Sunday, January 22, 2012

Leaving the Nets

Mark 1:14-20
 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

The evening conversation around the dinner table that night began the same as every night. It had been a long day—12 hours on the lake in the hot sun—arms aching and the stench of raw fish hanging in the air. Salome slapped the top of John’s hand as it reached into the hot skillet to sample the sizzling sardine steaks. “Stop that, Jonathon! How can a son be so incorrigible?” she scowled—releasing a smirk across her mouth. “Mother—it’s been a long day. I’m tired and hungry—please throw me a scrap from your delicious cuisine!” “Ack, Ack! Wash your hands young man. And then set the table.”

John kissed his mother on the forehead as he snatched a smoldering olive from the skillet. “Love you Mom!” And off to the cleaning basin he went. At about that time James came through the door with his wife Phoebe and little Joel in tow. “Grandma!” the boy toddler exclaimed running into Salome’s arms. “My little grandson—how big you are getting! Phoebe, what are you feeding this child?” “The same as you fed me, Momma—fish and bread.” James cut in. “What else is a fisherman’s family to eat?”

“James—such disrespect for your mother,” Phoebe replied with a condescending grin. “Don’t pay attention to him, Mother. I fix him the same—and there are no complaints. Are there my dear husband?” she flashed her eyes. “No my love,” James responded. Fish and bread are good for the likes of one so in love—with a fisherman’s wife like you.” “You see, Salome,” Phoebe smiled. “Your son has been made respectable!”

Salome and Phoebe laughed together. Nothing was so sweet as the combined collaboration of a mother and her daughter-in-law. In fact, no man could match the collective power of that kind of feminine energy. Salome and Phoebe continued the preparation of the evening meal as James began to set the table. “Father,” little Joel asked. “Yes, Son?” answered James as he pulled tin plates from the cupboard.” “Why do we eat fish all the time?”

Joel was turning 5 next week. Although his mother didn’t allow him to follow his father to work on the lake—he often listened to the stories of the fishermen, told by his uncle John, with awe and wonder. “Fishing is an honorable profession,” James said, lifting Joel upon his lap as he sat down at the crude wooden table. “My father was a fisherman, as well as my grandfather. And I suspect you will be one someday—just like me and your Uncle John and the rest of our family. And if that is so, then eating the fish that you catch yourself is an honor too. You see, we fishermen provide good things to eat for many, many people—especially to people that can’t always work for themselves. You’ll learn more about it when you start school at the synagogue next year. Now, go wash your hands—and find out where your Uncle John is.”

Joel jumped off James’s lap and scampered outside. Phoebe slipped her arms around James’s neck and kissed him on the head. “You are a good father, my husband—now time for you to wash those dirty fishermen’s hands.” “Yes, dear” and James followed his son outside.

“He looks tired,” Salome reflected. “Do you think something is wrong?” “I don’t know,” Phoebe answered. “He has been quiet today. Perhaps something is going on at the docks.”
“What is this about the docks?” Startled by the booming voice Phoebe and Salome screamed as Zebedee entered the kitchen and slammed the door behind him. “Zebedee!” exclaimed Salome. “Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for your return and dinner is just coming to the table.”

“Speaking of the docks—just some trouble to contend with. I’ve been meeting with some of the other business owners after pulling in the nets for the night.” “What is the matter?” Salome questioned her husband. “Oh, nothing too alarming. It seems that some of the fleet have unexpectedly closed their fishing business. I’m not sure who it is yet, but we are looking into it. An announcement is coming tomorrow concerning reallocation of fishing quotas.” Salome grabbed her husband by the waist. “Why would anyone do such a thing? With the Romans exorcising more taxes on us, and businesses losing so many servants to military enlistment, you would imagine that anyone having a good paying job would stay with it.” “Not to worry, my wife. We will just have to increase our own efforts to make up the quotas. More fish for us to catch means more denari in our pockets. Our boys will be up to the challenge. Speaking of our boys, where is my little grandson?”

“Grandpapa!” shouted Joel as he ran into the kitchen followed by James and John. “Well! Here are my strapping sons to share my table.” “And me too!” Joel yelled. “And don’t forget your beautiful and kind daughter-in-law!” Phoebe laughed, pecking Zebedee on the cheek. “Now enough child’s play!” Salome exclaimed. “Everyone, sit down, sit down. Husband—bring us the blessing!”

After a second of scrambling for chairs, all were seated around the weathered wooden table. Zebedee grabbed the hands of his wife and grandson and bowed his head. “Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Your gifts of plenty bring seasons of thankfulness. And may our thankfulness inspire new gifts from you. Amen.”

“Amen!” the family echoed—and dinner began as Salome passed the platter of freshly fried fish around the table. “Have you noticed a decrease in musht over the last few hauls recently?” James asked his father. “I heard it was from the unusual winds coming from the Galilee hills,” John interrupted. “They say the storms will be the worst ever this spring. Fish don’t like storms.”

“I think it’s the young fishermen that don’t like storms,” laughed James. “I’m not afraid” John quipped back. “How could anyone be afraid of a little wind and rain?” “Well, I don’t think it’s the wind or the storms,” James reflected. “It’s the Romans.” “James!” Phoebe whispered in a quiet shout. “You mustn’t speak so. There are spies everywhere. You know what happens to dissenters now that Caiphas and Pilate are bedfellows.” “I’m not afraid of the Romans! Or the pompous Pharisees,” John blurted. “How long will we let these foreign mongrels and their puppet priests dictate what we discuss or how we live?”

“Enough!” Zebedee exploded. “Not in my house. We will eat tonight without speaking of such things.” The room became silent with the exception of clinking spoons and knives on tin plates. Quietly a tiny voice pierced the silence. “What’s a mongrel?” asked Joel. John turned to his nephew and smiled. “A mongrel is just a fancy name for a dog, Joel.” “I like dogs!” Joel replied. “Dogs get to do anything they want. Sleep outside. Play in the street. Take baths in the lake. And I bet they don’t have to eat fish every night!”

Laughter exploded around the table. “Yes, my grandson.” Zebedee smiled. “The life of a dog can be very—care free!” Seconds passed without conversation. The night was closing in and a new day was just hours away. But James knew he needed to say something. The anxiety gripped his stomach as he struggled to form his words, when out of the blue John spoke up.

“Andrew and Simon left their nets today.” James looked at his brother and sighed. The easy part was over, but now came the tough conversation he and his brother discussed having with their father. “What do you mean they left their nets today?” Zebedee raised his eyebrow. “Father, they’ve left the business,” James answered. Salome gasped, “Andrew and Simon? But why? Where did they go? What will they do? What about their families? Does their father, Jonas know? Did you talk to them?”

“Woman, let them speak!” Zebedee shouted. “Tell me son. What happened?” “It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” James continued. “We were mending our nets after pulling in the last haul for the day and we saw Jesus approach them from the shore. “Jesus? You mean my sister, Mary’s son? Your cousin Jesus? He’s here from Nazareth?” Salome asked. “Yes, he’s here!” John replied. “We heard Jesus was with John the Baptist and his disciples in the wilderness. But today he was walking along the beach and came up to Andrew and Simon and…” ”What John? What happened?” Salome cried. “Jesus told Andrew and Simon to follow him. He said that he would make them fishers of people. He told them to leave their nets and help him build God’s kingdom.”

“But how?” Salome asked in shock. “How will they live? What about their families? They can’t just leave the family business? What is Jesus going to do with them?” “Now, Salome!” Zebedee interrupted. “You can’t expect these boys to know everything that happened. I’m sure there is a logical explanation for the whole thing! Maybe Jesus just wanted a job. I’m sure they could use a few more hired hands on their boat, right sons?” he turned towards James and John. A long pause drifted across the room as Zebedee looked into his son’s eyes—and then down at the table. “He asked you too—didn’t he?” Zebedee looked up at James and John. “Yes, Father” James answered. “Jesus asked us to follow him too. And we are. We leave tomorrow for Capernaum.”

“You’re leaving tomorrow—for Capernaum? Did you know this Phoebe?” “Yes, Salome. I did know. We’ve discussed it, and Joel and I are going with James.” “I’m going to!” John added. “But how? How can you leave your father? How can you follow this man? How will you live? What will you do?” Salome could take no more as she jumped from the table and fled into the bedroom. The table fell silent. After a moment Zebedee stood up from the table and walked behind his boys, laying his hands on each of their shoulder. “You are good men,” he began. “And times are very different now than when I was your age. Yahweh’s people have been enslaved by evil influences. Our religious and government leaders value power over peace and use our sacred texts as weapons against us. I didn’t bring you into this world to be oppressed by it. And I hope that this man, your cousin Jesus can liberate us from it.”

James and John stood up from the table and embraced Zebedee. “We love you, Father” they said through tears. “You’ve taught us well—to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. And even though we are no longer fishermen, we will continue to cast our nets for God’s kingdom.”

Let us pray. Lord, we sit here today, in this community of teachers and bankers, caretakers of children and business executives, students and administrators, musicians and ministers, teachers and preachers—contemplating a gospel text that challenges us in our day jobs. Just like fishing was to the disciples—we work in our chosen professions and hear your call to become more. We hear your call to become disciples of Christ—to dive into mission and ministry to the world. Give us the fast reflexes of those first four disciples—Simon, Andrew, James and John. There’s a part of us that hesitates, afraid to get out of our boats; fearful of setting aside our roles and personas. We know that your call may come at any time to leave behind our comfort zones and respond to needs we never expected.

But in that moment, give us the courage to make the immediate decision to follow Jesus—and become who you challenge us to be, setting aside the temptation to accumulate possessions, or accomplishments, or degrees, or labels that attempt to bring us a sense of worth or value. Instead, reveal to us the opportunities in our own lives that will engage us in a deeper journey with you. For we know that it isn’t what we do, that makes us your blessed children, but who you created us to be in each moment of our life. And all God’s people said, “Amen.”

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Truth or Consequences

John 1:43-51 
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

So imagine this scenario…you are sitting in a meeting with other folks from work, or at a monthly organizational gathering of a fraternal or social club of which you are a member, or perhaps its sitting on a church committee or sub-committee…when that certain someone, that person who is always pointing out the negative in every situation blurts out, “NO…there is no way that that idea could work because we tried it before, and it didn’t work then and it won’t work now…so we might as well not even bother!” If you had a nickel for every time, right? 
Now I love to get a good laugh out of people like that…especially when it’s on television and not real life…but it does beg the question…how do we deal with the naysayers in our midst? How to we establish mutually respectful relationships with those that always put the brakes on when it comes to change, or progress or even critical evaluation?

Now, you wouldn’t normally think of the Jesus narratives in the gospels dealing with the issue of critical people…but our text today gives us much insight into the way Jesus dealt with the ego in himself and others. Our story could be a script for the television show “The Office.” Jesus leaves one incredible impression on Philip after being introduced to him by his friends Andrew and Peter from Bethsaida. And as Philip runs home to tell his friends about this experience he encounters Nathanael. Excitedly, Philip tells him about this Jesus he met earlier in the day. “We found him! The one Moses wrote about in our sacred scriptures. He’s the Messiah! And it’s Jesus, you know, Joseph’s son…the guy from Nazareth.”

Now we really don’t know much about Nathanael, but it appears from his response that he’s one of those “kind” of people. “What? Nazareth? You’ve got to be kidding…what good could come out of Nazareth?” It seems from this interaction that Nathanael is one of those critical curmudgeons…”crackpots” as my Mom used to call them. He’s the guy or girl that always finds the negative in every situation. He’s the “Dwight Schrute” of the office. And he is somebody so different than anybody else Jesus has called before that he seems to stick out like a sore thumb.

Think about it…he’s not like one of those naive kids, Jimmy and Johnny, who had their "momma" ask Jesus for special treatment for themselves. He’s definitely not like Thomas who was wishy washy about what he did or didn’t believe. Wasn’t like Peter either, who regularly opened his mouth in order to insert his own foot into it. Nathanael knew exactly what he thought about everything and wasn’t afraid to tell you so. And when Philip suggested that this new prophet was God's gift to Israel, Nathanael just rolled his eyes. “Nazareth? You’re kidding, right? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"

 And here’s where the story really gets interesting. Nathanael wasn't saying anything that any good Jew wasn’t already thinking. The fact is; Nazareth was no place any decent Jew would ever want to go, or claim to be from. It’s not that Nazareth was some dump or a hole in the middle of nowhere. It was in fact a suburb of the largest city in Galilee, Sepphoris…one of the capitals of Herod’s government. In fact, some scholars believe that Jesus and his father Joseph probably worked on its re-construction as skilled tradesmen. It’s not that Jesus was some country bumpkin, but according to Nathanael, Jesus was too close to what proud Israelites considered traitor-country. He and his friends wouldn't be caught dead there. All Nazarenes consorted with the enemy.

 It would be like someone from Michigan trying out for OSU’s football team. You’d always suspect that a football player from Michigan might have some ulterior motive, some potential for sabotage. Can anything good come out of Ann Arbor?

 You see, Nathanael was a cynic. A cynic with a sharp tongue, to boot, probably with his eyeglasses sitting on the end of his nose with a proverbial look of disgust. And once Jesus lays eyes on him, once he gets a really good look at this old coot, he responds in such a wonderful way. "Behold, an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” The Message translation says, “Now there’s a real Israelite, not a false bone in his body.” It reminds me of Mike Myer’s character on SNL…Linda Richman…who could not sugar coat the truth even if you paid her. And this quip…this quirky elbow jab stops old Nathanael in his tracks. With his jaw hanging open, he looks this young whipper-snapper up and down and fires back, "And just how do you know me?"

 “Why, I had you spotted coming a mile away, long before Philip dragged you here," Jesus says to him, winking at him with one eye. And whatever it was that Nathanael took from that exchange, he became a convert right there on the spot. Jesus had this wonderful way of speaking truth in a loving way that cut through all of the illusions and drama that existed in his relationships and got right to the point. He could separate the roles and personas from who that person really was…and connect directly to the essence of their being.

 One of my favorite authors, Eckert Tolle, says that there is no real conceptual answer for the question, “Who am I?” But the moment that we stop having to answer that question for ourselves, we become open to the oneness of all of life…the essence of our being. For the need to define or label who we are, to have a clear understanding of our sense of self, is the work of our ego. And when the ego encounters other egos it doesn’t like…it comes into conflict. And that’s when drama happens. He says, “Whatever you react to in another, you strengthen in yourself.” That’s why when you observe someone complaining about someone or some situation, it is a clear sign that they are trying to validate…and strengthen that tendency within themselves. I always try to keep an inner ear open to my own complaints. It helps me identify the things within myself that need healing or understanding. While complaining might be the process of strengthening the ego, resentment is the real emotional response.

Nathanael couldn’t believe anything good could come out of Nazareth. Perhaps someone had said the same about him? Maybe his distain of the Roman occupation had hardened his heart to any shred of hope that things could be any different. And what did Jesus do, he spoke truth to Nathanael in a loving way that melted the icy walls of resentment. “Now here comes someone who will tell the truth about anything!” Jesus says. His response teaches us that the best way to break free from these egoist structures is by not-reacting. And non-reaction produces forgiveness. Now I’m not talking about indifference, but about the process of seeing others for who they are on the inside…not who they project themselves to be on the outside. And every person deep inside is a child of God, asking for healing, love and transformation whether they can vocalize it or not.

Sometimes we get so accustomed to defending our right to be right, that we begin to believe we’re never supposed to be wrong. And being wrong reminds us that we are human. And being human is just where the ego wants us to stay. Awareness of our collective humanity is the beginning of our transformation, the raising of our own consciousness, and the evolution of our entire species.

There is one absolute truth. That truth emanates from the source of our very being…it is the Christ within us. Jesus spoke of it as the “I AM,” the way, the truth and the life – that which was, is now and always will be; that which is timeless. Eastern religions acknowledge it within each of us with the greeting “Namaste.” We do it in Protestantism by passing the peace of Christ to each other.

Barry Robinson suggests that "in the church we need folks who are not afraid to speak the truth to each other…even if they're wrong. It just doesn’t seem to be appropriate any more. It doesn’t make for a smooth facilitation. It makes the meeting run longer than we want it to. We aren’t comfortable with the power-struggle between competing players. It’s something to mediate, not learn from; to handle, not be transformed by. So concerned have we become about being fair to everyone that we are no longer concerned about the content of what is being said. We get caught up in interpersonal politics; not critical debate. It is why curmudgeons and cynics are no longer welcome in religious communities. They tend to disrupt the conspiracy of cordiality. They make us uncomfortable with what we are prepared to condone. It is why we tend to leave them outside. There was a time in Israel when they were invited in, when scolding was an instrument of tradition, not a threat to it; when the absence of guile was valued over the easy deceits we tend to rationalize. Perhaps it was why Jesus himself couldn't wait to have someone like Nathanael on his team; somebody who wasn't afraid of heartfelt emotions. For there are values that are worth defending, truths that must be acknowledged and drama that needs to be exposed."

 So many people leave the church because they “don’t like the politics.” But politics is people. People cause conflict. And conflict is the course for change. For churches that are in transition, naysayers keep us honest. Their opinions often hold some kernels of truth in them; truth that is seldom ever spoken out loud. If we are not willing to hear the truth now, then we will most likely suffer the consequences later!

What good can come from Nazareth? We all come from Nazareth, when we endeavor to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. And that is a truth worth telling. Amen.

(Excerpts from Ian Lawton’s presentation, “Lesson Three: Sin & Evil” -  and Barry J. Robinson’s sermon, “Give Me an Old Scold Any Day” from January 19, 2003 –