Learning to Fish: Sermon for January 21, 2018

When I was back in high school I saw a movie called “A River Runs Through It”. If you’ve seen it you know it’s about two brothers who live in Montana in the 1920’a and the story of their family. And you know that it’s all told through the lens of fly fishing. The brothers, and their father, are shown in shot after shot, knee deep in a river, casting lines against a beautiful backdrop.

It always looked so peaceful to me; almost Zen like. And I decided that if I ever lived in a place where you could fly fish, I would learn. So when I found myself living in the mountains of Vermont, I decided to give it a try. I went down to the fly fishing store, brought a fly rod and reel, took a lesson on land, found a river.

I confidently waded in, and cast my line. The fly fell right on the surface of the water, the trout rose up immediately to take it, and I reeled it in all set against the backdrop of beautiful green mountains and a blue sky.

No, not really. Everything up to the point where I found the river is true. What really happened is this: I stumbled my way down the bank, half fell into the river, saved the cell phone I had somehow thought it was a good idea to bring at the last, finally found a place to stand in the river, tried to cast, got my line stuck in a tree, fell in the river again, and finally, cold and wet, gave up for the day.

The next time wasn’t much better. Neither was the next, or the next, or the next. Fly fishing went from the relaxing hobby I had imagined to a vexing fixation that frustrated me every time I tried to the point where I nearly gave up. What was the point in learning how to fish, anyway?

It’s fishing that I think about when I hear today’s story. At least four of the twelve disciples were fishermen, after all. One day two of them, the brothers Simon (later Peter) and Andrew were out on the water casting the net. Jesus said to them “follow me and I will make you fish for people”. Immediately they dropped the nets and followed. And then just down the road they met another two brothers, James and John, who were out fishing with their father. Jesus called to them, and immediately they followed too.

I’ve always been struck by how readily they did that. All of a sudden, just like that, they dropped their fishing nets and got out of the boat. I would like to think I would do the same if Jesus came to town and said “follow me”, but the reality is I’m not so sure. I think it would take some convincing for me to leave everything I knew and loved. I’d have to know that this was the real deal.

But then I remember that these four fishermen, they got to see Jesus there in the flesh. They experienced him in a way that you and I do not. They were told directly by him that now they were going to be doing another kind of fishing, not for what lives in the water, but for other people.

Meanwhile, you and I, we get asked to do the same thing, only without the benefit of having Jesus walking right there with us in the flesh. And, if you’re here, some part of you wants to follow him. Some part wants to put down the nets and get out of the boat, and do what he asks. But unlike those disciples, we have to learn to do that in the lives we already know, without the benefit of being able to turn to Jesus and say “what do I do?”

That can be hard. A friend of mine told me a story a few years back. He was in a job where he was highly valued; one he liked a lot. He knew that he was on his way towards a promotion. But one day, his boss asked him to do something that was unethical. For a few days he wrestled with it. He told himself that everyone did it. He reasoned that he probably wouldn’t be caught. He rationalized that doing it would get him the promotion, and that once he got it, he would have more power to change things for the better.

And maybe all of those things were true. But on the other hand, he knew it was wrong. He knew that doing it would eat away at his sense of integrity, and self-respect. And he was also a person of faith, someone who wanted to follow Jesus. And he knew that in that moment he was called to do the right thing, the hard thing, and to let go of the nets and walk away.

That was a hard call. Because we all hold onto our own nets and fishing lines. We all clutch tightly to them, and the promise they hold. These are the tools of our trade, the things that can bring fish into our boats, and money into our pockets. But there are times when Jesus tells us to drop them, and to follow him instead

The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer left a safe and comfortable teaching job in an American seminary to go back to his native Germany. Bonhoeffer helped to lead the resistance to Hitler, and was later martyred for his role. Before that, though, he famously wrote that there is a “cost of discipleship”. Following Jesus means that sometimes we have to let go of what feels comfortable, or secure. Being a disciple means making a choice every day about what you will hold onto, and what you will leave behind

It also sometimes means making a choice between being comfortable, and being uncomfortable. That’s what it means to be courageous: to choose the harder right, even when it feels hard.

I was thinking of that yesterday. I know from your Facebook many of you attended a women’s march. And marching for what you believe in is an important act. For many of you, it is even an act of faith. You are speaking out because this is what it means to you to follow Christ. But what happens when the crowd is gone, the signs and pink hats are put away, and it’s just you, standing in a boat, holding on to nets that offer you a sense of security?

What happens on Monday morning, when you are back in the office, standing alone and not in a supportive crowd? What happens in the moment when you hear someone say something that is unfair, or bigoted, or untrue? What happens when you have the option to stay silent, and just ignore it, or to speak up, and confront it?

The moments when we are asked to choose between comfort or action? Those are the moments in our lives when we are called by Jesus to follow him. What we do next, whether we drop the nets or we hold on, will tell us whether or not we are willing to be disciples.

I think back to learning how to fish. I kept trying for a couple months, and I got nowhere fast. And then one day I went back to the store where I’d bought my equipment. I asked for help, and a very kind guide showed me what I was doing wrong. I practiced. I spent a lot of time in my front yard, practicing casting, and drawing strange looks from every car that drove past.

But then, one day, I went back to the river. I waded in without falling. I cast without getting tangled in a tree. My fly hit the water, and a trout rose up to take it. I reeled it in, surrounded by the most beautiful backdrop, took it off my line, and let it swim back out into the current. Somehow I had gone from a splashing, bumbling mess to someone who actually looked like they knew what they ewer doing.

I think about those four fishermen, those four disciples, whom Jesus called that day. They knew how to fish, but did they know how to follow? Scripture tells us that for quite some time, they were splashing and bumbling messes too. They got it wrong. They felt fear. They ran away when things got hard. They even pretended they didn’t know Jesus.

But then, later, they got it right. They kept trying. They kept learning. They kept practicing their casts and wading into new rivers. And in the end, those disciples, those messy and clumsy followers, they became the ones who kept the faith alive. They shared it with others who shared it with others who shared it too. And because of them, today here we are.

Later in the service we are baptizing a new baby. He is going to have his splashing and bumbling days too. So are we, by the way. But it’s our job to teach him how to fish. It’s our work to support him as he learns. And it’s our duty to teach him how to be courageous. We start with this: by teaching him that some nets are worth dropping, and some adventures are worth going on.

Remembering the Stones: Sermon for May 18, 2014

Acts 7:55-60
7:55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

7:56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

7:57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.

7:58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

7:59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

7:60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (copyright, US Holocaust Museum)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (copyright, US Holocaust Museum)

When I was in seminary the most dreaded class was preaching. Many people have an aversion to public speaking, future ministers included, so that’s not surprising. But the word around campus was that preaching class would rip you apart before putting you back together. There were plenty of stories about feedback and how your sermons would be videotaped and you would be forced to watch yourself as you stumbled over readings or swayed back and forth in the pulpit.

So on the first day of preaching class, we all walked in and sat uneasily at our tables. And one of the preaching professors got up and started reading stories like this one from the book of Acts. They were stories about how the early Christians were beaten or imprisoned or even killed for their faith. And at the end he turned to us and said “that’s what they endured to preach the Gospel…I think you’re going to be just fine.”

Today’s story is not an easy one. It’s the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, which means the first person to die for their Christian faith. He is called to trial and asked about his faith. And instead of lying or recanting, he tells them about what he believes about Jesus. And they respond by stoning him.

The book of Acts is full of stories like this. It’s a book about how those early disciples in the uncertain days were learning to be the church together, and were facing the very real consequences of what it meant to claim their faith. And it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from church.

It’s funny, because sometimes I think the modern church needs to go back and read Acts from time to time. We need to remember our roots. And we need to remember those stones. Sometimes we need to see that stark reminder. Sometimes we need to know that ours is a faith for which peopled died.

The reality is that the faith of the early church was a lot different than the faith of American, middle-class Christianity. No one is waiting at our church doors to stone us. We are not losing anything except maybe an extra hour of sleep by being here. We are under no threat being here. And really, if you want to, you can walk out the church door today and not think about your faith again until next Sunday morning.

That’s our luxury. But sometimes that is also our problem.

We live in a culture where almost everything else is done for our convenience or pleasure. We expect to have things our way. We demand that we be served. We expect that things will be done the way we want. We don’t like being inconvenienced. And we are often all-too-quick to remind those we believe are there to serve us that there are other options down the road.

And sometimes that attitude even finds its way to our churches. We become not disciples, but consumers, looking to be fed, or be inspired, or be made happy. The church becomes a vehicle for meeting our own needs and wants.

But here’s the hard truth that stories like today’s remind us of: the church does not exist for us. This building is not here for us. This worship service is not about us. The committee meetings and decisions we make are not about us.

Instead, the church, and everything about Christian life, is about Jesus and his will for us and for the world.

That’s a little distressing to hear, perhaps. Because it goes against almost everything else we encounter in our culture. This isn’t about us and the way we want it. It’s not about our comfort and convenience. It’s not about whether or not things fit into our schedule or preferred timeline. It’s about Jesus. We are not the served. We are the servants.

And sometimes we are called to make great sacrifices as a result. And sometimes we are asked to put aside our self and find our identity in Christ instead.

Stephen did that in a literal way. The Scripture right before the passage we read today tells of Stephen being on trial, and being asked whether the charges against him, about whether he followed Christ, were true. And Stephen responds with a long speech in which he testifies to his faith in Christ, and even tells those gathered some hard truths about what it means to follow God’s will, and how they had often dropped the ball.

That’s when they decided to stone him, by the way. Even though his words were true, hearing the truth enraged them and they had to literally kill the messenger.

And yet, even in his dying moments, he was a witness to something greater than himself. Scripture tells us that as Stephen was being stoned, there was a young man watching. He was one of the people persecuting Stephen. The others gave him their coats to watch as they killed Stephen. And he stood there, watching what it meant to have faith in Christ, and what the consequences could be.

His name was Saul, but we know him all this time later as Paul, the great messenger of Christ’s life and love. He was not converted to faith that day. That came later on the Damascus road. But before he ever believed, he understood the potential costs of being Christ’s disciple.

Maybe there’s something to that. Maybe we should be more up-front in the church about the potential costs of following Christ. Maybe we should have a sort of disclosure process before someone decides to join, not to discourage them, but to just be honest. Because, if we are all being honest about this, following Christ means that you are going to lose your life.

I don’t mean literally. At least not in the sense that Stephen did. We have that luxury now. But if you are doing this Christian faith thing honestly, you are going to lose your life. You are going to lose the illusion that you are in control. You are going to lose the perception that it is all about you and your needs. And you are going to lose the right to have it your way. You are going to lose the life you know, and maybe the life you have always wanted.

That’s the cost of discipleship. That phrase, “cost of discipleship”, comes from a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a German Lutheran pastor who managed to get out of his home country and secure a seminary teaching post in New York City when the Nazis rose to power. He was safely stateside, and out of harms way.

And yet, he did not feel that he was doing what Christ had called him to do with his life. And so, he went back to Germany, and worked as a Christian pastor to oppose Hitler and his regime. When he went back, he knew in a real way that he was signing his own death certificate. And yet, he went anyway. Because, like Stephen, he felt like he had no choice. And like Stephen, in the end he too became a martyr.

That’s not a very cheerful story, I know. But, for me at least, it is an inspiring one. It’s good to have examples of selfless faith. And it’s good to have reminders that sometimes our faith calls us to do the things that we do not want to do, even to the point of losing the life we know.

For you and I, hopefully, we will never have to make a choice to literally give up our lives in order to follow Christ. But we will have to make, everyday and in dozens of ways, a choice to give up the life we know, the life we want, and the life we hope for, for something else.

The good news is that the “something else” is something better.

Because Christ doesn’t call us to give up our life and follow him for no reason at all. He doesn’t call us to something hard in order to make us miserable and to hurt us. Christ calls us from the lives we know and imagine to a life that is unimaginable in its meaning and its depth.

No, we no longer get to have it “our way”. Now we get to have it Christ’s way. And, if we really open ourselves up to that, we find that it is more incredible than we could have imagined.

But that day that he watched Stephen die, do you think Paul believed that? Do you think he was saying, “I want to follow that guy?” No. And I wouldn’t have wanted to either.

But when that blinding light finally hits you, like it did Paul, you realize that you can do no other, and that life itself is a small price to pay for a life of meaning.

So, what price are you willing to pay? What is the cost of discipleship for you? I’m not talking about buying grace or anything like that. You can’t do that. But, what are you willing to turn over to God in order that you might live a life of gratitude for the gifts you have been given? What are you willing to lie down on the ground, or cast off like a stone, so that you might follow him into something else?

What are you holding onto, and what are you willing to let go of in order to claim something better? It’s a question worth asking for all who would follow Christ, and it’s a question that can change our lives.

May our lives be changed by Christ’s call to discipleship, and may we choose to pay the cost. Amen.

Dreading Lent: An Alternative Proposal

IMG_2223A few weeks ago I was standing in the check-out line of our village market. The selection of cards by the cash register had just made their changeover from Valentine’s Day to Easter, despite the fact Lent had not yet even begun. That’s not a huge surprise, of course. The Easter candy has been out for weeks now.

But on this day, one of the cards struck my eye. The front read “The best part about Easter is the Lent is over.” They lost the theologian in me right there because, oddly enough, I’ve always thought that the best part of Easter was the whole Resurrection thing. But I opened the card anyway and found this in the center: “I really hate giving up stuff I love”.

My first thought was, “then you’re really going to hate Christianity”. I say that because, as Bonhoeffer and others have reminded us, discipleship is costly. Jesus wasn’t kidding around when he told his disciples to sell all they owned and follow him. Sacrifice is woven into the very fabric of Christian faith.

But my second thought was about how so many people believe that “giving something up” is what Lent is all about. If you are around church folks at all the week before Lent you’ll hear the question “What are you giving up for Lent?” more than a few times. And you’re likely to also hear a list of everyday items: meat, sugar, soda, tobacco, alcohol, chocolate, or even Facebook.

And, if that works for you, go for it. If giving up some sort of indulgence deepens your spiritual walk during these forty days, then no one should tell you not to do it. But, if you’re like most people I know, giving something up for forty days feels more like running a marathon.  For that reason too often people of faith approach Lent with the dread with which most people approach the dentist. By the time they get to Easter Sunday they can’t wait to tear into a Snickers bar or sign back on to Facebook again. And sometimes they have a sense that they’ve run a long race, but nothing has really changed.

Again, maybe it’s different for you, and that separation from potato chips or red meat has deepened your spiritual life in a meaningful way. But, if it hasn’t, I want to suggest that maybe “giving up” is not the only way to observe a holy Lent.

What if instead of giving up you took something on? What if you added dedicated prayer time each morning? Or, what if you committed to reading a couple of chapters of Scripture each day? What if you took on the challenge of going to worship every week during Lent, with no excuses?

And, what if you took something on that could, in some small way, change the world? What if you gave an hour each week to volunteering at the food bank? Or what if you gave up using plastic bottles in order to help the environment? What if you drove less and walked more?

Of course all of these things still require some degree of “giving up”. If you pray or read Scripture, you may have to “give up” some time you’d normally spend online or watching television. If you volunteer some extra hours you may have to give up a few hours of downtime. If you make an environmentally conscious choice you may have to give up the convenience of driving somewhere quickly or grabbing a bottled water.

IMG_2224But you may find you’re giving up other things too. You may find you’re giving up your feelings of hopelessness. You may find you’re giving up your feelings of helplessness. Your feelings of isolation. Your feelings of disconnection. Your feelings of insignificance.

All of those can be pretty incredible things to give up for Lent.

In the end, Lent is not about a forty day marathon of deprivation. It’s about looking inside, finding the places where we feel disconnected to God, and taking up the challenge of going deeper. It’s about walking with Jesus for forty days because we are so overwhelmed by his love for us. And, it’s about preparing for what is next. Because the empty tomb is not the finish line. It’s just the start of a long and wonderful journey. And Lent is a time to get ready.