January 23, 2011
One of the most compelling moments of President Obama’s speech at the Tucson Memorial Service last week came as he spoke of the youngest shooting victim, nine-year old Christina Taylor Green. She reminded me too much of a couple of my own children at the age of 9: completely fascinated by politics like Sarah; buoyant and upbeat like Rachel. Christina exemplified the innocence and trust of children, exploring the world around them with joy, wonder, and promise.
The President challenged all of us to honor the dreams of children like Christina by seeking to live up to her best hopes for our nation. Who will carry on this little girl’s dreams for a better world? Will it be you and me? Will we conduct ourselves with more civility and treat others the way we want to be treated in the political sphere? These are the questions that penetrated my soul during the President’s speech.
When evil acts snuff out or attempt to snuff out the dreams and promise of a life, a void is created that yearns to be filled. Who will take up the mantle and do that?
The Gospel of Matthew reports this sequence of events: “When Jesus got word that John had been arrested, he returned to Galilee.” With his cousin in prison, Jesus has a lot to think about: ‘Herod went after John…am I next? Is it time for me to pick up where John left off?’
Jesus makes a strategic move, leaving his hometown of Nazareth and heading to Capernaum, located in the territory ruled by the very king that put John in prison. It’s a bold move. Fishing there along the Sea of Galilee is big business. In ancient Israel under Roman occupation, this is not free enterprise, though, as our western constructs might lead us to assume. Instead, it is state-sponsored labor. Run by families and cooperatives, it supports the greater structure of the Empire and those who benefit most from that structure. A complex, crushing system of tariffs, tolls, and taxes keeps the peasants oppressed while feeding the coffers of the elites (for more information, see http://www.kchanson.com/ARTICLES/fishing.html).
Jesus’ simple invitation to “Come, and follow me” is enough for four fishermen, working at the sea. I’m always flabbergasted by that, because I didn’t drop my studies and jump into Jesus’ boat when I felt him calling me at the tender age of 18. I thought it over for a couple weeks before casting my net with him. Months earlier, rather rusty in the praying department, I even bargained with God because I really really wanted to win a concerto competition at college. When I did win, I promptly forgot my bargain, even though God did not.
Why do you think these four fishermen respond so immediately? [Congregational reflection] They see something in Jesus that they cannot resist, even though they don’t understand what he is about and won’t, really, for a long time.
And why doesn’t Zebedee come along? Is he too tied to his family responsibilities, too attached to the fishing business? Or does he surrender enough when he releases his sons from their tasks to follow this itinerant preacher?
Jesus promises to make Simon, Andrew, James, and John “fishers of men and women,” a phrase that sometimes makes us cringe in the ways it has been appropriated over the centuries. Sadly, many of us have seen it used to collect souls for Jesus, putting more emphasis on counting warm bodies than counting the cost of discipleship.
There is another way to understand this invitation, though. Jesus takes what is most fundamental to the sense of self and purpose that these fishermen experience. He uses and transforms that in ways they never previously imagined.
My dad always envisioned me as a concertizing pianist when I grew up. He was always “generically supportive” of my adult decisions, because I was his kid, and he loved me. Yet, I knew that, in his heart, he was disappointed that I didn’t do more with my music, after thousands of hours filled with practicing, lessons, rehearsals, competitions, recitals, and performance degrees, beginning at the age of 5 and culminating at the age of 23. In fact, he chauffeured me to a lot of those and shelled out significant sums of money in the process.
Sometimes the paths we take cause tension within our families. Sometimes that tension evokes questioning and self-doubt in our own lives. One day when I was pondering these issues, I saw Jesus’ call to the fishermen at the Sea of Galilee in an entirely new light. It was as if Jesus pulled me away from my Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin, tugged at my piano-playing sleeve, and said, “Mary, come, follow me. We will make a different kind of music together—the music of Christian community.”
Gradually, I began to frame one understanding of my pastoral role as that of an orchestra conductor. Here we are together today–the orchestra! It’s a dynamic organism, this orchestra of Christian community. New players come along. Old ones retire or move. Some arrive who have been playing a long time in other orchestras. They know the music by heart. Others have never played before, and they need to start with the basics. Some count in rhythm, and others have trouble sensing the beat. They may feel a little ‘off kilter’ in Christian community.
The seasoned players teach the new ones. Some instruments are quiet and melodious like flutes; others loud and forceful like tubas; still others sweet and compelling like violins. Some are distinct and noticeable whenever the orchestra plays; others blend in and almost remain unnoticed. Yet, their part is just as important to the whole as those of the stronger and louder
Just when the conductor gets the orchestra playing together in harmony, in comes an enthusiastic beginner who needs to learn their instrument, or the tuba gets carried away, the violin is a tad out of tune, or the oboe had an emergency and couldn’t make the rehearsal. Every day is a new adventure!
With every challenge that arises, the music we make together in this amazing Christian community is heavenly. It is beautiful , profound, and unforgettable. No two performances are exactly the same. It is virtually impossible to get bored. Compositions are continually being learned, and we are writing new ones even as we gather together today.
When Jesus called men and women long ago, saying, “Come and follow me,” he didn’t offer them a list of doctrines, rules, and instructions. He invited them into the Realm of God, the government of God, when all the governments they had known before favored the rich over the poor, the elite over the commoner, the powerful over the vulnerable. He invited them into the Orchestra of God and said, “Come, make music with me!”
I do not believe that we are called once and that is that. If we are listening, we will discern numerous moments of “call” in our lives. We may be called to a new vocation, to care for a dying family member, to run for public office, to take better care of ourselves, to open our hearts in new ways. We may be called to lay down a pesky habit that has torpedoed our growth, or face a wound that has festered too long beneath the surface of our lives. Every day we are called to choose hope amid despair, faith amid doubt, trust amid confusion.
As we prepare to take up the Offering, I invite you to enter into a time of reflection on the callings of God in your own life. Where is Jesus saying to you, “Come to me, just as you are, with all your strengths and limitations, questions and struggles. Come, make music with me. Let’s see together where this journey takes us!” Amen.