January 26


By Marsh Chapel

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Isaiah 9:1-4

Matthew 4:12-23

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Today we see Jesus walking the shore of his beloved Sea of Galilee.  He sets out at dawn, as the fishermen begin, casting and mending.  This stylized memory from the mind of Matthew kindles our own memory and hope, too.

That first light of the day, daybreak, carries a power unlike any other hour’s hue.  The excitement of beginning.  The promise of another start.  The crisp, cold opening of the year in January.  Like the skier, mits and poles at the ready, we adjust our goggles, and we lean, and…

Here is Jesus, midway from Christmas to Easter, from manger to cross, from nativity to passion.  Along the shoreline he strides, one foot in sea and one on shore.

He meets two brothers at first light, and they meet him, God’s First Light, the light that shines in the darkness.  Notice how Simon, called Peter, and Andrew, his brother, are sketched.  There is little to nothing of history here, but what there is says so much!  There is no parental shadow lying on their fishing nets.  One hears no maternal imperative, no paternal dictate.  These boys are on their own.  They have left home already, maybe leaving the city to the south to find a meager middle-class existence farther north, with their own means of production.  They are small business men, boat owners, fishermen.  Neither the amhaaretz nor the gentry, they.  Not poor, not rich.  Working folks.  Young, young men.  Simon already has a nick-name.  A sign of joviality, of conviviality, of gregarious playful fun.  Peter, the Rock.  Is this for his steady faithfulness or his failure to float?  On this rock…Sinks like a Rock…You sense that these brothers play in the surf a little, kick up the sand a little, flirt with the Palestinianas, take time to take life as it comes.  Brown are their forearms, and burnished their brows.  They love the lake and life, and have made already their entrance into adult life.  For they have left home.  One envies their youth and freedom.  They have taken to the little inland sea, and with joy they meet each dawn, like this one, at first light, as they see Light.

You can feel the sand under their feet as they take a moment to play and laugh.  You can feel the chill of the water as they swim, while breakfast cooks over the fire.  You can feel their feeling of vitality and joy as they greet another day at first light.

I wonder whether we allow ourselves to drift a little too far from that sense of vocation, that first light feeling.  Those nearly pure dawn moments of almost rapturous illumination.  Those moments of connection.

The day your BU acceptance letter came.

The afternoon of BU Commencement, four fast years later, 25,000 in attendance.

The evening you came out to your parents.

Your first child, tiny, red, crinkled, fists waving, crying and then asleep, literally in your hand.

Your daughter, or son, taking the vows of confirmed faith, in the church’s chancel.  Yes, there was some part child and another part adult in what was said.  But they were there, in tie and dress.  They were there, in public and in church.  They murmured, and they murmured piously.  And how did that feel Dad?

Your day of matrimony.  Down the aisle they come, or you come, father and daughter.  Do you? Do you?  I do. They do.  And what was once a simpler world, now has further complexity and creative power.  A new creation.

Your retirement party.

There must have been some moment, sometime, when you felt an intimacy with the universe, a closeness, a sense of purpose.  That too is a kind of daybreak, dawn, first light.  That is an inkling of vocation.

A simple trust, like theirs who heard beside the Syrian sea.

Our denomination once had a thriving ministry in China.  When we forced out of China in the 1940’s, something vital left our church.  But you can still feel the first light of mission in the halls and rooms at Scarritt in Nashville.  Oriental ornaments, paintings, sculpture, gifts, symbols of connection and love.  We grew up with the family of Tracy Jones, who himself had been raised as missionary child in China.  As had Huston Smith. Our first parsonage, in Ithaca, had once housed Pearl Buck while she and her husband were back on furlough, from China.  Have we begun with the Spirit to end with the flesh?  Have we forgotten the love we had at first?  Have we stayed close enough to that dawn light, and those first light experiences, to stay fresh?  Have we an inkling of vocation?

Our malaise, our ennui, should we have such, our “acedia”—spiritual sloth or indifference, literally, our “not-caring”—so often is due to our turning away from the dawn, daybreak, that elemental experience of love that energizes everything else.

Peter and Andrew, of course, are casting, casting nets.  They have no furrowed brows, no endless worries, no pessimism, no angst.  They probably have left unattended some holes in their nets, these two happy brothers.  They are willing to accept that their casting will be imperfect, as all evangelism is imperfect.  But that imperfection will not keep them from enjoying the labor of casting.  To miss the dawn, the first light, is to miss the fun of faith!

Invite that neighbor, the one across the street whose porch light is always on, to come along to worship with you.  Do you enjoy, benefit from, appreciate worship here, come Sunday?  Then, of course, you will want to share that enjoyment, benefit and appreciation, by inviting someone to come too.  Here at dawn…those first stirrings, first longings, first intimations of something new and good….

Meanwhile, back on the beach, Jesus heads south, cove by cove, with Andrew and Peter frolicking in tow.  They had already left home.  They are ready to take a flier on some new trek, not fully sure how it will work out.  It is a miracle that they are remembered, perhaps with a little hagiography, as having responded “immediately”.  Still, every little scrap of memory of these two brothers tends in the same direction—full of vim, vigor, vitality and pepperino.  Yes, they will follow!

But down the shoreline a little, there rests another boat.  A different story, a different set of brothers altogether.  James and John.  Known as the sons of Zebedee.  Simon has already earned his own name and nick-name.  But these two are known by their father’s name.  They haven’t left home.  They have not yet acquired that second identity.  When you won’t leave, won’t move, you won’t find, you won’t grow:  you’ll miss vocation. Here they are, as usual at dawn, stuck in the back of the boat.  All these years they have watched the Peter and Andrew show.  All these years they have envied the fun and frolic down the beach.  The late night parties.  The bonfires.  The singing.  The swimming.  And here they sit strapped to the old boat of old Zebedee.  They are covered with the ancient equivalents of chap stick and Coppertone.  And they are trapped.  Under the glaring gaze of Zebedee, whose thunderous voice has so filled their home that their own voices have not even emerged.  Every day, in the back of the boat.  And what are they doing?  Why you could have guessed it, even if the text had not made it plain.  Are they casting?  No.  Are they fishing?  No.  Are they sailing?  No.  They are mending.  Mending.  Knit one, pearl two… Their dad has got them into that conservation, protection, preservation mode.  Mending.  At dawn!  Of course nets need mending, but the nets and the mending are meant in a greater service!  The fun is in the fishing!  The joy is in the casting.  The happiness is in the evangelism.  And there they sit, sober Calvinist souls, mending.  Deedle deedle dumpling, my son John…

Today we are mid-way between Christmas and Easter.  This passage has a little passion (the Baptist) and a little nativity (Nazareth). The two stories of Jesus, of his birth and of his death, are meant to complement and interpret each other.  As our colleague Milton Jordan put it this week:  Matthew attempts to soften this story of Jesus’ flight from the threat of arrest. He and other disciples of the Baptizer flee from Herod Antipas’ region to a border town where escape to another country is not as difficult.  We have, too often overlooked – if not intentionally obscured – the harsh political realities of Jesus’ flight to the border.

Here is a pronouncement of a broad peace, on earth.  On earth.  With Gandhi along the Ganges.  Beside Tutu on the southern cape.  Along the path of the Dalai Lama in farthest Tibet.  In Tegucigalpa with our missionary friends Mark and Lynn Baker. This is no predestinarian quietism, which has taken over parts of non-Catholic American Christianity, from its seedbeds in the Orthodox Presbyterian and Anabaptist communions:  cold, careful, efficient, first mile, changeless, fearsome, depressed grace.  No, this is Christmas:  warm, open, effective, second mile, free, growing, angry, and hopeful!  Augustine:  Hope has two beautiful daughters:  anger and courage.

The early church told two stories about Jesus.  The first about his death.  The second about his life.  The first, about the cross, is the oldest and most fundamental.  The second, about the manger, is the key to the meaning of the first, the eyeglasses which open full sight, the code to decipher the first.  Without Christmas you can’t see Easter right.  Jesus died on a cross for our sin according to the Scripture.  That is the first story.  But who was Jesus?  What life did his death complete?  How does his word heal our hurt?  And how does all this accord with Scripture? One leads to the other.

This second, second level story begins at Christmas, and continues in Epiphany, and is told among us to interpret the first.  Christmas\Epiphany is meant to make sure that the divine love is not left only to the cross, or only to heaven.  Epiphany is meant to open out a whole range of Jesus, as brother, teacher, healer, young man, all.  Christmas is meant to provide the mid-course correction that might be needed if all we had was Holy Week.  And the Christmas\Epiphany images are the worker bees in this theological hive.  Easter may announce the power of peace, but Christmas names the place of peace.  Jesus died the way he did because he lived the way he did.  Jesus lived the way he did, and so died the way he did.  That is, it is not only the Passion of Christ, but the Peace of Christ, too, which Christians like you affirm.  What lovely news for us at the start of a new decade.  The passion too of Christ.  Theologically, globally, politically, militarily, ecclesiastically —we have seen passion this year.  Now comes dawn, the light, Epiphany, Christmas\Epiphany again to announce that there is more to Jesus than the passion.  There is the matter of peace as well.

The real miracles of this account lie in the second invitation to the second set of brothers.  It is a miracle that Jesus stopped and invited them, so somber are they.  I wonder if he took in the timbre of Zebedee’s voice, and saw them quaking in the back of the boat.  Perhaps his heart went out to James and John.  So, he stops, and he asks.

That is the great thing about an invitation.  All you can do is ask.  Do ask.  Ye have not because ye ask not.  And for the first time in their lives, James and John are invited to live. Too many people live half asleep.  Too often we don’t live life, life lives us.  Like these two knitting in the back of the boat.  Half asleep.  Then dawn comes, and day breaks, and that first light shines!  And a voice like no other, so equanimous and so serene, casts its spell upon them.  Maybe upon you, this morning.  Watch.  It is a first light moment.  First one, then the other, stands and moves.  Under the shadow of that paternal presence, under the sound of that maternal imperative of home.  They rise.  And they move toward First Light.  They are about to grow up.  AND THEY LEAVE HOME! Wonderful!  And what do they leave behind?  You would have known even if the Scripture had not laid it right out.  They leave behind the boat…and their father.  We best honor the adults in our lives when we become adults ourselves. (repeat)

Will this world grow up? Will we find a way to live together, all seven point five billion of us, and to drink from the same cup? This text, strangely like John, claims for Jesus that Jesus is light.  Not color, now.  Light.  Color is great, and good.  But we all want finally to be able to drink from the same water fountain, we want our children in one school, we want to sit at one table, we want to drink from one goblet.  It is light that we will need into the 21st century.  We finally all drink from the same cup.

I am told of a man who stopped in his new neighborhood to buy lemonade from a freckle faced 7 year old girl and a mahogany skinned 6 year old boy.  He paid his dime and drank his beverage and stayed to talk.  After a while the girl asked if there was anything else he wanted.  No, he said, why?

Well sir, we are running a business here, and we have had a busy morning, and we hope for a busy afternoon, but that cup you are holding is the only one we have, so if you don’t mind, we’d like it back.

We all finally drink from the same cup. We forget it at our worldly peril.  If we walk in the light as He is in the light we have fellowship with one another.  We have more in common, as climate change, nuclear danger, governmental malfunction, denominational turmoil, and personal angst remind us, all around the globe, than we do in difference. Give us light.  Give us light.  Dear God, give us light.

Have you faith?  You are going to need some this coming year, 2020.

At first light, at dawn, we may with happiness remember this.  The protagonist of M Robinson’s Gilead, an old pastor in the Iowa town of this name, spends Sunday mornings, at dawn, praying alone in his church.  He loves the morning hour.  He waits with baited breath for the church to begin to fill up, to fill in.  He basks in the first light of day.

He knows, you do too, that we are going to need some faith this year.  Others will, too.  How will they find faith in Christ without a church family to love them, without a church home to nurture them:  without you taking a moment to say, ‘I will be at Marsh Chapel on Sunday at 11am—why not meet me there?’

That is the dawn, Peter and Andrew, real joy of faith:  sharing it.  Would you like to have some fun this week?  Look around for dawn breaking, and kick up some sand.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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