The Sunday Sermon: Get out of the boat

My brother, who lives on the west coast of Scotland, has a boat. He has sailed for years and even taught sailing for a while. Whenever I go to visit him I love going out for a sail with him. Sometimes we sail over to the Isle of Cumbrae, a small island whose distinguishing feature is the exquisite Cathedral of the Isles, the smallest cathedral in Europe. The little harbor is popular and there often isn’t a place to tie up on the pier, so we tie up to a buoy, lower the inflatable dinghy and row to the shore. Every time, I find myself challenged by the agility needed to climb in and out of the dinghy. It’s never graceful and sometimes I’ve come close to tumbling into the water. Getting in and out of the boat isn’t easy. There’s a point where you have to let go and launch yourself forward. It takes … commitment.

“Follow me.” That’s it. That’s Jesus’s whole church development plan. Not, “Sign onto this doctrine” or “promise to keep these rules,” but follow me. There is no Alpha program, confirmation class or church shopping for the fishermen he targets. They hear the call, they get out of their boats, and they follow, not knowing where they are going or what Jesus is offering. They join the Jesus Movement, which literally moves them away from all they have ever known, simply obeying the call, and trusting that they will learn who Jesus is and what he promises as they walk the roads of Galilee together. Their obedience predates their understanding. Their obedience even predates their belief. Follow me and discover fullness of life. Follow me and learn what love means. Follow me and bear witness to the healing that comes from a loving touch. Follow me and be the unique and wonderful human being you were created to be. Follow me to the Cross and learn what lies beyond. But first, you have to get out of the boat. And that’s not an easy step.

When we join the Jesus movement, we had better be ready for anything. Qualifications are irrelevant. The brothers were fishermen, not evangelists. They were as unqualified as we are. What did it mean to fish for people? Why did they follow him? He wasn’t the only traveling evangelist in Galilee at that time. How did they know that he was the real thing? They didn’t even think about it. They immediately left their nets. They left their old lives behind. They didn’t grab a net or a length of fishing line and a hook in case they needed to fall back on their craft. They didn’t limit their involvement to weekends or spare change. They simply got out of the boat and followed Jesus. Right from the start of the story it is made absolutely clear that you can’t be an incremental Christian: it’s all or nothing.

In the Revelation to John, the writer speaks dismissively of luke-warm Christians who say, “I am rich; I have prospered; and I need nothing.” If we don’t need God, we have missed the point. When we see our faith as an activity or a feeling, we haven’t got out of the boat. Jesus isn’t asking us to subscribe to a program or make a donation to a good cause; he is asking us to walk away from our old lives and put ourselves entirely in his hands, to enter into a committed relationship of trust, to make our faith the center and touchstone of all that we do and all that we are.

The Sea of Galilee is teeming with life, and so it was in the days of Jesus. If you owned a fishing boat, you could easily support a family. Why would anyone leave a secure way of life for something as uncertain as a traveling preacher? There must have been something remarkable about him, something that spoke of abounding joy, of light in the darkness, of dreams fulfilled. Sometimes the only way to find joy, to find love, is to step out from certainty into the unknown. This is the essence of vocation: called to take a chance for the sake of transforming the world. Or, as Frederick Buechner puts it, “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

We all like to feel we have some control over our lives. But any apparent certainty in our own lives is simply an illusion. In the end we have no control over the big things: the circumstances and length of our lives. The stock market? It could be sunk by a single Tweet. My home? An earthquake could flatten it. And a deadly diagnosis or fatal accident could bring all my plans to a sudden halt. In the end nothing is sure except God. The only safe bet is to take a chance on God, and for Christians that means following Jesus, and that means get out of the boat.

When I made a commitment to tithe off the top of my income to the church I was taking a chance on God taking care of me. When I answered the call to come to San Diego from Virginia, I took a continent-wide leap of faith. So far, whenever God has called me to jump out of the boat, God hasn’t let me down.

We now know that the world didn’t end on Friday. The three million people who participated yesterday in women’s marches across this country and the world affirmed our determination to stand for justice, dignity, and equal rights, and now we move forward. In the coming years we are likely to see some profound changes in how national resources and individual freedoms are administered in this country. Right now I don’t expect many of those changes to be changes that I will welcome. But that doesn’t change my call to follow Jesus. And it doesn’t change who we are, as Christians, as Episcopalians, as St Paul’s Cathedral. It only makes it more important that we get out of the boat and follow the call to serve.

If answering the call means taking a chance on God, what chances might we as a congregation be called to take in the years ahead? What safety nets will we leave behind in order to fish for people and bring light out of darkness? The new political climate suggests that this may be a time when our discipleship will carry a cost. If we see draconian cuts to government programs such as public broadcasting, healthcare, the National Endowment for the Arts, and climate change research, we must step forward to protest, to support a free press and the arts, to care for those who will be bankrupted by medical costs or, worse, simply die for lack of treatment. The church will be at the forefront of such efforts, and the church is all of us.

The Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about the cost of discipleship. Reflecting on the call of the disciples, he says, “Until that day, everything had been different. They could remain in obscurity, pursuing their work as the quiet in the land, observing the law and waiting for the coming of the Messiah. But now he has come, and his call goes forth. Faith can no longer mean sitting still and waiting – they must rise and follow him. .. they must burn their boats and plunge into absolute insecurity in order to learn the demand and the gift of Christ.”

Today this rings especially true for us who call ourselves followers of Jesus. It’s intimidating and challenging, but the reward – the peace that passes all understanding – is incalculable and eternal.

On this Cathedral Day we should take a moment to reflect on where we are and how far we’ve come. Isaiah’s words echo for me today: the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Three years ago there was a fair amount of darkness surrounding the cathedral’s identity and administration. Today the light is shining out. We are more visible to the city, both physically because of our lights and politically, because of our involvement in the community.
Staff and Chapter have worked hard to bring transparency to our operations: ministry leaders know their budgets and can work with them. Each month Chapter members and executive staff receive no fewer than 12 reports. Our financial systems are running well, the accounts are in order and our 2015 audit was clean.

Now we are ready to take the light out into the world. We can see Jesus beckoning us to follow him, to commit ourselves to ministry. Matthew tells us that Jesus set out to cure every disease and every sickness among the people. The deadliest sickness in this time and place is fear. Fear drives people apart. It fosters violence and hatred. So, our mission must be to overcome fear and bring about reconciliation between those who have been infected.
Today, Jesus is calling St Paul’s. Follow me, he says. Follow me to where the people are living in fear, and bring them out of darkness into light. We hear the call, and we are ready to get out of the boat and follow.

January 22, 2017
Cathedral Day and the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges

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