Sermon for January 25, 2015                     Verlee A. Copeland, Preaching

Texts: Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20



Whenever I travel, there’s always somebody who thinks I’ll want to sit with the only other religious person in the room. They’ll usually say something like, “Oh, here comes John Smith, a youth pastor from Idaho. I’ll move so you can talk to him.” I’m actually much more interested in the atheist stock-broker from Manhattan, or the non-practicing Jewish writer from Chicago, or the spiritual but not religious artist from Vermont. We get into the best discussions about life meaning and purpose. Once they learn that I’m a pastor and have gotten out the way the requisite statement about how they’re not really religious we can move forward to topics that interest us both.

         Maybe my host moved so that she wouldn’t have to sit by the youth pastor from Idaho herself, or maybe she moved because she found me boring, or maybe she was just being nice, I’ll never know. Nevertheless, I found myself slightly annoyed by the rearrangement. Before we had a chance to swap ministry stories, our host asked us to go around the room and introduce ourselves. When it came to Pastor John, I was surprised to hear him say, “I run a family fishing Expedition Company. We fish all over western North America, from the Rockies up through Canada.” Now I was interested. I love to fish. “I’d like some information from you,” I said. “I’d be interested in learning about your work for our family and friends.” “You’d be welcome,” he said, but then he winked. “Keep in mind that we’re a fishing company. We go out fishing and play a lot of family games like Red Rover and Duck, Duck Goose, but we don’t actually catch anything.”

         It was then that I remembered why I sometimes don’t enjoy talking with some pastors. You see, it’s tempting when pastor’s get together to start talking about all our programs: the stunning Sunday School curricula for children, the innovative worship style for youth. Who can resist sharing how much money we’ve raised or what building we’ve renovated or how many people come to church on an average Sunday morning?

         While all that is interesting, and necessary even, I somehow imagine Jesus asked a different question when he approached the fishermen so long ago on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Instead of asking about their fishing company, their philosophy, their nets, their bait, their budget, he asked, “What did you catch?”

         “What did you catch?” Jesus was looking for people willing to catch. And when he found them, he said, “Come, follow me. I will make YOU fishers of men.” Jesus is searching still.

         This Jesus who searched for people willing to catch for the Kingdom of God would have loved York, Maine. We’re a fishing people. We fish for striped bass and squid, haddock and clam, lobster and cod. We may love the comradery of swapping stories with a fishing buddy off the Wiggly Bridge or out to sea, but most of us return home slightly disappointed if we don’t at least get a bite.

         When Jesus calls his disciples, he’s looking for fishing folk who are willing to catch people for new life in Christ. He wants to know, “Will it be you?” This is the question, isn’t it? We sometimes imagine that Jesus’ call to the twelve was not unlike what we describe today as the call to ministry. We act as if this call, issued by God through Jesus comes to pastors and preachers alone. We hear a minister say, “I was called to ministry as a twelve year old when my Sunday School teacher asked me if I’d ever thought about going into the ministry.” Ministers sometimes reinforce this view that OUR call is more special than anybody else’s.

God calls some of us for the distinct role of administering the sacraments and preaching the gospel and caring for the sick and feeding the poor to be sure. But this same God calls YOU to embody the joy of new life in Christ through whatever it is that God has created YOU to do. If asked by someone who knows you are Christian, how would you describe God’s call to you?

         One of my colleagues tells a beautiful story of call from another religious tradition. Down in the city there are two Muslim brothers who run what locals call the best car garage in the country. Everyone who comes in is treated as royalty. Refreshments are served and the mechanics listen with focused attention to whatever ails the vehicle. They offer consolation and encouragement, they promise relief for the suffering. They set about the task of repairing and restoring the car as if it were commissioned to bear the greatest leader in the world. Locals even look for things wrong with their car so they have an excuse to drop by. One day my colleague asked what made them go so far out of their way to serve people. Both grinned and exclaimed. “It’s simple. We repair every car as if it were to carry Mohammed himself.”

         Those of us who bear the name of Christ are called by God to treat every person with compassion and generosity as if we were serving Jesus himself. We do this as schoolteachers and innkeepers, as business owners and mothers, as visitors of the sick and bookkeepers.

         Each of us has within us the imprint of God, created in God’s own image, for a unique purpose necessary for the fulfillment of God’s kingdom on earth. When we follow the one who calls us by name, Christ shows us how to go fish.

We go fish when we sit by the one in hospice care waiting to go to glory. We go fish when we pray for someone in trouble. We go fish when we search deep for something charitable to say about someone we don’t like much, and they no doubt search deeply to say something charitable about us. We go fish when we allow God to create in us the still waters that bring comfort and peace to those in need of it. We go fish when we say “that’s not funny” to a joke that denigrates the race, religion, country of origin, gender or sexual orientation of another just for kicks. We come up empty-handed when we focus too much on the equipment of our faith and not enough on the results of living it.

         The risk of acting as if God has no real call or claim upon us has never been higher. The latest copy of The Christian Century reports that every day in America, nine churches close their doors for good. That same issue also reminds us that the fastest growing category of religious belief in America is “none”, and that for the first time in American history, confessing Christians are in the religious minority.

         It’s hard for those of us who live in historic New England to respond to the sense of urgency with which Christ calls us. We have a tendency to act as if we will be here forever just because we have been here as long as anyone can recall. That could not be further from the truth. No one would EVER have believed that the Roman Empire would fall, or the World Trade Center for that matter. None of us in our childhood would have dreamed of a day when only 28 of the 180 churches in Maine can afford a full time pastor for their church alone, a story repeated all over the country. But that is currently the case.

Many of us have experienced what it is like to encounter the God of second chances. When Jesus stopped by on his way up to Augusta, we may have been sleeping, or out to lunch, or mad at somebody and preoccupied. We may have waived him off, saying “come back later, we’re busy resolving some problem”. God doesn’t call us to respond to problems. God calls us to follow Jesus. This requires commitment, courage and faith.

When Jesus stopped by at the temple to spend time with the Pharisees, he found them busy with preserving the past and upholding the law. I empathize with them. We cherish our history too. We ask ourselves, “If we don’t preserve our history and share it with the next generation who will?” We’re faithful to ask it.

Nevertheless, we notice that the attachment of the Pharisees and the scribes and the Sadducees to their way of seeing the world made them the blind who could not see and the deaf who could not hear what God wanted to do through them in the present moment. Turned inward upon themselves, they became persuaded not only to reject the message of God’s good news, but also to kill the messenger. When Jesus found the keepers of the faith rigid and hard hearted, he turned down Lindsey Ave. and kept walking until he encountered the lobstermen returning wet and weary with their catch at the end of another relentless day. It was to the likes of them that Jesus said, “Come, follow me.” And they did.

In this season of decline for churches like ours in America, Jesus is looking for courageous, imaginative and committed people of faith to embody God’s vision for our time. Jesus is looking for math teachers and health coaches and grandfathers and stay at home moms to “Come, Follow Me.” Jesus is looking for retired people, and architects and merchants, the healthy and the infirm, the grieving and the healed, to “Come, Follow Me.” The stakes have never been higher. There are no better people than us.

Theologian Frederick Buechner once wrote that “Jesus made his church out of human beings with more or less the same mixture in them of cowardice and guts, intelligence and stupidity, of selfishness and generosity, of openness of heart and sheer cussedness as you would be apt to find in ay one of us. The reason he made his church out of human beings is that human beings were all there was to make it out of. In fact, as far as I know, human beings are all there is to make it out of still.”

If the loss of people in their prime this past week teaches us anything, people like the 44-year old heart surgeon killed in Boston, or the death from cancer of Andy and Joanne Noel’s son, it must surely be this. Life is short and our lives matter. We humans who have decided to follow Jesus have two responsibilities in life. The first invitation is to worship God and live with a spirit of gratitude and praise toward the one who made us. The second responsibility of believers is to catch people for the kingdom of God. What would it take for us to participate in the work of Christ’s kingdom based on our unique gifts, skills and calling that others would be captured by our joy and want what we’ve been given?

We catch people when we live as if our life depended on it. This past week as Andy and Joanne’s son spent one last time in the hospital. The suffering of this family has been unfathomable. Yet Andy caught the joy of life until he died. As his second string son went out to play the last hockey game Andy would ever see, Andy wanted more than anything to be there. It wasn’t that his son would play. Still young in his high school career, he would only get time on the ice if three other players became injured or were out sick. That was the case this past week.

It was late in the game when the last time out was called. Andy Jr. had coached both of these opposing hockey teams in the past, and everyone knew he was hoping to get there. The coaches asked the referees if they could delay the final time out just a little longer. And there he was. Andy Junior was wheeled into the rink in a wheel chair and stood to wave one last time at the crowd. The end of time-out was called, his son took the ice.

Then the unexpected happened. Though both teams wanted desperately to win and no one gave anything up, the forward set up a play that left this youngest Noel kid an opening. He took it, and in the split second such things happen, he made the goal in front of his father. Andy Noel Jr. caught the joy of life to the end.

Jesus waits at the shore for us. This game isn’t boring. Everything depends on it. It’s the last and most important game we’ll ever play. If you want to catch the joy of new life in Christ and share it with others who want to live, listen. Jesus says, “Come, follow me.”