Caring: Surrounded by Loving Arms
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 29, 2017. This is the third of three sermons on what it means to answer the call of Christ by making three commitments to community, to conscience and to caring.
It is a joy to serve a congregation already so deeply to committed to combating climate change, rooting out racism, welcoming the immigrant and refugee, and confronting economic inequality that we could – on this day – talk about caring for ourselves and one another. Addressing the political challenges ahead of us in this country – all specifically named in our prayers today – will depend on our ability simultaneously to care for one another.
A couple of years ago my mother turned over to me the first volume of my baby book. Yes, the first volume. Like many other parents with a first born child, my mom and dad copiously recorded my earliest years, in word and picture, so that I can now look back at my first words (da da, nite nite, and Hi Chief, the name of my dog), first foods (rice, barley, and oat meal) and other trivia (my favorite word at 15 months was READ). I have two younger sisters, and neither of them have multi-volume baby books. In fact, my youngest sister barely has anything written in her book. Although, to be fair to my parents evolving record-keeping of their children, while I only have one box full of what I think of as the physical remains of childhood (baptismal gown, school awards, early artwork, etc.), my sisters each have multiple boxes of security blankets, stuffed animals, ballet slippers, report cards and dried corsages.
Our call to worship this morning contained the phrase: “day and night we fish in our customary places, but we have no catch.” We cast our nets, unsuccessfully, in familiar waters. There is a photo in my baby book that captures this for me. I’m about four years old, and the picture shows me sitting on a small stool in my backyard. I have made a fishing pole out of a stick and some string and I am dangling my line in the waters of a blue, plastic baby pool. But the expression on my face is so hopeful. I’m clearly excited. Maybe, maybe I will catch something.
But you know that I won’t, for there are not fish in the pool. It doesn’t matter how long I wait or how hard I fish, I’m not going to catch anything as long as my line in dangling in a blue, plastic baby pool.
How often do we fish in waters that never produce anything? How often do we go back to the same old baby pool with no fish in it when what we want is change in our lives, food for our spirits, or something meaningful to fill our days? We do the same old thing again and again, even thought we know it isn’t working, rather than try something new. And it is our comfort that breeds our attitude of expectation.
At such times, Jesus calls us further out, to deeper waters.
The second volume of my baby book, with pictures of me just a few years older, contains a picture I treasure. It shows me on a Saturday afternoon during my first fishing trip with my dad. I am standing on the beach with my back to the water and facing the campground where mom has been waiting to prepare dinner. She took the picture. I am wearing a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and I am holding the smallest of fish. It was about this big. Though we probably should have thrown it back, the look on my face is one of unmistakable pride. But when I look at the picture, I remember the brand new sense of self-confidence that that fish represented, and I remember knowing that my dad loved me.
After the experience in the swimming pool, my father had taken me to deeper waters. He had taken me out and bought me a brand new fishing rod, a real fishing rod and planned a family camping weekend so that he could teach me how to fish. He had rented a boat for the day, and he and I went out on the lake where I learned about baiting a hook, and casting a line, and reeling it in. My ambitious goal, which I stated to my mom before I left, was to bring home dinner. And I caught a fish. Not that little fish which I can still see in the photograph, but a large fish, a huge fish, a fish SO BIG . . . that it pulled my brand new fishing pole and my hopes of bringing home dinner right out of my hands. I had just enough time to say “I’ve got something” and then it was gone. I watched, helplessly, as my pole hit the water and slowly sank to the bottom of the lake. And I thought, “Uh-oh. I’m in big trouble.” I’d lost my new pole. I had lost the hope of bringing home dinner. I’d messed up my dad’s plans for the weekend, ruined the nice day we were having. I’d failed.
And I would love my dad forever for what he did next. He didn’t yell, or laugh, or steer the boat for home. He didn’t catch a fish for me. He gave me his pole. Even though I had just proven that I couldn’t hold on to my own, he gave me his pole, and he sat down behind me, and I caught that little fish in the picture with my dad’s loving arms around me.
It may not have taken a miracle for the disciples to catch their load of fish, but they would always remember that Jesus was with them when they caught it. Jesus hadn’t even asked them to try something new, simply to try one more time to cast their nets in water they had fished all night without catching anything. What was new was their decision to follow Jesus. After hearing him speak to the people all morning, they trusted him, they allowed him into their boat, and when they returned to the shore with a boat overflowing with fish, they left their nets and followed him.
What I learned about my dad while we were fishing, the disciples learned about Jesus by following. He could be trusted, he would hold them as they learned, as they tried, as they practiced living in God’s kingdom. That he wanted the absolute best for them, and that they need have no fear of failure, because he was with them, helping them, all the way.
That kind of total, loving, attention from another person can be both what we long for, but can also be so overwhelming it frightens us. So much so that we find ourselves putting it off onto someone else. When God called Moses, spoke to him right out of the burning bush, Moses told God to speak with his brother Aaron instead. The prophet Jeremiah said he was too young to be called by God. But what did God say? “Don’t worry, I will give you the words to say.” In our first reading this morning, the prophet Isaiah doubted himself. “Surely, if it were really God calling, God should want someone else, someone cleaner, purer, better.” In our scripture, when it is God calling, the script is always the same.
(At this point, I pulled out my cell phone and dialed a member of the congregation in the sanctuary. Our conversation went something like this…)
God: Hello, Alexis, this is God.
Alexis: Did you say, God?
Alexis: How can I help you, God?
God: I want you to do something for me.
Alexis: Ok, what?
God: I want you to volunteer to be part of a drama in church on Sunday.
Alexis: What?! Are you kidding? I am definitely not good at acting.
God: Well, I don’t know about that. But I know you can do the job.
Alexis: But what about Shian. I am sure she would be better than me.
God: That may or may not be true. But I’m asking you to step up and accept the challenge.
Alexis: Are you sure you want me to do it? I am really not kidding, I think you would do much better with someone else.
God: Alexis, I’m asking you. And I will be there all the way. If you mess up, I’ll help you with the lines.
Alexis: Ok. I’ll do it. What’s the drama about?
God: It is about a person who gets a phone call and gets asked to take part in a drama at church.
When God calls, and we answer, God’s offer is always the same. Do not fear, for I am with you. I send you. I go with you. I prepare a way for you. I give you my words. I love you.
The call to follow comes to us all the time, even and especially in the midst of difficult times: for example, receiving a diagnosis of serious illness. How do I follow Jesus in this situation? What demands are asked of me? What strengths will this require of me? What comforts will be offered me? The call to follow comes with the birth of a child, the loss of a job, while studying in school. When we’ve retired and thought we knew how we were going to spend our days, God’s call comes. Though we don’t know how it will come, or with whose voice it will speak, the call to follow comes to us all the time. And when it comes, we find ourselves again and again held and supported by loving arms.
God’s intentions are sovereign even over powerful political systems that seem impenetrable and whose oppression seems inevitable. God’s faithfulness calls out to us through our scripture, imploring us to remember that God can and does bring about newness – but not absent our efforts. Remember, Simon, James and John had to cast out their nets one more time, in deeper waters, where Jesus directed.
This is the third of three sermons on what it means to be a member of the church. Being a part of the church means responding to Christ’s call with three commitments: to community, to conscience, and to caring. Two weeks ago I spoke about our commitment to be community to one another, to be present and active in one another’s lives, and to encourage one another by standing with one another. To be church is to be together: in worship, in learning, in giving, and in sharing. Last week Pastor Sarah preached powerfully about how our Christian conscience commits us to stand with all who are held in dishonor by the powers of this world. That words and deeds go together so that, as the prophet says, we may do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Our theme today is caring. Being a part of the church means embracing and being embraced in a network of care. Last weekend, as many from this congregation participated in the various Women’s Marches, one of our members was heard to say – “Now, more than ever, in the midst of this important work, we need to care for one another.” Because the threats to our communities and needs for conscientious action can wear us down.
And so, we rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. We hold one another, and help one another, are generous with our gifts and patient with one another’s faults; we forgive freely. We pray when one is sick, deliver flowers, cook a meal, visit the hospital, write a card. We pick up the phone when we notice someone is missing. We show up at rallies in the streets and at airports to insist human rights be respected. We put our arms around anyone who is threatened. As we often sing…
We share our mutual woes; our mutual burdens bear.
And often for each other flows the sympathizing tear.
When Simon, James, and John left their nets on the shore to follow Jesus, he showed them how to care for others as he had cared for them; how to care in such a way that it empowered others. And then he sent them out two-by-two just for this purpose, to teach and to heal. Jesus showed the disciples how to put their arms around another, without condemning or taking over, and to strengthen others to follow God’s call, just as my dad did that day when he gave me his fishing pole and put his arms around me.
For the way we concretely know God is with us, is by being cared for by others. As St. Teresa of Avila famously said,
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless people now.
Let us renew our commitment to community, conscience and caring, to carrying forward Jesus’ ministry every day – believing in God’s power to bring about profound change in our world through our partnership in caring. May our worship and our work be one, announcing God’s new way. Amen.
Following the sermon, and completely unplanned, a member of the congregation who has been ill rose to give thanks to God for her recovery and to give thanks for the loving care she had received from the congregation. This was testimony heard by the thirteen people who today confessed their faith and made the three commitments of membership to community, conscience and caring. Praise be to God.