The Eye-Rolling Moment

(sermon 2/10/19)

casting a net

Luke 5:1-11

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

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You are an expert in something. Maybe in a number of things. It doesn’t matter who you are, how old you are, what your background is, there’s something – something about your work, or a hobby or some other interest – that your particular education, training, and life experience has made you very knowledgeable about. And having that expertise, you probably don’t have much patience when someone who knows less about that thing acts like some kind of expert who thinks you don’t know anything about it. The word “mansplaining” has become a part of our language because of this – the situation where a man feels like he has to explain something to a woman, who he assumes knows less about the subject than they do simply because she’s a woman – despite the fact that the woman often knows every bit as much, and often more, about the subject than he does. Every woman here knows that’s a real and terribly insulting thing – and honestly, the same sort of thing happens to other people in other situations, too, and it’s just as insulting.

I remember something similar back in my architecture days. My firm had years of experience across a broad range of project types. And every so often, I’d end up with a client who didn’t want to listen to the advice we offered because of that expertise. Instead, they thought they knew more about design and construction and zoning and building codes and construction law than I did, because they’d had a drafting class in high school and had build a shed in their backyard and they had a $50 CAD program on their home computer. Often when that would happen, after spending far more time than I should have to try to save them from themselves, I’d give in. I hit we could call the “eye-rolling moment.” I’d just smile, and say “OK, fine. If you want me to draw it up that way, just sign right here. And when you see it built that way in the field and you don’t like it and it has to be torn out and redone and all the plans have to be revised, I’m going to charge you more – a lot more – to redo them.” And when that happened – and it always happened – and they came back with their tail between their legs asking me to fix the mess, I’d be polite and never say “I told you so,” even though the bill to get them out of their bind said it just as well as any words would have.

It’s that eye-rolling moment that gets us to today’s gospel text. You can picture the scene. It’s a sunny morning along the Sea of Galilee, or as it’s called here, the Lake of Gennesaret. Simon, a fisherman, and a few of his buddies have come in to the shore after being out all night trying to catch a load of fish, to sell in the market that day. But they’d come up short. The whole night had been a bust for all of them. Now, all they could do was clean their nets and stow them away, and go home to catch a little shuteye before they went out again that evening.

As Simon sat there picking the seaweed and other crud out of his net, lo and behold here’s this Jesus character, this traveling preacher he’d heard about, standing there not far away from him along the shoreline, speaking to a group of people. As he talked, the crowd continued to grow, and as it did, it was gradually pushing Jesus along the shoreline, closer and closer to Simon, until Jesus was quite nearby, and he asked Simon for a favor. What? Borrow the boat to sit in, so the crowd didn’t press in too close? Sure, preacher, knock yourself out. But let’s put you out a little further down along the shore, so the crowd doesn’t bother me while I’m trying to get my work done.

Simon probably wasn’t in the best mood that morning, and who could blame him since he knew he still had a couple of hours of work to wrap up before he could get home, and he still wasn’t going to make a dime that day. Jesus was still close enough that Simon could hear bits and pieces of what he was saying while he continued to work. I wish life could be like all that, he thought to himself, but here in the real world, preacher, it just doesn’t work that way. This guy had all sorts of pie-in-the-sky ideas, but really a grown man should know better. He really should have stuck to carpentry. Maybe he wasn’t good enough of one to make a living at that, so now he’s trying this preacher angle. Who knows.

Eventually, Jesus finished up, and the crowd all went home. After getting the boat back to shore, Jesus went over to Simon and struck up a conversation. When he heard that the whole night had been a failure for him, Jesus said “You know, I think you should try one more time – maybe right out there,” he said, gesturing to a place on the water not very far out. Simon snorted and said no, I don’t think so I’m going to head home now. Jesus looked at him intently, eye to eye, and said “I really think you should try that spot right there, Simon…”

And it’s at this point that Simon hit his eye-rolling moment. Oh, sure. I’ve been fishing practically since I could crawl. I know this lake better than the back of my own hand. And now here you come, an outsider, a builder, a construction guy now turned traveling preacher, and you’re going to tell me how to fish?

He knew it wouldn’t work, and he’d just have to clean his net all over again. But Simon figured that it would be worth it to put Jesus in his place and show hm he didn’t know what he was talking about. OK preacher, hop in the boat, you’ll see.

Well, you know the rest of the story.

It seems that God must have a wicked sense of humor, because so many times in the scriptures, and so many times in people’s lives, we only become aware of the presence and power and goodness of God once we’ve been pushed to our eye-rolling moment. Maybe we just have to get to that point where there’s no logical explanation for something, there’s no way we can assume that something happened because of our own skill or expertise, before we can find God in a moment; where God can’t be missed; where God stands out from all the background noise.

Can you think of times in your life where you just knew that something wouldn’t work, where it was going to be a waste of time, a move in the wrong direction – and then, when you gave in and did that thing, like Simon did, you learned that you’d been wrong? That in fact, things didn’t go wrong, it ended up being a good idea – things ended up turning out better than you could have imagined?  I think it’s in precisely those moments – when we experience some surprising outcome after pushing through our eye-rolling moment – when our faith grows and deepens. Our personal faith grows. And when the church does the same thing, pushing through its eye-rolling moments, that’s when the church is best able to truly proclaim the gospel; when we’re proclaiming God’s good news to all people through our words and actions. In other words, that’s when the church is really evangelizing, which, of course, is how Luke concludes this particular story.

So today, I ‘d invite you to consider: what is your particular expertise? What’s your particular skill, your talent, your blessing? It’s good to take honest stock in ourselves, and know what that is – and to be grateful for it, because that expertise, that blessing, is truly a gift from God. Then, once you understand what you’re an expert in, think back over your life and consider when that expertise has helped you. And maybe even more importantly, when it’s helped others. Finally, think about when that expertise might have hurt you, or others. When it might have been an obstacle; when it might have caused a blind spot to something. Every blessing has a  shadow side to it, and we have to understand it and work to make sure that our particular blessing doesn’t become our particular curse.

Understanding that shadow side can be hard. Working to keep it from becoming a problem can be even harder. But the good news in all of this is that Christ – the very same one who stood on the shore that morning, and who loved Simon, and who admittedly used a little bit of orneriness to teach him a lesson – that same Jesus loves you and me, too, every bit as much as Simon; and he will help  us to learn when to trust in our own expertise, and when to trust God’s expertise instead.

You know, Simon originally just wanted to catch a boat full of fish. After he finally learned he could trust Jesus, and they’d caught more fish than he’d ever dreamt of, he was probably wondering if maybe he was going to need a bigger boat. If we trust Jesus the same way – pushing past our own eye-rolling moments when it comes to us living out the mission that God has for us, sharing God’s good news with others through our words and actions – we might end up wondering the same thing.

Thanks be to God.

The Compassion-Killer

(sermon 7/16/17)

piano

Mark 10:17-27

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

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I have a piano. It was made in Chicago in 1911. It’s five feet tall, five feet wide, 28 1/2 inches deep, and weighs about 754 pounds. It bears a lot of scars earned over the last hundred and six years, but all things considered, it looks better at 106 than I suppose I would. It didn’t cost me anything, at least not up front; the people who owned it said we could have it if we just paid to take it away. Once we got it home, I painstakingly refinished its beautiful book-matched walnut veneer, removing a fair amount of both pink and mint green paint left in crevices from two different paint jobs it endured over the course of its long life. After that, I had a piano technician install new key covers to replace the old chipped ivories; level the key bed, repair and regulate the action, and give it a good tuning; and after all that, it still wasn’t a great piano, but it wasn’t a bad one – definitely a good one for the two girls and I to take lessons on. After a while, all three of us gave up on the lessons. But after all these years, I’m still lugging this thing around with me wherever I go; it’s been through three moves in three different states now. I almost got rid of it before I moved here, but when I said something about that around my older daughter, she said with a pained tone in her voice, “Oh, no, you can’t get rid of the piano!” So I still have it. In this most recent move, the movers ended up giving it a few new scuffs, they bent my storm door, made a hole in a wall, and broke a caster off of it – but they did finally get it into the house, ending about a year of it being in storage in two different garages. As you might guess, all that has had an effect on its feel, its touch, its playability, but then again, as I’d mentioned, there really isn’t anyone around to play it regularly anyway. So it sits there, silent for the most part, holding up the television, and gathering dust,  and taking up way too much room in my already snug living room.

I have a piano.

Well, since the piano wasn’t invented until 1700, it’s pretty safe to say that the rich young man who struck up a conversation with Jesus in today’s gospel lesson didn’t own one, but apparently, he did have a lot of other possessions. This is one of those passages that can make us squirm a bit when we hear it. Even if we don’t ordinarily think of ourselves as rich, we know in our hearts that by the world’s standards, even the least well-off among us is wealthy beyond imagination. As I mentioned in the Thursday email, there are 3.8 billion people in the world who live on about $1,300 per year. So when we hear what Jesus tells this young man, somewhere deep down, we wonder if Jesus might give us the same advice = and we worry that the answer to that question might be yes, and we aren’t comfortable with what our response to that might be.

We want to follow Jesus, and we want to help others out of gratitude for God’s grace and love that’s been showered on us. But we don’t want to give up our stuff. Seriously. We’ve worked hard for it, to be able to enjoy it. And really, Jesus doesn’t expect us all to be poor, does he? I mean sure, there are scriptural passages, from Amos, and Hosea, and Ezekiel, and a number of other places, and even Jesus’ own words here, that don’t have very favorable things to say about wealth and the wealthy; but there are also lots of other passages that say that having wealth is a sign of God’s favor; it’s a blessing. And truth be told, that’s been a common theme in a lot of our own Reformed, Calvinistic history, too. So Jesus wouldn’t really want us to get rid of all of our possessions, would he? Maybe that was just a comment specifically for this young man, not a universal commandment for all of his followers, right?

Well, I can’t speak to that part of what Jesus might have had in mind. But I do think that he’s addressing something related to wealth and money and possessions, but which goes far beyond that. I think he’s really teaching the man – and by extension, us – about the dangers of fear.

I believe that in one way or another, fear is at the root of almost all of the problems in the world. People don’t hoard money, or other possessions out of an abstract greed; they do it out of fear of an unknown and uncertain future, and that money, those things, make it possible to be insulated from that uncertainty and, theoretically at least, to be able to control it. We fear other people, especially people who aren’t like us, because we worry that they pose a risk, a threat, to what’s familiar, fixed, predictable – controllable – in our own lives. We fear real honesty in our relationships and friendships, setting up barriers and facades and projecting false images of who we really are and what we really think and feel, because honesty and openness makes us vulnerable to injury, rejection, hurt. And when we are hurt, we fear letting go of that hurt, because as much as me may even know that holding onto the hurt is harmful, at least it’s familiar to us, comfortable, predictable. We fear letting go, and trusting God.

I own a piano because my daughter seemed so upset at the thought of my getting rid of it, and I feared what that might do to her. There’s been a lot of brokenness and hurt and sadness in our family life in the past, and I thought that maybe for her, the piano, this big, stupid, hulking thing that weighs more than a boat anchor, actually does anchor her to some of the good times and happy memories. And I suppose if I’m completely honest with myself, I want it to do the same thing for me, too. So despite all the good, and the hope, and the promise that I have for the future; despite all the love and compassion that I feel from God, the piano still sits there – a constant, scratched, slightly out of tune reminder of my fear of letting go of things in my life that deep down I know I should let go of, for my own spiritual and emotional well-being.

Fear, in any of its manifestations, handicaps us. It blinds us. It ties our hands, and clouds our brains. Fear is the ultimate compassion-killer that paralyzes us by keeping our focus excessively on ourselves. It’s the compassion-killer that keeps us from doing and being so much of what we know God would want of us. It’s what causes us to build walls around us, to protect us, to insulate us, to isolate us. So in fear we build those walls, whether the bricks that we use to build them are dollars, or possessions, or opinions, or even pianos; and then we sit behind our walls, less and less able to show compassion to others.

In this passage, Jesus has compassion on the young man by addressing the particular way his fear was holding him back, keeping him from a deeper experience of God and God’s love for him. It wasn’t a particularly reassuring message for him, or for us.

For the reassuring part of the message, we have to hear all the other times that Jesus told us, and the many times that God tells us throughout the scriptures, to not be afraid. To be at peace. To have the assurance that God really does love us, and has compassion for us, and will always have our backs, through whatever is causing us fear and uncertainty. To trust God, with more and more of our lives, unlike the rich young man in the story.

So today, and throughout this coming week, let’s try to do that. Let’s ask God for the strength to let go of the fear and anxiety that surpasses all reason, and instead, to allow ourselves to accept the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. That promise of God’s unfailing compassion for us should be music to our ears; whether that music is played on a beat-up old piano, or otherwise.

Thanks be to God.