What We Leave Behind

(If you've been to the blog this week, you'll notice the first part is lifted almost whole from Monday's gospel reflection.)
A sermon for Epiphany 3A (January 27, 2008), particularly Matthew 4:12-23

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. (Matthew 4:18-22)

Immediately, they left—

After a bit of a nightmare about moving, it's on my mind how difficult it is to leave a place, usually. My parents have been gone for 10 and almost 15 years, but I still dream from time to time about having to sort out their household, and in every dream I am on a deadline.

James and John, immediately they left, and followed him.

Early in the week I dreamt I was with younger versions of my children, and we had to leave the place we were living, and we had to be out by a certain time which was only minutes away, and there were still so many things to pack.  The task felt similar to Cinderella's assignment to sift through the ashes and pick out the lentils her stepmother has emptied there. What did we really need? How would we carry it all? And what would happen to the things we must leave behind?

What did we really need? When you are moving, there is more to it, usually, than what you need. There are things you want as well, and in my dreams there are often sentimental items that need special packing materials. Do I need those things? Or the feelings that go along with them? Probably not, but the thought of being cut off from them, the fear of it, generally plays an important part in those dreams.

How would we carry it all? In my dream, there was no truck or van. We seemed to be leaving with only what we could carry. In that case, there was no doubt, we could not bring it all with us. Toys and small objects and clothes not on our backs would be left behind as surely as large pieces of furniture. I wondered what would happen to them, considered the position of the landlord, or whatever person might come in after us, left with the mess of our lives, unpacked and unsorted.

Zebedee stood in the boat, alone, with the half-mended nets.

Where were we going? It wasn't clear in the dream, and it wasn't clear to James and John, either. Did one of them feel the impulse more strongly and the other follow him more than Jesus? Had they had it with Dear Old Dad, and were they looking for an opportune moment to flee? Or did they truly feel the same calling in the same moment with identical intensity?

We don't know. We only know they left. Immediately.

If you are like me, you fear their choice and envy it at the same time. Most of us stay behind in the unsorted rooms, at least on the physical plane, but the inner journey is open to us. Taking it may not necessitate abandoning the family business or leaving your mother's collection of painted china behind, but it might. You just don't know. And perhaps that is the scariest part of all.

Unless you consider this part: you might be Zebedee. And I can't imagine a lonelier guy in the whole world then Zebedee when James and John immediately left.  "Left" and "flee" easily mis-type as "felt" and "feel." How do you feel if you put yourself in Zebedee's place?

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.

In the text, even the boat gets priority.

It’s very exciting to be the leaver, the one going on to new opportunities, new friends, new surroundings. It’s pretty gloomy to be the one left behind.

I think there are relatives in Virginia who have never quite forgiven me for moving to Maine, although I have been here for over 20 years. My departure seemed like a rejection of the home place and the home people. And if we take the perspective of the young person, if we remember the time when we were ready to fly, we may be inclined to roll our eyes.

But when we are the outgrown or the leftover, or at least seem to represent them, it doesn’t feel so good.

What did Zebedee represent, in the boat?

James and John lived in a culture where there was no doubt every son would be part of the family business. There father fished, and so would they. To go off on their own, as young people almost invariably do now, would have been unthinkable, a rejection not only of their parents but of their community and cultural norms. Daughters married, if their fathers arranged it, and they became as indispensably part of their husbands’ families as sons were of their parents’.

And if you strayed from the cultural norms, you could not come back.

I’m not sure we understand how complete a breach leaving home was to them, but remember the story of the Prodigal Son and you may gain some insight. No one expected the father to receive his son *as a son* again. Even the son hoped only to be received as a servant. Roles were strictly understood, parts played as expected, or the security of family life, of having a name and place in society, would likely be lost forever.

That may sound foreign to us, but in churches we tend to live that way even now. We want to do things the same way over and over again, and that is where we find our family security. As the old joke goes, the real seven last words are these, “We’ve never done it that way before!”

We maintain our lives together through our habits, our practices, our decorations and our schedules. Many churches live like the people in sepia-tinted Victorian photographs, although the world has progressed to digital frames that display multiple pictures. We remain in the boat and watch others leave, gradually receding into the distance.

Immediately, they left—that phrase comes back again and again, doesn’t it? I fear at midlife I identify too strongly with Zebedee. My older children stand poised on the edge of adulthood, and even my younger child seems quite grown-up. When I embark on a journey, do I spend too much time planning what I will bring with me? Which coat? Which scarf? Which bracelets and earrings? Would it really matter if I left them behind?

And yet, it was not too many years ago that I sat on a little stretch of beach at Boothbay Harbor with my own mother and told her I wanted to go to seminary. She discouraged me, and I told her, “I can’t not do it.”

I can’t not do it, I said. The kingdom of heaven had come near, you see, in one of its many forms, and I felt a call to go, no matter how inconvenient it might have seemed to others. And it surely did.

It’s not just possible but almost certainly true that everywhere we turn the Kingdom of God is coming near, just as it did on that long ago day in Galilee, when Peter and Andrew and James and John dropped their nets and followed Jesus. What are the nets that we hold too tight? What might we need to drop in order to leap out of the boat?

It might be an old way of thinking, a long-lasting attitude of discouragement, a misplaced sense of duty or an underlying fear of change. Who would we be if…who would we be if we left immediately? And what would become of what we leave behind?

Jesus doesn’t spend any time talking about that last question in this early part of the gospel, but he will address it all the way to Jerusalem. He brings good news, proclaims release of the captives, heals the sick and shines a light in the darkness. And so we leave behind captivity and ill spirits and the darkness of feeling separated from a distant and invisible God.

Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

I feel certain that had Zebedee wanted, he might have come along, too. No one is left behind by Jesus. He is calling all of us to follow, telling us the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Amen.

3 thoughts on “What We Leave Behind”

  1. Songbird, I think the back and forth, reference to scripture and then reflection then back to sripture – works. Of course nuancing the tone and tenor of your voice will bring it out in preaching – but you know that!
    As I prepare to pack and move, leaving my colleagues of 15 years, leaving a daughter behind, pulling a husband from his family – a man who has never lived far from his mother and sibs….and tearing a son from his friends, I am deeply into this text. But. I am not preaching, which may be a very good thing.

  2. I also love the way to weave the gospel lesson into your own life story and would dearly love to hear you preach Songbird. You write so beautifully.

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