“Follow Me”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

January 26, 2014 – Third Sunday after Epiphany

Scripture:  Matthew 4:12-23

 

Nearly four hundred years ago, a small band of men and women boarded boats in the port of Leiden, in the Netherlands.  They journeyed first to Delfshaven, then on to Southampton, in England, where they joined with other brave souls and boarded two ships bound across the ocean.  One of those ships, the Speedwell, sprang leaks repeatedly and was forced to turn back, but the other ship, the Mayflower, successfully navigated the Atlantic crossing and reached Cape Cod in November 1620, and its passengers settled a month or so later, as I’m sure you know, in Plymouth.

The women and men who made that difficult voyage did so in the midst of a great ecclesiastical controversy.  It’s hard to imagine now, when church and state are less entangled, and the lines between denominations seem rather blurry, and most people change religious affiliation at least once, if not several times, in their lifetimes—but at that time, theological debates raged furiously.  It hadn’t been so long—just a few decades, really—since a tide of reformation swept over Europe, dividing the church between Catholic and Protestant.  Lutheran and Reformed congregations sprang up across the continent, and in Britain, the Church of England was formed.

As the dust of all these schisms began to settle, it became clear that all that change hadn’t led to greater religious freedom—just a different set of practices that were as entrenched as their predecessors had been.  Those who argued that the reforms hadn’t gone far enough, those who wished to worship with greater purity and stricter piety, found themselves once again in an atmosphere of suspicion and contempt.  Eventually, some of them decided to leave their homes and travel to America in search of a more hospitable climate, where they could worship God as they felt called to do.

The whole congregation could not go at once, so they sent their strongest, hardiest members ahead to found the colony, and promised to come after when they could.  Before they departed, they gathered to worship together one more time.  Their pastor, John Robinson blessed them on their way, saying, “I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word.”  (Or, to put it in modern UCC terms, “God is still speaking.”)

This can’t have been an easy decision.  They were leaving family and friends, hearth and home.  They were leaving everything familiar and setting off into the unknown.  Everyone knew that an ocean crossing was a dangerous venture, and if they made it to America, they had heard rumors that they might encounter unfriendly native people, and strange and deadly diseases, and scarce food and water.  They had no guarantees of what the journey would hold.  No blueprints for the homes they would build, no daily menus from the ship’s cook, no Google Maps Street View to show them what their new neighborhood would look like.  They did not know what they would find, but there was a nudging in their hearts that they could not ignore, a summons that they knew they must follow.  God was calling them into a new thing, and they knew they had to go.

Those Pilgrims who set off on a journey into the unknown took a big risk.  They could easily have perished in the voyage; many of them did perish in that first winter.  They knew they might never see their friends, their family, their homeland again.  They knew they were embarking on an adventure whose contours they could not foresee.  They knew they were trying something that might not turn out as they expected or hoped.  And yet they went, for they heard God calling them into yet more truth, into yet more light, into a whole new life that they could not refuse.

 

*          *          *

 

This story of God’s call into unknown, unpredictable things does not belong only to the Pilgrims.  It belongs to those early disciples, too, living a millennium and a half before the Mayflower set sail, a small band of men fishing on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

For some of us, fishing brings to mind a restful vacation activity, or a time for father-son bonding, or an excuse to get out into the beauty of nature, or a way to spend one’s retirement.  But that’s not the kind of fishing we’re talking about here.  Simon Peter and Andrew and James and John were the commercial fishermen of their day.  Their work was strenuous, and difficult, and unpredictable, and dangerous—and it was vitally important to the survival of their families and communities.

To be good at fishing with a cast net, as those first disciples are described as doing here, took a lot of practice.  You had to learn to throw the net just the right way, so it opened completely in the air and landed flat on top of the water, so that the weights around its edges could pull it downward and (you hope) trap the fish inside.  You had to learn to mend the nets, too, because they would inevitably tangle and tear with the swirling of the waves and the thrashing of the fish.  It was a job that required both brains and brawn, both careful skill and pure physical labor.  And it was a job at which a man could make a good living, because fish was an important staple of the diet of that region.

Simon Peter and Andrew and James and John would most likely have been fishing from a very young age, helping their fathers and studying the trade and learning the skills as they went.  By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, they would have invested countless hours, days and nights and years of their lives.  There was not a lot of social mobility or vocational self-determination at that time—if your father was a carpenter, you became a carpenter; if your father was a farmer, you became a farmer; if your father was a fisherman, you became a fisherman.  Simon Peter and Andrew and James and John had a job to do; that was their place in the order of things.

And then Jesus showed up and said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  And they did.  They left their nets and their boats and their fathers and followed.

This can’t have been an easy decision.  They were leaving family and friends, hearth and home.  They were leaving everything familiar and setting off into the unknown.  There had been other itinerant preachers passing by from time to time, and everyone knew their movements usually fizzled out before long.  There was no guarantee that Jesus wouldn’t do the same, leaving them high and dry.  There was no explanation of what on earth Jesus meant by “fishing for people.”  No signed contract spelling out compensation, or sick leave, or 401(k), or vacation days when they could visit their families.  They did not know where this call would lead, but there was a nudging in their hearts that they could not ignore, a summons that they knew they must follow.  God was calling them into a new thing, and they knew they had to go.

Those disciples who followed Jesus and set off on a journey into the unknown took a big risk.  They could have found themselves washed up and left behind, broke and hungry with no place to go.  They could have stumbled home feeling foolish for being taken in by such a character.  They could have been set upon by thieves or wild animals as they walked through the countryside.  They knew they were embarking on an adventure whose contours they could not foresee.  They knew they were trying something that might not turn out as they expected or hoped.  And yet they went, for they heard God calling them into yet more truth, into yet more light, into a whole new life that they could not refuse.

 

*          *          *

 

This story of God’s call into unknown, unpredictable things does not belong only to the Pilgrims and the disciples.  It belongs to us, too.

For nearly three and a quarter centuries now, members of the First Congregational Church of Woodstock have been responding to God’s call in new ways for new times.  Think back to 1686, when those original settlers, the Thirteen Goers, left their homes in Roxbury, MA, and set out to establish a new settlement in this unfamiliar territory.  They left behind family and friends, hearth and home, with no promise of safety and security, no guarantee of what they would find here.

Think back to 1834, when, in response to changing times and societal demands, the congregation departed from the familiar way in which things had always been done, and went way, way out on a limb, and installed wood stoves to heat the meetinghouse for the first time.

Think back to 1894, when the church tax was discontinued and the congregation opted instead for a Sabbath collection, the forerunner of today’s stewardship campaign and morning offering.

Think back to 1937, when the congregation expanded the role and leadership of women by voting at the annual meeting to form for the first time a Board of Deaconesses.

Think back to 2003, when the congregation made explicit the broad reach of God’s love by voting to become officially Open and Affirming.

All throughout human history, and all throughout this congregation’s history, God has been at work, calling us forward into yet more truth, into yet more light, into a whole new life that we cannot refuse.  Sometimes, perhaps even often, this call means we must leave behind something familiar, depart from something comfortable, and strike out into something unknown, something that might not turn out as we expect or hope.  But uncomfortable as it may be, this call always comes with a promise, for the God who has brought us this far will not abandon us now.

As John Robinson, that Pilgrim pastor, said, “The Lord has yet more truth and light to break forth from God’s holy word.”  As he blessed his people and sent them off into the unknown, John Robinson also said this:  “I charge you before God and his blessed angels that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ.”

“I charge you before God and his blessed angels that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ.”

In the end, we do not leave behind comfort and familiarity just because any old person tell us to.  We do not launch into adventures whose contours we cannot foresee just because we feel like doing something different for a change.  We do not take big risks just for the sake of taking them.  We do it because none other than God has called us to do it—because we, too, have heard the voice of Jesus saying, “Follow me.”

And so, on this Annual Meeting Sunday, the question before us is this:  What risk is God calling us to take?  What new thing is God calling us to try?  What unknown is God calling us to step into?  What new adventure is God calling us to begin?

We will not answer these questions entirely before lunch.  But as we continue in our worship, and as we enter into our discussions and deliberations, let us do so in a spirit of discernment, of discovering God’s call for us.  For we Congregationalists believe that God can and does speak through any one of us, and that we can come to understand God’s call most clearly by sharing what we have heard and discerning a way forward together.

So let us open the ears of our hearts and invite God in.  Let us listen for God’s call in the stirrings of our hearts and in the words of our sisters and brothers.  Let us listen for where Jesus is saying, “Follow me.”  Let us ponder what new adventure God might be calling us to begin.  And let us chart our course together.