Monday, January 23, 2012

When Opportunity Knocks... Drop Your Nets!

Jesus saw Simon and his brother Andrew… and he said to them, “Follow me.” As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John… Immediately he called them; and they left their father in the boat and followed him.

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

You have come to St. Paul’s this morning on what truly is a historic day. A day unlike any other in the history of Christendom. A day not likely to happen again. A day not soon to be forgotten. A day, perhaps, one day to be enshrined as a holy day for generations yet unborn to celebrate. You see, on this day, no other than Grier Ferguson personifies the Gospel reading. Now, in and of itself, this may not be untypical. Surely there have been numerous other Sunday’s when Grier was a sermon illustration for, say, one or more of the seven deadly sins – wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony. And surely there are sermons to come where the preacher’s finger will point at him so as to demonstrate to the congregation what sin and sinfulness is all about. But what makes this day so unique is that Grier is lifted up as an exemplar of the life Jesus Christ calls us to and Grier as an exemplar of the Christian life is something that has never (and I mean ever) happened before, and most likely will never happen again. But today, ahhhh, is a day unlike any other day.

So, two weeks ago Grier comes to me and says, “Hey, I’m really sorry, but I’ve got to miss the congregation’s Annual Meeting.” He explains that he has an opportunity to go with his son for a long weekend trip to San Francisco. “I’ve never been to there,” he tells me and so I send him off with my blessing. And what does Grier do in the city by the bay? He rides the cable cars. He goes to “check out the scene at Haight-Ashbury.” He and his son take in a professional basketball game. And then, on Sunday, they go to Candlestick Park to watch a playoff game between the 49ers and the New Orleans Saints, which, as it turns out, was one of the most exciting games in NFL history. “Well,” Grier said, “We got our money’s worth!”

Here is what I like about what Grier did: when presented with the opportunity of a lifetime, he took it! That may not seem like a big deal, but it is. The Greek god of Opportunity was said to be covered in hair from head to toe in the front and completely bald in the back. So, as Opportunity approached, you were not quite sure what you were dealing with. And, once he passed, there was nothing you to grab in order to get him back. It is old folk wisdom, but still true. As far back in 43BC, one Pubilus Syrus observed that opportunity is seldom presented and easily lost. Not much has changed in 2000 years.

I carry with me a memory of a rather insignificant event from years ago when I was a relatively new uncle. I took my four-year-old niece and three three-year-old nephews to a park with a large, open field. I brought with me a red rubber kickball and got the five of us to stand in a circle about twenty feet from one another. I then encouraged us to kick the ball back and forth. My niece had the first chance, but refused to kick. “Well,” she said, “I don’t think we should do this because the ball might go in the street.” I pointed out the street was a long, long, long way away; so far in fact that it would take at least five kicks for the ball even to get close. “Well,” she said, “it might go in those trees over there” – a good four kicks away. And with those two protests, play came to a halt before it ever got started.

There is any number of things that might keep any one of us from taking advantage of an opportunity. We might not recognize it for what it is. We might let duty or responsibility to other things supercede it. We might think it too costly, too extravagant, or ourselves too unworthy. We simply might be afraid to say yes.

In terms of its narrative description, Mark’s is the leanest of the four gospels. Some of you might still remember how his gospel spawned the “Teen-Speak” Easter Story. In Mark’s telling, things happen quickly without much explanation or description of deeper issues and concerns.

Case in point: today’s reading. All it says is that Jesus approached two different sets of brothers and invited them to follow him. Without apparent hesitation, each put down his nets and left everything. There is no description of how they knew Jesus or how Jesus knew them. There is no information as to why Jesus chose them over others. And there is no detail about how their families reacted to their decisions. Mark’s focus is on the opportunity Jesus presented and how Simon, Andrew, James, and John grabbed it. Given the chance, they kicked the ball as hard as they could. Given the chance, they went to San Francisco for an once-in-a-lifetime weekend with their son.

It strikes me that there are different kinds of opportunities. Some are life-changing – like the one presented to the disciples. Some are memorable – like what Grier did. Some call us to let our hair down and have some fun – like kicking the ball with reckless abandon. True, there are things we label as opportunity that are nothing more than distraction. Forgetting those and focusing on ones that are real, I believe there is something spiritual embedded deep within each opportunity. If it is a the call to discipleship, the spiritual nature is more obvious than when an uncle rolls out a ball, but still each opportunity has a spiritual element. Each offers a way to nourish our soul through change, challenge, exhilaration, and (remember this from last week’s sermon?) taking us to a place we would not get to on our own.

When Grier told me about his trip I truly was happy for him and I found myself wondering what I would do if I was in his place. Would I see past the hair-covered front and all the reasons to get out of its way or would I see only in hindsight that I had missed the chance to be a part of something remarkable? His willingness to go for it is something I admire. It is a witness to me (and perhaps to you too) how Jesus calls us to say yes when opportunity knocks.

Grier is one of twelve members of St. Paul’s who serve on our Vestry. We are just coming off a two-day retreat where we reviewed the past year, considered current opportunities and challenges, and got our selves positioned to move forward. I am keenly aware of how each person on this Vestry had good reason to say no to the call to serve: too busy, too new to the congregation, too old, too unworthy, too whatever. But do you know what, when that hairy creature called on them to step forward, each person said yes. It is a good and godly group and it was a joy to gather with them Friday night and Saturday.

One of the new buzzwords in organizational life is “nimble.” It reflects the desire for a group like, say St. Paul’s, to be flexible enough to respond to opportunity. It is possible to be so weighed down by structure, responsibility, obligation, tradition, inertia, and a host of other things that opportunity would need to come in the form of a wrecking ball in order to make an impact. That, I trust, is not us.

And what about you? If you are like me then you know how to resist most things that are new. You know how to see the street or the woods 400 feet away and worry that you might kick the ball into it. ‘No’ becomes such an easy default response to opportunity. And in a world so crammed full of “opportunities,” saying ‘no’ is a necessary survival response. But what if I asked you, “Would you like to have a deeper, richer, more meaningful prayer life?” You might say ‘yes.’ To which I would respond, “Well, our Christian education program is focusing on prayer right now.” Would you decide to be here at 9:30 on Sunday mornings? It is an opportunity. And what if I asked, “Would you like to make a difference in the lives of people who are living on the margins of society… and in the process be blessed beyond anything else you have ever done?” Would you be interested in that? It is not a fantasy. It is something people here are experiencing every Monday evening when they serve in the Food Pantry. It is another opportunity.

Are you willing to drop your nets and follow Jesus to something you have never done before? Let’s be honest, laying down your nets is no small thing, is it? So much in our culture tells us that all we are and all we are to be involved with is picking up our nets and going to work and getting our kids to the game and keeping up the appearances of success and happiness. Yes, these things are important, but somehow they are hairier on the backside, aren’t they! They have a way of grabbing us and strangling us and making it so difficult – or perhaps an even better word is ‘radical’ – to grab on to an opportunity – any opportunity – that will help us to experience the fullness of life God intends for us.

Jesus said, “Drop your nets and follow me.”