Ducks in a Row

Matt. 4:12-23

A couple of years ago I was driving up Broad Street on the way to Stamford Hospital. As I crossed Washington Blvd., just before the bridge, all of the traffic stopped. No one honked or screamed. Everyone just sat and waited. A mother duck was crossing Broad Street and was followed by her four ducklings (Huey, Dewey, Louey and Chewy?). They waddled happily behind her and stumbled up the curb and then down to the river. It was right out of the children’s book, Make Way for Ducklings. What fascinated me was the tacit agreement of all the drivers to stop and wait for this entourage to pass. They were honoring what? Motherhood? Nature? Life? The reminder that we are all fragile? Or was it just an instinctive response to leave things alone, to allow the cherished moment to break into our frantic over-programmed lives?

I was reminded of the ducks in a row behind their mother when I read today’s passage in Matthew about the call of the disciples. Why do we follow someone’s lead? The ducks do it for food and nourishment and perhaps safety. There is a natural inclination to follow someone for those same reasons even among humans. On the playground we follow the naturally athletic person, or the person who exercises personal leadership skills. We follow some persons for political or monetary gain. Sometimes we follow persons because of their accomplishments, or because of the attraction of their intellect or social status. Often we follow someone in an attempt to organize our values and goals (”trying to get our ducks in a row”).

When we look at Matthew’s account of the calling of the disciples, none of the above explanations seem to fit. Jesus calls the fishermen. They are not scholars in synagogues, military leaders, men of political connections, nor persons of social or financial status. When they are called, they respond. They follow Jesus because God’s hand is at work. The tip off is the quoting of a passage from Isaiah and the comment that “what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilledÉ” God is understood as working out His will. In theology, this is called “salvation history,” or in German “heilsgeschicte.” “Heil” means “salvation,” and “geschichte” means “history.” The concept of “salvation history” is critical to understanding Matthew and other books of the Bible as well. The theory is that history is not cyclical, nor is it the “natural evolution of things.” God is steadfast, working out His saving will in history. The argument cuts both ways. The apostles are called because God leads them to respond to Jesus and/or the disciples are called because Jesus is God.

What we have then in the calling of the disciples (apostles) is not a conversion experience like St. Paul had, not the result of the power of the Holy Spirit, not the result of predestination or determinism, and not the result of nature or family ties. The disciples respond to the call of Jesus because God is acting in the world, using who is there. God is working His will through the men (and women) who are there, whom Jesus meets on His journeying. This is what “salvation history” is. This is what “heilsgeschicte” is.

Now you and I stand in the line of the disciples (”students”), who became apostles (”ones sent out”). Indeed, Fr. Wheeler’s and my ordinations are seen by the Episcopal Church not as the result of an election by an intentional, voluntary, spirit-guided organization (such as the Baptists) but as a sacramental act in apostolic successions. Fr. Wheeler and I are called, and you are also called, by the authority of God, acting in the sacraments (in our mutual case the sacrament of baptism) and in the additional case the sacrament of ordination. We are called in space, time and in history.

What I have come to realize after eighteen years of serving as a priest in this parish is that those eighteen years (and more) have been part of “salvation history.” God’s hand has been active in this parish. We have been living “heilsgeschicte,” “salvation history.” (I will talk more about this in Lent.) Those of you who know me understand that I don’t think you can “fine tune” the hand print of God, or the Holy Spirit, or how the members of the body of Christ act and interact. I cannot say, “THE HOLY SPIRIT IS UPON US!” Nor can I say that the building of Canterbury Green was the act of God. But I can say that the Holy Spirit does move in the lives of the faithful and that God works for and wants the salvation of the souls of those involved in such a project as the Canterbury Green development. Surely, you and I, the parishioners of St. John’s, have been living in faith, in compassion, in hope, in longing and in charity. Like the disciples we have been striving pilgrims on a journey of and towards faith. I have seen lives changed. I have seen forgiveness and compassion. I have seen charity and love, healing and renewal in countless lives. It is easy to pass these things off as “serendipity” or “good fortune.” To do so is to not see through “Matthean” “eyes of faith.” It is to have a god that is “too small.”

To give but one of many examples. Look at our search committee that screened the candidates for a new rector. The committee was composed of not the rich and famous, but some comfortably and some uncomfortably middle class. Was it eloquent? Well we had someone who wrote good prayers and someone whom you can’t pry three words out of on a good day. Was there someone who was warm and fuzzy, wise and grandmotherly? I still have teeth marks on my ankles from one or two members. Was there someone laid back and mellow? I get hives talking to a couple of them.

Obviously I am teasing them in love, but the thing is they accepted a call. They responded to God’s call to follow Christ just as the disciples did, and to help us find a new and appropriate rector Ð one who cares, is diligent, committed, intelligent, has integrity and is faithful. We chose the right finalist, and I can say that with absolute certainty (plus some inside information.) The process of transition and new beginnings is part of “salvation history,” God’s being active among men and women who have answered His call.

Today we will have our annual meeting, as we have had for over two hundred and sixty five plus years. As a parish we have, since 1742, been dedicated to proclaiming the Gospel, celebrating the sacraments, pursuing acts of charity and compassion and the saving of souls. We will, as we always do, grapple with issues, argue, question, agree, disagree and pray. We will do more than simply follow a nurturing leader, like the ducklings on Broad Street. We will be listening for and praying for the hand of God, shaping, holding, sustaining and guiding us as we go about our common life, trying to “get our ducks in order,” (I couldn’t resist).

Today you and I stand in the long tradition of this parish. But more importantly we stand in the tradition of God’s “salvation history.” You and I stand in the tradition of the apostles. “Let us go forth in the name of Christ.” - Amen.