Epiphany 3 - Turning points

A sermon preached in the United Benefice by Fr James Heard, 26 January 2014

Last week I conducted a funeral of someone who had struggled but had, in quite a short time, died from cancer. In preparation for the service I heard about Lou’s life story from her two daughters, niece and sister. Then I heard the very moving tributes at the service. But what was fascinating was hearing the unofficial stories after the service in a pub – and these are usually the best stories. Lou and her sister had moved from Ghana to Hampstead, North London as young teenagers. They were independently-minded and strong-willed, creative, adventurous. It was the era of peace and love and laidback 60s. Lou’s sister, I heard, was walking down a street in Hampstead and saw a couple of young lads packing their camper van.

She almost walked on but she instead stopped and asked them where they were going. ‘Morocco’ came the reply. They got talking and it wasn’t long before she was invited to join them. ‘I’ve got a sister. She’s got to come too!’  And off they went together to Morocco triggering a story, a chain of events, that would lead to the birth of Lou’s two daughters as well as her sister’s children, one of whom my brother would marry and their two gorgeous children, my niece and nephew.

Hearing stories like this gets me wondering. Some of life’s biggest changes often hang on seemingly momentary decisions – stopping to chat to a couple of young lads - decisions that change the entire course of life.

I wonder whether you have examples of such moments in your life.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus is living in Capernaum on the north side of the sea of Galilee. Jesus decides to take a stroll by the Sea. It seems that he was all alone. And then he has what seems like a chance encounter. He sees some fishermen and stops. He could have walked on… but he didn’t. I wonder what he sees in the fisherman that makes him stop.

He sees two fishermen brothers, Simon and Andrew. Jesus invites them to follow him; to fish instead for people. Jesus then saw two other bothers, James and John, also in their boat with their father Zebedee. He called them too. Immediately they left the boat and their father’s fishing business and followed Jesus. I can’t help but wonder what their father must have thought about this – I would have been furious with Jesus. The father shared his family fishing business with his sons and so he would have suffered drastically from the withdrawal of their younger, stronger labour.

Through this seemingly chance encounter the fishermen lives were transformed in to walking a path – to become Jesus’ disciples – a path that they couldn’t conceive of the outcome. I’m sure if they had known what the path was going to entail, they might never have left their work.

It was a very risky thing to have done. Unlike us as readers of Matthew’s Gospel, they didn’t know the stories of Jesus’ birth, how mysterious travellers were taught a lesson about kingship. Nor how the heaven’s had opened and God proclaimed his love his Son at Jordan. They responded positively without the benefit of these hints, with no obvious inducement, no mention of fame and glory and fortune and success and excitement. Jesus invites them to join in a mission, a chance to attract others, as they have been attracted.

The disciples acceptance of Jesus’ invitation starts the ‘chain reaction that has never quite fizzled out, despite many wrong turns and shameful misunderstandings’ (Jane Williams), some of which we heard in today’s epistle reading – of factions within the early church community.

Jesus’ mission involves a journey from darkness to light – a theme that, as Margaret recently preached, appears in Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. And it today’s readings too. Into the dark oppressive situation of the Jewish community of Isaiah, the poem promises this:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined…

These same words are repeated in today’s Gospel. This is the ministry of Jesus – one that brings wholeness and healing to those in darkness of various kinds. Jesus himself is the light, the light of the world, and he gives light by his teaching and healing, by his suffering and rising, and through the community of his disciples.

The story of the disciples, as well as well as the account of what’s traditionally described as the Conversion of St Paul, which we celebrated yesterday, are rather dramatic accounts of lives abruptly and suddenly transformed. And it’s the experience of many Christians today – a chance encounter with someone, a radical paradigm shift after reading a book; a conversation that forever changes one’s perspective; the experience of a crisis which opens up our hardened hearts to God’s healing love. Dramatic, sudden, unforgettable.

But what about those of us for whom following in the footsteps of Christ has never involved such a dramatic encounter? In fact, most people describe their spiritual journey as being gradual. Indeed, for many children who have grown up in church there may never be a time in their life when God wasn’t in some way present. John Westerhoff (a priest who has looked in the various dimensions of faith) suggests it is likely to be a slow process and he would characterise faith as the movement from 'affiliative faith' to 'owned faith', perhaps also through a time where faith is described as 'searching' and questioning.

The process of becoming a follower of Christ for most of us may be described as imperceptible yet palpable, involving a series of ‘gentle nods of the soul’.

There is also the fact that the journey of faith may include times of doubt, a feeling of the absence of God – this was something that Mother Theresa struggle with for most of her life.

Whatever our particular experience has been of faith – dramatic or slow and almost imperceptible – with the disciples we are invited Sunday by Sunday to respond to Jesus call to become followers of the Way. We are invited to participate in God’s mission to bring wholeness and healing to those living in the darkness of poverty, pain, loneliness, distress, grief.

To paraphrase today’s collect – may we know your saving presence, O Lord. Come and renew us with your heavenly grace and in our weakness sustain us by your mighty power.
Holland Park Benefice