January 22, 2012

ON BEING A FOLLOWER

                                                                  Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                                 at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 22 January 2012
 
Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures:     Jonah 1-5 and 10
Reading from the Gospel:                              Mark 1: 14-20

 

“Follow me!”  So said Jesus to Peter and Andrew and to James and John. The whole idea of following is movement, movement from where we are to where someone else wants us to be, or maybe even needs us to be.  The Lord God had said something similar to Noah with regard to building the ark.  He said it to Abraham, and did so several times.  He said it to Moses at the age of eighty so that Moses could lead the people out of slavery in Egypt, through the deserts of Sinai and to the brink of the Jordan before the crossing into the Promised Land.  He said it to David, that he should leave the comfort of his father’s home to become King of Israel.  He said it to Jonah, who chose at first to ignore the call but who was impelled to change his mind and was led to preach conversion to that great city of Nineveh.  And here in the Gospel we have Jesus saying it to two pairs of brothers.  Later on, the risen Christ was to say much the same thing to Saul of Tarsus, who, as the Apostle Paul, became one of the most mobile of the servants of Christ. 

A generation ago the Anglican Communion revived this idea and there were sermons galore, if not adnauseum, on the theme of the pilgrim church.  I had to sit through many of them, and no doubt I preached my fair share of them at the time.  The idea behind the concept of the pilgrim church was one of movement, spiritual rather than physical movement, that would take us to a better way of life in a new kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven.  

The weakness of the whole concept of the pilgrim church was that going on a pilgrimage is primarily, even exclusively, for the benefit of the pilgrim, much as is the hajj for a faithful follower of Islam.  Yet, as we see from the reading from the Gospel according to Mark, the call of Jesus to follow him is not primarily meant for the benefit, spiritual or physical, of the one being called.  As was the case with the heroes of the Hebrew Scriptures, there was often considerable danger involved in following Jesus, danger involving a risk that many at first might not be prepared to take. 

All too many of us, all too often, are afraid to move on, to move forward.  We do not know what will happen and we do not know what to expect.  In fact, moving forward means that we have to leave our comfort zones, even when we are actually uncomfortable in our comfort zone, and be prepared to go we not know where and to experience we know not what and to meet we know not whom.  No.  Let us stay where we are, or if we have sallied forth, let us, like so many of the Israelites in the desert when things got tough, ask to go back, even if it is to the slavery of our former existence.  I listen to so many of you who although you are living in Port St Lucie physically would dearly love to have things here at Holy Faith to be as close to the way things were done back in whatever parish you grew up in or grew to love before you came here. 

In other aspects of our lives, we understand only too well that we have to move on.  We leave school, at some level or other, and we move into the adult world of work and earning the wherewithal to live.  We have to be untied from our mother’s apron strings and to leave the shelter of the parental home.  We set up home and start a new life and a new family with someone else, usually not a member of our parents’ family.  If our employers demand that we move to a new town, or a new state, or a new country, we go.  We follow the instructions of those who provide for our material needs through the wages or salary that they pay us.  And we expect our spouses and children to follow along behind us.   Let me tell you how much I applaud spouses and children who have had to up pegs and move on, leaving behind friends and organizations and institutions that have been the support framework of their very existence.  As a former member of the military forces, as a former international civil servant and as a minister of religion, I have had to watch my wife and children move on from place to place, across the continents.  My own record is perhaps a little unusual, but in the sixty years since I left school I have served on the permanent staff of three Air Force bases, eight parishes and three international offices of the United Nations, and I never chose one of them, which means that my wife and children have never chosen one of them. 

What I have learned in all these movements is that, as we meet new people and different ways of doing things, we enhance our professional capabilities, thus making ourselves potentially better employees, but we have also grown in the spirit, but there is more than that, for those who have had dealings with us have also learned from us.  I would never claim to be an evangelist, in the technical sense of that term.  I might have zeal for the Lord, and fervour, although that is disguised by my national heritage (!), yet it can be said, and has been said, that people coming into contact with us have given themselves to the service of the Lord Jesus.  One woman, a convert from Judaism, even went on to become a parson’s wife! 

We have noticed something else as well.  We have seen movement in the spiritual life of a Christian community even though it has physically remained in the same place.  Some of this comes about quite naturally as one generation dies out and a younger generation has to take on the role of lay spiritual leadership.  Of course there are tensions in this process, but they are the same sort of tensions that we might call growing pains as children progress from infancy to adulthood, from the role of the provided for to that of the provider. 

At other times it has been a matter of social movement as the overall nature of a community changes.  On more than one occasion we have been privileged to watch and to be a part of such a change.  Sometimes a change like this takes a long time to work its way through – although not the forty years of the Exodus experience of early Israel.  What happens is that new people arrive in a community, often of a different generation or of a different culture or of both.  There is often discomfort, even tension, as each group allows itself to be adjusted to the changing situation.  Neither group likes to give up treasured customs or adapt to different practices, but our experience has been that as all involved become ever more open in mind and spirit and together move forward into a new relationship, one closer to what we see in the New Testament tradition of Christian community, then all grow and the community itself grows. 

Of course there will always be those reluctant to change, to move out of their comfort zones.  They come up with all sorts of reasons why there should be no change, just as did Moses and Jonah, and, indeed many of the prophets of old, and several of the early Christians as well.  But being a follower of Jesus means an awareness of the need for change, a change in ones own life and in the life of the community. 

We could draw parallels from many human worldly activities.  An army can never conquer if it remains in one place.  Each year we celebrate the landings on the Normandy coast, but the allied forces did not stay on the beaches and suddenly the war was over.  They had to move on, following the directives of their leaders.

A football team – and several of you will be watching four football teams late on today on television – cannot win a game if it does not score more points than its opponents.  There has to be movement up the field to the end-zone.  

When we were in Nairobi, the prep school our children attended, arranged for the senior class, once the final exams had been completed, to make a safari to climb Mount Kenya.  They were met at the foot of the mountain by their guides and for four days they would follow the guides up to the mountain to the summit where they all posed for a group photograph to record their achievement.  To attain success they had to follow the guide to their destination, to their destiny.

In each of these fields of human endeavour, all involved have to be given the opportunity to perform the tasks that they are most qualified to undertake, and it is the same in the life of the church and of the parish.  We move forward together when we are all doing the work we are meant to do.  We all lose if someone is prevented from playing or declines to play the part he or she has been given in God’s plan.  And, sadly, there will always be those who do not wish to take any part in following the plan.  They would rather dream about what once was than envision what might be, or is meant to be. 

There is an old quip that Eve remarked to Adam as they left the Garden, “My dear, we are in an age of transition!”  As human beings we are always in transition from yesterday to tomorrow, from the past to the future.  And that is as true of parishes as it is of any entity under the sun, and it is certainly true of Holy Faith.  We know our history, we are living our present and we are transitting into our future.  There are some who are certain in their own minds what that future should be.   I have to admit that I am not one of them.  All I can do is look at pointers and follow where Jesus is directing me.  And that is all any of us can and should do, but we had better be sure that it is Jesus who is pointing us forward.  Yet it is time to cast off the reluctance to change, as Moses and Jonah and Saul of Tarsus had to learn to do. 

One last thought: the disciples in this story for our Gospel this morning were all fishermen, who would sail out to sea and let down their nets.  They could not decide what sorts of fish would be caught in the nets.  They just had to accept whatever fish was there.  And so too with us, as fishers of men we shall find that all manner of people will be attracted to the good ship Holy Faith.  It is not for us to choose who these might be.  We accept all whom the Lord is pleased to haul in as our members, and we give thanks for them all – but that is what the Anglican Church has always done.  It is part of who we are and who we are meant to be, if we are true to ourselves, if we are true to the Church, if we are true to Jesus, who has called us to follow.  “Follow me!”