Out of the Boat
Text: Matthew 4:18-22
Grace and peace be unto you from God who is our Creator and from Jesus Christ who is our Savior and our Friend. Amen.
Although I am a cradle Lutheran, I attended Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, which is Presbyterian.
One of the delights of going to a big and wealthy seminary, which Princeton is, was that I and my fellow students were so diverse. Some of my classmates were like me, right out of college, but others were in their second or third career. They were ex-peace corp, worked for the phone company, they’d been contractors, even retired military.
My classmates were white, Asian—mostly Korean—and black, in that order, with a sprinkling of Hispanic.
And although the majority of students were Presbyterian, the student body was made up of many denominations. One of the students with whom I became very close friends was a man named David, who was Mennonite. David was from a farming community in Ohio and he was one of seven brothers in his family.
Sensing a call to ministry from early in his life, David was a bright light and dearly beloved in his congregation. They sent him off to seminary with tremendous pride and joy and awaited his return to them as a leader when he had finished his studies.
And also, David was gay.
At first I didn’t know that David was gay. He kept that to himself. Over the years he had dated women and prayed to God to change him and tried to change himself, but it hadn’t worked. At seminary he went into a depression which I didn’t understand until one evening he came to see me, and he came out.
He wept as he shared with me that he gone home and told his family and his congregation who he truly was, and his congregation had expelled him, thrown him out. His family’s reaction was mixed, but his mother was beside herself. David was so sad that he was feeling suicidal, and he told me that watching a squirrel play in the tree outside his window every morning was what gave him hope to go on.
In being true to himself, David left almost everything he had previously assumed about where his life was going, behind.
He went on to become a social worker because he certainly could not become a Mennonite pastor, and he married a nice young man who was a doctor, and then they got divorced, and then he got sick and then he got better, and the rest of it is his story.
But for me, the experience I had with David in seminary that just shared with you was transformative for me. Whereas before I simply had not had a strong opinion, for or against homosexuality, now I did.
If the discrimination of the church could bring my dear friend David to the point of suicide, if being who God had made him to be meant he lost his church, his family, and his calling, then the discrimination was the sin, and not his sexuality. That to me was clear, and from then on I sought to be an ally whenever and wherever I could.
When God’s call or God’s vision arrives, sometimes you have to leave your nets – the nets of your own plans, the nets of your assumed beliefs, behind. You have to get out of the boat, and walk away, and follow Jesus.
In our gospel lesson for this morning from Matthew 4, John the Baptist had been arrested by Herod and Jesus basically was taking his place in the region of Galilee. John’s disciples were transferring to Jesus and Jesus took up the mantle of the prophet who would disrupt the evil and oppression of the Roman Empire.
When Jesus saw Simon Peter and Andrew fishing in the Sea of Galilee, he said, “Follow me” and scripture says that “immediately” they left their nets and followed him. Similarly, when Jesus saw James and John and called them to follow him, Matthew reports that they left their boat and their father and followed him.
The reader is to understand that these men were doing more than starting a new job or embarking upon an adventure. They were leaving behind the life that had supplied their identity and place in the world since the day they were born. And they were leaving behind the anonymity that kept them safe.
But when God calls, if the boat of your livelihood and identity is a prison, you have to climb out. And by the way, we know that Jesus also called women to follow him, but we don’t read about it here in Matthew chapter 4, and so we have to disrupt the sacred texts themselves at this point, and read the women back in. They too left family, social location, and safety to follow Jesus.
In 2003 Gene Robinson was elected the first gay bishop
in the Episcopal Church, and uproar ensued. Multiple Episcopal individuals, parishes, and even whole dioceses split with the Episcopal Church over Bishop Robinson’s consecration.
During those years the fight for gay ordination was being waged in other denominations, including Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Methodist, and after seeing what happened in the Episcopal church, there was reason to fear a denominational split. But when God calls you to the path of justice, away from the empire and to the Kingdom of heaven, you have to leave the boat behind.
Thanks be to God that in 2009 the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to allow LGBTQ+ folk to be married or in committed relationships, and serve as pastors. Because of very careful preparation and sensitivity during the process, although some congregations left, there was no split.
It took a little longer for the Presbyterian Church USA to catch up. But thanks be to God that in 2018 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to affirm its commitment to the “full welcome, acceptance, and inclusion of transgender people, people who identify as gender non-binary, and people of all gender identities within the full life of the church and the world.”
The statement went on to lament "the ways that the policies and actions of the PC(USA) have caused gifted, faithful, LGBTQIA+ Christians to leave the Presbyterian church so that they could find a more welcoming place to serve, as they have been gifted and called by the Spirit.”
In other words, PCUSA recognized how many people had left the boat of the church in order to follow God’s call to new and authentic life. And the denomination repented of its sinful blindness and discrimination and said, “Let’s build a new boat.”
It looks the Methodist Church is next. If adopted the United Methodist Church General Conference in May, the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation” will open the way.
I see new boats dotting the horizon.
When Jesus walks by and makes a claim on your life you have to leave something behind. Maybe everything. But here’s the thing. If whatever it is is holding you back, or keeping you in prison, or preventing you from being the child of God that God made you to be, then you’ve got to let it go. Step out of the boat. Leave it behind.
Or, as in David’s case, maybe they’ll kick you off the boat, and you’ll have to swim to warmer waters.
Coming out to his family and his church was risky for David, and he did lose something. A lot, actually. But would he say later that he regretted it, that he wished he had stayed in the closet and lived a life of pretend and regret? No, I don’t think so.
The call of the Kingdom of Heaven, the call of to follow Jesus, is about healing and wholeness, not withering away on the inside, living your life, not in shadows, but in light.
Jesus came to disrupt the power of the empire and the establishment, and in exchange for violence, sickness, damage and death, he bring peace, healthy, wholeness, and life. When the savior walks past our lake and says our name, then we leave behind anything that would diminish our humanity or our ability to participate in the ministry of the Kingdom of Heaven. We step out of the boats that have become prisons, and leave the nets behind, and follow Jesus. Amen.