Student Exchange Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
Yuma was an exchange student from Japan.
He became part of our congregation.
He first arrived tentatively just to see what
his host family did every Sunday morning.
We had many questions for him –
almost too many questions.
But he came back.
He allowed us to mispronounce his name,
to bow improperly,
and to continue asking him about his home.
He returned because we accepted his answers,
included him in our jokes,
we had pizza at special events.
like many urban Japanese,
did not practice any religion.
His family observed ancient cultural traditions
but they did not have a sense
of God or spirituality.
Yuma was curious why the youth would worship,
why they were attracted to church as
something more than just another place to
hang out and eat pizza.
He could understand why I,
then a young single man,
would dedicate himself to academic study,
to earn a doctorate.
But why study religion?
Why study the practices of ministry?
Why willingly give up so much time to be
in a church instead of being out at the clubs,
He had many questions for us –
almost too many questions.
We learned that Yuma was an artist.
It started accidentally,
by asking him to write our names in Japanese;
his calligraphy was beautiful.
During Advent we asked him to write other words:
joy, peace, hope, love.
He made masks and painted canvases.
Almost every Sunday the Sr. Pastor and I were presented with
a cartoon caricature of something we had done in the service.
I wondered about Yuma’s parents.
I asked how often he spoke with them;
he responded that they might talk by telephone once a week. (This was before cell phones)
I asked if they e-mailed;
he said “Not really.”
I asked if how much time he spent with them at home;
he said it was not unusual for him to go
an entire week without seeing his father.
I guess in some ways that made it easier for Yuma to be
an exchange student,
to live in a far-away country.
I also like to think that our interest in him,
our questions about who he was,
our willingness to exchange jokes and cartoons
helped him become part of our congregation.
I wonder often how the disciples came to be a community,
how they became a traveling congregation,
how in those initial days they learned to live together.
From this morning’s story,
we’re told that
at least two pair of them were brothers.
It also looks like their families knew one another,
and that the boys hung out together:
not only did they live close to one another,
they were in the same business, fishing.
Maybe that was an important part of the transitioning
this group of individuals into a community of disciples:
some of them knew one another ahead of time.
I have some other questions for this story.
does Jesus know the names of the disciples?
The Gospel writer tells us their names:
Simon who is called Peter and his brother Andrew,
James and John the sons of Zebedee.
But Jesus never uses their names;
all Jesus says is
“Come follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
If Jesus did know their names,
how did he learn them?
I don’t think it is a supernatural ability of Jesus.
In fact, learning people’s names is a skill of leadership:
one learns to pay attention
as people use one another’s names.
And you learn to ask when you are uncertain of someone’s name:
that woman standing by the well,
that man in the branches of that tree,
those men repairing their nets:
what are their names?”
I mention this because
I am not too proud to say that
learning names is very difficult for me.
I am still learning some of your names,
and I appreciate your help.
Anyway, it may have been an ordinary leadership skill that
Jesus is using
to learn the names of these four fishermen.
But what seems miraculous to me is that
even though Jesus does not use their names,
they get up and follow Jesus.
In fact, Matthew uses one of his
favorite action words to describe the response of
these soon-to-be disciples:
immediately they left their nets.
This sounds very impulsive.
There they are in the middle of their work,
and they drop everything and follow Jesus.
It almost sounds irresponsible.
One way to explain this behavior is that these four –
Simon who will be called Peter,
his brother Andrew,
James and John the sons of Zebedee –
are probably teenagers.
They are old enough for Jesus to acknowledge them as
full members of the Jewish community,
which means they are over the age of 13.
There is no mention of their being married;
since most men at the time of Jesus were
married before the age of 18,
we can deduce that they are between the ages of 13 and 18:
a period of life not especially noted for fore-thought,
a period that can be characterized by impulsive behavior,
of willingness to take risks,
a period that is often marked by significant religious meaning.
Maybe those things have something to do with one another.
In this case, the risks seem worthwhile:
the chance to follow a dynamic teacher,
a slightly rebellious religious leader
who has singled out these teens,
who is asking them to travel,
to leave their homes
and to go to far off places.
(almost all 13-18 year-olds like to get away from their parents).
So while their actions seem impulsive,
it is not completely irrational or unexplainable.
And I am reminded that
Yuma was in this age bracket when I met him.
I wonder what these young men prayed
as they accepted Jesus’ invitation.
Did they know they were following the Messiah?
Did they expect to see miracles, healings,
that they were about to become part of a story
that would be told not only for the next several generations but for two thousand years?
Did they expect the
crucifixion and the resurrection when they started?
Trying to understand the mood of
these teenaged-disciples as they depart to follow Jesus,
I found a prayer written
by a teenager about to go on a journey:
Raise my hand, wave goodbye.
Hop on the plane, I’m ready to fly.
Though the journey is long,
let go without a hitch.
On another continent, another house, another language and thought.
I go, until the winds carry me home.
Just as I had wondered about Yuma’s parents,
I also wonder about Zebedee,
the father of James and John.
I remember the many hours I spent around
the docks of my father’s fishing boats.
While I never had to mend nets,
I did have responsibilities:
to answer telephones,
to take reservations for fishing charters,
to be at the dock when the boats returned to the docks and to catch their lines,
to help the passengers as they debarked from our boats.
to sort out equipment,
and to clean some of the equipment,
I know that if some guy had come by and said
“Come follow me and I will make you fish for people”
and I left to follow him,
my father would have been very angry.
How did Zebeddee feel as he watched his
sons leave their nets and follow Jesus?
Was he angry that they left their chores undone?
Was he upset that he was not invited to go along?
Did he think Jesus was some
kooky pied-piper leading the children away?
Well, the gospel records no words of protest,
no father chasing after the boys
to get them to stay at home in the family business.
Maybe he was glad to see them go –
I do not mean to suggest that Zebeddee
wanted to get rid of his children
but rather that he may have seen this as part of their education,
part of the transition from
being a teenager with no responsibilities to
being young adults with new responsibilities.
Perhaps Zebedee saw in Jesus
the chance for his sons to learn from a great teacher,
saw the possibility for them to travel to cities
and get a bigger picture of the world,
to learn to appreciate other cultures and,
in so doing, to learn to appreciate their own.
Perhaps Zebeddee saw his sons following Jesus as
an early form of foreign exchange student.
they would be asked many questions and
in answering them have to claim their own identity.
they would have many questions and
in pursuing the answers, would have to make sense for themselves.
In the same book where
I found the prayer of the teenager about to go on a journey,
I found “A prayer of a parent whose child is going abroad”
Maybe Zebedee prayed something similar as
James and John decided to follow Jesus:
God, may my child arrive safely at her destination.
May the values and skills she has learned serve her well and
help her represent our family and
our nation in the country she is visiting.
May her mind and heart be open to
the new ideas and customs that
she will observe and discover.
May she make new friends
and gain a broader understanding of the family of nations.
May she miss us and our home and her friends enough
to remind her that she is well-loved …
but not so much that she will be lonely.
And, when she has shared her talents and
ideas with her new friends, and they with her,
may she return safely to us
a better person for her experiences. Amen
There is a question I frequently ask of scriptural stories,
especially the gospels:
“Who are we supposed to be like?”
When I use that question with youth groups I tell them
“Jesus” is an unacceptable answer:
it is too easy to always say
we’re supposed to be like Jesus –
and at many times we are not able to be like Jesus.
So who is Lyonsville to be like in this story?
I think you may associate with Zebeddee,
having watched generations go off to
follow and be faithful in other parts of the world.
Your own wanderlust has been satisfied and
your wandering-times are mostly behind you.
But in the comparison to exchange students, perhaps
you are more like the host families than the students.
Perhaps you are shelter and security for
travelers from other places seeking to
make sense of this culture,
and in making sense of the big picture those
whom you shelter are coming to understand themselves.
So maybe this is a time to say
“In this story we are to be more like Jesus:
perhaps Lyonsville is to be saying to others
‘Come … I’ll show you how …’”
I don’t know:
it is not my role to tell
what your part is.
What I do know is that the disciples
did not go off to follow Jesus alone,
but with a community of learners.
Exchange students do not go off to
new countries all by themselves but rather
with networks of support to help them learn.
And host families do not receive exchange students
until there is support from other host families.
Whatever your role in helping others learn of
God’s love, you do not do it alone.
To me, the experience of community is
always a resource for discerning how
God is leading me into something new.
I hope it is a resource for you as
Lyonsville enters into a new period of discernment together.