Brother Clark Berge, SSF, on Befriending, Acting, and Listening

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A sermon by Brother Clark Berge, SSF, Minister General of the Society of St. Francis, preached on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 26, 2014, at All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church, Washington, D.C.   The scripture readings are Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 5-13, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, and Matthew 4:12-23.

May the power of your love, Lord Christ,
fiery and sweet as honey,
so absorb our hearts
as to withdraw them from all that is under heaven.
Grant that we may be ready
to die for love of your love,
as you died for love of our love. Amen.
  (Prayer known as Absorbeat, used by St. Francis)

This morning we hear in Matthew’s Gospel the story of Jesus’ call to his first disciples.  This story picks up the implications of the Manifestation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, namely, the telling out and sharing of his message.  The Scriptures for today emphasize the disciples’ readiness, their willingness to be available for this ministry.  “Immediately,” Matthew writes, “They left their boats and their nets, and fathers [and family] and followed him.”  And so, this morning, I think we need to think about our readiness and willingness to share and show the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

I think some of us are initially misled by the Gospel story.  “Immediately,” it says.  We hear “spontaneously.”  But impulsive behavior leads to shallow roots as Jesus says later in Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 13:21), “But it does not sink deep into them, and they don’t last long.” They are like tender plants easily burned off by the sun or choked by weeds.  The disciples did not respond spontaneously or impulsively.  Nestled into the opening verses of our passage it says Jesus “left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea….”  “Made his home”—obviously he was there doing his work, meeting friends, and attending prayers—all those things we speculate about him doing before his public ministry.  Jesus, as a young man around Capernaum, was getting a reputation.  Obviously. 

Because when the time was right, when perhaps the Romans’ provocation was too much in Capernaum, Jesus acted.  He went around to his friends and said, “Let’s go.” And they responded to their friend, to a leader who was saying what they longed to hear.  They dropped everything and went.  I imagine Zebedee urging them on, wishing he was younger.  These people had been moved by Jesus’ passion and his wit.  Maybe they shared his outrage over the Roman occupation of Capernaum.  At any rate, when he felt ready and let them know, they were ready too.

I am reminded of Rosa Parks (not surprisingly, because this past week we celebrated MLK Day.)  Her story, and the inauguration of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, is a good modern example of someone who many people think acted spontaneously.  We hear of a poor tired black lady who refused to more.  Just decided.  Just then. 

Actually, she was nerved up to it.  She’d been trained in nonviolent resistance.  She was a disciple, and she was chosen by her community, called and equipped to play her part.  How do you think Dr. King got the boycott up and running so quickly?  Through a web of relationships, people were ready.  We tell it as spontaneous, but it was a planned action.  Maybe it is more appealing, or more romantic, to think Jesus’ disciples or Rosa Parks acted spontaneously or immediately, that it all “just happened.”  That means all we have to do is wait around until we get a random tweet or text that appeals to us.  Maybe then we’ll change our life and get involved.  But action for change rarely “just happens.”  Ministry rarely “just happens.” Social justice rarely “just happens.”

Jesus’ call to the disciples, as Matthew tells it, is the end of a process.  It reminds me of a cliché a friend of mine used to deliver in a wry, sing-song voice, because she thought it was so obvious and she felt provoked when people didn’t get it.  She would say, “Make a friend, be a friend, bring a friend to Christ.”  [The street preacher who harangues us doesn’t know us and isn’t our friend, so how there be a real change?] Ministry is grounded in relationship. 

Community life, let me tell you, needs deep roots of relationship to tackle the world’s injustices and to support members in the transformation of their lives.  “Together” is important when the hard times come, the push back from Herod or Pontius Pilate, Bull Connor—who is a good example for today?  It is the interlocked arms of friends, compatriots, and disciples that makes the difference.

Making friends can be the hardest part.  It’s easier to put out a flier and see if you can attract strangers.  In my experience, it’s usually the gadflies who come.  Don’t get me wrong, everybody is invited, but we cannot skip making friends.  When there is a pre-existing relationship, a pastor can muster a parish, a community leader can pack a hall.

Maybe you’re getting the idea I think evangelism is all political or about social justice.  That’s because I think all those things are spiritual.  They are part of making a connection and a commitment to God that is grounded in reality, in an experience of love.  Where the message and the messenger are consistent or congruent with each other, we experience a spiritual awakening. 

Good preachers need to be good friends.  And we are all preachers.  In the Franciscan world there is a conviction that the best preaching is done “without words.”  Many people say Francis said, “Preach always and when necessary, use words.”  Sadly, nobody can find these words in the source documents.  But the sentiment rings true.  It is completely consistent with Francis’ life and spirituality.

Another way of looking at this morning’s Gospel is that the disciples listened very carefully to Jesus.  They got it, were agitated by his message and they were ready when he called.  The Latin for listening is ob-audire, from which the word obedience comes.  Obedience means listening attentively.  It is not about reacting spontaneously or reflexively, but making a deep, deliberate, sober, and prayerful response.

So while it is not about jumping out of your boats this morning, it is about listening to your friends, listening to God speaking to you.  God speaks to us in the words of scripture and other people.  Listen and weigh what you hear in your heart.  Different things strike us at different times.  As we age and change and grow, God can use us in different ways.  And we can go with that.  We need to cultivate a practice of listening, contemplation, and Scriptural reflection that stands us in God’s good stead to meet changing circumstances with mature commitment and passion for the Christian life.

As we listen closely, we respond.  We respond by adjusting or changing our lives to be of greater service to others, to make Jesus Christ known and loved throughout the world.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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