By: Louise Browner Blanchard, Rector
Third Sunday after the Epiphany
I remember the question as if it were yesterday. It came during the most idyllic time of my not-quite-35-year-old life. Even the weather was perfect – one of those rare Richmond summers with abundant sunshine and no humidity. Buck and I were blissfully happy. We had a beautiful little boy and another one on the way. We were surrounded by loving family and friends. I had recently been able to stop working for what I, at least, fantasized was forever. I truly believed that we had achieved this wonderful life, and that we were just at the beginning of how it was going to be, happily ever after.
Buck was traveling in Europe for his job as a lawyer, and he had stopped to visit his firm’s office in Brussels, Belgium. I wasn’t even sure where Brussels was, and I didn’t really care since I was just settling into my-life-as-it-was-meant-to-be right here in Richmond, Virginia. But I was eager to hear how Buck liked it and looked forward to living vicariously through his experience.
That night, when he called, he got right to the point. “How would you feel about moving here?” His tone was more or less casual. Yet I knew the moment that I heard the question that it was as serious as any since he had asked me to marry him. Every reason in the world not to move to Brussels came flooding into my brain, and yet I also knew in that instant that we would be moving to Brussels. It felt bigger than both of us, scary beyond imagining, and, at the same time, what we were meant to do. Even though I wasn’t really used to thinking about things in this way, I had a profound sense that God was calling us. And almost imperceptibly, our focus shifted from what we wanted to do to what we were meant to do, and that, somehow, we would be ok.
I have since learned that God’s idea of ok and mine are a bit different. My idea of ok is tidier, more constant and predictable, safer. I thought that the hardest part would be the move itself. Little did I know! Buck and I embarked on a life that has been in many ways joyful beyond belief, but it has been complicated and messy, too, and sometimes heartbreaking. Our ideas about who we are individually, together, and in the wider world have been turned upside down and inside out. Not once have I wished that we had said no, but following a call is not always easy.
So I have a lot of compassion for Peter and Andrew and James and John. Perhaps their lives as fishermen weren’t what we would call idyllic, but they were predictable and steady. They more or less knew what each day held: wake up early, gather their nets, and head out onto the sea to catch food that would sustain them and others. Day after day, their lives kept beat to the rhythm of tides and waves as they cast their nets and pulled them in, over and over. Whether the day was calm or stormy, they knew how to react. It was in their bones, passed down through generations of their forefathers who had been fishermen, too. Why would they expect anything to change, and why would they want it to? For all that we can tell, their lives were good: they were surrounded by family and lifelong friends, they knew their work and did it well. It sustained them and likely others as well. They weren’t seeking a call. But a call was seeking them. “Follow me.” And somehow when they heard it, they knew that they had to answer “Yes.”
They were, after all, following in Jesus’ footsteps, who, if you think about it, was also answering a call. We know next to nothing about how Jesus lived most of his adult life, although tradition holds that he was a carpenter like his father Joseph…a profession – like fishing – that was predictable, steady, and useful, and passed down through generations. But at some point, Jesus, too, answered a call, and not just once, but again and again, throughout his life and unto his death. Look at what we know about him. First, he answers the call to baptism. Next, he submits himself to the challenges and temptations of the wilderness. Then, he leaves his hometown Nazareth and begins to gather a community of people who were also willing to answer a call. “Follow me,” he says. He sets about teaching, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing disease and sickness. “Follow me,” he says and sets about showing us how to live.
And, as Jesus continues to reveal to his followers then and now, an essential part of how to live is the ongoing discernment of God’s call. Jesus manifests that discernment in sudden encounters with presumed enemies like the centurion’s servant and the Canaanite woman, and with outsiders like the leper and the demoniac. He engages with and heals all of them, and as he follows the call to do so, expands our awareness of the breadth of God’s kingdom. Jesus also manifests that discernment in private and public prayer throughout his life – all the way to the garden in Gethsemane, when he prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me…” and on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He perseveres, and as he follows the call to do so, opens our understanding of the depth of God’s kingdom. The course of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection teaches us that God is always with us, but only in following Jesus and answering God’s call do we truly become aware of God’s presence. Only in acting like Jesus and answering God’s call do our lives truly become transformed. It rarely happens in one fell swoop – even for Jesus. But as he demonstrates, “follow me” is the refrain that leads all of us toward the fulfillment of our lives in God’s kingdom.
In other words, it’s not just a series of stories in the Bible, and it’s not just the story of how Buck and I moved to Brussels. It’s all of our stories individually and, even more importantly, together. Jesus started his work by calling Peter, Andrew, James, and John, and forming a community. We – all of us, together – are their descendants, and the command is the same. “Follow me.” Where will that be? We spent a good part of last year discerning answers to that question. That was the beginning, not the end, of our work together. God is seeking us. It is up to us to answer. And our life together depends on it.
Like Peter, Andrew, James, and John, we will make plenty of missteps and mistakes along the way. But, like Peter, Andrew, James, and John, we are called to listen for the voice that urges us to follow because, however hard and scary it may seem, that is the path to God’s kingdom, to moving each of our lives from the realm of ourselves into God’s wider purpose, and to the peace which passes all understanding. As poet William Alexander Percy reminds us:
The peace of God, it is no peace,
but strife closed in the sod.
Yet let us pray for but one thing –
the marvelous peace of God.