Time for a Change

[audio http://www.opcbrookhaven.org/worship/audio/sermons/01-23-11.MP3]Do we envy these guys? Simon, Andrew, James, and John, Jesus’ first disciples: what is it that they have that we don’t? Jesus walks by the Sea of Galilee, and by Matthew’s retelling, says one thing to them: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people”, and they do. Matthew clearly has no interest in explaining the why of their following, just the fact of it. Do we envy them, their ability to alter the course of their lives, on the turn of a dinar?

There is one conversation as a pastor that I have time and time again. It doesn't matter if the person is a church member or not; it doesn’t matter if they self-identify as a Christian or not. And that one conversation focuses on this question: “Is this all true?”

Faith in God, faith in Christ, seems almost necessarily to lead to doubt. And where there is doubt, there are questions. And where there are questions, I believe, there may be hesitation; but I don’t think that doubt is to be feared. Doubt ultimately strengthens the very faith that it questions.

Eventually most of these conversations about doubt all circle back to one kind of request: “Why can’t I just have one of those sky-splitting, earth-shattering moments of God experience like those people in the Bible did? Where’s my burning bush? Where’s my star over Bethlehem? Where’s my parting of the Red Sea, my healing of disease, my empty tomb? If I had that, then this faith thing would be easy. My doubt would be erased, and certainty would settle in. Where is my encounter with Jesus that makes me drop my nets, leave everything behind, and follow him?”

This is the real challenge to following Jesus, especially in the absence of drama of Biblical proportions. There are some incredible things that Jesus’ demands of those who would dare call themselves disciples. To the rich young ruler, he says, “Sell everything you own, and give the proceeds to the poor.” To another, he says, “Let the dead bury their dead.” And to yet another, he says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter heaven.”

At every turn, Jesus resists domestication. Most of what Jesus says would not keep Hallmark in business. And even we in the church, just when we think we've got him nailed down, there he goes, surprising us again, rising from the dead.

We have no idea what it was about Jesus, or what it was in Simon and Andrew and James and John, that made the call so seemingly easy to follow. Each one of us here has our own guess. At the very least, it is important to note that we don’t have any stories of the fishermen who didn't follow. But even so, for these four, the decision to leave their nets behind was more than just a career change. Other versions of this story have it taking place in a town called Bethsaida, which literally means “The house of fishing.” This wasn’t just a job; this was a communal identity. Generations of their ancestors had fished these shores. To leave all that behind wasn't just a matter of creating a LinkedIn profile; it was an uprooting. There was an urgency to it all: no sooner has Jesus uttered the phrase “Repent”, that is, shift your way, than these four do just that…

It reminds me of the story of a preaching class in seminary. The professor emphasized the importance of naming your sermons, even spending a whole class on it. “Imagine,” he said, “That people are passing by the church on the bus. When they see that sermon title on the sign, it is so life-changing that they jump up, pull the emergency brake, and leap off, running for the church doors. Now: does anybody have a title worthy of that?”

There was a long silence, until finally one student raised their hand: “How about, ‘your bus is on fire!’?”

Somehow, I don’t think, “Follow me” would have passed muster…

We have all seen some version of that preaching student’s suggestion. Last year, as we drove up to the men’s retreat, a sign in front of a little country church announced, “Hell is hot.” It seems that fortunes are to be made on showing “proof” that “The End Is Near.” But they miss the point: “follow me” isn't a threat; it’s an invitation to a whole new life.

I don’t know; I wonder if any of this has any relevance today. This isn’t first century Galilee, where wandering rabbis were a dime a dozen. And this isn't our grandparents’ day when sermon titles like “The Cry of Wisdom” or “Jesus’ Moral Compass” or “Time for a Change” would have had people streaming through the doors. We are at a seismic shift in history.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have to look any further than my own family for confirmation of this. My grandparents were deeply involved in church, as were my parents. And my sister and I were baptized as infants in the Presbyterian church. We sat in worship with our grandparents and were ultimately confirmed into the Presbyterian church. Meanwhile, my uncle left the church – though he would probably say the church left him. My cousins, his kids, were never baptized, something that our grandparents grieved. And yet, they are amazing, moral, kind, generous people – something they have managed without church in their lives.

I’m guessing that my family’s story is pretty typical. But the statistics say it all: 43% of people under forty have a negative view of church. We can argue about the why, but we would do better, I think, to realize the fact of the world in which we live and live prayerfully and faithfully in a way that reminds this world of what we fundamentally believe: God is at work, here, and now.

There are those who say that the church is in the midst of a historical moment unlike any since the Protestant Reformation. And just as the “new media” of the printing press made Martin Luther possible, our world is being changed daily by new technologies and new ways of communicating. Is it time for the church to, dare I say, “change”?

In some ways, we have been standing by the shore, doing what our ancestors have taught us, faithfully tossing our nets into the sea, pulling in a catch, and doing it all over again. And as uprooting as it might be, maybe we need to listen for that voice of Jesus telling us to leave all that behind.

Notice what Jesus doesn't do: he doesn’t say, “Stop fishing.” Instead, he says, “It’s time to fish in a whole new way.” What these first disciples are doing isn't an abandonment of the past; it’s an honoring of it, taking what they have learned so well and putting it to use for God’s glory. What would it look like for us to do the same?

There’s no Cecil B. DeMille-scale scene at work here; and I’m not even sure how many of us know what that means anyway, since the director of the Ten Commandments has been dead for more than fifty years. We may not get our own Red Sea, our own empty tomb, our own star over Bethlehem, our own burning bush, or burning bus, for that matter. But we would do well to remember how those stories turned out: Moses still didn't think he was supposed to lead the Israelites out of slavery; the disciples still holed up in the Upper Room; and the Magi had to stop in Jerusalem and ask for directions. The truth is that we may have already had that moment; unfortunately, we’re no better at recognizing God’s call than they were.

And here’s my problem: I’m much better at asking the questions than I am at providing the answers. I’m a “church” person. And in those periods in my life when I haven’t been, I've missed it, warts and all. I wish I could stand up here and offer you a five point plan; but I can’t, because I don’t know…

The best I can do is offer an invitation, an invitation to prayer and conversation. The prayer is below: I've posted it before, and it is as relevant now as it was then, something to guide daily prayer.

There is also the invitation to conversation. Whether you have read something compelling or deeply annoying in what I've said, I invite you to post your thoughts below.