This is a sermon for the third Sunday after Epiphany. The Scripture it references is Mark 1:14-20.
There’s a story in my family – and you might appreciate this, after the weather we’ve had this week – about the day we arrived in Australia. Apparently, my parents stepped off the plane in Melbourne, juggling their luggage and me as a toddler, into a day of forty-something-degree summer heat. And my mum looked up at my dad, and my dad just said, “We can’t go back!”
My parents came here from apartheid-era South Africa. Mum was a nurse, and after working in emergency during the riots, and some of the injuries she saw, she and dad had decided they needed to raise their family somewhere that would give us – me and my not-yet-born brother – a chance at a better life than they saw as possible where they were. It wasn’t easy to leave; they lost a lot, financially, and dad had to illegally avoid his annual bout of army service to get out. By the time they’d made their decisions about where to go, done everything necessary to move, and come here, what dad said was very true; they couldn’t go back. Come what may, they had to make the best of where they were.
It wasn’t always easy, and it took a very long time for us to feel as if this was where we belonged. But having gone back for a visit recently, I think my parents felt vindicated that they’d made the right decision; the life my brother and I have as adults here is much better than the life we would likely have had there.
I was thinking about all of this, though, because of the part of the gospel we heard this morning. Simon and Andrew and James and John are going about their normal lives, fishing and mending their nets, and Jesus comes along and presents them with a decision to make. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” I imagine this moment of the men looking at one another. What do we do now? What does this offer really mean? A decision had to be made, and once made, lived with. Which way lies the best future? With the fish or the wandering rabbi?
Well, we know what they did. The apostles left their families’ fishing businesses, and became the foundation of a new community, a new group where people could belong, based on relationship with Jesus, that wandering rabbi who turned out to be so much more.
This part of their story, though, is important, because it’s part of the story of all Christians. Those of you who came to the Bible studies we did on Jesus and the Pharisees last year will remember learning about how the earliest Christians were kind of spiritually homeless; if they were Jewish, they got kicked out of the synagogues, and if they were non-Jewish, they’d had to leave the temples of their former deities. Like the disciples leaving their boats, they’d had to leave what was familiar and make decisions which disconnected them from their communities, and come together to build new communities and places of belonging, at first based in their own homes because they had nowhere else.
That’s the community who first received Mark’s gospel, by the way; who would have been encouraged to realise that when the disciples left their fishing boats, the story had a worthwhile ending. And who could then imagine that their own struggles and disconnections and so forth might have a worthwhile ending; because the process of disconnecting from what we were, to build new communities of belonging, is part of what has been the Christian experience from earliest times.
The challenge looks and feels a little different for us, I suspect, but it’s still there. Most of you have grown up as part of Christian communities, and have known belonging here for a long time. You haven’t had to create Christ-centred community for yourselves, you’ve received it from those who were here before you. But the challenge we have now is how to create Christ-centred communities of belonging for people who haven’t already found that with us.
I see that challenge in various ways. I see it in all the research that tells us that millennials want to interact with us online before they’ll ever come through the church door. I see it in the feedback I get from some of our younger people – the ones we seldom see on Sunday mornings, and increasingly seldom in the evenings as well – that the services we offer them just don’t meet their needs, and that we need to consider different options and perhaps a more modern approach, for them to feel they belong here.
(There’s a whole heap of work to be done on what “modern” actually means in that kind of conversation; but as I look around at this building and remember how shockingly modern it was when it was built, I think it’s a conversation that we can fruitfully have).
A bit like the disciples, it seems to me we are confronted with the need to make a decision; are we prepared to willingly leave behind what’s comfortable and familiar, in order to build a community where people who don’t currently belong here, can find belonging? And can be nurtured in faith, and grow in Christ?
If we do make those decisions, it’s going to be difficult for us, in some ways. There will be grief; it’s normal for us to grieve as things change. We will go through all the grief stages of denial, anger, bargaining and depression. I’d add in anxiety, uncertainty and lack of confidence about who we are and what we do. Actually, even though I’ve only been here six months, it’s been long enough for me to see something of all of those things in our life together already. Things will change no matter what decisions we make, and all the emotions of grief will come with that. Making decisions just gives us a choice about what the other side of that grief might look like.
What I’m saying is that the challenge for us is to feel the grief but do it anyway. To support one another as we build a renewed, inclusive place of belonging for people who are not yet here; a spiritual home for them that might well, for a while, not feel at all like home for us, because it’s not what we had before.
If Simon and Andrew, James and John had refused to leave their boats, there would never have been a church. If we refuse to leave our preferred habits, there may not be a parish church here when there’s nobody left who likes things the way we do them now.
But I look back on those fishermen who became apostles, and I see a story of hope. I look back on my own parents, and what they were able to give their family by leaving everything they knew, and I see a story of hope. I know from the very fabric of my own life, that this kind of sacrifice can pay off. I look forward to the process of change for us in this parish, and even though it calls for courage and vision and sacrifice, I see a blank page in our story just waiting to have written on it our own story of hope.
We will need to work on building our courage, our resilience for that process. We will need to be intentional about working through our griefs, and committed to equipping ourselves for what comes next. The apostles had three years living and working with Jesus; we mustn’t imagine we’ll work through everything we need to in the next few weeks or even months.
But these stories show us that it is possible. That in following Jesus, in leaving behind what we know to build new communities of faith and belonging, the results can be much greater than we can see now. The invitation is always to “Follow me.” The focus is always on people beyond our current group. What are their needs, their culture, their styles of relationship? How can we meet them where they are, engage them as they are? That’s part of what following Jesus means.
We can’t go back. We can’t even stay the same as we are. We can only follow Jesus, one step at a time, as best we can manage, into a future only God can fully see. But we can know the basic shape of that future because we know how God works; and we know that when we follow Jesus, things happen. People change. Community is created. And hope grows. And we get to be part of all of that.
So shall we go fishing for people?