Several years ago Robert Redford produced a film based on Norman Maclean's book, A River Runs through it. It's a wonderful, lyrical book about a Presbyterian pastor and his two sons, who live in a small Montana town near the turn of the century of the 20th century. The minister was a somewhat dour, old fashioned Presbyterian from Scotland who took a dim view of other denominations. Maclean says that his father believed that Methodists were Baptists who had learned to read. I would love to know what he thought of Episcopalians!
Maclean's father loved fly-fishing with a passion, a passion he handed down to his sons. The scenery in the film is spectacular, and it opens with scenes of of Montana's wild rivers and mountains. At the beginning of the movie, Redford, reads from the book on which the film is based, and explains that the minister's sons were led to believe that Jesus had chosen the best fishermen on the Sea of Galilee to be his disciples, and that the best disciples must have been fly fishermen.
By now you've probably figured out that I was a pretty bookish kid. However, my family loved to fish, although I suspect that Maclean's father would have taken a dim view of them. Not only were none of us fly fishermen, we were all Baptists, too!
My sermon today is rather old fashioned. It used to be said that every sermon should have three points. Well, this sermon has exactly three points: First, becoming a Christian is like acquiring a skill. Second, becoming a Christian requires us not only to invest ourselves, but to invest our financial resources. And third and last, becoming a Christian is not something we do just for our own amusement or well-being; it is something we do for the well-being of others.
Today's reading from Matthew's gospel tells us that as Jesus "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." Let's just stop there for a moment, and think about that statement: Jesus "saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen."
Jesus' disciples did not fish for sport but to make a living. It was hard, back-breaking work. It involved rising early, before the sun was up; mending nets; lots of luck; the risk of drowning on the unpredictable Sea of Galilee; excellent boat-handling skills.
Fishing is a skill. What skills do you have? What did it take to acquire them? It takes at least three things to acquire a skill: time, discipline, and a good teacher.
Most of you know that I am an amateur pianist. I'll never play as well as Horowitz or Rubenstein, but I'm probably a better than average amateur pianist. Someone estimated that it takes 10,000 hours to acquire competency in a skill such as playing the piano. I don't know if I've put 10,000 hours into it, but I've put a lot of hours into practicing the piano. It also takes discipline. To become a good musician on any instrument you have to practice. Practicing and playing are different things. I could sit at the piano for hours and hours playing hymns and popular songs, but I'd never advance beyond a certain level. If you want to become a better pianist, you have to learn to play more difficult music. You have to learn to play scales in all the major and minor keys, and so on. And finally you have to have a good teacher. I was fortunate in having several excellent teachers. You will have a chance to meet one of my piano teachers, Ophra Yerushalmi, when she comes to Christ Church on Feb. 14 to present her documentary film about the pianist and composer Franz Liszt. Here endeth the paid advertising!
Christianity is both a gift and a skill. It is a gift because none of us can become a Christian by ourselves. It is something God gives us, something God does for us, because it is not something we can do for ourselves.
But it is also a skill we must acquire. Jesus said to Peter and Andrew, "Follow me." Those are the words of a teacher. A teacher is one who invites us to follow her, to follow her into the adventure of learning.
I hope that you have had some great teachers. I treasure the experiences I have had with great teachers. But the best teachers are those who don't just impart information, but who show us by their lives a new way to live our lives. And that is what Jesus did for the disciples and does for us.
By his life, Jesus showed us how to live compassionately. "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."
Jesus showed us what it is like to have a relationship with God: "When you pray say, 'Our Father...'"
Jesus showed us the meaning of justice and righteousness: "Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.... blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth."
Above all Jesus showed us that death can be the portal to life abundant and everlasting.
So, we have a great teacher, but do we have the other things that are necessary to acquire the skill of being a Christian? Do we have the time and discipline that it will take? Well, that is a question that each one of us will have to answer for ourselves.
But I promise you that if you commit yourself to learn from Jesus, if you commit the time and discipline that it will take, then you will indeed learn how to be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus.
Another way to look at acquiring a skill (and especially acquiring the skill of being a Christian) is that it requires an investment, an investment of ourselves, our time and energy.
Today is the day of our annual meeting. Today you will hear about the budget for 2014. As you know, Christ Church has had deficit budgets for several years. Today we will present a budget that comes very close to being balanced. The vestry and staff have worked very hard to be responsible stewards of the money you give to this church.
But I'd like you to think about your contributions to Christ Church in light of today's gospel reading. Becoming a Christian requires us to invest ourselves in the process. Can we invest ourselves without also investing our money? I don't think so.
We live in a world that tells us that our self-worth, our very identity, is to a large extent determined by the amount of money that we make. We cannot say that we will commit our time and our energy to being a Christian without also making a serious investment of our financial resources.
At the beginning of this sermon, I quoted Jesus invitation to Peter and Andrew: "Follow me." But I deliberately omitted the famous words that follow that invitation: "And I will make you fishers of people." Jesus invited Peter and Andrew to follow him not only so that he could teach them, but so that they could become something: fishers of people.
We become Christians not just for our own benefit but for the benefit of others, indeed, for the benefit of the whole world.
Jesus invited us to follow him so that we could help him fish for people. We are meant to cast a great net out into the world so that we can bring others to Christ.
That is fairly un-Episcopalian language. When many of us hear language like that, it reminds of the churches in which we grew, churches that often told us that the only way to God was the Christian way, that only Christians could be "saved" or "go to heaven."
Frankly, I don't believe that. I believe that God has sons and daughters in all of the world's religions. I don't for a minute believe that heaven will include only Episcopalians. In fact, I'm pretty sure that there will be a lot of Baptists in heaven who will be quite surprised to find Episcopalians sitting next to them!
But I still believe that Jesus wants us to fish for people, that he wants us to cast a great net out into the world and bring people to him. I believe he wants us to do that because we live in a world full of people who are sick and need healing; we live in a world full of people who are broken and need mending; we live in a world full of people who are hungry and need to be nourished. And I firmly believe that Jesus can heal the sick and mend the broken and nourish the hungry.
So I invite you this morning to follow Jesus, to commit yourself to the great adventure of learning how to be a Christian; to commit your finances as well as your time and energy; and above all I invite you on behalf of Jesus to help us cast a great net out into the world and bring to Jesus all those fish, of every size and shape and color and language who are looking for the healing and mending and nourishing that Jesus promises those who follow him.