My sermon from our Annual Meeting at St. Mark’s a few weeks ago (the snow has really taken a toll on a lot of areas in my life). It’s based on Mark 1:14-20 and I make reference to a hymn “They Cast Their Nets in Galilee” — the text can be found here.
I’ve always loved this story and the hymn we just heard. This seemingly quaint idyllic version of the call of those first disciples who dropped everything and immediately followed Jesus. But if you were paying attention to the words we sang, you’ll have noticed the references to Peter and John’s martyrdom. The peace of God brimming in their hearts; it broke those hearts in two. The peace of God, it is no peace; yet we are to pray for just one thing, the marvelous peace of God.
The president of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, David Lose suggests we preachers as our congregations this question: “Can [you] imagine picking up and leaving everything to follow Jesus?” Can you envision leaving career and family dependent on you and your close friends and your home to follow an itinerant preacher? While my initial response to that question is “of course” or “I have already,” I say so with my home and family rooted to the place of my ministry, a warm bed to lay my head on each night, and a good idea of what work I’ll be doing tomorrow. If I ran home to the rectory grabbing my backpack and filling it with a few things, telling Melissa and the kids and the wardens that I was heading off to follow Jesus more closely, well, I can imagine that many would be in shock or downright flabbergasted. And yet that’s what happened with these fishermen, except they didn’t even run home to pack a small bag. They just followed Jesus.
Thankfully, I don’t think that’s what Jesus wants from us at all, nor would St. Mark the gospeler expect us to do so. Jesus had walked the face of the planet already, had died a painful death, and rose and ascended gloriously. So, we might ask, how are we to follow Jesus now? And, possibly more to the point, will it cost us as much as it cost them? Will we too experience this peace of God that is no peace? Could we be brave enough to pray for its presence in our own lives?
There have been a number of books written recently about the rise of contextual ministry for a church. A parish connected to its local community, its neighborhood. For too long in Christendom churches became isolated, ignoring the people around them. However, in overlooking those right in our own backyard, we also overlooked the kingdom. In their fantastic new book titled The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community, Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight Friesen describe that this old model of church often created us-them mentalities. When churches are destinations and disconnected from both their neighbors and other local worshipping communities, it becomes far too easy to focus about our own livelihood. Yet, they suggest, there is a better model for church. “Follow Jesus,” they write, “into your neighborhood with fellow followers of Jesus. Allow the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ to form your imagination for faithful presence.” Be within the midst of the community; engage in mission work in your neighborhoods.
This leads us to a life lived in community for ourselves too. Getting to know one another deeply, both the good and the not-so-good. Sparks and his co-authors write, “It is in the everyday stuff of life that love moves from the realm of spiritual ideas and becomes a costly gift, giving back more than it takes. It’s in the quotidian that forgiveness and repentance cease being merely theological categories and instead become the currency of rooted relationships. The same is true of mercy, hospitality, kindness [and] service… Your Christlike transformation is linked to the people in the place where you are.”
What I want to say to you church on this annual meeting Sunday is that we’ve made progress on that journey. We have in recent years moved more and more into a place rooted here and seeking to share the message of Christ’s hope to those near us. Our commitment to Straight Ahead Ministries and the boys held in lock-up has been a concern for us for many years and is continuing to expand. We eagerly take our part with Our Father’s Table in Marlborough to feed the hungry in this town to our north. A Parish Care Team with shared leadership of many and especially Rosemary Nelson and Andrea Wyatt is gaining traction in a desire to reach out to those in our own community who are experiencing the unsettling waters of life transitions. Our Bargain Box ministry continues in a strong tradition of over 60 years offering quality pre-worn clothes to many of those who really need them. Youth ministry is flourishing under the leadership of Melissa LaBelle and Kristin Romine with much assistance coming from other parents of teens like the Pearls, Kinslows, Barnes and more. Children’s ministries have been strengthened the past few years with a level of dedication from parents and kids in being present for our Sunday school, and adult faith formation has grown in the past year as well.
We’ve done great work. We have followed Jesus faithfully.
And there is still more we can do. The kingdom is not yet here. People, even here in our parish, feel alone at times and are hurting. We need to both offer and experience forgiveness. I am reminded of a good friend who spent a long time looking for a parish to join. A recently divorced man, he attended churches alone. Far too often he got passed by during the peace, ignored at coffee hour even though he faithfully tried to engage. “You don’t know the stories of those who come through your doors,” he reminded me. Treat them with welcome, love and care.
I hold on tightly to his words. People come to St. Mark’s whose stories we do not know. They come to find God’s peace and solace and community. This is true for those who have just walked through our doors for the first time this morning and those who have been here for years on end. We need to live more fully into that community to help everyone here feel welcome and a part of our live together.
And I am more and more utterly convinced that the church is not here for us but for the world. We come together to worship God and find healing and be fed at Christ’s table, but we do so not just so we can feel better or experience peace, but so that we can take that peace and love and share it with others. It starts in our own community, but it has to spread out to our own neighbors and family and friends. That’s how we become those who fish, not seeking to ensnare others, but by extending a hand or expressing gratitude or sharing a random act of kindness to others inviting them to be followers of Jesus too.
And I must be honest: this work is costly. It does bring God’s peace, most certainly, but that peace can cause divisions in our world. Love does that. We hold on to much fear in our world and so when love gets expressed, especially the unconditional love Jesus embodied, sometimes others strike back. Look at Martin Luther King, Jr. and his fight for equality that still continues on. Or the perception held by some that the poor are merely failures of lives they’ve created. Sometimes we enact laws to get rid of the problem of the homeless, like Fort Lauderdale, Florida which passed a law this fall that banned outdoor feeding programs unless you had a permit, and a slew of portable toilets. That didn’t stop 90-year old Arnold Abbot who had started a feeding program years ago in memory of his late wife who gave so much to the poor. He was arrested. He said, “One of the police officers said, ‘Drop that plate right now,’ as if I were carrying a weapon…It’s man’s inhumanity to man is all it is.”
With the terrorism in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, we get suspicious of any who look like they’re of Arab descent. Words such as “deportable” get thrown around by our politicians to describe other human beings. That’s the way of fear. It is not the way of Jesus.
If we are to live in the way of Jesus and become those who fish for people, it will cost us. I suspect it won’t be our physical lives like John and Peter, but it will be our ideal lives, the lives we dream about. It might mean that we live on a bit less to share God’s abundance with others. It may be that we give up an evening or a weekend to visit with someone or to help build an affordable house for someone else. It will mean moving the focus from ourselves and opening the eyes of our hearts to others. And I know that in the end that really is the ideal life we dream of even as it comes in a way we don’t expect.
Friends, we continue to move in that way here at St. Mark’s, the way of Jesus. It is a journey, and a costly one at that. Our hearts too can brim with the wonderful peace of God. And it is my prayer that this peace which brings healing, while so very costly, would move in each of our lives on this day and in the year ahead, and that we would share that marvelous peace with others both here in our community, in our neighborhoods and in our world. Amen.
 Ibid, Pg. 48.