Next month will mark five years since we began to explore how we might be better together. During that time, I’ve come to really appreciate our decision to continue with James and Andrew as our patron saints. Here’s why.
In today’s gospel lesson, we witness Jesus of Nazareth call his first disciples. Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee’s shore, where he notices two brothers casting their net for fish. Jesus calls out to Andrew and Simon Peter: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
But that’s not the crazy part of the story. The crazy part is that,
“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
Then in the next verse, Jesus notices James and John, the sons of Zebedee, mending their nets. The same thing happens. Again.
Nothing has ever quite satisfied my curiosity about these two moments. What was happening in the lives of Andrew and Simon Peter, James and John? How were they so ready to walk away from their family vocation, their financial security, or even their social status-- all to go with this stranger? Could any of us make that same sudden shift in priorities if a stranger approached us with such an invitation? Or better yet, how often do we receive this kind of invitation and not even notice it?
While we can never know exactly why, I do think it’s fair to assume they must have had some kind of divine encounter. Upon seeing Jesus of Nazareth, hearing his voice, taking in his demeanor and invitation these four had a rare moment where there was a thin veil separating their inner knowing and the divine. At that moment, they knew this was an invitation they could not refuse.
This call story tells us a great deal about our two patron saints. Most notably, they appear to be early adopters.
This term comes from the diffusion of innovations theory, which explains how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spreads. At one end of the bell curve are the innovators, then the early adopters; in the middle of the bell are the early majority and the late majority; and on the other side of the curve are the laggards. If Jesus of Nazareth was the new innovator on the scene, sharing ideas about God’s dream for this world, then our two patron saints were early adopters of those ideas. They literally dropped their nets to follow Jesus and join a movement that seeks to turn this world upside down and right side up again.
As early adopters, our saints clearly had a taste for adventure. They had an enhanced capacity to be more curious than certain. They knew how to trust their instincts and see possibilities where others might only see limitations. Think of the story of Andrew finding the boy with the loaf of bread that would feed so many people.
This story tells us that our patron saints knew a thing or two about resilience. When you have a willingness to try a new idea before it’s mainstream, there will be times it won’t go well. You have to get up, dust yourself off and keep going. We see this resilient behavior again and again in the disciples.
Like our patron saints, we too have a reputation for being early adopters. Before many other churches in our diocese had considered mergers, former St. James and St. Andrew spent a few months dating, only to marry and start a new adventure together. Five years later and several other churches have taken a similar path in our diocese.
Then there was nesting. Long before the idea of multiple churches sharing one building took hold in our diocese, we were sharing space with a spiritualist community who met in the Whiteman Room and Chapel. While that community has since disbanded, we have recently welcomed a LatinX Spanish speaking faith community into our lower level.
As Ben Cluff recently reminded us, there was Tapestry. Before the wider community understood why a Syringe Access Program was so important, we welcomed them into our space, knowing just how much their mission and ours lined up. We were both serving God’s people, and we were in a position to support their good work. Now the wider community has accepted the importance of Tapestry’s programming, and they have outgrown our space. What a blessing to have been able to walk together for a while.
Now more than ever, we need to lean into our patron saints’ spirit of early adoption. A couple of weeks ago, the clergy and vestry met with a few ministry team chairs and some of our parish’s young/ under 50ish leaders. We began by taking in the birds eye view of trends in the wider church, and here at Saints James and Andrew. Some of it was hard to hear.
The Episcopal Church, like all mainline denominations, and more recently, evangelical denominations, has been in decline since the 1960s. When the national church offered their annual report near Easter 2020 (a month into the pandemic), the Episcopal News Service ran a story on the report, where the Rev. Dwight Zscheile, an expert in denominational decline and renewal said,
“The overall picture is dire – not one of decline as much as demise within the next generation unless trends change significantly...At this rate, there will be no one in worship by around 2050 in the entire denomination.”
That report reflected pre-pandemic data. It is too soon to say what the overall effect of the pandemic will be, because we are still learning to live with the virus. What we do know, as leaders across the Episcopal Church keep identifying it, is that the pandemic was like someone put their foot on the vehicle’s accelerator. Trends that might have taken five years, have happened in one.
We took a closer look at the trends of our parish. While we are the seventh largest parish in our diocese, we too have difficult decisions we will need to make in the next five years, as we are experiencing similar trends. Which is why we spent an afternoon sitting with the trends, and imagining where we might need to get creative about envisioning our future.
For these kinds of conversations, there are no quick fixes. As one wise lay leader put it, it’s more like a season of wandering in the wilderness. One of the most beautiful parts of wandering is we are more aware and mindful of our context, and open to considering new ways of doing things. We rely more closely on God and one another, and as a result we grow and change in ways we couldn’t possibly imagine. We also live more fully into being the hands and feet of Christ in our community. Which is precisely the dream God is calling us into.
Who knows? At our conversation, one of our young lay leaders pointed out that we may find ourselves engaged in mission and ministry in the coming years that we can’t even imagine today because we don’t yet realize it’s the way our wider community may need us the most.
I imagine when Andrew and Simon Peter, James and John, dropped their nets to follow Jesus, that they were deeply aware that something transformative was about to begin. And I bet for each one, this new path was also terrifying. If we want to control our path, dropping our nets and following Jesus is going to be difficult and dare I say, excruciatingly painful.
In the midst of an uncertain future, it is easy to embrace a scarcity mindset. Which will leave us yearning to take back the reins and control our future, instead of being present in the current discomfort and relying on Christ and one another. When we yearn for control, we also become more concerned with ourselves than the needs of the wider community and God’s dream. We forget that, "The church is the only society that exists primarily for those who are not its members," as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry writes in Love is the Way.
Yet if like our patron saints, we drop our nets to follow Jesus, and remain open to where the journey may take us, we will come out of the wilderness a changed people.
Who knows where this pandemic will take us.
Who knows what the trends may become in the wider church or here in our parish.
What we do know, is we are being invited to join our patron saints in dropping our nets, and following Jesus.
So dear ones, this week, just one question for each of us to prayerfully ponder:
What nets do we need to drop, in order to more fully follow Jesus on a transformative journey of wandering in the wilderness? Amen.
Elkanah loved Hannah, probably more than he did Peninah. His choice to gift her with a double portion, at their feasts at Shiloh, only fueled Peninah’s resentment.
Hannah’s grief over her childless state was deep and profound, however, despite Elkinah’s attentions. She wept bitterly and continually, and was unable even to swallow her portion at the feast at Shiloh. We don’t know how much of her sorrow sprang from the experience of being socially devalued and vulnerable, as a childless women were, and how much simply reflected grief over not having a small one to hold in her arms.
Elkanah did his best to comfort her, but he really didn’t get it. His question “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” confirmed his view of himself as the proper focus of Hannah’s world. Why didn’t he tell her, instead, “How much more to ME are YOU than ten sons.” No, he didn’t get it.
Finally, one year, Hannah took her case into her own hands. After Elkanah’s performance of the ritual sacrifice and the family feast, she went to the sanctuary on her own, to address her God directly. There she wept, and she poured out her heart. She begged God to grant her a son, offering a vow that if God would grant her petition, she would dedicate her son to a life of abstinence in God’s service. (In those days, it seems that parents felt they could make life decisions on their children’s behalf. It wouldn’t happen today.)
Poor Hannah. Having already lived with Peninah’s derision and Elkanah’s insensitivity, she was not yet done being misunderstood. As she wept and prayed, the priest of the temple, Eli, was silently watching her from the shadow next to the doorpost. Instead of thinking of how he might offer support, Eli assumed that Hannah must be drunk, and he called out, rebuking her for her presumed behavior.
But Hannah, I am happy to say, stood up for herself. She denied the charge of drunkenness and explained to the priest that she was petitioning God out of great distress. Somehow Eli was moved by her words, and SAW her. Eli offered his blessing.
And Hannah’s sorrow began to lift. And in due time, she gave birth to the son she had hoped and prayed for, naming him Samuel. And as she had promised, she returned to Shiloh to give him in service to God as a servant to Eli.
And Hannah prayed a loud and triumphant hymn of both praise and of prophecy. She not only exulted in God’s goodness and strength, but she proclaimed the promise – as would another young woman generations in the future - that God would overturn the fortunes of the world: God would “break the bows of the mighty [and]… raise up the poor from the dust… for not by might does one prevail.”
I LOVE the story of Hannah. Biblical scholars tell us that its importance is that it begins the story of Israel’s transition from a tribal confederacy to a monarchy under Saul, David, Solomon, and their successors, and, they say, it locates the narrative in the jurisdiction of God. Well, this is all true.
I am more interested in it for the ways in which, as scripture always does, it shows us who we are. Among the many ways we might see ourselves in Hannah’s story, I’d like to look at two.
Firstly, Hannah is all of us. She struggles with a deep sorrow that weighs on her heart. There are times when she does ok with it, but there are other times when she can simply think of nothing else, feel nothing else. Part of the pain of Hannah’s grief is that she feels alone in it. Her rival sneers at her and her husband suggests, in effect, that she should just get over it.
None of us live a life free from this kind of numbing, isolating sorrow. Fortunately, for most of us this kind of sorrow, when it comes into our lives, is transitory, in part because of the simple resilience of the human spirit and because of the support of those around us who love us, but also because we have help available in the form of skilled therapists and, when we need it, modern pharmacology.
And, as Hannah knows, God is with us. When we are in deepest distress and feeling most alone, it is easy find ourselves in a place where we feel abandoned even by God. But we never are abandoned by God.
One of the things I regret about this story, as it is told in I Samuel, is that when Hannah appeals to God for help, her problem is fixed by Hannah receiving what she wants. We are not promised that God will grant our desires. What we ARE promised is that God will be with us in our sorrows, and that God will see us through to a life beyond our immediate pain, to a place where we can see that there is still light and meaning, despite the burdens we carry.
The second way in which I think today’s story show us who we are is that we are all Peninah. Peninah is privileged by her capacity for childbearing, a gift that she neither earned not has responsibility for. And instead of being grateful for her blessings and feeling and acting with support and love for the one who is not similarly blessed, she looks down on Hannah and USES her superiority in social status to reinforce Hannah’s inferiority.
So let’s ask ourselves:
How often do we who are socially and economically privileged show insensitivity – at best – to those who are without our advantages?
How often do we, instead of seeking ways to share privilege and to lift up those without power or status, succumb to the tempting rationalization that we deserve what we have, and that those without just haven’t worked hard enough to change their lot?
How often do we in fact, through our action or inaction, reinforce the structures of policy and practice that hold us all into our designated roles in society? How hard to we work at challenging our cultures assumptions and priorities?
Hannah is clear, in her song, that God is working at bringing justice, and that this means favoring the disempowered. She advises us:
Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
She declares that:
He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
for not by might does one prevail.
In other words, it is not our power or status in this world that pleases God, even if it may please us and other people. What pleases God is whether we can learn to see as God sees, and it is the choices we make in using what we are given.
Hannah prospered in the end. I Samuel chapter two tells us that after Samuel birth and apprenticeship to Eli, she had more sons and daughters. I wonder what longterm effects her grief and her redemption had on Hannah, and whether things got better between Hannah and Peninah. I’d like to think they did.
May we hear God’s word, and may we be changed.
We alone are the caretakers of our lives. We are responsible for how we share our time, talent, and treasure. While it would be lovely if there was a manual telling us the best way to do this, that is not how life works (though plenty of folks may try and tell you otherwise). It is going to look a little different for everyone.
Take for example the widow we meet in today’s gospel.*** Mark tells us she is a poor widow, placing her on the lowest rung of the social ladder. She follows some wealthy neighbors into the temple treasury. While they put in large sums, she puts in two coins; the smallest possible amount. She literally gave everything she had, ‘all she had to live on.’
That said, it needn’t have come to that. In first century Palestine, some of the scribes in the temple had lost their moral compass. They were caught up in their own craving for recognition, authority, and power. In turn, they exploited vulnerable members of the community. When Jesus tells the gathered people to beware of the scribes devouring widows’ houses, he is telling us that some of the scribes are taking more than was customary. And on top of that, the widow was expected to give even more money to the treasury. While this financial contribution was the result of a systemic injustice, it also tells us a great deal about the widow’s approach to being a good caretaker of her life.
In spite of this exploitation and oppression, the widow persisted. She gives all of herself, the very gift of her life, to God. Entrusting God will be with her as she navigates her survival. She gives all of herself. It is not so much about those coins, as it is about being more resilient than her oppressors could dare imagine. She could not control the circumstances of her culture, but she could live into God’s calling to be a caretaker of her one wild and precious life.
Another example is John Jay II. A man who carefully spent his time, talent, and treasure campaigning for the Episcopal Church to affirm the full humanity of black people in the mid 1800s. Stephanie Spellers tells his story in The Church Cracked Open.****
Jay did not fit into the cultural norms and expectations of American society. He was the grandson of the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, a Columbia trained lawyer, an abolitionist, and an Episcopalian. Mind you, at that point in time, our denomination was rooted in racist ideology. The Episcopal Church so greatly benefited financially from the slave trade, that most saw no incentive in advocating for the end of slavery.
As a 22 year old, Jay flung himself into the work of reforming the church and striving for justice; calling out the church’s complicit support of the slave trade. You can imagine what a thorn he must have been to church leaders. When Alexander Crummell, a gifted young black man, applied to General Theological Seminary and was refused admission, but offered private instruction, Jay showed up at his door and began to walk beside Crummell. Jay went on to sound the alarm on the church’s caste system, and supported Crummell in getting the necessary education to be ordained.
Later, Jay went on to defend Crummell's sponsoring church, St. Philip’s, against discrimination in the Diocese of New York, who would not welcome the church at it’s diocesan convention. Spellers writes, “It was one thing to allow the existence of a Black church, but another to allow black people to join the councils and company of the rest of the church.” For the next eight years, Jay would file petitions for St. Philip’s to be seated at convention, and in 1853, the Diocese of New York’s convention finally voted to recognize the parish and seat it’s delegates.
Jay recognized the privilege, status, and means he had been given in this life. He knew what it meant to be a caretaker of his one wild and precious life, and he used it to proclaim God’s dream for this world.
The pandemic has been a reminder to slow down, and reflect on our lives. The blessings we have been given. How we are called to share those blessings in the world. Recognizing whatever has been consuming our time, energy, and resources. Realizing we had been living at an unsustainable pace and were nearly out of gas. I’ve sat across from many of you, as you’ve shared the ways you are making shifts in how you spend your time, talent, and treasure, as a result of your pandemic experience.
This has been true for me as well. Several months into the pandemic I realized my priorities had been way out of order, and that my well felt dangerously close to empty. I’m quite good at reminding folks to put on their own oxygen masks before helping others, but had been neglecting to take the advice myself. Knowing how many of you are in helping and caring professions, I know I am not alone in this behavior.
Through a chapter of prayer, curiosity, conversation, and experimentation I ended up making several changes in how I cared for my time, talent, and treasure. This time in an order that reflected my priorities and was more sustainable. By taking better care of my one wild and precious life, I believe I am showing up more fully in my roles as partner, parent, friend and priest.
In our ordination vows, clergy promise to share in the councils of the church. Except pre-pandemic, I had said yes too often and found myself involved with committees or ministries that I was partaking in more to be a good team player than because I had a particular passion or gift in that area. I decided to resign from several of them, and continue on with the ones that I do have a passion for or where I may have a blessing I am called to share. In the months since, I’ve noticed how much more I value and appreciate the diocesan ministries I have continued with. I feel I have more to give them; and that I am more fully present to those I serve beside. I’ve made many similar changes in my personal life.
Friends, let’s not wait for another global pandemic or family tragedy to engage in this kind of prayerful pondering and discernment. This work is part of an ongoing, lifelong process of caring for our one wild and precious life.
Each and every fall, our community holds our annual pledge drive, where we ask members of our community to make a financial commitment to support the mission and ministry of Saints James and Andrew. Today, we will offer a prayer of blessing over those financial commitments. Yet this season is about more than our financial offerings, it is about engaging in this kind of prayerful pondering.
Every stewardship season we are invited to do some deep reflecting and examine:
How are we spending our days?
How are we caring for our one wild and precious life?
What’s been consuming our time, talent, and treasure?
Where are we called to share those blessings in the world?
Whether we find ourselves with our backs against the wall, like our widow in today’s gospel, or in a privileged position like John Jay II-- we each have a life we are called to treasure.
This week as our stewardship season draws to a close, I invite you to join me in prayerfully pondering:
How are you caring for your one wild and precious life?
What time, talent, and treasure have you been blessed with?
What has been consuming your time and energy that you wish wasn’t?
What ways do you feel called to share your blessing in the coming year?
How might you use your blessings to help proclaim God’s dream?
* Ellie Roscher - 12 Tiny Things
** Mary Oliver, The Summer Day
*** Mark 12:38-44
**** Stephanie Spellers - The Church Cracked Open
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