Because you called

And immediately they left their nets and followed him. — Mark 1:14-20

Why did they follow him?

It’s the burning question here, isn’t it? Those very first disciples — Simon, Andrew, James and John – what made them drop their nets, and go? I mean, if a stranger approached you and asked you to follow him, would you go? Wouldn’t you at least ask for some references, maybe google him first?

Okay, so… maybe he wasn’t a stranger, after all. Maybe the fisherman had heard Jesus preach. Maybe they had known him for weeks, or years. Maybe.

Or maybe there was something about Jesus himself, something different, something compelling. Maybe there was some sort of aura about him. Maybe.

Or maybe it wasn’t something they saw in Jesus; maybe it was something Jesus saw in them. In the story, Jesus calls out, specifically, to Simon and Andrew, James and John. So maybe he saw something in them, something ripe for the harvest. Maybe they were ready to go, and just waiting for a good strong breeze to shake them loose from the family tree. Maybe.

Maybe, but Mark doesn’t say so.

This story would be a whole lot easier to understand if it came later on in Mark’s gospel. If Jesus had already performed some miracle, some sign. Cured a leper, exorcised a demon, walked on water, something. But all that will come later on.

All Mark’s gospel tells us, is that Jesus calls them, and they follow.

So maybe I’m trying too hard here.

I remember a student I taught many years ago, let’s call him Matt, who auditioned for a play I was directing. He did a terrific job at the audition, but I didn’t have a part for him; so I asked him if he would be my stage manager, help with sets and props, help actors learn their lines and blocking, stand in for other kids when they were absent. He did a terrific job at this, as well, always ready to help.

After a few weeks of rehearsal, Matt’s advisor took me aside and asked, “What is your secret with Matt?” I was puzzled by the question until she told me that apparently, some of Matt’s other teachers found him to be something of a problem in the classroom. But I honestly had no idea why he behaved differently with me. So I told her, “I don’t have any secret. I mostly just boss him around.  I feel like the only thing I say to him is, Matt, I need you to move the chairs, Matt, I need you to run lines with the cast…”

The other teacher smiled and said, “And what he hears is, Matt, I need you.”

So maybe there is no secret behind today’s gospel reading, either. Maybe the only miracle here, is that Jesus called them.

(excerpt from sermon preached at Belchertown UCC on January 25, 2015)

(photo: Elmina, Ghana, January 2012, by Liza B. Knapp, all rights reserved)

When was it

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not help you?  — Matthew 25:31-45

It was a raw, chilly day. Late November, maybe, but I’m not sure. I’m not sure of the year, either, although I know I was a young adult. I think I was walking alone, but even that I am not sure of.

This is what I do remember:

I was walking along the streets of midtown Manhattan. I was dressed in a wool coat, and I had a large, rectangular wool shawl wrapped around my shoulders as well. I passed another young adult, lying curled up on the sidewalk. She was half naked. Naked enough that it was clear something dreadful must have happened to her; it was far too chilly a day for anyone to be dressed that way by choice. She had a piece of something, paper maybe, pulled over her. Her eyes were closed.

And I kept walking.

I wish there was more to this story. Another ending, some information about what became of this young woman. But I have no other ending to give you, because I walked by. I assumed someone else would take care of her. But later that day I found myself haunted by that moment. I kept seeing that woman, lying on the street, shivering. And I kept seeing myself, hurrying by in extra layers of warm clothing.

Lord, when was it that we saw you naked, and did not clothe you?

Jesus tells of a day when all the people of the world come to stand before their king. The king blesses those who showed compassion on the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned. The king curses those who showed no compassion.

But here is the surprising thing: Both groups – the sheep and the goats, the blessed and the cursed, the compassionate and the indifferent – both groups reply to the king with the same question:

“Lord, when was it that we saw you?”

It apparently did not occur to either group that by feeding the hungry they would be serving their king. Whether they received the king’s blessing or the king’s curse did not depend on how well they recognized their duty. It depended on how well they loved one another.

We ask, When was that it we saw you?

But Jesus asks us, When was it that you truly saw anyone?

(photo: Liza B. Knapp, all rights reserved)

Which side are you on?

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“Get to your labors!”  — Exodus 5:1-6:13

In light of the recent news of striking fast food workers, it is perhaps worth remembering that the Exodus began as a labor dispute.

Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and asked him to let the Israelites go — not, initially, forever, but just for a religious holiday. “Let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to our God.” A three-day weekend, that’s what they asked for. But management was unwilling to negotiate. “Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work?” Pharaoh replied.” Get to your labors.”

Which I guess makes the Exodus the largest mass strike in history.

(photo: Mary Altaffer, AP)

Late Bloomers

“…for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat…” Matthew 13:24-30 (NRSV)

My family never had a garden when we were kids (unless the potted geraniums in the air shaft count). When my Mom finally had the chance to create her first-ever vegetable garden, my now-adult sister was more than willing to lend a hand, but she didn’t have much experience planting and weeding. I remember her coming in from the garden on a hot afternoon and announcing, “I finally figured out how to tell a weed from a vegetable seedling. You pull it out, and if it grows back, it was a weed.”

That’s exactly what the landowner in Jesus’ parable is trying to avoid. His servants tell him there are weeds sprouting among the good grain, and they ask permission to get rid of the interlopers. A little Roundup, some aggressive tilling, and the monoculture will be restored in no time. But the owner of the field says, “No; for in gathering the weeds, you would uproot the grain as well.”

Sometimes it’s awfully hard to tell the weeds from the late bloomers. A “weed,” after all, is just a plant growing where someone thinks it doesn’t belong. Nip it in the bud, and you will never know what fruit it might have borne.

It’s the mistake George Zimmerman made, when he pulled the trigger on Trayvon Martin.

Be patient with us, God, as we learn to be patient gardeners.

Birthright

“I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” — Genesis 25:29-34

If you have a small child in your family, you can try this experiment at home: Ask her which she would rather have, a cookie or an ice cream sundae? Then ask her whether she would rather have a cookie right now, or an ice cream sundae next week. (And be prepared to deliver.)

When I was a small child, I learned the story of Esau and Jacob, and I thought of it as a sort of human version of the grasshopper and the ant, a fable about the wisdom of delayed gratification. Esau comes home to find his brother Jacob cooking stew, and demands, “Give me some stew, now!” Jacob agrees, but at a price: he will give his brother some stew, but only in exchange for his birthright. Esau, you see, is the elder son, and someday he will become his father’s sole heir. But that is someday, and Esau is hungry now. He chooses the cookie, and misses out on the sundae.

When I was a teenager, I became less interested in the moral of the story and more interested in the differences between the two brothers. Jacob – the quiet one, his mother’s favorite – is home cooking, while Esau – the hairy one, his father’s favorite – is outdoors, presumably doing something more conventionally masculine. The story became for me a liberationist tale about defying gender roles and overturning patriarchy. Jacob was not the prudent ant shaking his head at the grasshopper. He was Br’er Rabbit, outwitting Br’er Fox again.

But now, in middle age, I find my attention riveted by the story’s final sentence: Thus Esau despised his birthright. I am tripped up by that word, despise; it is not a word to be uttered lightly. The story has taken a new and sobering turn for me. It is no longer a comedy about Jacob, but a tragedy about Esau.

Esau was the heir to a great promise. The son of Isaac, the grandson of Abraham, he was next in line to be the patriarch of God’s chosen clan. God had something extraordinary in store for him, and he tossed it aside. It’s got me thinking, about all the ways that we despise our own birthrights. The ways that we underestimate the promise of our lives, trading away our potential in exchange for convenience, or comfort, or security.

What is your birthright? What is the talent you were born to cultivate, the garden you were born to tend, the problem you were born to solve, the injustice you were born to fight? What would you trade it for?

Keep me hungry, God. Don’t let me settle for anything less than being the person you created me to be.

Night Life

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…and God separated the light from the darkness, and called the light Day and the darkness Night. (Genesis 1:4-5)

My family has a log cabin in the Catskill Mountains, right up against the state forest. There are other houses along the road, but they aren’t visible from our property, and there’s not a single streetlight. At night, if the sky is clear, you can see an incredible number of stars. And if the sky is cloudy, you can’t really see anything at all. Peering out the cabin door into the dark lawn, my five-year-old nephew once memorably declared: “I need the light so I can see the dark.”

I spent my childhood in Manhattan, the city that never sleeps. Where you could probably live your entire life and never experience true darkness, at least not outdoors. People talk about the New York City nightlife, but really there is no nightlife in the city, just more day-life. But in the Catskills, the darkness is still dark, and the night still lives.

Last weekend, we passed some of that nightlife along the road to our cabin. The moon was bright, so we were able to see deer browsing at the forest edge. We even startled a bear as it was crossing the road with its cubs. One of the cubs scooted up a tree, until its mother reassured it that we were not a threat. My daughter announced at that moment that this was the Best Vacation Ever. And we weren’t even there yet.

“In the beginning,” the story goes, “the earth was a formless void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep….Then God said, let there be light, and there was.” But the light was not instead of the darkness; the light was in addition to the darkness. God separated darkness from light, so that creation would no longer be formless. From an undifferentiated sea of sameness, God brought forth diversity.

Last weekend, I saw my first firefly of the season. As we watched it twinkle, my wife remarked that there didn’t seem to be as many of them now as she remembers from her childhood. She’s right; fireflies, like so many other species, are on the decline. They are subject to all the same challenges that impact other species – habitat loss, pollution, global warming – but they also face some unique challenges of their own. The glow of a firefly is a form of communication, by which they signal their presence to others of their species. But we humans are constantly generating light of our own. It spills from our televisions and street lamps, onto our lawns and parking lots, blurring the line between night and day. Fireflies are disappearing, because they can no longer find each other.

They need the darkness so they can see the light.

 

 

(Photo credit: Takashi Ota, Flickr.com. Some rights reserved)

 

…so nothing else has to be.

“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” Acts 2:4-6

Once upon a time, the story goes, all humankind had one language. We spoke the same words, and this made us powerful. But God confused our language, so that we could no longer understand one another. Until, at the feast of Pentecost, the Spirit of God descended upon the apostles, and empowered them to overcome the language barrier – the barrier that, according to Genesis, God had created in the first place.

So what was the point of that detour? Didn’t God just bring us back where we started?  Not quite. Once upon a time, we shared one common language; but at Pentecost, all heard the good news in their own separate languages.

One language may sound like a utopian ideal. But one language can also mean one culture, one worldview, one-party politics. No wonder they were so powerful: they had no opposition. When God confused human language, God created human diversity. This should not surprise us at all, really. It’s what God has been doing all along, ever since God separated the darkness from the light: bringing forth diversity, out of uniformity.

God’s ways are not our ways; we aren’t always comfortable with those who don’t speak our language. When God confused our language, the story goes, we became scattered and divided. The price of our human diversity was that we became strangers to each other. And for the most part we remain strangers to this day. Humanity seems to be faced with a choice, between the unity of uniformity, and the discord of diversity.

But there is a third way. When the apostles gathered for the feast of Pentecost, people of every nation heard the good news in their own languages. God’s Spirit empowered them to bridge the gap between languages and cultures — not by erasing diversity, but by embracing it. The church was born in that moment. To borrow a phrase from William Sloane Coffin: “Church is the place where all hearts are one, so nothing else has to be.”