Sermon; Epiphany 3A; 1 Cor. 1:10-18, Matt. 4:12-23
Today is our annual meeting. This is the day we do the business of the church – electing new Vestry members, looking at various numbers and the budget, perusing the reports, and talking about where we've been and where we might be going. And, in case you were wondering, let me say now that things are never as bleak or as rosy as we might imagine, but they are oftentimes a mixture of the two.
I sometimes wonder if annual meetings, like diocesan conventions, are times given over to the airing of grievances. I have been to more than one annual meeting and/or convention where those present attack the priest/bishop for failing in some respect. Or the budget is nit-picked line item by line item, pointing out its deficiencies and where it could be improved, all for the sake of the good of the parish or diocese, dontcha know. Or where vestry elections are seen as a popularity contest, or have been stacked with the Rector's chosen ones.
Thankfully these things have not really been an issue here at Saint John's. That's not to say we haven't had our disagreements and differences of opinions, but we understand that we are driven not by our differences but by our mission to Worship, Welcome, Serve, and Encourage.
Around the Episcopal church many congregations are holding annual meetings today. Some held them last week, and some will hold them next week. But today is probably the most popular date, especially out west, because (and I'm being honest here) today falls between the conference championships and the Super Bowl. But I wonder how many of those annual meetings will be affected or informed by today's readings from Paul and Matthew?
As I said, annual meetings can be dicey events, and today's readings are perfect for addressing things that might be happening in those respective churches. In Corinthians, Paul is addressing a split in the church.
“I appeal to you . . . that there be no divisions among you . . . that you be united in the same mind and purpose.”
That wasn't the case in Corinth at this time. Paul was hearing reports that splits and factions were developing. Various groups of people in the church were claiming that they belonged to Paul. Some claimed to belong to Apollos. Another group followed Cephas. And, like many divisions in the Church, there were those who claimed that they were more special because THEY followed Christ. This almost sounds like annual meeting campaigning.
For whatever reason, the people of Corinth weren't united, nor were they of the same mind. They had fallen into factions based on who-knows-what. Maybe it was budgets. Maybe it was preaching. Maybe it was education. Maybe it was charisma. But whatever it was, it was beginning to fracture the church.
Can you imagine what this would look like here? I follow Todd. I follow Mark. I follow Betty. I follow Lou. I follow Christ. These factions would tear us apart. This is what Paul was fighting against. And I'm thankful that this is something for which I don't have do deal with. For while we may have an affinity for one person over another, or while we may tend to avoid certain people over others (and this happens in large groups), we all understand that we are united in a mission to Worship, Welcome, Serve, and Encourage. Our strength lies in our ability to boil everything down to one question: How is what I'm doing reflected in, or supportive of, our mission?
So while Paul had to admonish his people at Corinth to quit bickering and focus on a unified mission, I am thankful I only have to encourage you to remember our mission and strive to keep it in view.
This unity in mind and purpose can also be seen in today's gospel passage. Today we hear the familiar story of Jesus calling the first of his disciples – Peter & Andrew and James & John. This is one of the Jesus stories that seems to have grown to mythic proportions.
Jesus is walking alongside the Sea of Galilee when he comes upon two brothers, Peter and Andrew. “Follow me,” he says, “and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they leave their nets and follow him. A little farther on he comes across two more fishing brothers, James and John. He tells them to follow him and they also immediately leave their nets to do so.
Who does this? Who drops everything and leaves all they have behind to follow some itinerant preacher they've never met? This would be like any of us asking someone to come to church and they immediately ask to be baptized and confirmed. For that reason alone, this story has mythical qualities. Part of the reason that it has achieved this mythic quality, I think, is that we project our own view of these men being so captivated by Jesus that they laid down their nets to live a harmonious life in the kingdom of God as presented by Jesus.
But let me throw a kink into that assumption.
Luke refers to these four fishermen as partners. But in Matthew, and Mark as well, this is not so. In Matthew they are simply two sets of brothers who happen to be in the same business.
Have you ever seen “Deadliest Catch” on the Discovery Channel? It's a reality show about crab fishing in the Bearing Sea. It has drama (whether real or made for TV) and plenty of competition between the fishermen. And, if the internet can be trusted, the behind-the-scenes shenanigans are also filled with drama and competition. In short, these fishermen are in it for themselves.
I have a feeling that, at least in Matthew and Mark, today's four fishermen were a lot like those commercial fishermen up in Alaska – independent, tough, and willing to fight anyone who encroached on their territory. And then here comes Jesus calling them to follow him, which they do.
And in the blink of an eye, these four independent men who compete with each other for fish and fight for their territory, have left everything behind to follow Jesus. These four competitors are now partners in whatever mission Jesus has yet to develop.
How many times did Jesus have to play peacemaker? How many times did Jesus have to remind them of their mission? How many times did Jesus have to remind them to be united in mind and purpose? We will never know in this lifetime, but I'm betting it happened more than a few times.
Part of Jesus' mission was to heal, feed, and teach people. This was all done in the context of living into the kingdom of God in the here and now. But another part of his mission was to get a group of disparate, sometimes antagonistic men together to become focused on the mission of God. Part of his mission was to teach these men to live in unity despite their difference. And competing fishermen certainly have their differences.
So here we are on the Sunday of our annual meeting. We are certainly not in competition with each other, but we do have different thoughts and ideas about how certain things should be done and or accomplished. We do have different interests and energies. We do have our preferred group of people and those whom we support. And all of that is fine and natural, it's simply how people interact.
But let us never be so focused on those differences that we begin to divide into factions. Let us never be so focused on our divisions that they take priority over our mission to restore all people to unity with God, our mission to live into our baptismal covenant, and our mission to Worship, Welcome, Serve, and Encourage.
Paul worked hard to end the conflicted divisions in Corinth. I'm sure Jesus worked hard to keep his twelve disciples focused and unified. I am thankful that we, despite our differences, remain united.
As we move into our annual meeting and beyond, let us remember to focus not on what divides us, nor on trying to catch more fish than others that are in the fishing business, but on staying focused on our mission to Worship, Welcome, Serve, and Encourage. Because it will be our unity which will allow us to represent the kingdom of God here on earth. And it will be our unity that will be a beacon of hope to those living in a divided and fractious world.