Text: Matthew 4:12-23 (Jesus begins his ministry)
Call and response is a practice in which a leader interacts with a crowd using familiar phrases.
Most Sundays when I come to the pulpit I say, “May the peace of Christ be with you,” and you respond “and also with you.” That’s call and response.
When I first went to a gathering led by the Rev. Tazvi Nyarota, the minister of the Zimbabwean congregation that worships here on Sunday afternoons — this was at the Intercultural Christmas Choirs Concert at McDougall United in December 2015 — Tazvi began by exclaiming “God is Good!” to which the congregation replied “All the time!” Tazi then echoed “All the time!” back to us, and we responded with “God is Good!” That’s call and response.
Call and response is often found in African-American worship and pop music. It helps a gathering to take ownership of what is being said or sung.
This morning we heard a story from Matthew about a different type of call and response. In it, Jesus calls his first disciples — Peter, Andrew, James and John — at the Sea of Galilee.
As soon as Jesus calls these four by name, they drop their nets, leave their families, and head out to surrounding towns to teach, preach and heal.
This is the start of Jesus’ ministry. He takes leadership, issues a call, and recruits some followers to serve the people.
Not all calls are as clear cut as this. Nor are all responses as dramatic as dropping everything to leave home, family and career. But if we think back on our lives, we may remember stories that contain at least an echo of today’s Gospel reading.
I have one from the spring of 2002. At the time, I was struggling with a failing marriage. So I met with the Rev. Rivkah Unland, the minister of the church in east-end Toronto that I had joined six months earlier. After hearing what I had to say, she suggested some things I might consider.
The one that struck the strongest chord in me was to go on a wilderness canoe trip. The idea scared me. But I knew immediately that it would be good for me and that I would do it.
So that July, I went on a week-long camping trip in Ontario’s Algonquin Park with 18 other people. It was organized by the United Church’s Five Oaks Centre.
I was nervous about my bad back because canoeing and portaging can be so demanding. I also worried about digestion, bugs, storms, and being with 18 strangers for seven days and nights.
But in the event — despite rain, exhaustion, mosquitoes, and snoring companions — I loved the week. In the face of fear, this trip helped to solidify my understanding of faith. Faith is not about believing incredible things. It is about trust — trust in our bodies despite their fragility; trust in the earth despite its indifference to us; trust in community despite the brokenness and pain we all bring to relationships; and trust in the God who is the Ground of Being, Life, and Love.
When Rivkah suggested the canoe trip, I heard it as a call to confront fear. By going on the trip, I re-learned that we can feel the fear and do it anyway. If we are lucky, our fears prove to be illusory, and sometimes, our fears come true.
I liked the first trip in 2002 so much that I went back to Algonquin over the next five summers. And on the third summer, one of my fears came true. About halfway through the week, my back gave out. I was still able to paddle, but I could no longer carry a canoe on the portages. I had to rely on others to take up the slack, which made me feel bad.
Happily, this reminded me that some of the things we fear are not as bad as we imagine, and that life in community involves a constant swing between giving and receiving.
Another feature of those canoe trips was sharing. Every few days, we gathered in a circle for an hour or so. We passed a talking stone and shared what was on our heart and mind. Even more than the beauty of the lakes and forests, I loved these times of sharing. Although each of us was different, we learned how much we had in common. All us of were broken and blessed pilgrims. Hearing from one another allowed spirit and love to flow freely between us.
This past Thursday evening at the church, 14 of us participated in a sharing circle. Given that it was promoted as a chance to share our reactions to shifts in the culture and how they might affect the work of the church, I was not surprised that both hope and fear emerged as themes.
Fear is on an upswing. Many of us are afraid of growing diversity and so want to retreat behind protective walls. Others of us are afraid of the damage that might come from building such walls.
Amid these fears, I pray that we might listen for the call of God’s Spirit and respond in ways that confront and dissolve some of our fears.
Yesterday, thousands of people in Edmonton and millions around the world took to the streets in response of a call to rally for women’s rights. In a time of increased fear, a call went out, millions responded, and they widely shared a message of courage, defiance and love. That’s call and response.
I will end this reflection with a short video that offers another call and response story. It is an animation of a speech given by someone I consider to be a brilliant preacher. Although he has just moved off the centre of the world’s stage, I trust that his voice will be continued to be heard for years to come.
I came across the video on Facebook. A colleague of mine, the Rev. Alexa Gilmour of Toronto, posted it on Friday to inspire courage. I loved it; and I’d be happy to know after the service how it strikes you.
May it be so.