January 26, 2020
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
Somehow, we each ended up here, sitting in a church. I love to ask folks “You could be anywhere on Sunday Mornings. You could be reading The New York Times and enjoying a leisurely brunch. Why Church?” It’s an honest question, one that usually gets pretty interesting answers. What is it that we are doing here that holds value for us? What compels us to follow a poor peasant rabbi from two-thousand years ago?
Somewhere along the line, something began to grow in us, maybe an encounter with the Holy, the feeling of something transcendent, a call to a liberated kind of life, the embrace of a loving community. For some of us, our faith journey involves a moment, or moments, of encountering Jesus inviting us to follow “The Way,” his way. Whatever our journey, whatever words we utilize to discuss what brings us here, we’ve found ourselves among folks following this path together. Some of us have also left folks along the way to walk this path; ending a toxic relationship, leaving our home country, moving to pursue this call to a different way of life. Something, a promise or experience of new life leads us through the doors into this place.
I used to think that Jesus’ first disciples were pretty odd for meeting Jesus for the first time and then just up and leaving everything to follow him. I’m a little bit more cautious, want to know just a bit more of what I’m getting myself into than to just go like that. But this week I’ve been thinking about the folks in my life who have some quality to how they live, who they are, who moved me to take a risk. I’ve met a precious few people in my life that I immediately wanted to be friends with. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I tend to want to hang out a lot, learn people’s stories, share who I am. As an only child, it took me a while to learn how to make friends. I was always a little adult, more comfortable with the company of my parents, relatives, and teachers to my peers, and as I grew up, I realized how important friendships were to me, but also that not everyone was a good match for being a friend. When I was in Middle School, one of the people I was closest to, and trusted the most, decided that, when I shared I was attracted to guys, it was a good idea to tell the whole school. It was a brutal betrayal, and the end of our friendship. It was accompanied by a few moments of being bullied in the halls, of whispers and laughter in the cafeteria. That experience changed me, and made me more cautious about whom I trusted. And yet, every so often, I’d still meet someone who I wanted to be pals with. I couldn’t tell you what it was about these friends, what led to an almost instant connection, but there’s something about who they were, that makes a part of me come alive.
There’s something about Jesus in the Gospel’s that brings forth this kind of connection. Who would just leave their lives and follow this Rabbi? I mean, trouble seems to follow him around. John, after Baptizing him, gets arrested, and, spoiler alert, things do not go well for John or Jesus with the Roman powers. And yet, James and John, Peter and Andrew, with a few words from Jesus, leave it all and follow. They become students of this teacher.
Jesus’ captivating presence is something his followers haven’t always shared. In Seminary my classmates and I were often looking for churches to worship with, and the horror stories we used to share on Sunday evening’s around the dining halls tables were illuminating; stories of folks ignoring the earnest young visitor, of folks who grew up in church, suddenly finding themselves feeling out of place. My classmates and I shared about Sermons that made the congregation feel about as good as a scolded dog, or more often, worship services that felt like there wasn’t any hope or passion left. My friend Andy, after one particularly spiritless service remarked, “I now believe in the Resurrection of the Dead. I was surrounded by folks who seemed like they’d given up the ghost, but when the service ended, they miraculously arose in the sincere hope of the promised Brunch.”
I had my fair share of experiences being underwhelmed by the communities of faith I visited, but then I found my way to having coffee with Pastor Beth Scibienski. Beth was brutally honest about the people she served. She referred to her congregation as the Church of the Uncool. Folks were sometimes odd, or cranky, and there were a number of folks like her husband Pete with chronic illnesses and varying abilities who had to be honest about what they could do, and what they couldn’t. There was no pretense. Plus she told me, the music ministry had regular moments that were a little cringe worthy. But when we first met, after laughing together, she looked at me seriously. “And I love them. There’s something about these people. You have to meet them to understand.” And so I did. I showed up on a Sunday, and immediately folks started coming up to me to learn who I was. Now I grew up in Oregon, so a church full of folks from New Jersey descending upon me was completely overwhelming. Everyone talked so LOUD. They had strong opinions, and not a lot of subtlety. Worship started, and while there was order, there was also a fair amount of chaos. I definitely felt out of place, until we got to the prayers of the people. A young woman in High School got up, one of the Deacons of the church, tasked with caring for the community. Folks shared prayer requests, and she lifted up people to God in prayer by name, knowing who folk’s spouses, children, and neighbors were, even if they didn’t name them, she knew them. And in that moment, there was something about these people, their deep love and concern for one another, their honesty, and I got what Beth had been talking about. The community had a kind of love for one another that was infectious. There was something deeply good about these folks that was intriguing. Whatever it was that bound them together, I wanted to walk the way with them, to have that sense of community, this deep hope. However it was that Jesus was showing up for these folks, I wanted to experience that.
Jesus goes about preaching what the Church calls the Gospel, the Good News of the Kingdom of God coming near to us. The Good News is a promise that God is at work, transforming our lives, our relationships, and our world. The hard part though, for followers of Jesus in 2020 in North America, can be finding what’s so good about the message. Is it really good? Is there something worth risking doing something different for, in what is being shared? Put another way, is there something about the ways we live our life, who we are in the world, that is compelling to others, because of knowing Jesus? More than the way we do worship, more than our music or children’s church, or our coffee hour, is there something about the way we live together that points to Jesus compelling presence that our neighbors might just want to walk the way with us, if even just for a little bit?
I think a lot about what’s good about my life, the life of our community that shows others that the Reign of God’s love has come near, that reminds others that Jesus has come near to them. It has to be honest, and true, not fancy packaging, but authentic. We can’t pretend to be something we’re not. But what I learned in Jersey was that we can be passionately ourselves, recognizing who God has made us to be, in this time and place. It takes real courage to be who we are created to be, and I’ve found that, when we are rooted in the hope and promise that we are loved by God, when we are open to asking the Holy Spirit where and how we can partner building a little bit of heaven on earth, sometimes that’s exactly the Good News folks need to hear. I wonder what the good News is for you, what gives you permission and strength to embrace what makes you human, worthy of love? Because I have to tell you, when I see you being your true selves, I want to be a part of that, and I’m not the only one. We long to be around others that have found ways connect to the Holy, and risking following the Spirit where she goes.
Today after worship, our Ministry Coordination Team is meeting for the first time, and everyone is invited to come be a part of the work of ministry happening in and through this place. There is good work to do. And when that work is empowered, not by a sense of “Have to’s” and “should’s” but instead is sourced from a place of feeling joyful to be with God in the work, there’s something compelling that we can show to a weary world.
I fell in love with Pastor Beth’s church, and spent two years working there. I tried to be my nerdy self with them, sharing my struggles, my triumphs, being my honest self. The first time I preached there, I was incredibly nervous; who was I to talk about God and life? What good News did I have? The week after my sermon, Beth had a surprise waiting for me. She had gathered a group of people she called “team David” to provide some feedback on my preaching, and to share what they heard. Tom Quaely was part of my team. He was someone who was so joyous and full of life, totally no nonsense, and incredibly warm. He talked about my delivery some, and then he smiled mischievously. “I mean, it was an alright sermon, but there was something about it that got to me, even without it being fully polished. You talked about seeing the original Celtic cross in Scotland, and something clicked for me. So I went and got this.” As he reached for his shirt sleeve, I figured he was about to show me a new bracelet. But then he started rolling up his sleeve, and I saw the most surprising responses to anything I’ve ever said from a pulpit. He showed me a beautiful tattoo of a Celtic cross. Whatever I was expecting, this wasn’t it. He shared how he had two tattoos on his arm from different parts of his life that he wanted to visually connect in a new way, a part of his process of integrating his experiences, and something about what I had said made something click. Tom was like that. If something spoke to him, he responded.
I wonder for you, however you encounter the Holy in this place, where does that lead you? I’m not saying we need to get tattoos together, but for you, what does the Good News of God’s love and work in the world lead you to be a part of? How can we support you on that walk, equipping you to share actually good news to the people you encounter? Whatever it is, I hope we can source it from the deepest parts of who you are. Because for James and John, Peter and Andrew, it was the deepest parts of who they were. Jesus helped them to pull from their deepest wells of spiritual strength. As the path of following his way got hard, they had reserves of God’s love and their passion to depend upon. Maybe you haven’t found that yet, and I want to share that it’s ok. The call to follow will come when it is time. In the meantime, let’s be ready, by being who Jesus created us to be, who he dreams of inviting along the Way that leads to new life.