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Packing for the Journey: Sermon for January 22, 2017

A few weeks ago I talked about how my parents were selling their house and moving into a new place with my oldest sister, and how I’d gone to visit them to help them with some preparations. I told you the story of my now-worthless baseball card collection. I’m still processing that one, by the way. And today, I have another story about the same trip.

By the time I was done sorting through things, I had a few boxes of stuff from my childhood that I wanted to keep. Most of it I felt fine sending to myself through the mail, but some of it I didn’t even want to risk checking in my luggage. And so, I put it all in my carry-on backpack.

The backpack was heavy. Over fifty pounds. And it contained an assortment of treasures: old photographs, one of my favorite family Christmas decorations, some cufflinks my dad had given me that my mom gave him decades ago, and, the bulk of the extra weight, my childhood coin collection. All of this was carefully backed along with my laptop and charger cords for my various electronics. And it all just barely fit. I zipped up the bag and prayed that it would hold.

I was thinking about that while reading today’s story about Jesus calling the first disciples. He was walking down by the shore, and two fishermen named Simon and Andrew were there. They were casting their nets out into the sea, and they were holding on to them. Jesus tells them, “follow me” and he says, “I’ll make you fishers of people.” And they follow. Right after he goes past James and John, who are in their boat with their father, fixing their nets. And he calls to them. And they leave it all behind too, and follow him.

I’ve always been amazed at that story because of this detail: when the fishermen are called, they drop everything, and they follow Jesus. They literally drop the nets they are fishing with, and they go.

I don’t think I’d have been that quick. Had I been in my boat fishing, and this guy came to the shore and asked me to follow him, I don’t know if I would have. And, I really don’t think I would have just dropped everything and gone. I would have needed to make a packing list. I would have needed to get my backpack and fill it to capacity with everything I could possible need, and everything I would miss. I would have needed some time.

I don’t think that’s uncommon.

Most of us are a little like that. We get very good at keeping the stuff we think we are going to need. We stuff it in closets, and under beds, and some rent out storage units for the stuff they are sure they are going to need somewhere down the line. We don’t want to let anything that could be useful slip through our fingers.

Even the most organized among us do this. My parents had to move every few years during the first twenty-some years of their marriage. They would get a new assignment and they would have to uproot and go. They were always give old clothes and other things to charity because they didn’t need it and didn’t want it sitting around.

But one day in college I went up into the attic to get something. And not much was there, but I saw sitting there this pair of ice skates. And we were in Florida at the time. There was never going to be an occasion where the pond froze over and any of us could use them. But somewhere along the line they’d just become something that got carried from move to move even when we didn’t need them anymore.

I tell that story because we all have some sort of ice skates in the attic. We all have things we just hold on to without thinking about it. They take up space in our homes, and in our heads, and in our hearts. And we sometimes don’t realize how much effort we spend carrying them around.

Now I don’t just mean material things. I also mean the emotional things. The outdated ideas. The stubborn, angry, resentments. I mean the things that, like those nets the fishermen left behind, tie us up and trap us. There are things we cling to so tightly that we can never pry ourselves away from them.

Think of those things, and then think about the nets that the fishermen left behind. When Jesus said, “follow me”, do you think for a split second they looked down at those nets and said, “Do you think we’re going to need these?”

And when you think about it, the nets probably weren’t all that heavy. They could have thrown them into a backpack and carried them around. They may have thought, “well Jesus said we’re still going to be fishing” and decided they needed to keep them to be on the safe side.

But if they had, somewhere, a few days down the road, those nets would have started to feel heavy. They would have gotten frayed. Or they would have started tripping over them. They would have stopped being resources, and started being burdens. One more thing tying them down on the journey.

When I got to the Richmond airport I staggered to the security checkpoint with my backpack, and put it in the scanner. And here’s the thing about getting a bag x-rayed that contains a lot of wires, like the ones for my phone and computer, and a lot of metal objects, like a coin collection. It doesn’t look good.

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My bag, as unpacked by the TSA.

A minute later I had been pulled to the side, along with my backpack. And as a TSA agent very firmly told me to not touch my own bag, he got to work pulling each and every object out. There, laid out on a desk in the middle of the airport, were all the objects I had so carefully packed. The cufflinks and the silver dollars. The photos and the laptop. The book I meant to read on the trip but never did. The Christmas banner with bells that my mom had always hung by the front door.

And as I looked down, at all these memories of my life, all I could think about what this: How am I ever going to get all of that stuff back in that bag?

I got it back in. But standing there stuffing a bag in the Richmond airport while the TSA watched suspiciously was not my finest moment. And at the end of the day, I had to laugh at myself, and at my fear of letting go, even for a brief flight, of things that I’d lived quite happily without for years.
I think about the disciples and how all of them had to leave something behind in order to make their journey. They had to decide what they wouldn’t need anymore, and set it down, or give it away, or leave it for others. And so they learned to stop carrying what was holding them back.

Last week just before middle school youth group somehow this story somehow came up, and one of the youth said something profound that I had never really thought about before. What if Simon Peter and Andrew hadn’t been the first people Jesus had asked to follow him? What if there had been others who just couldn’t manage to drop their nets and leave it all behind? And what if we didn’t know their stories because, in the end, there wasn’t really all that much to write about?

Those aren’t bad questions. I suspect they could be right. And, truth be told, that terrifies me. Because if Jesus Christ himself appeared and said “follow me” and people didn’t do that, it makes me wonder whether I might do the same thing. Would I be so tied up in what doesn’t matter that I missed my big chance to do what God asked me to do?

More importantly, what if we, not just as individuals, but as the church, missed that chance too?What if somewhere in that holding on to what we thought mattered most, what we thought we really needed, Jesus called to us to follow, and we were holding on to so much fear and baggage and hesitation that we couldn’t?

I ask that because I think we are approaching a time in history when it’s going to be important to respond quickly to Jesus’ call and to travel lightly enough to be able to move. And so it’s time to look into our backpacks, both as individuals and as a community, and clear out what’s weighting us down. Things like the ice skates in the attic. Things like the fishing nets on dry land. Things like the spiritual clutter of debilitating fear and an overabundance of caution. Things we don’t need.

Christ still calls people. He still comes down to the shore of our lives and tells us to “follow him”. But he moves fast. He’s got a lot of work to do. So when Christ comes to us and tells us to “follow him” to the next thing he has in store for us, will we be ready? Will we be able to drop the nets and go? Or will we be left standing there, holding on to what cannot save us? The choice, literally, is in our hands. Amen?

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