Sunday, March 17, 2019

Matthew 11:18-30 "Slow Down - A Lenten Series"

         On a scale of 1 to 10, how stressed are you?  Now I am not talking about how stressed you are at Christmas because we all know that everyone is stressed at Christmas – all that shopping online and driving to the mall, mailing packages, sending cards, entertaining, traveling.  No – I am not harkening back to December. 
         After all, it is March.  It is Daylight Savings.  It is the first Sunday in Lent.  We are six weeks away from Easter, the ultimate springtime festival. 
         Though we are still deep in winter, Christmas is in the past.   No – I am talking about today.  On a scale of 1 to 10 today, how stressed are you?
10 = Someone call an ambulance!
9 = Crazy Busy is the only phrase to describe me.
8 = I’m not going crazy … but I can see crazy from here …
7 = “Exhausted” is my middle name.
6 = I can really use a vacation – and I just got back from one!
5 = How many days (hours/minutes) until vacation?
4 = My calendar is a wee bit on the heavy side.
3 = Feelin’ groovy!
2 = Ommmmmmm.
1 = I and the Universe are One.
         If you rated yourself 6 or above on my informal scale, you should listen up because our Lenten series this year could be life-changing for you. If you rated yourself 5 or under, you ought to listen as well because we are also going to reflect on how you might more positively utilize all the energy and time you have in these weeks leading up to Easter.
         Wherever you ranked yourself on my scale, face it:  Life and stress go hand-in-hand.  In the United States – more so than in most nations – we tend to measure success by how busy we are, the busier the better.  Always being on the go signifies that we are being productive, and that is good. 
         Methodist pastor and worship consultant Marcia McFee noted that: “being ‘busy’ has become a measure of worth in our society. We get big points for productivity, collecting accomplishments, having and being ‘more’”.
         And so we feel naked without our smart phones.  We say we hate email but most of us still feel compelled to check it at least several times a day, so we will not miss anything important. We would be lost without the virtual connections our social media accounts are supposed to offer us.  We text in our cars and in restaurants.  We listen for the telltale jingle of a message when we sit with our families around the dining room table.  We are proud of the fact that we multi-task and even prouder if we only get five hours of sleep a night - though four would be better.  Not a single one of us would ever admit to watching soap operas in the afternoon as we sit around eating bonbons.
         Whether we are retired or still working, “a hectic pace” is an apt phrase to describe the way we live.  And yet, as Mahatma Gandhi once observed, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”
         Is it any wonder then that most – if not all of us – deep down inside – or maybe at the surface - experience a weariness: a tiredness that wells up from all the crazy and complex intersections and twists and turns of our life journey – the physical frailties, all the emotional heartbreaks, what is going on with our children and grandchildren, and  - no matter your political proclivities - even the despicable stuff going on in Washington these days.  
         Sometimes it is a blow that we do not even see coming that knocks us flat.  It was like that for Harry Houdini the magician - literally. Houdini was best known for his ability to escape from what seemed to be impossible situations. Straitjackets, chains, ropes, jail cells, strange devices such as a milk pail filled with water - he managed to escape from one situation after another in full view of his audience.
         What did him in, however, was the blow he never saw coming. While reclining on a couch backstage after a performance he was asked by a couple of college students if he could withstand a punch to the stomach. When he answered that he could, one of the students surprised him by actually punching him several times. These blows caught him off guard, and he ruptured an already aggravated appendix, dying a week later.
         OK - It is a grisly story, I admit, and it is not always the unexpected that pushes us over the edge.  More often, it all just piles up – and we grow tired, deep soul tired. 
         Now, the point of my dwelling on the stress and weariness that grips us, is that, as McFee points out, “we are paying a high price in self-esteem, physical health, enjoyment of life, and connecting to one another. We are losing out on depth in our lives the more we spread ourselves thin.”
         To compensate, some of us turn to eating.  Others of us binge watch “Poldark” or “Outlander.”  Some of us turn to Amazon and shop.  Others of us take a year off from everything and go to New Zealand without computer, phone, or agenda.  Many of us (more realistically) rely on the self-help shelves at Bridgton Books – some of us even resorting to tidying up, hoping that doing so will bring life-changing magic to our lives as the author promises when we hold up each object and article of clothing we own and ask if it brings us joy. 
         Maybe it is just because I am a pastor, but I do not believe that any of those solutions for our lives lived too fast work in the long term.  And so I suggest that we turn to church and to God and to this season of Lent to find the solace that we seek. 
         Beginning today and for the next few weeks of Lent, here in worship, let’s experiment.  Let’s spend some time actually resting. Let’s explore some Sabbath practices we can try out during the rest of the week.
         Now – we are not going to fall asleep in the pews, and we are not going to remove ourselves from the world – because neither is what church is about – sleeping or insulating ourselves. We are going to seek a spiritual antidote for the busyness that leads to weariness that encroaches on our lives.  We are going to reflect on how we might re-connect to God, who, in the end, is so unhurried, who always has the time to love and to forgive.
         We are going to begin with those couple of verses we just heard found only in the Gospel of Matthew.  They have ended up on countless prayer cards and been underlined in a boatload of Bibles.  You can probably also discover them creased and wrinkled, written on scraps of paper in a myriad of purses and pocketbooks. 
“Come to me all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”
Admit it:  These words sound like music to our weary hearts and souls.  This promise of rest from that family crisis, that impending surgery, or that cancer diagnosis is so sweet, so hopeful, so refreshing!
         Baptist pastor Mel Williams once asked a wise friend, ‘”What can we do when we face trouble after trouble and we’re feeling overwhelmed?”
         His friend replied, ‘Breathe!” (EXHALE)
         He goes on to say:  “We all need to exhale the anxieties, worries, and stress of our life, and wait for Jesus’ promise to work its way, to inhale its way, into our insides. It’s a kind of photosynthesis for the soul. We can exhale the carbons, the toxins; inhale the spiritual oxygen.” 
         “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy-laden…”  Yeah, Jesus knew.  He understood this weariness business.  I mean, people were after him all the time – stripping him bare – needing healing, needing forgiveness, needing hope, needing courage, needing something.  He knew what it was like to live on empty. He can relate to our own lives – day in and day out. 
         However, his promise does not end there.  Jesus continues: 
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
          Hmm!  Now those sentences are a bit problematic.  As author Eric Eines notes:  “Do these words sound very realistic?  As attractive as they sound, our fast-paced lives make it hard to imagine how Jesus’ invitation could possibly apply to us. 
Our schedules are so full – between work, family, and other obligations – that the mere suggestion of a yoke that could be “easy” and a burden that could be “light” seems absurd.”
         However, if we took Jesus’ promise seriously, could Lent this year be a time to lighten our burden and intentionally close our eyes, kick off our shoes, and rest our souls?  Could Lent this year be a time to intentionally exhale the stress and inhale the goodness of life?   We are going to slow down enough to reflect on that idea of the easy yoke - and experiment with it during this Lenten season. 
         For the next six weeks, let’s intentionally put our lives on pause – and instead of being busy, let’s try being “unbusy”.  Instead of multitasking and texting and checking our phone so frequently, let’s try being thoughtful about the life we are living and the life we want to live. Instead of accomplishing more, volunteering more, working more, let’s slow down long enough to find our right tempo and get into our unique groove.
         It will not be easy.  A pastor friend of mine shared her Lenten intention to set aside time to pray twice a day.  I had lunch with her the day after Ash Wednesday, and she had already missed her morning time that first day because she was running late for work.  But she intends to keep trying  - searching for her quiet center, her right tempo, her unhurried God.
         After all, surely our life goal is, as Episcopal priest Ian Markham noted, “to live every day, to enjoy every second, focusing on the eternal rather than the trivial….Let the outer life reflect the inner…. This is hard. So (in this season of Lent), we pause. We take stock. We pray. And we ask the God that loves us to…provide us all with the strength to become what God in Christ has already made us.”
         In this Bible passage we just read, Jesus indicates that the yoke is what provides this needed strength Markham talks about.  Many Bible translations read that this yoke is “easy”.  However, a better translation is “well-fitting”.  This yoke is “well-fitting”.  That makes sense.  Even for an ox, a heavy burden is bearable if the yoke fits. 
         And so it is with us: Jesus offers us a yoke that fits.  As Eric Eines remarks, “he’s offer(s) you the chance to do exactly the work that you were created to do – the work that brings you most fully alive. And he’s offering to help you.”
       That also makes sense because yokes are made for two.  When Jesus says, “take my yoke upon you”, he is inviting you to share his yoke.  He is in the other half of it, connecting with you in such a way that the two of you are working together. 
         That is what makes the yoke easy.  That is what makes the burden light.  When you are sharing the yoke, you cannot help but find your right tempo.  When you are sharing the yoke, you never face your life stressors alone.
         That is the message that I hope we can take into Lent this year:  First, sharing the yoke is better than going it alone.  And second, slowing down enough to put the yoke on will be life changing because doing so allows us to reconnect to Jesus and to our unhurried God. 
         If you are intrigued by what I have said so far, then my challenge to you for the next six weeks of Lent is to commit to one change that will allow you to live less hectically and find your right tempo.  You may discover something we do in worship to be helpful – or one of these suggestions may work:
1.   Say the Serenity Prayer each day and when you are done, write down one thing you worry about or fear – and throw in the woodstove or trash:
2.   God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time,
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardship as a pathway to peace;
taking, as Jesus did,
this sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it;
trusting that You will make all things right
if I surrender to Your will;
so that I may be reasonable happy in this life
and supremely happy with You forever in the next.
         2.  Try out this technique described by one blogger I read who heard a monk interviewed on the radio:
Interviewer: Are you telling me that you never get angry?
Monk: No I experience anger but I choose not to act on it.
Interviewer (Incredulous): So if you are on the freeway and someone cuts in front of you, you won’t hoot or yell at them?
Monk: I might think of doing those things but I will ask myself this question before acting, “What will this change?”  Good question to ask.
3.  Designate a specific place to pray – and intentionally use it once a day – if only for a few minutes – the Prayer Chair thing.
4.  Turn off your cell phone and computer for a day – or just an evening - each week.
5.  Participate in one contemplative practice on a regular basis, such as Yoga, Qigong, meditative walking, or journaling.
6.  Make a Lenten calendar – with one “unhurried” activity for each day – like shutting your eyes for 5 minutes or imagining a restful nature scene.
         These suggestions may not sound like much, but if you commit to one small discipline this Lenten season that will slow you down, release you from worry and fear, or help you to be more self-reflective, I am so sure that you will find your right tempo in this fast paced world we live in.  I am equally sure that doing so will open you up to God and to one another – and to the promise of Easter to come.


Mark 1:21-28 "The Essence of Welcome"

         When we meet Jesus again this morning, he has gathered up all his disciples:  Simon, Andrew, James, and John as well as eight others.  He has recruited fishermen and a tax collector and other assorted people from the lower classes of 1stcentury Jewish society. 
Jesus was a man on a mission, and now he was ready to start his ministry.  And what better way to begin to forge that new relationship he believed was about to happen, that transformed relationship between God and the ordinary Jews he met on the roads cutting through Galilee – what better way to begin than by preaching on a Sabbath morning in a local synagogue?  
         And so, our itinerate rabbi arranged for a preaching gig in Capernaum, and his followers all sat in the front row to support him.  We have no idea what Jesus said in his sermon or teaching time because the Gospel writer of Mark did not think that the contentof the sermon was important.  From this earliest Gospel, we only learn what Jesus did – not what he taught - and how what he didaffected the people he encountered.
         We only know, from this story, that he preached (or taught) with “great authority.”  We only know that the congregation was amazed – and not because for once they were not bored to tears. Jesus’ sermon was like nothing they had ever heard before.  His words meant something - though we do not know what those words were. All we know is that, along with those words – whatever they were - came a sense of authority that could only have originated in the heart of God. 
 We only know that it must have been as Reformed Church pastor Scott Hoezee imagined: “It wasn’t just that his ideas and vocabulary were fresh and innovative and it wasn’t simply that he was a better orator than they at first guessed. Rather, there was something in the very presence of the man that made you want to sit up straighter. Even the teenagers, who had worked so hard at perfecting a bored-stiff look on their faces, couldn’t help perking up, slouching a bit less and listening more closely than they’d care to admit.”
Picture this:  The people in the pews whispering behind their hands within the first few minutes of Jesus’ sermon – and they were not admiring his robe or commenting that, for his lack of experience in the pulpit, they could hear every word he said. Some were even taking notes on their bulletins, and others had scrawled “Amazing, right?” on the cover and then nudged the person next to them and quietly tapped the bulletin.  
 Surely the congregation was contrasting Jesus’ teaching with that which they usually heard on a Sabbath morning, contrasting Jesus’ teaching with that of the scribes.  The congregation was quickly realizing that, unlike the scribes, Jesus was bringing something extra to the table.   Jesus’ person had something the scribes did not have.  Jesus had authority.  Jesus was the real deal.  Jesus was what God’s dream for the world was all about.
Hoezee continues to describe the situation.  “This man had authority (he writes).  He had a moral gravity, a weightiness and substance to him that people found difficult to explain.  Somehow, they sensed that this man and the message about God’s kingdom he was talking about were one and the same thing.  This man’s impact had nothing to do with any seminary diplomas he had hanging on his wall.  It did not stem from his once having been ordained and it wasn’t just because he had clearly done his homework, had practiced his sermon, and so was able to preach without distracting stutters.  No, this man was the very message he was proclaiming.  They couldn’t quite put their finger on it, but this man packed a wallop just by virtue of being there at all.”
         It was in the midst of all the amazed whispering and note-taking and exclamation points drawn on bulletins that the crazy man walked in the side door. You know the kind I mean – though we today would label him in more politically correct terms.  He was handicapped.  He was the type most of us would go to great lengths to avoid – the kind who spends the day walking up and down Congress Street in Portland talking to someone who is not there, the weirdo who waves at cars and sometimes yells at people.  
The one in the synagogue did not even bother to sit down, but instead he strode up the center aisle, shrieking like a mad man (which he apparently was), and confronting Jesus the guest preacher.  The congregation was aghast and looked anxiously around. Where was the Deacon Assistant anyway?  Won’t someone give this guy a grocery card and get him out of here?  He is disturbing our worship – and more than that, he is disturbing us.
Jesus, however, leaves the protection of the pulpit and meets the man half way.  They stare at each other for a long moment as the congregation watches carefully to see how this particularly uncomfortable scenario will unfold.  
The crazy man seemed to gather what wits he still had about him and loudly blurted out the reason for his coming in the first place.  And it was not for cash or a grocery card. 
It was to make an announcement, which is what he did – in a loud voice: “What business do you have here with us, Jesus? Nazarene! I know what you’re up to! You’re the Holy One of God, and you’ve come to destroy us!”
         There, he said it.  Or rather, the unclean spirit residing within him said it.  And so, Jesus answered not the crazy man, but the spirit that afflicted him.  “Be silent – and get out!”  Or, in the vernacular:  Shut up and leave!
         The crazy man shrieked a couple additional times, but more half-heartedly each go-round. Then the congregation watched in horror as he experienced a massive convulsion and fell into a heap right there half way up the center aisle.  A moment later he sat up and shook his head, but the fire was all out of his eyes now – and he looked halfway normal – if you could ignore the grimy robe he was wearing and the body odor and how he had been acting just moments before.  
         Any way you look at it, incidents like that one sure do not happen in church very often!  Of course, the Gospel writer fails to tell us what occurred next. Did the handicapped gentleman sit alone in the center aisle for the rest of the service?  Did the Deacon Assistant hand him a grocery card and show him the door? 
I like to think that someone in the congregation assisted the man to his feet and invited him to sit with her family for the rest of the service.  I like to think that someone invited him to coffee hour afterward and did not leave him stranded and alone when they got to the Fellowship Hall.  
I also like to think that the congregation learned something from the experience. I like to think that they realized how important it was to reflect on who was welcome and who was not welcome in their synagogue.  I like to think that they understood a bit better that being less than welcoming can happen in so many little ways – a disapproving glance, a sudden deep interest in the bulletin cover, a sign that cannot be read, an entrance that is hard to find, a bathroom that cannot be used.
         A variety of research studies conclude that all churches today – large, small, progressive, conservative, evangelical – all churches are experiencing declining attendance.  Churches are perceived as increasingly irrelevant, especially in Maine, which is the least overtly religious state in the least religious region of the country.  
Churches everywhere are asking a fundamental question:  If we are the 21stcentury embodiment of the radical welcome and hospitality that Jesus stood for, how can we - and how can our building - be more welcoming and hospitable, so that people want to experience God’s love in a new way in our faith community?  And just who do we want to welcome anyway? 
         I have been inside a lot of churches over the years, and I can tell you this: Our church is like virtually all old churches that were built and added on to before handicapped accessibility became a question of justice.  Again, like most old churches, we have responded to the issue of handicapped accessibility, albeit in a patchwork way. We have a ramp from the outdoors that leads to the sanctuary. We have upgraded our sound system.  
However, we are like congregations in many – but not all - old buildings. It is difficult for us to understand the need for structural change because we have no visibly handicapped people in our midst.  If someone regularly came to worship in a wheelchair, surely we would take out some pews, so that he or she would feel comfortable here.  
 If we had a few people who used walkers, certainly we would have a chair lift, so they could get down to coffee hour without going outdoors to get to the Vestry. However, we do not have those sorts of people in our midst. So what is the big deal?
Let me tell you a story…..Several decades ago, Joe and I started an alternative soccer league in Cumberland – even though we had been told that only 250 children in town wanted to play soccer, and they all played for the Cumberland Soccer Club, the town travel team. 
We started the alternative program anyway, and within 3 years, there were 750 children playing soccer – 250 for the Cumberland Soccer Club and the rest in our program.  Five hundred children who did not want to play soccer came out of the woodwork to play.
Now the moral of that story is this:  To quote a line from the movie, “Field of Dreams”: If you build it, they will come. Now, we do not know if people in our community would come to our church if we offered more easily accessible bathrooms or if we had clear signage or big print bulletins or if there were places in our sanctuary where those in wheel chairs and with walkers could sit comfortably and feel a part of our congregation. But there might be!  And even if there were not such people, this sort of radical welcome is simply the right thing to do.
Lori and I learned about Universal Design, originally an educational movement, at a Calvin Institute symposium that was part of our worship grant year a few years ago. Universal Design assumes BOTH that people have different needs and different ways of doing the same thing AND that these different people should have equal access to public facilities, including (or perhaps most especially) in churches.
How would Universal Design look in our church setting? First, we would assume that people have varying needs when entering our church building and worshipping in our sanctuary, reading bulletins, listening to discussions in committee meetings, listening to sermons, visiting with others over coffee, using the bathroom, and doing all the other things people do in church. With that precept in mind, Universal Design would challenge us to look at our building, our visual and auditory communications, and, above all, our attitudes – and intentionally assess the need for change. 
Second, Universal Design in our church would challenge us to embrace the fact that, like all our ministries, its purpose is not to fill the pews on Sunday mornings, get more volunteers, and increase the number of pledging units.  Its purpose is to be an intentional expression of the radical welcome and hospitality that Jesus stood for, a recognition that it is the right thing to do.  
Jesus reached out to a crazy man that morning in the synagogue.  One hopes that the congregation learned from the experience – not only about how to deal with the crazy man but also that the crazy man’s question was worth reflecting on: “Jesus of Nazareth!  What have you to do with us?”  The answer, of course is this:  Everything…..everything.  And the answer is the same for us.  Jesus has everything to do with us who say that we are his followers as well.
The people in the synagogue pews got the authority part – that Jesus spoke and taught with an authority that the scribes simply did not possess.  But what exactly constituted that authority?  Let me share Lutheran pastor Barbara Lundblad’s thoughts (with a couple of my own questions for us to think about).  
She writes in part: “The authority of Jesus moves us toward inclusion rather than exclusion. More specifically, this authority includes precisely persons who had been excluded before…We must, (she writes,) therefore, be suspicious of (churches that move in any way) toward exclusion, whose aim (directly or indirectly) is to keep certain people out by written rule or daily practice. We must judge ourselves and our churches by Jesus' move toward inclusion.  And the question for us is this: How can we be even more inclusive than we are now?
(Lundblad continues.) Jesus' authority also values persons over rules or traditions. In our longing for greater certainty, it is often persons who suffer. We must judge ourselves and our churches by Jesus' insistence in valuing all persons. And the question for us is this: To what extent do we hold fast to tradition and to budgets and, in doing so, devalue precious women, men and children?
(And finally, Lundblad concludes), we must judge ourselves and our churches acknowledging our human limitations. We long for absolutes. We long for things to be clearer. And the question for us is this:  Should any steps we can take to become more handicapped accessible be a priority simply because it is the right thing to do, because it reflects who Jesus calls us to be? Who do we want to welcome anyway? Tough questions – but not insurmountable ones!
Let us remember, as Lundblad concluded, “Jesus stands with us in the midst of our loose-leaf lives (and our quest for church survival in an increasingly secular society), promising to be present with us as we struggle together for faithful answers.”  May we come to believe that the Spirit which dwelt with Jesus dwells in us too and can lead us into truth.  Let’s ask the tough questions then about inclusion and radical welcome – and be open to the Spirit. Amen.




Saturday, February 23, 2019

Mark 1:14 - 20 "Let's Go Fishing!"

         Let’s go fishing!  Come on, let’s cast a wide net!
You know, you can fish in many ways.  You can sit under a cypress tree in the cool shade by a riverbank down South like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn might have.  Your fishing pole would have been a sturdy stick you had found, and your line would have been some string that you had nicked from your mother’s kitchen drawer when she was looking the other way. 
         Or - you can wear full length rubber waders and stand at the junction of great trout rivers in Western Montana like Norman Maclean and his brother, Paul, did in the novel, A River Runs Through It. You would cast your line in perfectly rhythmic time – a metronome ticking in your head - just as your Presbyterian minister father had taught you as a child.
         Or - you can wade into cold mountain streams here in Maine, flicking back and forth the delicate homemade flies with their brightly colored feathers you had painstakingly created last winter when a fire burned brightly in your wood stove.  Dragon flies would dart over the pool around you, and, every once-in-a-while, you would see the flash of a glittering trout surfacing in the sunlight.
         Or - you can bait a hook as the sun begins to set and cast a few off the dock at your cabin in Algonquin Park in Canada.  You would watch to see if the red and white plastic bobber suddenly sank and then jerk the rod to see if you could catch a bass or perch or sunfish.  You would also watch in awe as the sun set into its deepest pinks and reds and oranges, like the sky itself were on fire.
         Or - you can take the motor boat across the bay to where the dead tree limb still lies in the water by the shoreline decades after a beaver felled it, where the rocks below are big and numerous and offer hiding places for bass.  You would watch as your daughter in her green bucket hat read her book and as your two young sons dropped their fishing lines over board. 
The boys hope to catch enough fish for breakfast before the mosquitoes get too thick and your daughter gets tired of swatting them.  They relish the idea of dipping the bits and pieces of fresh fish in egg batter, rolling them in crushed corn flakes, frying them, and proudly presenting them the next morning to their mother to enjoy with her tea. 
They know their father will not clean whatever they catch anymore, so they carefully consider what is a keeper and what they will throw back. They have been taught to properly use a sharp filet knife – and to dispose of the fish guts deep in the woods where only the raccoons - and not the family dogs - will find them.
         Or - you can track in the newspaper the comings and goings of schools of striped bass, set the alarm for all hours of the early morning, and head out with your father to Cousins Island or some other sandbar or beach.  You always hope that this time will be different and that you will catch a big old striper – or at least get a bite.
         Or - you can fish like Simon and Peter and James and John did on the Sea of Galilee which lies 30 kilometers west of 1st century Nazareth.  Their fishing hole was not really a sea though.  It was an inland lake – a big one too – 12 miles long by 7 miles wide - with the Jordan River running through it from north to south.  It was known for its fishing, and many small hamlets and villages had cropped up along its shoreline.
Though fishing may have been pleasurable at times, in the end, it was a business – a family business.  Each of the four young men in our story had come from a long line of fishing families.  As far back as they could remember, the most precious family asset had been the sturdy wooden boat with its oars and small sail, a boat that could hold a dozen people.
Over the decades, it had been rebuilt and repaired too many times to count, displaying the patchwork of wood salvaged from other fishing boats that were no longer seaworthy.  The fishermen would cast their rope nets over the edge of the boat and haul them back in.  The muscles in their sun toughened backs were strong and sinewy from the effort of years. 
The circular nets up to 20 feet in diameter had small stones with drilled holes woven into them to weigh them down, so they would sink properly.  It was crucial to keep the nets repaired and in good working order because their lives - and the lives of their families – literally – depended on a good catch.  That was why James and John at least were mending the nets that morning. 
You see, fishing was not as easy as it had once been.  Under the greedy eyes of the wealthy elite, the fishing industry had changed dramatically over the years.  As blogger Chad Meyers notes, it was “being steadily restructured for export, so that the majority of fish were salt preserved or made into a fish sauce and shipped to distant markets throughout the empire. All fishing had become state-regulated for the benefit of the urban elite…They profited from the fishing industry in two ways. First, they controlled the sale of fishing leases, without which locals could not fish….
Second, they taxed the fish product and its processing, and levied tolls on product transport….This transformation of the local economy… functioned to marginalize and impoverish formerly self-sufficient native fishing families. Leases, taxes and tolls were exorbitant, while the fish upon which local people depended as a dietary staple was extracted for export.  Thus, fishermen were falling to the bottom of an increasingly elaborate economic hierarchy. “
         No wonder then that Simon and Andrew, James and John, perked up that morning when Jesus came recruiting.  Jesus had been – and perhaps still was – a follower of John the Baptist.  When John was imprisoned, Jesus actively took up his cause, preaching the Good News, the Gospel, that the Kingdom of God was near, and so it was time to repent, to turn around, to be open to transformation.  The culture of God, the dream of God, was about to be fulfilled. 
         However, Jesus, this self-proclaimed rabbi, was smart enough to know that he could not go it alone – and so he was looking for his own disciples.  However, as a rabbi, he was different.  He did not wait for folks to come to him, assess his message, and then ask permission to be a disciple as would typically happen.  No – Jesus chose his followers.  Simon and Andrew and James and John did not choose Jesus.  He chose them.
         Who knows what Jesus saw in the four men?  They probably were not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier.  They certainly were illiterate.  They were physically strong and had nimble fingers, but that was it – and Jesus knew that physical strength and nimble fingers would not make a whit of difference.
         We who have heard this story before know what comes next.  Jesus calls out to first Simon and Andrew and later in the day to James and John, the sons of old arthritic Zebedee who no longer had the strength to cast a net and whose fingers were no longer nimble enough to mend one and so depended on his sons to keep the family business going.
         “Come with me, and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus declared confidently.  It was almost like a promise he was making to them.  Come with me, and together we will cast our nets deep and wide.  Come with me – not to simply catch new church members to fill the pews on Sunday mornings, increase the number of volunteers, and expand the number of pledging units. 
Come with me – and do something even better:  Make the dream of God, the culture of God, a reality in this greedy and unjust world you live in where the rich get rich and the poor get poorer.  Come with me, and be transformed and in the process maybe even transform others. 
         And Simon and Andrew and James and John turned their backs on, turned away from, their secure livelihood and everything they had known since their childhood and followed Jesus.  Of course, they had no idea what was in store for them, and they did not seem to care. 
Maybe they were sick and tired of casting nets one day and mending them the next.  Maybe they saw a future in fishing that was no future – and wanted to get out while the getting was good.  Maybe they were young and impetuous and wanted an adventure – see the world – or at least see the world beyond their small village in backwater Nazareth. 
Or maybe – just maybe – without their even knowing it, the Spirit was nudging them out of their old identity and encouraging them to claim something new.  Maybe they were risk-takers, trusting, as the Psalmist once affirmed, that God would get them through whatever it was that God was leading them toward.
Though the four fishermen did not know it at the time, Jesus was promising them lives of integrity and meaning.  He was offering them an existence immersed in the ethics of love.  He was offering them the lens of compassion through which they would see those around them in a new way – the marginalized ones, the ones living paycheck to paycheck who must choose between fresh produce and health insurance, the lepers, the ones in caravans seeking asylum from the violence of their homelands, the ones in wheelchairs who never quite feel welcome, but more like a burden.
It would not easy, but it would be life-changing.  There would be those moments when they would know that they were a part of making God’s creation a little bit better, a part of making God’s dream for the world a reality – moments that would make the whole journey – even the bad parts, the sad parts, the difficult parts – so worthwhile.  And so, Simon and Peter and James and John dropped everything and followed Jesus, answering his call to discipleship.
         This call to discipleship, this call of Christ, is not cheap grace.  It is not the words of the Gospel written down to read and discuss and only to pray over.  This call to discipleship, this call of Christ, is the call into a life rich in meaning and purpose. 
Jesus invites us today – just as he invited the fishermen long ago.  There is work to be done now just as there was then.  There is work for us through the ministries of our church, this church, that place where each Sunday morning we remember that we are called to be the embodiment of all that Jesus stood for, where we are challenged – you and I - to stand with the refugee, the homeless, the hungry, the poor, the handicapped. 
         This call to discipleship, this call of Christ, is not the call to sit here in church listening to the preacher prattle on Sunday after Sunday.  This call to discipleship, this call of Christ, is not to give an hour a week over to so-called spiritual things.
         This call to discipleship, this call of Christ, is to let the Gospel we hear and sing about Sunday after Sunday, the Gospel we say we embrace, leak and gush and run out everywhere until our very lives are drowning in it, until a river of compassion and reconciliation runs through our heart and soul. 
This call of discipleship, this call of Christ, is living the Gospel.  That is what casting our nets wide means:  to live each day as if the Good News of Jesus really mattered, to be a risk-taker and err on the side of radical welcome and compassion, to question the economic and environmental decisions this nation has made, and to intentionally reflect on what constitutes a “national emergency”, then act on who we choose to be as the church in the 21st century -  no matter the cost (financial and otherwise).
“Come with me, and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus declared confidently – and his words echo down through the centuries even to us, even now.  It was almost like a promise he was making to Simon and Andrew and James and John.  It is almost like a promise he is making to us. 
Come with me, and together we will cast our nets deep and wide.  Come with me – not to simply catch new church members to fill the pews on Sunday mornings, increase the number of volunteers, and expand the number of pledging units. 

Come with me – and do something even better:  Make the dream of God, the culture of God, a reality in this greedy and unjust world we live in where the rich get rich and the poor get poorer.  Come with me, and be transformed and in the process maybe even transform others.