Monday, January 24, 2011

Called by the Master Craftsman

Matthew 4:12-23

When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles--
the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned."

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea -- for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

I am very excited about today’s football games: the Packers vs. the Bears and the Jets vs. the Steelers should be great match-ups. You may not know this, but growing up I played a little football. I was the backup quarterback and I was not very good. I did get into a game once when the starting quarterback was injured. The ball was on our three yard line and we were deep in a hole. It was second and long. As I put on my helmet to go into the coach, who had no confidence in me, told me this: “Don’t get cute out there. Hand the ball to the fullback on the first play. Hand the ball to the fullback on the second play. On the third play, drop back and punt the ball.” Well, I knew how to do what I was told. I took the first snap, turned and handed to the fullback. He broke through the line and picked up 30 yards. On the second play I handed it to him again. He got free and ran the ball all the way down to the five yard line before being pushed out of bounds. On the third play I took the snap, dropped back, and punted the ball through the end zone, past the goal post, and deep into the stands. As our team came off the field, the coach was livid. He shouted at me, “What in the world were you thinking when you called that last play?” “What was I thinking?” I answered. “I was thinking our coach sure calls some dumb plays!”

Anyone in charge of a team or an organization or a business or a family or an effort of any kind has to figure out how to get it all to work. It is no different for God. God is about the grand design of creating a kingdom here on earth. From a leadership perspective we might want to ponder how God operates. Is God like that coach: “Here are the plays I want you to run, now go out there and get it done”? Or is God like a chess player: sizing up each one of us and figuring out who has the talent to be a rook or a knight or a castle and who has the limited potential of pawn? Or is God like an experimental chef: “Let’s throw all these ingredients together, stir them up, turn on the heat, and see what happens”? Or is God something else?

Today’s Gospel reading tells the story of Jesus’ calling His first four disciples: brothers Peter and Andrew and brothers James and John. They are fishermen; hard-working small business owners who, while they have much to commend themselves, are hardly the people you would expect to lead a world-changing movement. Our President’s cabinet is stuffed with M.B.A.’s and Ph.D.’s, intellectuals and idealists, experienced military leaders and politicians. Peter, Andrew, James, and John would not be asked to join this esteemed council. The C.E.O. of Apple Computers surrounds himself with men and women skilled in development, marketing, and accounting. I don’t see Jesus’ first followers having much to contribute here either.

If Jesus is going to call the plays they are to run He is going to run head-first into their limited skill sets. If He is going to use them as pieces on the chess board of life, all He has done is pick a pack of pawns. And if He is going to throw them together the way the chef throws together ingredients, don’t hope for a banquet because Jesus will be lucky to get something as tasty as a cracker out of these four.

Still, these are the four people Jesus starts with and history shows that they launched a movement that has, in fact, changed the world. We might want to ask ourselves how did it happen and what does it suggest about Jesus’ “leadership style,” and what implications does it hold for each one of us, since we are all now a part of Jesus’ team.

If the metaphors of Jesus as coach or as chess player or as chef come up lacking, is there an image that helps us better understand how He leads? One that I find helpful comes from an unlikely source: Carla Needleman’s guidebook for woodworkers called The Work of Crafts. In it she says this:

It is as if the honorable craftsman in his journey of exploration of the material asks, “What can this wood, this clay, or this glass, do?” instead of “What can I do with it?” For that he has to listen to the material, entreat it, support it where it needs support, and to be tough and demanding with himself, even more demanding than he is with the material.

Did you catch that? What is this material capable of doing, not what can I do with it! This, in a nutshell, is what Jesus considers as He calls the four fishermen. He certainly has His vision set – He is going to bring God’s Kingdom to earth. But He will not do it by manipulating His followers’ actions nor by leaving them to their own devices. He will work with them and their individual uniqueness because there is something emerging in each one of them that will give the Kingdom its shape and form.

I think my own leadership style has changed over the course of my time in the ordained ministry. When I was younger I used to talk about “getting the church to do this” or “getting the church to do that.” Good ministry meant the ability to make a parish look the way I wanted it to look, to act the way I wanted it to act, to do what I wanted it to do. And its not that my ideas and expectations for a congregation were all that bad, in fact they were pretty good. They had been shaped through theological study and refined by experiences in multiple ministry sites.

But over the years I have become less the authoritarian and more the craftsman. I look at St. Paul’s and ask not what do I want this church to be, but what can it be. What can it be for each person here? What can it be for our community? What can it be for our diocese? What can it be for God? Each one of us, with your unique set of gifts and experiences shapes what this parish is and can become for God.

Years ago a member of the parish I was serving heard about a fantastic ministry in another congregation in another state. It had a group of men who offered to do basic car repairs and maintenance for elderly parishioners. They changed a car’s oil, did other routine upkeep, and offered advise about bigger repairs. It sounded like a great ministry. Why can’t we do that here, our parishioner wondered. The answer was pretty simple: no one in our parish had the skills to offer for that kind of ministry. It just was not a part of the grain in our wood. Never-the-less, that parish, like St. Paul’s, is a good parish where unique gifts and talents and abilities are being offered. We are not called to be like every other parish, we are called to be faithful to who we are and to what we can become.

A part of my daily devotional time is spent keeping up with the saints of the Episcopal Church. Three books help me with this: Holy Women, Holy Men – a description of each saint along with scripture readings and a prayer, Brightest and Best – a very interesting set of reflections on many of the saints, and They Still Speak – original source material from some of the saints. I am amazed at how many of them were ordinary or even limited folks who still managed to do memorable things.

On January 19, we celebrated the life and ministry of Wulfstan, a monastic who only reluctantly accepted the appointment as Bishop of Worchester. He was only English born bishop to retain his see after the Norman Conquest in 1066. All other bishops were replaced by French born, French speaking clerics. Wulfstan had limited education and could not speak French or read Latin and that deficiency put him at a severe disadvantage. And yet he had other qualities which endeared him to the people. He was pious, prayerful, humble, and a faithful administrator. And even as an outsider to the Norman court he was instrumental in putting an end to the slave trade that sold Englishmen to Ireland.

Listen to this quote from some devotional material I read this week:

We say, ‘Here I am, Lord’ when He calls. He calls continually to the willing and the unwilling. It is not so much our ability He has need of, but our availability.

Jesus still walks the shores today, looking at each one of us and pondering what we might become in the kingdom of God. Jesus still invites us to drop our nets and to follow Him. It is not so much our ability He calls as our availability. And when we become available incredible things begin to happen as God allows what is within in us to emerge in service to His kingdom.

Let me close with this quote from Sam Portaro’s book Brightest and Best in which he reflects on one lesson we learn from Wulfstan’s life:

Walking with God, we find ourselves well beyond the limits of our well-reasoned design, in places where all reason says we cannot be. We find ourselves where we never dreamed we would be, seeing things we never dreamed we would see, saying things we never dreamed we would say, doing things we never dreamed we would do, accomplishing what we never dreamed we could accomplish. We find ourselves by God’s side as God’s friend. If we are truly wise, we will not ask how or why. We will just be thankful and keep walking [with Jesus].