I want to begin today by painting two images for you. The first is from last Monday. It was MLK Day; the Central library and most of the other social service agencies that serve homeless people were closed in observation of the holiday. After a scramble the week before, I offered Grace Church as space, and staff from First Methodist, Bethel Lutheran, several other agencies, and a team of volunteers offered their support. Over the course of the day, more than 120 people signed in. They received food, coffee, some fellowship. There were all ages. A beautiful little girl, a toddler, blonde hair, was with her mother. She ran around the room, quite at ease as so many of the others there knew her. There were elderly men there, disabled, blind.
I saw people helping to fill out job and housing applications. There were lots of conversations, lots of support between volunteers and guests, and between guests themselves. It was a remarkable day. I met someone who had been in the emergency room the night before because of the frostbite on his hands. He showed them to me. His fingers were black.
Yesterday, the newly-elected vestry of Grace Church, the governing body of this parish, gathered for a day-long meeting to get to know each other, to set some goals and reflect on what we’ve done over the past year, and to receive the report from the James Company who has completed a Capital Campaign feasibility study for renovations for our facility. You will be hearing more about that and about our next steps forward in the coming weeks. Overall, the day was very long and exhausting. It was also exciting as we looked back at the past year, assessing our successes and failures, and looked ahead into the future, setting some goals and more importantly identifying areas where we as a vestry and a congregation, want to focus our attention.
What do these two pictures have in common? Several things, most important, the crucial question of how our building at the corner of N. Carroll and W. Washington can be a space for ministry and mission, a gift to the whole community and a place where people can encounter the grace of God.
It’s hard. Just to give you a few examples. To make the Guild Hall available for day shelter meant opening the entire building, because the only restrooms are in the undercroft. We had to make regular security sweeps to ensure that no one was in places we didn’t want them to be, or had exited via doors that needed to remain locked. Disabled people struggled to make their way to the restrooms; there are no water fountains, and the lack of adequate electrical wiring meant that people had difficulty recharging their phones or laptops, and we had to worry whether the coffee makers or nesco roasters would trip the breakers.
I want you to imagine another scene. You’re walking along a lake on a warm summer’s day. You see some folks going about their business. They’re working in or around their boats, cleaning things up, repairing fishing tackle and nets. As you watch, someone else comes by. He speaks to them briefly, and suddenly all four of the young men who were working at their boats, stop what they’re doing and follow him.
What just happened? What was it about the man who spoke, or what he said, that caused these four men to stop and follow him? Matthew tells the story simply, matter-of-factly, but doesn’t explain why. We may not even wonder why they followed him. He was Jesus, he had a halo over his head, it was obvious he was the Son of God, the Messiah—why would anyone not follow him? But of course is wasn’t that easy. There was no halo; there was no obvious sign that Jesus was the Messiah. Looking at the story, it’s likely Peter and Andrew, James and John, had never seen Jesus before. It’s not like in last week’s gospel, the Gospel of John’s version of Jesus calling the disciples, where John the Baptizer points to Jesus and tells his disciples, including Andrew, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
No, Peter and Andrew, James and John, had no idea who Jesus was. They had no idea what they were in for when they left their nets and boats and followed Jesus.
So what was it? What did they see? What did they experience? We are in the season of (or after) Epiphany, the season of the church year when we explore the ways God manifests Godself in the world. God does that, we believe, first and foremost, through Jesus Christ. So our question today of this story might be, what was it about that encounter with Jesus that compelled those four men to follow him?
If you think about it, that might be the hardest question for us to grapple in today’s gospel. We might be able to imagine ourselves in a similar scene, going about the daily business of our lives, in the classroom, at work, running errands, take your pick. There we are, going about our business, commiserating with those we encounter about the cold weather. Suddenly we encounter someone who says, “Come, follow me. Leave it all behind.” Who of us would follow that person? Would we be open to the possibility of radical change, a different course for our lives? Would we leave everything behind?
I doubt it.
Matthew goes on to give us a brief summary of Jesus’ public ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The Greek word that is translated as repent literally means “change your mind.”
In Mark, for example, Jesus proclaims “the kingdom of God has come near.” What might “The reign of God has come near mean?” What might “change your mind, for the reign of God has come near” mean? It’s easy enough to think about repent—we know what that means, even if many of us might be uncomfortable with all of its connotation—sin, confession, repentance, forgiveness—that formula is a familiar one. We know where we ought to stand or kneel in that system. We know where we fit and where God fits
But change your mind, for the reign of God has come near? What does that mean? Well, above all, I think it means disorientation, being challenged to see the world, ourselves, and God in new ways, to open ourselves to the possibility that the comfortable categories we have, the comfortable lives we lead, are unsettled, broken, by our encounter with God in Jesus Christ.
Can we imagine an encounter with Jesus Christ so powerful that it transforms us to the very core of our being, upsets everything with which are familiar? Can we imagine an encounter so powerful, so different and strange, that we leave everything behind and follow Jesus?
It happened to people in the first century. It happened to Peter and Andrew, James and John. Last week, we heard Max Harris’ story of how it happened to him forty odd years ago.
I want to return to those two images I offered at the beginning of this sermon; the picture of 120 some homeless people and around 20 volunteers who spent the day in the Guild Hall on Monday. That was a scene of transformation. It was the beginning of a transformation in our community as staff and volunteers from Bethel, First Methodist and Grace came together in one place to cooperate on a shared task and mission. It was also the beginning of a transformation in our community as people from different agencies came together to make it possible. And, I know that it offered some of those who sought shelter the possibility of transformation in their lives.
The same is true in our vestry retreat yesterday. As we talked together about our successes and failures, and began to plan for the coming year, we began to see the possibility of this building and this congregation become an agent for transformation of the lives of those who come here to encounter God, and an agent of transformation for people who may come here and really aren’t seeking God.
We don’t know whose lives we may touch. We don’t know how those lives may be touched and changed by their encounters here. But we must know, we must believe, that what we do here, our congregation may offer the possibility of transformation, the possibility of metanoia for those who enter our doors. And we also need to remember that we too may be changed here among this people of God, in this place. We must be open to the possibility of transformation, of metanoia, in ourselves.
We are being called, this very hour, this very day. As Jesus called Peter and Andrew, James and John as they mended their nets by the Sea of Galilee, we are being called. Jesus is asking us to follow him, to be his disciples, to join him in the proclamation of the Reign of God, to join him in his ministry of preaching the good news, healing the sick, and comforting the broken-hearted.