United Church of Jaffrey
There were two ducks on the other side of the pond.
As far as I could tell, the three of us – the two ducks and I – were the only living souls in the vicinity.
No doubt there were innumerable insect and small woodland creatures snooping about in the underbrush.
I bet there were some mountain goats wandering on the distant slopes but, as the evening came on, I could not make them out.
But none of that mattered.
I had gathered enough firewood to keep my little fire going, and, as the afternoon aged in among the Douglass fir, I was perfectly content quietly tending to its needs.
It did not need to roar.
Its purpose was not to keep me warm – its purpose was simply to enhance the peace of the moment – which is was succeeding, quite admirably, in doing.
The afternoon was just giving way to evening.
I was alone.
Earlier in the afternoon, I’d come down off the ridge and set up camp next to this little pond. It was my fourth day out, and I was, for the first time, beginning to feel comfortable being out in the cascade mountains by myself as the night fell.
Every few minutes I’d add a stick to the fire.
Now and then, I’d glance over at my feathered neighbors, whose meditations were so profound that they barely made a ripple on the surface of the water.
Maybe it was the ducks.
Maybe it was the lovely soft air of the evening gathering in and around my little pond…
Maybe it was the flicker of my little fire: modest, and yet perfectly sufficient.
Whatever it was, I was relieved to find that the existential dread and cosmological loneliness that had beset me on the previous nights I’d spent alone in the wilderness, were gone – replaced by a welcome sense of abiding well-being.
Ducks. Fire. Evening.
How sweet it was to be alive and at peace!
I was not scared. I was…
And that, of course, was when noticed the sound of footsteps.
– or something –
was clambering along the path on the far edge of the pond.
I am going to try to play a little bit of catch up with my sermon this morning.
I want to briefly considered two gospel passages – one of which, the passage from the Gospel of John, is the lectionary passage that I would have preached about last week, had the weather and circumstances been more cooperative.
The second passage, from the gospel according to Matthew, is the passage that the lectionary wants us to consider this morning.
Both passages, as it happens, concern the call that Jesus makes to his disciples, and their decisions to follow him.
Since these stories tell about the moment when Jesus first meets his disciples, these are stories of first impressions.
One person meets another person for the first time and something happens.
This, I argue, is a crucial moment.
It is a moment that reveals a great deal about human nature.
The manner in which we conduct ourselves, in this moment – the moment of “first impression” — says a great deal about how we exist as human beings in this world.
And for this reason, it is, I argue, a religious moment.
For those of us who choose to follow the example of Jesus Christ, it is, I think a particularly revealing moment.
But before get too deep into theology, allow me, if you will be so kind, to return to that evening in the Cascade Mountains where we left a young Mark in a rather suspenseful moment.
You may be wondering what it was approaching from the far side of the pond.
The footsteps, you may glad to hear, were not the shuffling, lumbering steps of a grizzly bear.
The steps belonged the feet of a man.
This man, who appeared out of the woods, and approached my quiet little campsite was giant.
I’m not a small guy.
But this guy made me feel small.
He was young and very very tall.
He was also big.
Big and tall.
“Hello,” said the big tall young man.
“Hello,” I said.
He took off his pack.
“Nice fire,” he said.
He sat down on a nearby stump. It looked like he was planning on sticking around.
Of the two call passages that we are looking at this morning, the one from Matthew may be the more well known.
In it, Jesus, who is walking by the sea of Galilee, comes upon two brothers Peter and Andrew, who are out in a boat fishing. Jesus approaches and says his famous line:
“Follow me, he says and I will make you fish for people.”
And the text says
Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
Talk about first impressions!
According to this account, the disciples do not even get to say anything. They are spoken to, and they obey.
I don’t know about you, but this story makes me nervous.
I guess I’m not big on obedience.
Obedience makes me nervous.
Obedience makes me nervous because of the people who demand obedience often make me nervous.
When someone demands my obedience, that person is basically telling me to stop thinking for myself.
According to them, I would be better off if I just let them do the thinking.
if I am going to agree to obey someone, I have to be pretty sure they are smarter than me.
And I’m not exactly a dummy.
I’ve been around the block a few times.
I’ve been around the block enough times to know that the person who demands my obedience is usually not the person who is smarter than me – it’s usually the person who is more powerful than me.
And I don’t want to obey someone just because they are more powerful than I am.
Who knows how they got that power?
Plenty of people gain power in awful, violent ways.
These are people that may demand my obedience, but they are the last people who deserve my obedience.
Indeed, they deserve my resistance.
So if someone came up to me and said:
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
I would probably have said: “No thanks, Buster. I’ll stick to fishing fish.”
The giant and I talked about this and that for a while, as night fell.
I think I might be able to guess what is going on in your head right now, because even though you are just hearing this story, and you know that I survived, because I am standing here in front of you – you can’t help making the little calculation in your head.
And believe me I was making that same calculation!
In the wilderness.
And this stranger was way, way bigger than me.
As I sat there, it was completely and entirely clear to me, that I was completely and entirely at his mercy.
He could do anything he wanted to me.
I realized, in that moment, that I might have been safer if a Grizzly Bear had come along.
Humans can be the most dangerous animal in the world – for other humans.
So as we talked about small things, like where we were from, and how long we’d been hiking, and stuff like that, I was quietly trembling with a new a terrible fear.
This morning’s second call story is from the gospel of John.
In it, the disciples get to speak.
They are also given a little letter of introduction to Jesus, from John the Baptist makes an interesting comment to them when they see Jesus walking by:
“Look,” he says, “here is the Lamb of God!”
The two, who were disciples of John the Baptist, would surely be quite curious investigate someone that John the Baptist called “The lamb of God.”
So the two disciples of John got up and followed Jesus. When Jesus saw them, the following encounter took place:
Jesus turned and said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.
Needless to say, I like this story more.
The disciples actually have some investment in the process. They seem to be intelligent people who have minds of their own. They don’t simply obey. They choose to follow.
Since I am standing before you this morning, you know that the giant wasn’t a wandering serial killer.
As we spoke, it became clear to me that he was anything but.
He was just a kid.
A really big kid.
I don’t think he was even aware that he was a giant who could wield power over smaller people.
The point is, my fear, thankfully, was unfounded.
At length, the Giant wandered off into the woods, set up his tent and went to sleep. And when I was confident that I could hear his snoring, I too dropped off to sleep.
In the morning, I was up and out of there before he even stirred.
And, of course, the reason the Giant has made his way into my sermon this morning, is that his appearance brought into stark relief, for me, that crucial moment…
The moment that happens to each of us – quite frequently, actually.
The moment when we encounter someone – not a giant usually, but a stranger — and we must make an assessment:
Am I in danger?
can I trust this person?
Almost every day we must ask ourselves and answer these questions.
The story of Jesus Christ gives us two different ways to answer this question.
We can obey.
Or we can choose.
And if we understand Jesus’ divinity to be a kind of embodiment of love, perhaps we can say that,
if we see,
or even suspect,
the presence of love in another person, our faith can inform us that it is probably ok to choose to invite that person’s love to stay awhile.
Or follow that person’s love where it might lead.
Now take care – I am not offering this as a foolproof rule.
I’ve been around the block enough times to know that it might have been otherwise with that Giant.
But perhaps, as Christians, we can at least – as a matter of faith – acknowledge the reality and the truth of love in the world, residing within others, and between each other.
Danger is out there.
But Love is too.
And Jesus challenges us to choose love.