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Sea Legs on Land

I wonder if any of you have been privileged to live on a lake? Some early mornings the lake is still. It perfectly reflects the trees surrounding the shore. Occasionally a fish leaps for joy and breaks the glass surface. Ripples of water radiate out in circles before the calm is restored again. On those peaceful mornings, we can hear lake sounds clearly. Folks out for an early morning of fishing converse in normal voices yet we hear them as if they’re in our bedroom as we pull ourselves out of sleep for another day.

In this passage from Luke’s gospel, Jesus walks along the shore of the Sea of Galilee and asks Simon to row Him a short distance so that he can teach the early morning crowd about God’s inbreaking love. Simon dutifully agrees and Jesus, from a pulpit of wood on a glassy sea, with mist from the night hanging close, launches into a Sunday School class. No microphone needed.

When Jesus finishes His lesson plan, He directs the owner of the boat to let down his net into the sea. It’s difficult to read Simon’s mood since we can’t hear any tone to his words. But I can almost hear irritation in this fisherman’s voice as he reminds this wandering Teacher that he and his professional fishing partners had spent the night out and caught nothing. So, whatever this guy thought he knew about fishing, Simon knows better.

Even so…Simon obeys. “Because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

A wooden fishing boat was excavated on the shores of this 18-mile long lake that dates back to the first century. It is 27 feet long and 7 ½ feet wide. When Simon does as Jesus asks, after a fruitless night of fishing, his nets are so full that Simon calls for back-up help from his partners. There are enough fish to fill both expansive boats! Simon is so overwhelmed with the catch that he falls on his knees before the stranger. He confesses his sinfulness to the man he now calls, “Lord.”

The fishing industry was grueling in Jesus’ day. Our fishing ventures are recreational. We pay our bills through other “jobs.” In first century Galilee, powerful Roman landowners snatched up much of the property. So men who lost their family land went into fishing. They gave up their beds to spend the nights in cold, damp, rocking boats. Their perpetual hope was for a catch that would provide for their families. When Simon and his partners pull in this sort of catch, it is like winning the lottery. Their families would be set for years to come! Rather than settle into early retirement, Simon and three others drop everything and follow Jesus. They could have no way of knowing that they would have to keep moving if they wanted to keep up.

The families of these men who left their overflowing nets must consider them as crazy…UNLESS…there is something about this stranger that attracts them. Maybe they recognize that he can offer some sort of security that money cannot. Whether their families understood their commitment or not, Simon and friends leave all that is familiar to follow Jesus.

These are men who have sea legs. Walking on terra firma was the exception for them. After a day in the lake as a child, I remember feeling like I was still in the water when I laid my head on my pillow. Bobbing up and down in water was unusual for me. These men are at home in the sea. They spend each work day with the same companions in boats. There is little interaction with others and no need for polite conversation. These men leave a “sameness” for risk. They give up solitude for evangelistic crowds. They cannot have known then that they would do all that Jesus did and more to benefit and bless simple laborers like themselves.

We fashion our teaching ministry in the Church today on the simple setting of a boat on a lake with folks going about their daily chores. Jesus asks these fisherman to do something they did everyday—but to do it when it seemed like it wasn’t going to produce results. After a night of failure—which the men had learned could happen even when they put their best effort forward—Jesus tells them to put out their nets one more time before going home. In youth group sessions, Sunday school classes for four-year-olds and 80-year-olds, we attune ourselves to the teaching of Jesus and discover that there is abundant living when we do what he asks us to do. We do it not because it looks like we will cash in on something. We do it because there’s something about Jesus that prompts us to trust Him.

This story, like so many others in the Bible, is about God’s abundant provision. The wandering Israelites were sustained by manna and quail in the wilderness. Water flowed freely out of rocks wherever they encamped in the desert. When a poor widow took the prophet Elijah into her home, God made sure that she never ran out of flour and oil. In spite of her poverty, she had a continual supply of bread. Jesus fed a crowd of 4000 people a filling meal with donations of just ten barley loaves and three fish. In this story, an obedient fisherman does what a stranger asks him to do—expecting it to fail. God blesses Simon’s obedience and produces a huge catch that would support Simon’s family as he left them to follow Jesus.

Our stewardship theme for this year is often repeated in the scriptures: God’s steadfast love endures forever. Stewardship is about being grateful to God for everything that we have been given. Good stewardship is a way of life, it’s not just a congregational campaign or a short season. Like Simon, who is renamed Peter by Jesus, we are asked to be obedient even when we’re asked to do something that seems strange or useless. I wonder about our “sea legs.” Where are we most comfortable? When has Christ called you to walk into a situation that makes you feel unsteady? Most often the call comes during an ordinary day when we’re engaged in a routine activity, like it was for Peter. The call to follow Jesus revealed that God’s realm is an active place where our perception of how things work is turned upside down. Jesus’ call to the fishermen didn’t happen in a holy place or during a time of devout prayer. It happened in their stinky boat as they washed their nets to end a fruitless night of work.

Jesus told them they would continue to fish but it would take on a holier purpose. Their teaching would open the flood gates so that all kinds of fish could swim through. This past week we installed an artistic representation of Open Doors in our church yard. These colorful doors have symbols on them that remind them of overlooked groups of people who are often told they matter less than others. As we offer a message of inclusion to our community, we celebrate that Jesus’ invitation to a dozen unlikely candidates for seminary means that all are invited to be part of Christ’s Church. The men who said “yes” to Jesus inaugurated a time of blessing that is still marked by an abundance of spirit and God’s loving provision.

This story from Luke’s Gospel reminds us of the central role of teaching in the Church. Our congregation has deepened our faith through various teaching settings. We talk openly with each other, trusting that our shared insights will be enriching. We present our children with Bibles and guide them through stories in Sunday School. In Vacation Bible School we teach them songs and dance with them as they learn about Jesus. Our youth work hard to raise money to go on mission trips where they serve neighbors who become friends. They lead devotions in their work crews and, as our congregation experienced last week, they sometimes lead us in worship. We continue to sit at Jesus’ feet by the ways we explore our faith in every setting of our church. We’ve certainly witnessed how our commitment to learning has prompted us to try new means of communication and gathering in the past 18 months. Giving up on our programming was never an option when the quarantine mandated that we stay home. Our sea legs were challenged as we learned to have meaningful conversations over zoom or spread out in the sanctuary with masks on! We set up tents to teach our little ones outside. Confirmation and wedding vows were spoken in our parking lot, not our beloved sanctuary! We didn’t know that our asphalt parking lot was holy ground–but it is! Our faith has been strengthened as we committed to stay unified through new ways of being Church!

On our church Facebook page this past week, I asked folks if they had any recent God sightings. Not surprisingly, several did. One member, on a routine phone interview, mentioned the importance of her family and church involvement. The interviewer asked if she would tell him more about why she goes to church and believes in God. He was clearly going off-script! Our church member felt nudged by God to share her faith…so she did! For half an hour the professional interview was set aside while they talked about the faith. He admitted that his health struggles and unanswered prayers had given him doubts. When the interview was ending, she stretched into uncomfortable territory and asked if she could pray for him. The request and her prayer brought him to tears. Sometimes it only takes a phone call to challenge our sea legs!

Another member has stretched by writing prayers on a daily basis and sharing them with our congregation. Her commitment to feed our faith has enriched her as well. One person has felt the powerful presence of God’s Spirit in the holy orchestration of doors closing and opening. One other has seen God’s abundant provision in the care and love with which family and friends surround each other amidst an unusual season of illness and death. She has been reminded through beloved hymns of her childhood that we are all “Children of the Heavenly Father.” Nature teaches us about God’s steadfast love. Dancing in worship under the guidance of our youth reminds us that our call to discipleship is joyful!

During the next few weeks, the Stewardship Committee will invite you to reflect on the crucial place each of you holds in our church family. Like a detailed and beautiful puzzle, if even one piece is missing, it feels incomplete. COVID has forced us to worship and study in uncomfortable new ways. The Gospel gives us sea legs as we realign our priorities. Like the disciples who had to learn to use their sea legs on land, we are urged to be ready to move into foreign territory so that Christ’s invitation can be heard by others. As one commentator on the text notes in a poem, choosing this new ministry territory is not easy but the rewards are great:

We never imagined

how difficult it would be

to follow and not lead

to listen and not talk

to take directions from you.

But here we are

talking too much

listening too little

and leading one another into troubled places.

Call us again

and we will listen this time.

Call us again and we will follow.

And if we should fail you again…

please suffer us to try anew.

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It’s a party!

We launched a new program year at our church yesterday! Last September we were newly in the building after a six month hiatus from in-person worship. We weren’t moving in the sanctuary. We weren’t singing. We were barely breathing! It felt good to be back for a new year feeling somewhat acclimated to the ups and downs of a global pandemic, if that’s possible! One of the lectionary passages for this week was from Matthew 22. I don’t know if I chose it because or in spite of the fact that it ends on a note of weeping and gnashing of teeth! It doesn’t get much more biblical than that! We began a new program year with a parable Jesus told to teach about the relationship between God and God’s people. In the faith, we call this intimate association a covenant. What does it look like to be God’s people? What are the dominant feelings that guide us each day when we set our sights on Jesus? And, in this story, Jesus asks generations of believers, “Who will accept the amazing invitation to be God’s people?

Photo by Tembela Bohle on Pexels.com

The setting of this story is a wedding! It’s the king’s son and the king is clearly excited! In fact, if this were made into a high school production, only the king would have any lines. The ruling monarch over all the land sends out an invitation to the select and the chosen, inviting them to celebrate the joyous occasion of his son getting married! Folks seem interested. But the day arrives and when the herald is sent out to tell them, “Now!”, no one seems willing to leave their chores behind. Three times he sends out palace staff to get folks to the party and they even kill those servants! In any country, that is tantamount to declaring war on your leader. An ordinary king of Jesus’ day would have responded to their insolence with swift destruction! Why should a king have to beg society’s elite to come to the Buckingham shindig? His continued appeal emasculates him. One commentator on the text stated that God first seeks out, not wipes out, those who spite God’s gift. I suspect that very few of us continue to give nice gifts to demonstrably unappreciative people!

Here’s a description of how a royal wedding would have played out in Jesus’ time (from the Archaeological Study Bible): “A banquet always included wine drinking…The host provided robes for the guests, which were worn in his honor and as a token of his regard. Guests were welcomed by the host with a kiss and their feet were washed because of the dusty roads. The guest’s head was anointed, as well as sometimes his bear, his feet and his clothing. His head was decorated with garlands. The guests were seated according to their respective rank, their hands were washed and prayers were offered for blessing on the food. Often the meal was enlivened with music, singing and dancing or with riddles. A great banquet sometimes lasted seven days…”

Who would say “no” to a grand fete like this?! As usual, Jesus packed unbelievable elements into His story.

Why do the guests turn down the invitation when the actual day arrived? It’s not that they wanted to commit immoral acts or that they hated the king. They decided to do their chores, to go about their usual routine. They prioritized their God-given labor over time spent in the intimacy of God’s presence. Even the people in ancient Israel needed to be told that there’s a time to clock out and spend quality time with those we love.

The key notion to this story is invitation. Followers of a loving God are called to join the party. Jesus uses the image of a royal party to teach us about the life God has in store for us! It’s not a funeral. It’s not a Sunday School class. Life as a disciple of Jesus is a celebration! To repent and turn toward God is a call to joy! Perhaps, as we reconvene after the freedom of summer and the ongoing uncertainty of a virus, we need to be reminded that God repeatedly extends the invitation to join in the fun of being part of one big family.

After a couple of weeks as a chaplain at a mental health hospital, I’ve had the opportunity to lead a few group sessions in three different units. They are spiritual in nature but accept folks wherever they are at. I first go room-to-room and through the common areas to invite everyone to come. I take note of who attends, participates, and interacts. My observations are important as they round out the picture of who is actively working to get better. Who is saying “yes” to the opportunities given? Who is too tired or depressed to be with others? Staff members know that healing takes place in community and those who refuse to take part in the many offerings for wellness will probably not heal as quickly.

In Jesus’ short story there are two unimaginable actions. First, the favored guests refuse—even violently—to come to the party of the decade. Second, the king invites common folks off the street to come to the table. The guy holding the cardboard sign at the busy intersection is summoned. The ethnic business owner, accustomed to discrimination, is invited to stop sweeping the front stoop of his store and join the gathering. The single mom of three young children is told there’s a limo waiting for her on the other side of the playground, ready to escort the four of them to the best party ever! When the honored guests distinguish themselves through murderous insolence, the riffraff of the city are given a place at the table. Someone watching the round-up from an upper balcony murmurs, “Well, I never!”

Jesus suggested that God is willing to switch to the B Team if the A Team begins to wane. If the starting line up has lost their energy and their desire to win, a good coach will whisk them off the field and replace them with second and third-string players. These underdogs are incredulous and grab at the opportunity! As harsh as this parable sounds at its conclusion, God has the authority to bench those who refuse to answer the invitation to service! The grace and nondiscrimination of the Gospel is on full display in this story that Jesus told in the presence of the religious bigwigs of His day.

So what about the guy who is kicked out, weeping and gnashing his teeth? That’s the part that seems extreme to us. Remember that robes were provided at a royal wedding so that guests could enjoy the formal occasion at no personal expense. They would be expected to have a proper reverence toward the royal family and the event to which they were invited. If they accepted the invitation, they were expected to dress for the occasion. When he is approached by a palace staff member, he is referred to as “friend.” He has no answer when they ask him why he didn’t put on the robe he was given. He has no excuse. He wants the goods of the party without showing the respect due the king. Commentator Henry says that “Believer should often ask themselves what the king asks them: ‘How did I get in here?’ and ‘Am I wearing the wedding garment?’”

What Jesus asks of His followers who were invited to be part of His Good News was a transformed life. He didn’t advocate a “one-and-done” conversion. He knew that we either accept or reject the invitation to a grand and holy occasion with each decision, thought and word. Too often we prioritize our work, leisure activities and relationships over time spent in intentional worship of the One who gave us the gifts we enjoy. Later we may realize that the party has moved on without us and the gathering looks very different than we might have imagined! Jesus knows that His Church will bring unlikely categories of people together, those who regard each other as the “bad” or the undeserving. Weaving this tale in front of the very religious authorities who ultimately get Him killed, Christ promises that His movement will meet up with turmoil and even violence as the “good and the bad” find themselves vying for seats at the same reception. In Jesus’ teaching, the Church is always a minority movement that takes on the giants and false gods of their world. What does it mean for us to understand that our faith is a minority movement? Are there people who can’t be bothered to be part of Church even though they’ve accepted the invitation to join the family? Are there others, perhaps in lockdown units or prisons, who gladly say “yes” to group participation? Are persecuted Christians in far-away lands the ones who most readily share the good news that God loves them very much?

If we accept the invitation to follow Jesus, we are asked to show up with a sense of joyful expectation and to dress for the occasion. When we proudly assert our autonomy, we are clothed with ourselves and not with Christ. Like the baptismal gown parents choose for their small child, we put on Christ with each decision to join His Church–or prioritize other tasks. The invitation is given by a God who earnestly yearns for us to take a place at the table with all the others who have come from every walk of life. It’s a wedding party, not a funeral! So who says “yes” to being God’s people? There’s a place reserved for you!