Thursday, February 25, 2010
Monday, February 22, 2010
Sheepscott Community Church February 21, 2010
Deuteronomy 26: 1-11
Luke 4: 1-13
Yielding the Sacred Ground
In his commentary on this week’s gospel, Barclay draws a bleak picture of the wilderness where Jesus went toe-to-toe with the devil, which is to say, his own self-seeking, creature self, aided and abetted by all that is not of God and conspires against God and union with that One, whatever that reality is, personal or impersonal. The wilderness or desert that Barclay describes is not a desert of dunes, of shifting sands, like the Sahara or Death Valley. It is, he says a “terrible wilderness,” 35 X15 miles long and wide, called Jeshimmon, which means “The Devastation.”
“The hills were dust heaps,” he writes, “the limestone looked blistered and peeling; the rocks were bare and jagged; the ground sounded hollow to the horses’ hooves; and it glowed with heat like a vast furnace and ran out to precipices, 1200 feet high, which swooped down to the Dead Sea.” You’re not in Palm Springs anymore, Dorothy. It was here that Jesus met himself, did battle with the temptations to his dual nature as it figured in the life that was spread before him.
It’s worth noting that even at that time, Jesus must have been aware of having exceptional powers. The whole point of the temptations is that they could have come only to a man who knew he could do amazing things. It isn’t a direct temptation to us to turn stones into bread or to leap from the pinnacle of the Temple to see if we get set down safely. These would be temptations for a man with great powers who had to decide how to use them, and that’s what Jesus was doing in the desert. How can we not contrast Jesus’ response to his temptations with the response of powerful men from our time in the sports and political worlds? Without naming names, I think we can all think of one or more persons who either didn’t battle the temptations at all, or who simply didn’t have anything like Jesus’ success in resisting. The temptations to Christ’s extraordinary life and nature do translate out for us, and I will talk about that in a bit, but for the moment, these are the temptations that this extraordinary man was given to answer or respond to from within himself, and he did that with flying colors.
The outcome of this milestone desert experience in Jesus’ life that followed the milestone of his baptism was that Jesus chose once and for all the method by which he proposed to win hearts and minds to God, and that method was one which rejected power and glory outright and embraced the way of suffering by immersing himself in God, and whatever that might hold, might mean––eventually death on a cross as it turned out.
Jesus had been ceding––C-E-D-I-N-G, giving up––the ground of his soul to God for a long time by this point, but it was in the desert that he completed his preparation for being God’s man, made space for God to realize God-self on earth in him. Are we called to cede our own inner landscape to God as Jesus did, in our own desert experience?
I would make a parallel between that question and this morning’s reading from Deuteronomy. “When you enter the land the Lord is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the firstfruits of all you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket.... Place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him.” There are at least two levels we can think about doing this––as individuals and as a church. I suggest to you that the land God gives to us is our lives. Are we willing to allow God access to that land of our lives for his purposes, as Jesus did in the desert? We all have certain powers in our lives, and God can make the best of those powers to foster and promote his will and work in the world.
Some of us are called into our lives or some aspect of our lives as early as childhood. Jon is The Sailor of our family. He tells of his great pleasure in pushing boats around in the bathtub when he was a child and pulling boats by a string across the water off Purse’s Cove on Southport Island where he vacationed in the summers. If we think about it, we all might remember events or activities or thoughts we had as children that were subsumed as we realized them in our adult lives. Hooray for the dreams and play of children!
During our adolescence we tested out many possible identities for our lives, and in adulthood, we may circle back to the earliest calling and begin to make conscious choices toward realizing that calling. When we know what our life is, when we begin to realize the firstfruits of that life, are we willing to take some of the firstfruits from the land the Lord has given us, put them in a basket and place them before the Lord God and bow down before him? That is how we can respond to that reading as individuals, following the lead and example of Jesus of taking seriously the matter of God’s call on our lives and answering that call after a period in our own deserts where we do battle with our own appetites and habits that would lead us off the path and on to dissolution.
Jesus, the friend of tax collectors and sinners knew well that temptation could simply overcome people. Victims of poverty, ignorance, prejudice, oppression, abuse, violence and drugs reveal to us how easily people can be driven beyond endurance, and Jesus, who was human and tempted can identify with those struggles. Far from creating a divide between Jesus and ourselves, our own trials and weaknesses become the privileged place of our encounter with him, but not only with him, but with God. Jesus has been tested in all respects like us––he knows all of our difficulties. He knows our condition from the outside and the inside, and that is how he acquired his profound capacity for compassion. A person has to have suffered in order to truly feel for others; it’s a kind of fellowship of suffering. From Jesus and his experience, we learn that God is present and sustaining us in the midst of test, temptation, and yes, even sinfulness.
How can we as a church respond to the Deuteronomic exhortation to give of our firstfruits to God? By taking some of the first fruits of our life together as a worshipping community and putting them into the basket before the Lord our God, and then bowing down before him. The land he has given us to settle on is this opportunity, this life as the worshipping community of the Sheepscott Community Church. From that land we take the firstfruits of prayer and scripture reading, communion together, music and song, monetary gifts, our vows and pledges, our fellowship together, and our community outreach. But above all, God is after our surrendered hearts. All of this can be put in the basket we place before God, but what we must all remember is the bowing down before God, before whom we are nothing except his Spirit raises us up in Jesus.
God does not beat down the door; does not force the issue. God does persist in the invitation, however, quietly and inexorably. At some point we may have the good sense to take him up on it. We create and construct our own little worlds, that are often in our own images. God’s invitation is to allow for the deconstruction of our own self-involved edifices, for his reconstruction or transformation of existing structures for his purposes, which can become our own.
In the interest of full disclosure, I need to issue a caveat though, and I tell you from experience. If you do decide to empty your cup of what is most precious to you onto the ground in thanksgiving for the great gift of life you have been given, if you are willing to allow the hound of heaven, the persistent God who just won’t leave you alone to have access to the sacred ground of your free will, your living soul, the caveat is that like the camel with its nose under the tent, it won’t be long before the head and neck, the first hump, if it’s a dromedary, the second hump if it’s a Bactrian, and even the tail are under the tent. God is in the tent, God is in the house. Watch out!
I think this is what happened with Jesus in the desert. He allowed God to claim all of the territory of his inner self, his soul, and when he came out of the desert place, out of the wilderness of Jeshimmon, God’s purposes had become entirely his own.
I said earlier that I would talk a bit about how those temptations that were unique to him could still translate into our lives. Jesus was tempted to actually change the stones into bread––and by the way, the pieces of limestone in that wilderness actually do look like loaves of bread––because he would have been hungry after a protracted period of fasting. Whether that was actually 40 days is irrelevant. What the scripture is saying with that number 40 is that it had been a long period of time, enough time for a complete change, a complete turning, which is what 40 represents. One way we can interpret that temptation in our own lives is that we use the good material gifts of God, food and drink among them, to avoid the more important food of our spirits, which is the revelation of God in our lives, however that comes to us, and the allowing for the development of that revelation.
The second temptation of Jesus is to fall down and worship Satan who will then give him power over all the kingdoms of the world because, as he states, all power had been given to him and he could give it to whomsoever he wished. Jesus wisely said, “The Lord God thou shalt worship and him alone shalt thou serve.” I think we can appropriate that quotation wholesale and keep it on file for the moment when we need it because we are all tempted in this way, to fall down and worship at altars other than God’s. And only we know what constitutes those altars in our lives: cowardice, gossip, lying, avarice––name your altar other than God’s. Significantly, these altars, these temptations in our lives can also be good and positive things––family, work, sports. The question is when do these things become more important to us than our relationship with God?
Jesus’ third temptation was to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple because, as he was tempted to think, he was God’s chosen one. He could burnish his reputation by doing that, couldn’t he? Wow! Did you see that? He threw himself down and landed on his feet. And the devil ably quotes scripture to underscore this temptation, here, from psalm 91, which we read from this morning: “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” But Jesus isn’t fooled into testing God. He quotes back to the tempter from Deuteronomy 6: 16: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” And scripture then tells us that the devil left him for a season, left him until an opportune time.
Last Sunday that we heard the gospel of the Transfiguration where Jesus was validated in his divine nature, in the role he had taken on, and which he was discussing with Moses and Elijah in vision before Peter, James and John. Juxtapose that scene, that gospel with him hanging on a cross, dying a horrible death. Where’s the validation at that point? How could he remember it in his state? It didn’t matter whether he remembered. Jesus had poured out his life three years earlier in the desert of Jeshimmon, had faced down all that was within him that would defeat God’s purposes for him in his life. He had ceded the ground of his immortal self to God at that time, and was ready––at least theortically––in his will, with his will to meet head on whatever was to come.
What are some of the desert experiences we have experienced in our lives? Are we living through a desert experience right now that we find difficult to talk about? Find someone to talk to. Someone who listens as Christ listens––from the heart, and some of us are blessed to know such people. That listening heart is like an oasis in that desert. Where there had been only the hot and arid wilderness, there is cool, refreshing water, green grass and swaying palm trees. The importance of fellowship, of community, cannot be overestimated.
When and where do we find the time and place for contemplation of God’s word, and listening for God in prayer in the midst of our busy lives? We simply have to prioritize, to make time in a place for prayer and listening, especially during Lent, this season of penitence, if we are going to have the strength to resist the temptations of our lives––and we all do have temptations. Know that I am holding all of you up in prayer every day and I ask that you do the same for me. Thereby can the plan of God for us inividually and as a church be realized. We ourselves are the firstfruits. Amen.
Monday, February 15, 2010
Sheepscott Community Church February 14, 2010
Exodus 34: 29-35
2 Cor. 3: 12––4: 2
Luke 9: 28-36
You Want to Take Off That Veil?
Some of you may be familiar with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, “The Minister's Black Veil.” For those of you not familiar with it, let me briefly tell the story. A minister in eighteenth-century New England appears before his congregation one Sunday with the upper part of his face hidden behind a black veil. He wears the veil through the whole story, and even his betrothed cannot prevail on him to remove the veil, and in fact he goes to his death with his face still covered.
Hawthorne apparently based his story on a bit of real history, that there was such a minister––Joseph Moody of York, Maine––who had accidentally killed a dear friend and spent the rest of his life in visible repentance behind a veil. Given Hawthorne’s predilection for stories of separation of individuals from individuals, and individuals from communities––think The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables––we can easily imagine why this story would appeal to him.
One year when Jon taught the story in his Wiscasset High School English class, he decided to don a veil for the class, while he read the story. One student was freaked out by the exercise and asked Jon to remove the veil. Jon said that he felt himself separated from the class while he was wearing it, that it functioned somewhat like sunglasses do now, not allowing another to see our eyes, viz., our soul, and in effect separating us from others.
An updated version of the same idea is the face covering of Muslim women, called the niqab. Beyond that, the burka covers the entire body, allowing the woman to view the world only through a kind of mesh grill. This is in the service of a religiously imposed modesty. A robber at the 7-11 may don a ski mask for the same reason that the Lone Ranger dons his iconic black mask: to hide identity, although the two would be concealing that identity for very different reasons
What I want to focus on is the veil or mask as a means of separating one person or group of persons from others for whatever reason. In Hawthorne’s story, the minister’s veil may be thought a visual representation of what was his sin or sorrow, by which he separated himself from others. In essence, he shunned himself. In the case of Moses, which Barbara read from Exodus this morning, the great prophet and leader had to cover his face with a veil in response to the request from the Israelites because the light that he gave off from being in the presence of God’s glory was more than their eyes could take. The fault was in the people, not in Moses. To cover the sin, as in the case of the minister with the black veil, or to cover the glory, as in the case of Moses’ shining countenance––very different reasons for veiling the face.
Today, Transfiguration Sunday, is Jesus’ opportunity to reveal his glory to a select few of his apostles before he sets out to Jerusalem and the cross. I am not necessarily saying that he knew when he went out to Mount Tabor that such a thing was going to happen. By such a thing I mean the transfiguration, whereby Jesus was revealed in his glory, which is to say in light, giving off light, for all intents and purposes, dressed in light. In that same light were Moses, the great leader and lawgiver of the Israelite people, and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets.
If Jesus went with Peter, James and John to pray on Mount Tabor, not necessarily knowing that the extraordinary vision would happen, what he did know and why he did go there to pray was because he was embarking on a fateful journey to Jerusalem and wanted to lay it out before God before he did that. Jesus always sought the Father’s will consciously before embarking on a course of action. Always. And this event of transfiguration and what led to it was no exception. I don’t know that Jesus knew the inevitable outcome of his choice, but I feel sure he at least sensed it as one possible outcome.
God had honored Jesus’ choice to be baptized by John by appearing in the form of a dove over him while a voice was heard to say, “This is my Son whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Just so did God honor Jesus at this moment before embarking on that journey to Jerusalem, and in Matthew’s account of the transfiguration, Peter, James and John hear the same words that were spoken at Jesus’ baptism, i.e., “This is my Son whom I love. With him I am well pleased,” with the addition of, “Listen to him!”
In our own lives, when we have lost someone significant, we often hearken back to the last time we spent with them, whether that was at a family reunion picnic, or a few days together, where confidences were exchanged over coffee and there was a deep bonding that we later look back on as revelatory. No doubt Peter, James and John hearkened back again and again to the vision of Jesus’ transfigured, as much to keep themselves going as anything else. “Are we crazy?” “No, remember? We all saw it.” In a package with the crucifixion, resurrection and pentecostal experience of Jesus’ Spirit, they would bolster each other up for spreading the word of salvation and keeping going forward. At least, that’s how I expect it might have been.
Jesus could set out for Jerusalem now, certain that at least part of his little band of followers knew who he was, and that he himself knew that what he was about to embark on, however it played out, was the consummation of his life’s work, and that it had God the Father’s seal of approval. Knowing he had that letter of recommendation in his pocket, we can understand better how he could go forward with his journey. When we know with as much certainty as we can know anything in this life that God is in what we are doing, we too can do great things, can overcome obstacles and endure at a level we would not have thought possible. Our greatest sense of meaning and purpose and consolation originates in God.
That said, what can still keep us from doing great things? Can keep us from beholding God’s glory? The very minister’s black veil I talked about earlier. Prejudice, whether against persons or ideas. Our minds are veiled or closed. How about mental laziness? To come to a new position on an issue, whether concerning religion, politics, interpersonal relations––whatever, we have to do the work––and it is work––of thinking about something and not having it handed to us, like baby food fed to an infant. In order to value something, we have to pay a price for it, and in this case, the price is thought, deep thought. The love of our own comfort can also be a black veil between ourselves and the fullness of awareness we are capable of bringing to an experience, which experience could then possibly change our lives. Can you hear the echo of many sermons I have preached in the past here in regard to idolatry? That thing which assumes more importance than God or our life with God, whether that is guilt from some past action, having committed what we consider the unforgivable sin; a substance that has become more important to us than life itself, that is life itself: that is idolatry, a black veil that hangs between ourselves and the jealous God we call severally Yahweh, the Christ, the Spirit, the One True and Sovereign God.
Life itself has built-in components that can awaken us by their surprise appearance, not necessarily wanted or sought. The first and most painful of these components is sorrow, whatever gives rise to the sorrow, often the loss of a loved one. The experience of love can also awaken us in a way nothing else can. Remember how the world and everyone and everything appeared in a new light when love was new? Oh, my, yes. Sometimes it’s need, in the practical sense of not having enough to live on and having our families threatened thereby. Sorrow, love, need––all of these can turn us toward God in spite of ourselves, can rend the veil that separates us from life and others, from God revealing Himself through our everyday life experiences and the people with whom we make our lives.
As Hawthorne’s fictional minister said to those gathered around his deathbed, who included the zealous young minister who attended at the death of the venerable old man, “I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!” I cannot pretend to that second sight, but I can suggest that those human behaviors and characteristics I just mentioned––prejudice, mental laziness, love of comfort, guilt over sin one cannot forgive oneself for––any of these might be worth considering when we think about whether we indeed are wearing black veils that separate us from the greater work we have yet to do, or the vision of the glory of God, which are finally inseparable.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this morning’s second reading from holds the key to all of this, to how those veils can be rended and gotten rid of once and for all. Second Corinthians 3: 16: “Whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” the freedom we would wish for the fictional character of Hawthorne’s minister, or for his real-life counterpart Joseph Moody, for Judas, who did not believe he could be forgiven. “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
Worth noting is that even though Jesus is the key to how the veil is taken away, we do have a role to play. Like Peter in last week’s gospel who made the effort to go back out onto the Sea of Galilee to drop his nets after a long night of unsuccessful fishing, and then being completely surprised by the nets breaking with fish, like Peter we have to make the faith effort of turning, as the scripture says. Turning to the Lord in trust. Then will the veil be taken away and we will see his glory as much as we can bear it.
The other elements that mark the rending of the veil are found in chapter 4, verse 2, “... we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God.” We can do that, and only we and God know how those named things figure in our innermost lives. I’m telling you, friends, Jesus is dying to share his life with anyone who asks for it, and it’s like getting a very personal valentine when God responds to the invitation of a person’s heart, which happens when we begin to genuinely want more. In a fraction of an instant, in a nanosecond, God is there because that One who knows us from the beginning has been waiting with that One’s beautiful and infinite patience for exactly that moment of turning. And there’s no faking the turning, no fooling God. Recall that lovely line in the story of the prodigal son. Luke 15: 20: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion.” We are all that son, that daughter for whose return God waits.
Lent begins this week on Wednesday. In churches of the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran dispensations, people come forward to be marked with the sign of the cross on their foreheads, and that sign made with the ashes of last year’s Palm Sunday palms burned. When applying the ashes, the minister intones, “Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” That does tend to induce perspective, if not good cheer. But then, Lent is not a season of good cheer. It is the season of remembering what the good life of Jesus came to in the end, but then the better news that that was not the end, only a way station. Beyond the seeming end of crucifixion was the resurrection, and beyond the resurrection was the return. I believe that that return happened on pentecost and is as real now as it was 2000 years ago, when the Spirit came down on the Apostles. Jesus is in our midst. No doubt there will be more to come, including an enlarged understanding of how he is in our midst, but for now the glory is all around us, no less than it was on Mount Tabor for Peter, James and John, as they beheld Jesus with Moses and Elijah. This is not a fairy tale. Seemingly too good to believe, but it is true.
Because many of us are still wearing our black veils––for protection, out of fear of the unknown, to cover shame or guilt––so it may be impossible for us to see on each other’s face the Christ’s glory. Let me encourage you in the forty days of Lent to ask God to show you if you are wearing a black veil that separates you from others. If so, what is it? Name it and then count on Jesus to remove it if you are ready to let it go and dare to face others with your real, own face, the glory of God shining in you. I expect that among friends or in the workplace, you’ll hear, “You look different. Have you lost weight? Did you get your hair done? Did you always wear glasses? I can’t put my finger on it but there is something different.”
We can come to the brilliance of a transfiguring Easter sunrise without an obscuring black veil of sin––real or imagined––and separation, by the grace of God and by our own efforts. Think Peter dropping those nets one more time. Those efforts can take a positive form or a negative form, viz., visiting those who need a visit, praying in a disciplined way, volunteering in whatever capacity you can offer the gift of your time, i.e., yourself. On the negative side, sacrifices of self-denial––giving up that third cup of coffee, that second martini, that extra hour in bed––all these small things can help us to be more conscious of God and others. We can make this a life-changing Lent by getting rid of any black veil, denying ourselves, and going out in service to others. Amen.
Sunday, February 7, 2010
Sheepscott Community Church February 7, 2010
Isaiah 6: 1-8
1 Corinthians 15: 1-11
Luke 5: 1-11
There is such an accessible unity among the readings this week. When I read them, I felt as if the Spirit had rolled out a red carpet for me and said, “Now, walk it. And enjoy the view.”
Last week we heard Tony read from Jeremiah where the prophet protests he is too young to speak for God with these words, “Ah, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.” But the Lord admonishes him not to say that, but rather, he must go to everyone the Lord sends him to and say whatever he is commanded to say, and then not to be afraid of them, as the Lord would rescue when there was need of rescue. “Then the Lord reached out and touched my mouth and said to me,” the book of Jeremiah reports, “’Now I have put my words in your mouth.’”
In fact Jeremiah was not a child chronologically, but in life experience––about 22––he knew he was young to take on the task he was being called to at that crucial moment in Israel’s history. He was from a priestly family, as was Isaiah, whose call we heard C.J. read this morning. There is an interesting parallel we can’t help noticing in the calls of these two prophets. God made Jeremiah’s response to the call possible by touching his mouth. In something of the same way the seraph, one of the bright angel seraphim who minister in God’s presence, took a coal or ember with tongs from the altar before God and touched the lips of Isaiah, who had expressed horror at his own sinfulness as a man of “unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips,” and yet he was beholding the glory of the Lord. The seraph said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for,” or purged.
Then could Isaiah hear the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’” And respond with, “‘Here am I. Send me!” There is an exclamation point after that “Send me!” which gives an indication of the elevated state of inspired excitement Isaiah was in when he offered to go. Isaiah was not being spoken to directly in this vision. He is like an observer, but when God asks who will go, he volunteers. He was not impressed into service. As I indicated, both of these prophets were from priestly families, and it was therefore in that milieu of God’s glory in the liturgical world that God revealed himself to the two men because that was how they would recognize him.
By contrast, in this morning’s gospel, Simon Peter was an everyday fisherman, who with his brother Andrew fished the Lake of Gennesaret––another name for the Sea of Galilee or the Sea of Tiberias––along with the brothers James and John, the sons of Zebedee. God met them in their milieu of fishing boats by the sea in the person of Jesus, who issued the call to these men, no less than the Sovereign Lord had called Jeremiah and Isaiah. And just as Isaiah had protested about having unclean lips and living among a people of unclean lips, and so was not worthy to be in the presence of God, Simon said to Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Simon had no illusions about himself and recognized that this person in his boat was at the least someone very special in and by whose company he was undone. The reason for his exclamation, as the gospel relates, was the netbreaking catch of fish he and his brother had at Jesus’ word to drop the net, and that, after a night of completely unsuccessful fishing.
An interesting sidelight about this alleged miracle of the fishes comes from Barclay in his commentary on this gospel. Because it’s one I never heard before, perhaps you will not have heard it either, and, as always, more food for thought can be nourishing in multiple ways. Barclay suggests that there is no need to believe that Jesus created a shoal of fishes just for the occasion. In the Sea of Galilee he pointed out, there were phenomenal shoals that filled the sea and made it look solid in areas as big as an acre. Certainly we can imagine that from the run of the alewives right over in Damariscotta Mills each year. Smelts, another observable shoaling. Barclay suggests that Jesus might have spotted just such a shoal because he had eyes to see. I like that idea: we need the eye that really sees, and Jesus is just the one to show us the way to develop that eye to see the grace and possibility in every situation as it is, not that a situation has to be made extraordinary to know God’s presence and activity in it
Barclay goes on to use the examples of James Watt imagining a steam engine when he saw steam rising from a kettle, and Isaac Newton was the first to think out the law of gravity when he saw an apple fall. The earth is full of miracles for the eye that sees. Currently medical research abounds with discoveries. Louis Pasteur occurs to me. Imagine, his common sense understanding of the importance of the role of hygiene in medicine. Simply washing the hands between operations. How many lives has that saved? And penicillin from mold in a pe(e)tri dish? Some of our own lives have probably been saved by penicillin, or the lives of members of our families. Eyes that can see the possibilities in our everyday lives for improvements for all of us. This is grace. This is the moment of the great number of fish that threatened that day on Lake Genneserat to sink Simon’s boat. Lord, give us eyes to see.
So, getting back to Simon and to Isaiah and Jeremiah as well, all were called in their lives as they were living them into deeper, wider service, whose final outcome they did not know. What they did know is that God would catch them, as I quoted earlier from Jeremiah, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you.” In the same vein, Jesus said particularly to Simon because he had protested about his sinfulness, but also to his brother Andrew and to their fishing partners, James and John, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.”
It needs to be remarked on that Simon was willing to make the effort, to do what Jesus told him to do. I think that he must have been impressed by whatever the teaching was that Jesus did from the boat––the gospel doesn’t tell us the substance of that teaching––and also, he must have been impressed at some level that this local celebrity chose his boat to sit in, to teach from. He might have had a little justifiable pride in that, something he could brag to the neighbors about later. Whatever was behind his decision to put out into deeper water and drop the nets again as Jesus urged him to do, he did make that effort, no doubt tired after having been out all night long fishing. Because he made the effort, because the massive numbers of netbreaking fish were caught, he fell on his knees before Jesus, recognizing that he was entirely out of his league and invited the Lord to leave because he was a sinful man. Impulsive, headstrong, a natural leader with a good heart. Jesus knew what he was doing in calling Simon Peter.
Which brings us to the reading from First Corinthians. There is an echo of the prophets’ and Simon Peter’s protests of unworthiness in Paul’s words this morning. “I am the least of the apostles,” he says, “and do not even deserve to be called an apostle because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” There aren’t many things more convincing than a convert from one end of the spectrum who hurtles down to the other end. There are also sometimes not many things more obnoxious than such a convert, whatever the basis for the conversion, as in a smoker becoming a nonsmoker. Much to celebrate there, but patience with other smokers is not always the outstanding virtue of the newly smokeless. There seems to be more of a built-in humility with those who are newly sober. They know what went into getting that way and goes into staying that way.
But I digress. Paul is the man at whose feet were placed the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen to death––the first martyr for the new Way, as it was called. A pharisee, Saul, as he was then called, was a zealot in persecuting this new Way, which he saw as a blasphemous violation of the Law of God as revealed in and to Israel. As you know, in his zealotry, he went from house to house, dragging out followers of this new Way, and bringing them before the courts of Law for the meting out of justice. In fact he was on his way to Damascus to persecute more of these followers of Jesus when he was knocked off his horse by a blinding light and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul replied. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting, Now get up, go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” That was it for Paul. He didn’t pass Go, he didn’t collect $200, he obeyed and became the apostle to the Gentiles.
I don’t know whether to consider it God’s humor or irony in Paul’s story, perhaps both. In any case, he was instantly converted to the Way he had been persecuting, and became the missionary to end all missionaries. While I think he was a product of his time and culture as far as what I would call his fundamentalist ideas about women are concerned, I yet appreciate deeply his travels and teaching, his work. Each time I reread what he wrote to the churches he and his helpers established, I learn something new––and helpful. It’s important to note that yes, these are inspired words, but that inspiration comes through a faulty vessel: a human being with limited reasoning power, and limited experience and perspective. Important that we reason and think for ourselves when we come up against something that just doesn’t feel right––like women being silent. Trust your gut is my advice.
With Paul we can say about ourselves that we are the least of the apostles, but like him, by the grace of God, we are what we are, and it is enough. God’s grace to us in the midst of our lives as we are living them does not have to be without effect. And where does that call come from? Do you hear it today in church? In the music? In the readings? In the sermon, the sign of peace, the communion? It can come from an individual, from God himself––true thing––out of the circumstances of our lives, from a conviction out of our reading, from seeing a disaster like Haiti or a celebration of human achievement, like the Olympics on television. The sources of the call and the form it takes are as varied and numerous and individual as the people who are called. And we know it when we hear it, not necessarily with our flesh-and-blood ears, but with our inner ears, if you will, our very souls, responsive to the Spirit of God who is the parent of those souls.
Where in our lives are those shoals of fish? Whatever those fish translate to––perhaps opportunities already present to serve our families and communities––when the Spirit of God gives us that enlightened eye to see, and when we are willing to say yes, even when we are tired and would rather not, then our eye can be opened and we will see. This constitutes an act of faith, at least partly an act of faith in our own selves, least of the apostles that we are, God being greater than our leastness and able to make us utterly useful.
An undeniable help in saying yes and in satisfying the deep hunger behind our response and service, the help that can nourish and enable is the communion we share with each other. Today it is the living bread and the cup of life of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. And we are blessed in that. But every Sunday we have the opportunity to come together to strengthen each other in trying to live the Way that Jesus taught. A third time I remind you what the Lord said to Jeremiah. “Do not be afraid of them for I am with you and will rescue you.” And from among the wonderful last lines of this morning’s psalm 138: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me.” For us. Amen