“Follow Me” Candidating Sermon for The Colchester Federated Church, January 22, 2017, Third Sunday after Epiphany (Matthew 4:12-23)
There’s a story that one day in the South Pacific, a ship captain saw smoke coming from a hut on an uncharted island. When the crew arrived on the island they were met by a shipwreck survivor. He said, “I’m so glad you’re here! I’ve been alone on this island for more than five years!” The captain replied, “If you’re all alone on the island why do I see three huts?” The survivor said, “Oh. Well, I live in one, and go to church in another.” “Well, what about the third hut?” asked the captain. “That’s where I used to go to church.”
Church people can really be something, can’t we? Don’t you wonder what Jesus would think of where the Christian Church is today given how his humble movement within Judaism began on the shores of the Sea of Galilee? It all started with a couple of fishermen. Peter and Andrew are casting their nets into the sea and James and John are mending their nets in a boat with their father. Along comes Jesus with his: “follow me, and I will make you fish for people” and they leave everything behind to actually go do it.
There’s some questions about whether or not Jesus had met Peter, Andrew, James, and John before he called them to be his disciples. John Rosseau and Rami Arav wrote this book Jesus and His World combining archaeology and Middle Eastern culture to better understand the world Jesus lived in. They contend that Jesus was used to fishing, boats, and sailing. He even may have slept through a storm on the sea when the professional fishermen were the ones who were afraid! They relate that, “Perhaps Jesus was connected with the fishing industry before his baptism by John. There is no reason to doubt that he had been trained as a tekton (carpenter or construction worker, Matt. 13:55, Mark 6:3), so he may have worked in boat construction or repairs in a harbor of the Sea of Galilee. Some of his acquaintances there became his disciples when he began his own ministry.”
It could have been that Jesus had never met these people before and he called out to them and they came running to help him fish for people. Or maybe Jesus knew these guys because he helped build the boats they sailed or repaired their boats when something was broken. They trusted him with their livelihood. Maybe he told them about how he wanted to teach, heal, and create God’s kingdom on earth when they had a lunch break or just went for a swim to cool down on especially hot days. Jesus showed them that God is love and we are to love one another. These fishermen began to sense that this Jesus of Nazareth was someone special. One day he was ready to go about God’s work in the world. As his friends cast their nets into the sea and fixed up some broken nets he called out, “follow me!” And they knew the time had come. Those fishermen dropped everything, and left their old lives behind to walk beside Jesus.
Now consider where we are today. There are around 2 billion Christians in the world. There are three branches of Christianity: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant and by some counts there are thousands of denominations within those branches. Christians believe and practice differently, we baptize, ordain, and celebrate communion differently. We have made our faith a whole lot more complicated over the centuries that’s for sure. Today is actually Ecumenical Sunday—a day in the Liturgical Calendar where we contemplate all the good that we can do as Christians by working together. It’s the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity where Christians recognize that denominations may be unique, but we’re in this thing together. We contemplate how we treat people of other denominations and ask where can we find common ground? We pray that the day will come when we truly welcome and are welcomed by people of all Christian denominations. For Jesus prayed that they may all be one.
The UCC and the ABC both belong to The World Council of Churches (there’s 348 denominations total in the WCC), and it’s a worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness, and Christian service. Ecumenical conversations used to be mostly centered around who gets ordained, how we celebrate sacraments, and past historical differences and wrongs committed by one side or the other. Now conversations tend to center on issues of social justice—still difficult topics to discuss when we are increasingly more polarized and the differences between various denominations are vast.
Though can’t we recognize that all Christians have Jesus at the center of our faith? We may have different ways of understanding Jesus—but he’s still there! We still have Jesus calling out to all of us across our differences, “follow me.” But we have various ideas about what it means to follow in the Way of Jesus Christ. We won’t always agree on what that looks like. Hence that fictional crazy guy who felt the need to build another church for himself on that deserted island!
What makes the Church such a remarkable place is that we can find ways to come together despite our differences. In my worship class in seminary, we would often start class with a hymn. People would sometimes shout out a request and we’d leaf through our UCC New Century Hymnals and find that hymn, singing it together. One day someone shouted out a request, and I’m not telling you what hymn because I don’t want you to be biased. No one groaned or complained except our professor. She said, “Oh, I hate this hymn, it drives me crazy.” The student who requested it looked defeated, but our professor quickly recovered herself. She told him, “It’s true that I hate this hymn. But since you love it, I’ll sing my heart out because you’re my brother in Christ and I love you for that. That, my friends, is church.” It was an incredible moment. Our professor modeling for us singing a hymn you don’t even like with gusto because your brother in the community loves that hymn and you love him—that is church at its best.
We come together as a Christian community knowing that we don’t all see the world exactly the same. We don’t all like the same hymns or agree on every social justice initiative or who makes the best dishes at the church potluck. Yet we are united in our desire to follow Jesus like those first disciples on the shores of the Galilean Sea. Following in the footsteps of Jesus helps orient our lives. Make no mistake, these are chaotic times in which we are living. And I won’t presume to know how everyone is feeling on this weekend of the Presidential Inauguration, which let me just say is an interesting weekend to be Candidating in a new congregation.
Though whenever events in our country or the world seem overwhelming it’s helpful to know that we can do good wherever we are. We’re not powerless to make the world a better place. We can let our lights shine here in Colchester, Connecticut. There’s this great message that’s often attributed to the Talmud that relates: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” It’s helpful to think about the good we can do here in our community because we can do good in our community, seriously. We’re not obligated to complete all that good work—but we sure aren’t free to abandon it either. No matter what person or which political party is ruling our federal government the call for Christians to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God remains. It’s just who we are as followers of Jesus Christ. It’s just what God calls us to do. And it’s up to us as a community of faith to figure out how that looks in our particular context. Thank goodness we have each other and that we don’t have to go about this work alone.
Never forget that Jesus began his ministry by recruiting people to be about God’s loving-kindness beside him. He couldn’t teach about the love of God or embody that love if no one was there for him to interact with. Never forget that Jesus began his ministry by telling his friends, “follow me and let’s go fish for some more people!” Jesus needed them. And they needed Jesus. The call of the disciples is the beginning of this relationship Jesus had with his followers that would develop and deepen over time. They could look to Jesus as an example of what a life devoted to God truly looked like. They could look to Jesus to see the embodiment of compassion. We can look to Jesus to understand how God wants us to live our lives here and now too.
By now this is actually my fourth time in Colchester and it feels nice to not be sneaking around anymore to keep a low profile. Wearing a trench coat and sunglasses was getting old let me tell you! Seriously though I have loved seeing the Kindness Rocks around town. These rocks that have messages of hope, love, and support scattered in various locations so that people who may be having a hard time can pick one up or pass it along to a friend who could use some moral support or just admire the rock gardens—it’s just great. Colchester is kind is the message that someone like me who’s visited a few times lately can so clearly see. And it’s what I could feel when getting to really know the Search Committee and touring the town and meeting all of you this weekend.
In many ways (from our Christian perspective) that’s good discipleship—spreading kindness through simple acts. It’s how Christians can treat someone new. For small acts of kindness can make a big difference in a person’s life. And it’s important to wonder what it is that you and I can do this week to make the world a little kinder.
In the end, Jesus gathered people and invited them along on a journey of faith with the simple request: “follow me.” Following in his Way together remains a worthy endeavor. Because when we are part of a church community—where we are stronger side by side, where we support one another in our struggle for justice and peace, where we walk humbly with one another and with God—well, there’s no telling what we can accomplish together. Thanks be to God. Amen.