Sermons That Work

Some Years Ago…, Epiphany 3 (A) – 2002

January 27, 2002


Some years ago, on an Indian reservation, there lived a man named White Plume, who was a deacon in the Episcopal Church. He was called to this “special ministry of servanthood” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 543) sometime during the early 1900’s and he remained a perpetual deacon. His ministry was spent serving his people on the reservation and this required much traveling over great distances. In those days very few if any people in rural areas had automobiles. The majority on the reservation relied on horseback and wagon for their transportation. And this meant that travel for them was difficult and time-consuming.

By the early 1900’s people on the reservation were trying to make a living as farmers, a demanding venture, requiring much time. The government had some years earlier instituted a policy of assimilation for Indian people. One part of this policy required that the church convert the people to Christianity. As a result many were baptized and became Christians. The old ceremonies had gone underground. It has been said that a good number of these individuals never experienced full conversion and would say they were Christians only to keep out of trouble. But there were those who were filled with the Holy Spirit and had undergone full conversion. White Plume was one such individual.

Some time after his ordination, White Plume was called to live and preach on another part of the reservation. Hitching his team to the wagon, packing the most personal and bare essentials and loading up his family, he embarked on his journey. He left behind his home and all that was familiar. It was said that he even left behind his livestock and as he was rolling down the road in the wagon his remaining animals were following him. They eventually gave up the chase. His house stood empty and alone, and it was soon veiled by the tall prairie grass.

By this time many of the government’s Indian officials were either misguided or had no understanding of what was termed “wardship” over Native American Indians. For the most part Native American Indians could not move around freely and had little control over their own destiny. They needed special permission to move from the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, a person who held tremendous power over them. The government’s policies were designed to make the Native American Indians like the rest of Americans. For some tribes this transition was dramatic. In less than 50 years they went from being nomadic hunter warrior societies to living in log houses on tracts of land and trying to make a living as settled, docile farmers. They had to listen to the missionary teaching about Christianity. Sometimes, and perhaps many times, people did have conversion experiences.

White Plume’s life prior to being called by God into the ministry was a perfect example of how the policy of assimilation could be successful. He was settled, educated, and a Christian. What is remarkable in this account is that given the time and place described, the historical socio-political context, White Plume left everything and answered God’s call. He left behind his house, his personal belongings, his animals, and the land he tilled. He was walking away from the oppressive weight of the Federal Government’s policies of assimilation. White Plume answered the call to follow Christ and took a brave, symbolic step away from his former life. And like many disciples before him, he was walking freely into the future with Christ as his guiding light.

This story is much like the one in today’s Gospel where we hear that Jesus, after spending 40 days in the wilderness and hearing about John the Baptist’s arrest, walked to Galilee to live by the sea. This move fulfilled the prophecy foretold by the prophet Isaiah. In these few verses one gets the impression that Jesus was afraid and had gone into hiding. But as the reading clearly shows later he, in fact, did the opposite: he increased the size and scope of his ministry. He picked up four disciples and went on performing miracles, healing people and proclaiming the word, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Remember the voice of John the Baptist in the wilderness, proclaiming these same words: “Repent!”

As Jesus was walking along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, he “saw” two fishermen, Simon and Andrew, who were brothers. He said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” They immediately dropped all that they were doing and left with him. As they went walking along they “saw” two more brothers, James and John, and Jesus again “called them.” And they, too, responded quickly and abruptly.

These four fishermen heard the call from Christ himself and were not hesitant to follow. They were filled with this shining light and so with no doubt in their minds they left behind the familiar. Simon and Peter left their boats to follow Christ. James and John literally left their father Zebedee sitting in the boat to finish the day’s work. I can only imagine what Zebedee said — “Hey, you boys get back here. Boys?!” This was a patriarchal society and the action of the boys was both negligent and disrespectful to their father. Evidently the calling was so strong that they did not stop to ponder this fact.

When Jesus saw the fishermen at work, mending and casting their nets, he evidently saw more than just your average fishermen. Perhaps Jesus had extra-sensory perception that allowed him to see their untapped potentialities and vibrant personalities. Maybe he could see through them, even read their minds. But whatever may have occurred, the fact is that Jesus saw them and they did not see Jesus. Then they heard and followed. The formation of discipleship was started by Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The four men were nor longer fishermen, but were “fishers of men,” and disciples of Jesus Christ.

The word “immediately” implies that the fishermen were spontaneous in their decision and action. They heard the call from Christ himself and were not hesitant to follow. Their decision was an extreme and personal one. They let go of personal property, a livelihood, family, and the social structure from which their identities grew. Their action is an unconstrained engagement of self to Jesus. It was an expression of pure faith. By letting go of their past, they were free to follow Jesus into a future of greatness.

One’s own calling is at times a slow and deliberate response, taking months, perhaps years before one can say, “Yes, I will follow now.” If we hear the call to work with the poor, prisoners, and others who are in need of any kind then we can be immediate in our response-just as White Plume and other disciples have done, with faith, before us.

We leave the darkness of the past behind us as we walk with Christ, who is the light that brightens our path, the morning star. When we follow someone, it means that we do not look back at our own past; we look to the future. And when we follow Jesus, we know that he does not care where we have been. He just cares about the direction in which we are headed. Our past is forgiven. And as Christians we are, as Paul had written in 1 Corinthians, “United in the same purpose.”

The Cross of Christ is full of power. Amen

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Christopher Sikkema

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