Devotional: 26th anniversary! Welcome to the Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee, our anniversary speaker
This morning’s message comes to us from the Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee- who was the author of the book Trinity: The God We Don’t Know- which we studied last Fall. He is also Butler Chair in Homiletics and Biblical Hermeneutics at Vancouver School of Theology. Which is how I first met Jason. He was previously the senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in North Carolina which has a congregation of 1500 people from five worshipping communities. Jason has a Ph.D. in systematic theology and served as a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Duke University. At VST he teaches preaching, biblical interpretation, church history and writing. But I have come to appreciate his most recent research which has just been published in a book entitled Northern Lights: Resurrecting the Church in Northern England where he researched what creative things churches were doing. He is also a Dad to three teenage boys and husband to the Rev. Jaylynn Warren Byassee who is senior pastor of a United church in North Vancouver. This is now my fourth time hearing Jason speak and I found it engaging, thought provoking and hopeful. It is my pleasure to turn this time over to Jason Byassee.
Comox Valley Presbyterian Church- Anniversary Sunday, January 24, 2021
Jason Byassee, via Zoom recording
Good morning friends, what a gift to be with you digitally for your anniversary Sunday, thank you so much church and pastor Jenn for the invitation. 26 years old, congratulations, you’ve made it a quarter century and change. Though of course in the long span of things you’re as old as Jesus calling the first disciples, or as old as God calling Abraham and Sarah, or of God counting the stars one by one and spinning them into space, depending on how you count these things. When I send someone birthday greetings I quote to them from Henri Nouwen, the great Dutch Catholic priest beloved by Protestants. He said most of our lives we’re celebrated for what we achieve. Birthdays are important because then we don’t celebrate an achievement. None of us did anything to get ourselves born. We’re the fruit of something others did. On birthdays we’re celebrated just because we exist. Birthdays are like grace, unearned, happily received. Happy birthday. Comox Valley Pres. And many more.
This church was born in an initiative of the Presbyterian Church in Canada in the mid-90s called Living the Vision, with a hope of planting churches across Canada. As it happens this is one of the few that survive from that initiative. The mothers and fathers of this congregation bought two and a half acres of land, prescient real estate move that, built this community building, with plans to build more. Now the hope is to use that precious land to build affordable housing. God bless you in that endeavor. I love the boldness of the story, let’s start churches all over Canada. Oops, that didn’t much work. But it did in one case! Y’alls! And that really matters! Can you think of one person you’ve influenced positively in some way? Good, you’re doing life right. And your forebears bought land you could never afford now. How much has it increased in value in a generation? And you want to use it to bless your neighbours. You know that’s why this whole faith thing was born in the first place. God called Abraham and Sarah to bless all the other nations. God’s blessings aren’t for us. No. They’re through us, for everybody else. It’s amazing that God has raised up disciples here, on the edge of the Salish Sea, nearly 2000 years after the resurrection, to be about the same business.
Hear this word from the gospel of Mark. It’s about Jesus gathering the first disciples to him. Peter. Andrew. James. John. There’ll be eight more. For now hear about these first four, and think about how Jesus has called you as a person by name. How he has called you into a church to bless the world.
Mark 1:14-20: 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” [SLIDE] 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
As human beings we sort of are what we celebrate. You can tell what any community is by what they mark on the calendar. In church we count very carefully things like attendance and giving. That’s good, every person attending is a precious child of God, every dollar given must be honoured and spent carefully (or, for Presbyterians, not spent!). But you also have to count strange things in church. Jesus has weird math. For him two or three is enough people, you don’t need thousands. A cup of cold water registers in the kingdom and is not forgotten. He numbers hairs on our head and the number of sparrows. So as a church we have to count like him, counter-intuitively. A church I know in Tennessee counts cigarette butts in the parking lot. Little old ladies hunched over counting Lucky Strikes. Why? Because they have a recovery ministry. More cigarettes smoked means more people getting off the bottle or the needle and that’s a kingdom win. A human being more whole, a celebration in Christian terms. How about you, church? What weird victory do you celebrate? 26 years of life is good. What else? When I was last a pastor my children’s minister counted little girls prayer lives that had been revolutionized, teaching their parents to pray. That’s the whole world.
The gospel of Mark is the shortest gospel we have. It’s the earliest written. It has a sparseness to it, a spareness. Not a word is wasted. It is also in a hurry. Mark’s favourite word is “immediately” (it appeared twice in our seven verses—how’s that for counting?). Our passage includes the first recorded words of Jesus. They’re a little different than Matthew with the lyrical Sermon on the Mount, or Luke with the great sermon in the synagogue. Nobody puts this sermon in needlepoint or teaches their children to memorize it. But it says everything that needs saying. [SLIDE] “The time is fulfilled. The Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Some would wish sermons were still that short—18 words in English. Sorry to disappoint today, takes the rest of us a lot of words to say what Jesus says in very few. The time is fulfilled. It is ripe. What you’ve been waiting for is here. The Kingdom of God: a country ruled by God alone, no mere political leader or human king. Repent: turn around. Go another way. And I love this so much I can hardly stand it: believe the good news. The gospel is good. The word we have is one designed to make the whole world glad. So much religion is so onerous, frowny faced finger wagging shoulds and oughts. Not Jesus’ people. The whole point of the thing is joy, delight, celebration.
What is this story of the gospel’s origins all about? I mean, this is Jesus gathering his first church. Comox Valley Pres exists because of this story. If we look at it right we can learn who we are. Why there is such a thing as a church in the first place, let alone this one.
First, where are we in the world. I worked as a journalist before, so we need to know the 5 W’s. Where is this happening? [SLIDE] The Sea of Galilee isn’t really a sea at all, it’s a little bitty lake, much smaller than the smallest of the Great Lakes. You know how you can see across the Georgia Straight from your beaches here in the valley? The Sea of Galilee is like that, you’re never in a place where you can’t see the shore, it’s just not that big. I love visiting the place because so much of the holy land is cluttered up with churches and tourist sites. But even a small lake is too big for a church to be put on top of it. If you’re out on a boat there it looks pretty much like it did in Jesus’ day. [SLIDE] There’s a first-century fishing boat archaeologists have dug up, little bitty rickety thing, big enough for 12 if everybody squenches in. The lake still has brownish green shores and gentle hills. No towers or high rises. It’s remote, rural. This is not a place for movers and shakers. Not like Jerusalem where things happen, or certainly Rome, capital of the world. The sea or lake hardly ever appears in the Old Testament. It is part of the land given to Israel, where the northern tribes lived, conquered in the 8th century, people carried off, occupied by the Romans now in the first century.
And Jesus comes along, preaches this first sermon after John was arrested, to whom? We’re not told. [SLIDE] But then he starts calling disciples. Now wait right there. This is weird. In Judaism you become a disciple by going to a rabbi and asking to learn from him. They usually turn down would-be disciples. The late rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain, used to tell a story of coming from England and knocking on the door of the great rebbe Soloveitchek in New York. They laughed at him. Young man the rebbe is world famous, the list to see him a mile long, go away. He left his information, and got a call sometime later, the great man would see him. Spent 20 minutes with him and Sacks said he did the most amazing thing. He listened. Asked questions. How many Jews are there in Cambridge? This many. How many take Jewish life seriously? Very few. Well, the rebbe asked, what are you going to do about it? And one of the great careers in religion was launched, just a word from a great rabbi. This is how it works in Judaism, you go and seek out apprenticeship, expecting to be turned down, lucky for a scrap of attention.
Jesus does it wrong. [SLIDE] He goes and calls people. And the wrong people. Fishermen. Not scholars or aspiring rabbis, but working class people, small business owners. Not apparently looking to change careers, no plans to have anything different happen that day. But they leave their nets and follow. James and John in particular leave their father in the boat with the hired hands. One translation says they left him with the mercenaries. Jesus interrupts the normal economic life. He commandeers normal family patterns, the Zebedee boys would normally inherit the family business and pass it on to their sons. Jesus says no, I got other plans. You, come with me. And they go.
It’s enough to make me wonder. When did you start following Jesus? What brought you into this church whose birth we celebrate today as a disciple, a follower of Jesus?
There’s some oddity here. I always tell my students when reading the bible to look for the weird. That can be hard to do in a passage as familiar as this. But look what Jesus didn’t do. He called these four fishers and then did not . . . keep circling the lake calling all the fishermen to him. He could have. He’s batting 4/4 at this point. Why not enlist all of them? Here’s what he’s up to. He’s calling 12 disciples. He’s reconstituting the 12 tribes of Israel. He’s remaking the people of God around himself. Comox Valley Pres, you’re a small church. I’ve pastored small churches. They can feel discouraging. Why aren’t we bigger? What’s our future? How do you balance this budget? But look, Jesus could call everyone and doesn’t. [SLIDE] He calls four. So few we get all their names. We got a lot more than four people in here don’t we? Look what Jesus did with just these four, these twelve. Small churches are not failed big churches. They’re not. They’re gatherings around a God who loves small things. Little girls’ prayers and cups of cold water for strangers and cigarette butts as a sign that an addict has made a better choice. Israel has always been small, and has blessed the world immeasurably. There is no need to be big to be a faithful church, do you hear me? All you have to do is to be faithfully yourself.
What else. Jesus does do something here I already noted. He interrupts. He commandeers. He says, hey, you, come with me. [SLIDE] There’s some surprise here. Me? Really? Yeah you. But I have no qualifications. Did I ask? I have no resume, no ancient languages, no scholarly pedigree. Blah blah blah. Come on. Jesus has really suspect taste in friends and followers, thank God. But this is an important point for us mainline Christians, we tend to get nervous about evangelism, we leave that to more conservative Christians. Lots of churches in retirement communities prefer to wait for people from our denomination to retire here and then join up. That worked for a long while. The problem is it doesn’t now. A friend is the Methodist bishop in Florida, my denomination. He says Florida Methodism’s unwritten mission strategy for decades was to wait for Methodists in Indiana to retire and move to Florida and move their membership. What’s the problem with that? Well, it seems that Indiana is plumb out of Methodists. So too I imagine in the Comox Valley, folks who retire are more secular than ever, because Canada is more secular than ever. And you know what? That’s good news. It requires us to ask hey, what’s a church for? Why does someone need one? They can be entertained better on Sundays in lots of places. Sure friendships are important but people are finding them in yoga and running clubs. What do we have? [SLIDE] Well, all we have is this slightly deranged prophet who calls strangers by a waterfront and says hey, you, come on. Now look here. Jesus says “I will make you fish for people,” or in the older language, “I will make you fishers of men.” Note the verbs. “I will make.” He promises he will make us fish. You don’t have to know anything before you’re an apprentice. But being a disciple means apprenticing yourself to Jesus, learning from him how to call others. My son is going into the trades, not sure if he’ll be an electrician or plumber or what, I just hope he does something that saves me money. He won’t be evaluated on how good he is right now. He knows nothing. The question is what kind of learner is he? At the end of his apprenticeship what will he have picked up? Friends, to be a disciple means to apprentice ourselves to Jesus, to learn from him how to serve others. That’s it, that’s the whole point of the church.
And you know what? People want that. Yoga and running are great, Lord knows I could use both. But they can’t save you. Not in the deepest sense. Only Christ can do that. Our neighbours are growing more secular. You know what that means? They wonder whether it was all for this. Nice house, reliable pension, beautiful place to live. You know what all that does for you on judgment day? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. [SLIDE] As a church we have to learn again from Jesus how to make a case for him with strangers, neighbours, friends, even our own children. Here’s the difference life with God makes. Here’s why you’ll feel empty without Jesus. You just will. And you know what? Here’s the good news. He still calls people. Want to follow with us?
One reason Jenn invited me here today is for a book I wrote on churches in the north of England, one of the most secular places in Europe. We tourists see great medieval buildings, but some 1% of people go to church there, lower than western Canada. And you know what I found? Some of the most interesting missional experiments I’ve ever seen. One example: England has seen a huge rise in Iranian immigrants. They’re processed in London but shipped north where it’s cheaper to live. The north is England’s former industrial heartland, with mines and factories all closed now, there are more white nationalists than coal mines. And you know where they’re finding welcome? [SLIDE] Christian churches of all kinds. It’s easier for Shia Muslims to be welcomed in a Christian church than a Sunni mosque sometimes, and then these Christians will help with your asylum case, so there’s a material reward to be found. But one pastor said to me he first went to church for the girls, not exactly godly, but it works. I saw pews long empty filled with people of all ages eager to be there. And you know old heads bowed in prayer for decades asking for that, and now their prayer is answered, not how they imagined! They imagined their own grandchildren who are usually still far from church. Instead God has given new grandchildren with hard to pronounce names and glorious food and tragic stories. We call it church. You can’t plan this stuff. Sometimes Jesus just comes along and calls all the wrong people all over again and says you, follow me. But this wasn’t what I had in mind! Take a number. Come on let’s go.
What about here, church? Among us, now? One pastor suggested this prayer: Lord, send us the people no one else wants. Then he chuckled. Sometimes we ask if we need to stop praying that, God sends so many!
Final point for today. [SLIDE] Peter, Andrew, James, John, these are the greater disciples. Everyone knows their name. By the end of the lists of twelve things get hazy. Was there one Judas or two? Was it Bartholomew or some other guy? The lists diverge. The point is there are twelve. And these four are always in. We have lots of stories about them, lots of churches named for them, legends grew up and their relics are spread all over the world. Churches from Ukraine to Scotland claim to have bits of Andrew’s bones for example. Thousands of people do archaeology in Galilee every year, brushing dirt away with toothbrushes, just looking for a scrap of info about the first century. My roommate wrote a whole dissertation on what Galilee was like in the first century, whether gentiles lived there or not (the way to answer that question: are there pig bones?). People are desperate just for a scrap of info, a bit of contact with these four. But you know what? We have a waterfront right here in Comox. We have a living resurrected saviour in our midst. He still has this thing for calling all the wrong people to drop what they’re doing and follow him right now, immediately. He’s on his way to save the world. And he wants our help. Can you believe it? Let’s go with him. I know it interrupts everything, inconveniences everybody, it will look crazy. But for reasons I can’t explain there is life in that one. He explains me to myself and the whole world besides. I want nothing more than to be with him, and he says he wants nothing more than to be with me. We call it church. Happy birthday Comox Pres. Now, to celebrate, let’s follow him all over again. Amen.