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.

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.


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?

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.