and James and John didn’t really think about what Jesus said as much as they responded in a more direct sense to what he had to say. It’s easy for me to believe that Jesus understood the language of spirituality, and while it wasn’t a language that everyone spoke, it isn’t an unusual language for people to continue to hear and to understand.

Jesus used words that were commonly understood, but the way he put words together and the way he uttered those words penetrated deeply inside of some people. My sense is that these four men had no question about the value of responding to what Jesus asked. They felt an immediate kinship with him – it was immediately clear to them that they wanted to follow him.

I had an interesting experience not long ago. Many of you have heard me speak of my participation in the construction of a life-size model of an isolation cell. Many people who are assigned to the Department of Corrections end up spending years in these cells that provide very little access to other human beings. It’s my understanding that there are more than 1500 of these cells in our state, and many of the people who are assigned to these cells are not on the level of people who cannot be incorporated in to the normal population of the prison. I didn’t know all of this a few months ago, but I had an interesting visitor to the church one day.

I was sitting in my office one afternoon and I noticed a man coming to the door of the church. I saw him ring the bell and I immediately began wondering how I would get out from under whatever it was that he was going to ask me to do. This was a well-dressed man, so I assumed he might be the pastor of a church nearby, but I was sure I wasn’t going to want to do whatever he was asking.

I let him in and he introduced himself as a professor at Philander Smith College. Dr. Joseph Jones is his name, and he proceeded to tell me that he was working with a group of students who were a part of an organization called the Social Justice League, and they were interested in bringing attention to what they believe to be the cruel and inhuman nature of housing prisoners in isolation cells – along with some other issues of injustice that exist within our criminal justice system. He said they had decided to build a life-size model of such a cell, but none of them knew how to build such a thing. He said Mara Leveritt had been in the meeting with them and she had mentioned that her neighbor, who happens to be me, was always building something and she suggested that they talk to me about this.

Now let me remind you that my initial objective was to not do whatever it was this person had arrived to ask me to do, but as soon as Dr. Jones asked me if this would be something I would have any interest in helping with I didn’t hesitate a moment before I said yes – I’m your guy. I said building odd things is probably what I do best, but I responded so quickly because it felt to me to be a divine adventure. I had no choice but to say yes.

This project cost twice as much as I estimated, and it took four times as long as I thought it might take (which makes me think I’m better suited for preaching than for contracting) but we got it done, and it’s a powerful thing to step in to. It’s still over at Philander Smith College if you ever want to see what we did.

I tell you this story to convey my conviction that sometimes we react to situations with something other than our brains. If I had gotten my brain involved in that decision I never would have done it. This thing took far much more time than I would have wanted to give it. It had some engineering challenges that I didn’t understand, but I loved what the students and this professor were trying to do. I think this was a request that spoke to my soul, and I knew that I should get involved in this project.

And here’s another situation along those lines. If I known four years ago all of the problems that I would face with this facility and all of the other challenges to this church that have presented themselves, my brain might well have advised me to stay where I was or to go somewhere else. In fact my DS at the time tried to tell me I had no idea what I was getting in to, but those details had little impact on me because that was not the information that was bearing down on my heart.

I begged to come to this church because I was touched by the message that had penetrated in to my soul. I heard that this was a place that valued people who were desperate and in need of food and kindness. The word was that this was a place that didn’t judge people according to their race or status or sexual orientation. I understood this to be a place that valued creativity. The spirit of this church spoke deeply to me, and I couldn’t help but want to be here.

I understand why Peter and Andrew and James and John dropped what they were doing and followed Jesus. There’s nothing more compelling than to hear the ring of spiritual truth knocking on your heart. If you’ve got any sensitivity to the truth you can’t not respond.

There are many ways in which this story of these first disciples dropping everything to follow Jesus doesn’t make sense. There isn’t any previous interaction that would have alerted them to the magnitude of the offer that came to them from Jesus, but they heard what he was offering, and they were compelled to give themselves to what he was asking. The only way this makes sense to me is that there are circumstances where the Holy Spirit uses human words to provide us with some clear instruction. And when that happens it’s easy to know what to do.

Clearly we don’t always know exactly what to do. I more often find myself in a fog than in clear view of the truth, and I take comfort in knowing that these disciples found themselves floundering to find the path every now in then after they gave themselves so completely to Jesus, but I don’t believe we are ever abandoned by the presence of God’s Holy Spirit. And I believe that when we are in the most critical circumstances the fog has a tendency to lift, and the truth becomes a bit more obvious.

I believe God values this church and I believe God is there for us as we are undergoing some painful transition. We all need to be paying close attention to the ways God is seeking to touch our hearts and guide us in to the truth. May we all be as attentive as Peter and Andrew were when Jesus called them in to a new line of work. May we always be open to the latest chapter of God’s divine adventure.

Thanks be to God.
Amen.

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