We Make the Road by Walkingby Jeff Krehbiel, January 22 2017
Third Sunday After Epiphany
As Jesus walked alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, because they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," he said, "and I’ll show you how to fish for people." Right away, they left their nets and followed him. Matthew 4:18-20
It was pretty emotional watching the Obama’s leave town on Friday, not only because of the sadness I feel over the conclusion of President Obama’s final term of office, but also because it made me reflect on my own departure from Washington, D.C. in a little more than a week. Saying good-bye is hard. There won’t be quite as much pomp and circumstance when the Krehbiels leave town, but it’s certainly going to feel just as momentous to us.
Hopefully there won’t be protests in the street over whoever the church calls into leadership to replace me, though you never know. What we do know is that Presbyterians take almost as much time choosing a new pastor as Americans do choosing a new president—though usually in a much less contentious process.
It was an impressive turnout for the march yesterday. People came for a variety of reasons, but I know a lot of people marched just because they felt they had to do something, and felt powerless to do anything else. There is satisfaction in putting one foot in front of another. As the late Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel put it after the march on Selma, when we march for justice, our legs are praying.
It’s striking when you think about it. Contemporary Christians often think that the most important thing about being a Christian is what you believe. Yet when Jesus first calls the disciples, he doesn’t ask them to believe in him, he invites them to follow him, to get up on their feet and get moving.
We usually think that beliefs precede action. As theologian Miroslav Volf puts, we tend to think of the relationship of belief and action as following as “as-so” pattern. As we believe, so we act.
But many times, our actions are what lead us to a change in beliefs. We behave in a certain way, and our behavior shapes our beliefs. Sometimes the first step is just to get up off your behind and move.
You can be certain that the disciples had no idea what they were getting themselves into when they left their nets behind to follow Jesus. Indeed, Jesus made few promises that day along the Galilean sea shore. “To be a disciple,” someone once wrote, “does not mean to be ‘a student of a teacher,’ but rather to be ‘a follower after somebody.’” When we follow we make clear that we are not the ones who know the direction. To follow, therefore, is an act of great risk.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was murdered by the Nazis during World War II for his opposition to Hitler, and therefore knew all about risky discipleship, wrote in his book The Cost of Discipleship, “Discipleship is not an offer [we] make to Christ. It is only the call which creates the situation.” Like the disciples on the sea shore, our choice is to follow or to stay behind.
The writer Dennis Convington, in his book Salvation on Sand Mountain, writes:
“There are moments when you stand on the brink of a new experience and understand that you have no choice about it. Either you walk into the experience or turn away from it, but you know that no matter what you choose, you will have altered your life in some significant way. Either way, there will be consequences.”
In our text this morning, Matthew describes the people of Galilee, using words from Isaiah, as people who lived in darkness and in the shadow of death. But there is nothing in the text that tells us that Simon and Andrew, James and John, were anything but happy with their lives. They had work, they had boats, they had family. There is no indication that they were on a spiritual pilgrimage, that they were looking for some new way to be involved in the world, that they were seeking a change in their lives in any way. Out of the clear blue, Jesus comes along and invades their lives with a call to discipleship in an unexpected moment. It was not they who took the initiative, it was Jesus. There are many stories in the ancient world of master teachers calling together a group of students. But in every other case save this one, it is the students who seek out the teacher. Only Jesus pursues his own followers.
The idea that Jesus calls us even when we don’t seek him might take some getting used to. We don’t warm up to easily to the idea that someone or something else might be in charge of our lives. But the biblical narrative, from beginning to end, is filled with stories of such interrupted lives. God calls in the most unexpected, inconvenient, disruptive and often unwanted ways. Abraham & Sarah, Moses, David, Mary, Paul—I could go on and on—each one of them were called at God’s initiative, not their own. The Eastern religions and the New Age movement may subscribe to the notion that we seek God, but biblical faith asserts over and over again that it is the other way around. It is God who seeks and calls us.
I can’t help but think again of the life Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrated last week. His story is such a perfect example of an interrupted life. When King was chosen to lead the Bus Boycott at the age of twenty-six, fresh out of seminary, just entering the parish ministry, leading a national movement was the furthest thing from his mind. Yet in the ancient biblical fashion, God called him long before he thought he was ready. It would be a profound understatement to say that King’s life did not turn out the way he had planned.
One of the most popular books that Rabbi Heschel wrote, who even though he was several years older and a Jewish academic, became close friends and allies with Martin Luther King, was titled God in Search of Man. He was trying to capture that same insistence, that it is God who is seeking us, not the other way around, that when God calls us, it will be to do something that we are reluctant to do. In that book, written in 1955, he wrote these prophetic words:
"It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined, not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid."
If there is anything that I am proud of during our time together at Church of the Pilgrims, it’s that things were never dull, hopefully not insipid, neve oppressive, and I hope always relevant.
I titled my sermon today “We Make the Road by Walking.” The words come from a recent book by Brian McClaren, who stole the title from Brazilian educator and activist Paolo Freire. He used this title for a published dialogue between himself and another educator and activist, Myles Horton, who led the Highlander Folk School, where Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks first studied nonviolent resistance. And Freire may have derived the quote from the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado:
“Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking one makes the road, and upon glancing behind one sees the path that never will be trod againWanderer, there is no road— Only wakes upon the sea.”
So I wonder, right now, where is Christ calling you? Like most of the people of faith before us, that call is likely to be disruptive and unwanted. No matter how carefully you listen, you probably don’t know where responding to that call will lead you. Maybe even someplace unknown and risky. Like the disciples on the sea shore, that is the life of faith to which we are called. We just have to put one foot in front of the other.
Wanderer, there is no road— Only wakes upon the sea.
We make the road by walking.
© 2017 Jeffrey K. Krehbiel
Church of the Pilgrims
2201 P Street NW
Washington, DC 20037