I belong to a Facebook group dedicated to my hometown and the memories of it that all of us in the group share. People often post old photos, remembered events, even their phone numbers from the days when you only needed four numerals, or (a little later) when the phone numbers began with the first two letters of the town: AR (for Armonk Village) 3-8736.
Of course, the group is heavy on the nostalgia. And many describe a simpler, more wholesome life than what they see around them now – whether they stayed in town or moved away. They remember a care-free childhood; a community cohesiveness that simultaneously gave children a fair amount of responsibility for themselves, but also the freedom to be kids. You could go off on your bike for the whole afternoon as long as you told an adult where you were going (sort of) and were home by dinner-time – in those days before we knew the term “helicopter parents.”
I know that Long Hill has a similar Facebook group, and I’m sure Warren, Basking Ridge, and many other towns do, as well. In these postings I hear a longing to return to those times, and a sense that something valuable has been lost – the way life used to be.
All around us the world has changed. Sime of the changes have been very good; others have been not so good – they even seem threatening. Despite the nostalgia and the uncertainty, I know I would not want to go back to a time when women could not have access to higher education, participate in competitive sports, have careers in business, law, medicine, engineering, construction, the clergy. Nor would I want to go back to a time when children with special needs were called “retarded” and were shut away; or where men and women of color were automatically barred from fair housing, good jobs, political participation, good schools; or where LGBT folks lived in fear of discovery and, in some cases, their lives; although there is still a great deal of work to do in all these areas.
But in all this positive change there has also been loss – and not just the loss of nostalgia. Our culture is increasingly secular and multi-religious. Our world of work expects to be “on” and available 24/7. Activities for children and teens are often chosen because participation in them will look good on a college application or perhaps gain a kid a sports scholarship. Many households need two incomes to get by. In all of this, the Church as a center of the community has been side-lined – especially churches in the historic, main-line Protestant traditions which used to be understood as central institutions in each community and in the culture as a whole. There never seems to be enough time, even with all the good intentions we may have, to be a deeply Christian person – or even a moderately Christian person – in our current reality.
In other parts of the world – outside of Europe and North America – the situation is quite different. People may struggle desperately to earn their daily bread, but the churches are full, and faith is vital. The Diocese of Haiti, for example, is the largest diocese in the Episcopal Church – in terms of both membership and worship attendance, and the outreach of these churches makes an impact in their communities every day. The challenges of life in Haiti are very different from life in New Jersey, and I don’t think many of us would want to trade places, but Haitian Episcopalians live their faith front and center. It is what gives them hope and courage and joy in the face of great difficulty.
The Gospel passage this morning narrates Jesus calling two pairs of brothers – all commercial fishermen – to follow him, to become his disciples. This was a risky business. Jesus was asking them to abandon what they knew, their livelihood, their family business, and follow him into the unknown. Peter, Andrew, James, and John may have heard some of Jesus’ preaching beforehand; we don’t really know. But Mark’s Gospel wants to convey the sense of urgency and vitality in Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God – enough that these men were willing to drop what they were doing and become his followers, partners in learning, living, and proclaiming the fulfillment of God’s purposes as they were coming true in Jesus. In order to do that, the disciples had to make a change, had to leave behind what they knew, what seemed familiar and comfortable, had to be willing to see the world differently, and learn to live in it differently than what they had been used to. In the presence of Jesus the Messiah, they were in the presence of God far more directly than any of them had been before, and it was going to be a big adjustment, to say the least!
So here we are, not unlike Peter, Andrew, James, and John – and farther along in the story the sisters Mary and Martha, as well as others. Jesus calls us in the midst of our rapidly changing world, in the throes of things we sometimes have trouble wrapping our mind around, to leave behind some of our old life – our old ways, our old expectations, our nostalgia – if it does not serve and support authentic Christian life and practice and faithfulness. That doesn’t mean we carelessly abandon traditions and practices that are life-giving, but it does mean that we need to re-think, and pray, and discern the cost of following Jesus.
Where are the places where we need to make choices about how we spend our time and our energy? Is faith in Christ a nice add-on in our private moments, when we have time? Is prayer and Scripture reading something that we leave to the “professionals” – either out of uncertainty about how to do it, or fear of seeming “too religious”, or the difficulty of making time for it?
In calling us to follow him, Jesus calls us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength – our whole being. And in the Episcopal Church, our Anglican tradition rests on the prayerful intertwining of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition. More than many Christian traditions, we Episcopalians are not so much told what to do and what to think, as we are called to put all our faculties and abilities at God’s service, and then given the responsibility (individually and as a community, as a body) to watch and listen and think and pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance as to how we can be deeply Christian in our current culture., in our own time and place.
It’s hard; it takes work. And that may be one of the biggest changes of all. In the old days the values of American society and the values of the Church were more or less the same – at least on the surface, at least for main-line Protestants. It was easy to coast in our faith when we had lots of cultural support. But those days have gone, and we have before us a fresh Gospel opportunity. Our world needs so desperately to hear that the idolatry of materialism, of status, of power for its own sake, the idolatry of external perfectionism which papers over the emotional and spiritual void, is not what life is all about. The world needs to know that forgiveness, joy, and hope are possible, and that it comes from being loved to our depths by God, and by returning that love with glad and grateful hearts.
We are the ones who have been given the message and the mission to the places each one of us goes. Each of our participation is important and valuable, and God is counting on us. We all, of course, can always learn more about our faith, become more confident in both what we believe and what we say, can learn better how to pray, how to listen, how to recognize the still, small voice of God, the Holy Spirit whispering in our ear. We never stop learning and growing in our Christian discipleship.
But at some point, the training wheels have to come off. At some point, we have to decide that our faith moves front and center, and that God can use us however God sees fit – no matter how scary that seems.
Why does this have to happen? Because through our baptism, God has called us into partnership with him in his mission to redeem the world; and the world sorely needs Jesus’ message now. Forgiveness, hope, justice, joy, courage, peace, and love. That is what we have to offer, that is what we have to live, that is what we have to say – out loud, to other people. And when we do, Jesus will be with us – even to the end of the age.
Let us pray.
Jesus calls us from the worship of the vain world’s golden store;
From each idol that would keep us, saying “Christian, love me more.”
Jesus calls us! By thy mercies, Savior, may we hear thy call,
give our hearts to thine obedience, serve and love thee best of all. Amen. ~ Hymn 550
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 21, 2018