Almost two years ago, my son Snowman, unhappy at school, spent most of a Saturday on the Internet searching for a different future. In the midst of a snowstorm the next Friday, his father and I sat over coffee and I learned that Snowman wanted to go away for his junior and senior years of high school. Not only did he want to go away, he wanted to go to a school I had barely heard of in a state I had never visited.
Mostly, he wanted to go away, that’s what I heard. He wanted to go away.
Now, in my sane mind, I understood that he wanted to study the clarinet in a more devoted fashion, and that if he had uncovered a calling to be a musician, two years in this specialized school would give him the best possible start—or even the chance to know for sure that he didn’t want to do it after all.
Equipped with laptop and cell phone, as well as clarinet, he left home that fall and pursued his dream.
It sounds good, but I don’t want to underplay the way it felt for me, his mother, packing him up and saying goodbye to him. Even though I’m a writer, I find it hard to put words on the emotional and physical feelings of loss and despair that became part of the process of letting him go. Some things really don’t have words. They have rhythmic groans and slow shakes of the head and sharp intakes of breath and nearly imperceptible mourning mumbles. Wordlessly, fear moves in to fill the void of shock when things take a turn we did not expect.
Zebedee stood in the boat, and he heard a man calling out to him and to his sons and to his workers, as they worked over their nets:
"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
I’m old enough now to hear such things with parental ears, wondering what sort of claptrap that young person is talking, and wondering why he’s coming around here bothering us?
Zebedee stood in the boat, and perhaps he recognized Peter and Andrew already following the man Jesus. Maybe he knew about Jesus already. If he did, it may be that he felt a quick turn to cold in the air, a sharp turn toward nausea in his stomach.
The gospel uses the word “immediately.” Zebedee’s sons, the Sons of Zebedee, those disciples who will do everything to position themselves near to Jesus, jumped out of the boat immediately and left their nets and their father and all of their work and followed Jesus.
Here’s where the air goes out of Zebedee’s lungs, as surely as a punch in the gut.
We expect young people to go away, don’t we? We expect them to go away, it’s the kind of society in which we live. Nowadays we worry that they will bounce back, or never leave! Staying home is not the norm. But in Zebedee’s day, everyone stayed home. Every man felt responsible not just for himself but for his immediate and extended families. Clan meant everything. Remember this was a culture in which after the death of a man, his brother married the widow, to keep her safe and respectable and in the family. Obligations we cannot begin to understand formed the foundation of society.
Jesus came to turn it all upside down, to declare the kingdom of heaven had come near, and you have to wonder, were people really ready for it?
I think there had to be a moment of fear before they chose hope and followed him.
Now putting Snowman on a plane is the most usual thing in the world, but this weekend we have a twist on the usual: this weekend he had a ticket to go to New York City to audition at Juilliard. He has been playing the clarinet since 5th grade band, taking private lessons for four years, studying avidly at school and camp for the past sixteen months, all to arrive at this weekend and the other auditions to come this winter.
And Friday night, his flight was canceled.
I’ve learned to deal with challenges when it comes to Snowman’s travel. Very few of his flights to and from Michigan have arrived or departed on time. He frequently flies in bad weather, so much so that it’s more notable when he DOES arrive as expected.
But this time, the inarticulate clawing of fear returned, for we stand at the edge of something new, and in this economy, and in this world, and in this year…well, it’s easy to get worked up these days.
On the occasion of his first inaugural, in March of 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt gave an address that was broadcast on the radio, saying:
I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he said, most famously. It’s so famous I read it on the sleeve of my coffee cup on inauguration day!
Zebedee stood in the boat and watched his sons fade into the distance with Jesus. They had chosen hope. What would he choose? Would he rise into the anger he might rightly have felt as patriarch of the clan, infuriated that the sons of his right and left hand had abandoned him? Would he fade into the fear of going on without them, wondering how to keep things going with only the hired help? Or was there some way he could choose hope, too?
By the time I took Snowman out to Land o'Lakes to start school in September of 2007, I felt good about his leaving–not his absence, but his leaving. When a young person feels something so passionately, how can a parent not do everything to help him follow his dream? Didn’t we do it for his brother? The only difference seemed to be distance; instead of driving to innumerable play rehearsals, I take him to the bus station to get the Logan Express. I have had to learn a way to parent from a distance, have had to learn to see things the best way possible instead of the worst.
It takes practice.
When I got word of the canceled flight, I thought, “Okay. Now #1 Son won’t have to be waiting for Snowman at the Port Authority Terminal at midnight on a Friday. That must be a better thing.”
This past Tuesday, in his inaugural address, President Obama spoke in front of cameras, beamed by satellite and streamed on the Internet and watched on the television, all around the world:
These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land — a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.
Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America — they will be met.
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.
The next day there were pictures of the new President in his shirtsleeves, ready to work, signalling that function matters more to him than form, that getting to it, whatever the task may be, matters more to him than hallowed traditions such as always wearing a jacket in the Oval Office.
It’s the end of the world as we know it.
If you're the right age to listen to REM, you'll recognize that as a song, and in the chorus, th
ey end with, "and I feel fine." It's the end of the world as we know it, and we can feel fine, if we will choose hope over fear.
Paul believed firmly that the world as he knew it would end—and end soon—as he told the church at Corinth:
I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
NPR reported that our public life has new cadences, thanks not just to a new President but to our increasing informality and our exposure through the media to the many ways people speak.
Brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short.
Let those who were born Democrats sit down and eat dinner with Republicans.
Let those who wished the other guy or the other gal won stop for a moment and allow a smile to cross their faces.
Let those of us with plenty remember those with less, and let those of us with next-to-nothing feel part of the abundance of the day to come.
For the present form of this world is passing away, not just because of this one change, but because of all of them.
Can we live like that? Haven’t we all asked ourselves that when gas cost twice as much as it does today and the fear of what might happen next drove our choices?
The kingdom of God has come near, said Jesus. Can we live with *that*?!?!!
Each new era brings changes that we quickly learn to think of as having been the way we have done things forever. It’s as natural for us to see our young people go out-of-state to college or for careers as it was for Zebedee to expect James and John to stay at home for the rest of their lives. It will be as natural for our young people to see an African-American person as the President as it was natural for people in Roosevelt’s day to find it unimaginable.
Snowman made it to his audition on Saturday, arriving in New York City with a few hours to spare. Wherever he goes to school next fall, our lives will change again, just as our lives in the world will change whether things get better or worse with regard to war and poverty and the economy and health care and social justice.
Change will come, and I believe it may just bring us closer to the kingdom of God, that way of being that drew near in Jesus, a way of being that asks us to drop everything familiar and light out for parts unknown, whether on foot or in our hearts and minds.
I’m hopeful, but it doesn’t always come to me that way easily or naturally.
Sometimes I have to choose it, mindfully, purposefully, as quickly as a moment flashes by.
We always have a choice, just as Peter and Andrew and James and John did. They could have stayed behind in their boats, making Jesus a small footnote in their lives: “Remember the day that crazy preacher came by? I hear they crucified him in Jerusalem.” They might have earned well and retired contentedly by the lakeshore, watching their grandchildren toddle about at their feet, safe and comfortable.
But they lived in a troubled world, just as we do, and somehow they heard something in Jesus’ voice, in the particular cadence of his words, that made them believe things could be different. They left their nets and their boats and followed, immediately, choosing hope over fear. Amen.
(A small portion of this sermon appeared in a post earlier in the week.)