The problems of the world cannot be solved with the same tools that were used to create them.
I received this piece of wisdom at a conference I attended a few years ago, and it has stuck with me ever since. I found myself thinking about it again this past week when the bishops of the Church of England announced that, after six years of study, they would put forward a proposal for blessing same-sex civil unions but would not go so far as to allow same-sex marriage in the church.
I wish I could say that I was surprised, but I am not. Disappointed, yes, but not surprised. Long ago, I learned not to look to the Church of England for leadership. After all, the policies, the bureaucracy, the people it selects to lead, the very inertia of the institution, are all designed for preservation. They are meant to maintain the status quo. You cannot expect to find leadership, you cannot expect to find innovation, you cannot expect to find new possibility from the tools of the Church of England.
In the press release where the bishops announced that they would not support same-sex marriage, they also announced—with no sense of irony—the release of an official apology to the LGBTQ community for the ways that the church had excluded them in the past . The Archbishop of Canterbury was quick to go public with his joy at the “progress” the church had made, while in the same breath announcing that he would not personally bless same-sex unions, to instead maintain the unions of the Anglican Communion.
The problems of the world cannot be solved with the same tools that were instrumental in their creation.
It sounds so reasonable when we hear it, but we behave as if the exact opposite were true.
Our world is facing climate change and environmental catastrophe on a scale that threatens to destabilize civilization itself. In response, we’re encouraged to invest our money in “ESG” funds that lump together companies with good environmental practices, as if capitalism and the free-market were not the very things that allowed for the easy and consequence-free destruction of our natural world.
Cities around the world are dealing with the effects of the explosive growth of automobile use in the last seventy years. In more and more places, traffic congestion a major problem, not just for the speed with which people can move from place to place, but for local air quality, economic output, and overall quality of life. The solution, far to often, is to spend millions of dollars adding more lanes to the local highways, as though making more room for cars will solve the problem of too many cars.
But perhaps there is no better example than to the south of our border, where gun violence is higher than anywhere else in the world. To date, there have already been 32 mass shootings in the United States this year, and it is only the 22nd of January. Yet the possibility of greater gun control is politically unthinkable. Indeed, the gun lobby’s official position is that the best solution is for more people to have guns. After a particularly terrible shooting at an elementary school recently, they went so far as to suggest that the schoolteachers should start carrying guns themselves and have successfully lobbied for changes in state laws to make that possible.
The brokenness of the world cannot be made whole by the very things that are breaking it.
The problems of the world in which Simon, and Andrew, and James, and John lived were not caused by free-market capitalism, or by automobiles, or by guns. None of those tools had been invented yet. The problems they lived with were caused by a different tool, empire. In fact, empires had proven to be a pernicious problem from God’s people for thousands of years. First it was the Egyptian empire, then it was the Assyrians who captured and destroyed the northern kingdom. Eventually the southern kingdom would be captured by the Babylonians before the Persian Empire took center stage. Then there were the Greeks, who came before the current occupiers—the Romans.
So, they dreamed. They dreamed and they waited for a messiah who would restore them to that brief period when no empire had ruled over their lands, when no occupier and oppressed and crushed their spirits and their bodies and their prosperity. But their dreams were of revolution and retribution, their longings were filled with chariots and swords. Their imagination could only conceive of throwing off the shackles of empire using the tools of empire.
So, they remained, stuck. Stuck in their place in the world. Stuck in their dreams and their hopes. Stuck in their spirit. Stuck with tools that could not break them free. Until the day that Jesus called to them from the shore.
I don’t know why the four of them stepped out of their boats to follow Jesus that day. We can speculate that perhaps they had already heard word of Jesus before he appeared before them. We can try and synthesize this story with the one we heard last week from the Gospel of John and say that these four had in fact already met Jesus previously. We can even wonder if Jesus was just particularly magnetic. But if we take the Gospel of Matthew by itself, it offers us no clues. If we take it at face value, then this was the first time Simon, Andrew, James, and John had ever encountered Jesus. He was a stranger to them.
Yet, with nothing more than a cryptic promise to make them fishers of people, a promise to turn everything they knew upside down, they left everything and followed him.
All I can offer is that in their call from Jesus, they heard something different. In his words to follow him, they did not hear the old patterns, the old ways, the old tools that had done so much to break the world around them. At some level that they didn’t even yet understand, in Christ they heard a call into a new way of being.
It is a call into relationship the Creator God, who called creation itself into being. It is the God who speaks the very words that bring healing and wholeness. It is the God whose very breath is new possibility.
It was as though they had been sitting in darkness until the day that Jesus appeared to them on the shore, calling for them to follow. At last, they saw the light. What else could they do but follow it?
I think of those disciples as they looked up from their nets and saw Jesus for the very first time as I look out at the world today. I see people who are not only unchurched, but who have no knowledge of the faith, or of any faith, whatsoever. And yet they long, still they hunger, for the same thing that we all feel a longing and hungering—a wholeness that is missing from within.
We try to fill it with new cars and fancy homes. We try to fill it with “retail therapy,” with self-care days, and self-help. We try to fill it with jobs and family commitments. We try to fill it with the accumulation of wealth, with social status among our peers. We seek approval and popularity online and in social media. We patch it up with national pride and a sense of moral superiority over those who are less fortunate. Yet still, we cannot shake that longing, that feeling that there is an empty place within us hungers for something more.
I see so many people in our world who feel it. I see so many people who have tried so many different ways to fill what they feel is missing from their lives. Yet that sense of hollowness remains. That hunger for something more cannot be filled.
We cannot heal our wounds with the very things that pierce our souls.
And Christ is calling to them. Of this I am certain beyond all doubt, Christ is calling them. Christ is calling them, even if, like those first disciples, he is still a stranger to them. And I know this because Jesus has also called each of us, perhaps it is even why you are here today.
Jesus has called each of us, and for reasons we may not even fully understand yet, in his call we have heard something that was new. In his call we have sensed an invitation into relationship with the very ground of creation, with the one who offers healing and wholeness to the wounded and hollow places in our lives.
And Jesus calls us here, as a community, to be a light that shines in the darkness. We cannot look to a diocesan program or a synod resolution to do it for us. We cannot hope for a national initiative or a church study to guide us. And we cannot wait for the bishops of the Church of England, or of any church, to lead us. For that is not what they do.
It is Christ who leads us, and we are called to follow Christ. What is more, God has already given us all that we need to do this work, for we have been given Christ and we have been given one another.
We are called to be agents of healing and wholeness that the world so desperately longs for. We are called to create the space for new possibility and transformation for ourselves, for the people who find their way through our doors, and for the community and the world around us. We are called to help all who hear Jesus’ call seek him in the world, and to pursue reconciliation and restoration of right relationship within ourselves and with others and with creation and with God. And we are called to do all this until, at last, the whole world is bathed in the light of God’s new creation.
Preached by the Rev. Adam Yates
“Church of England bishops propose offering blessings to same-sex couples, but not marriage,” Episcopal News Service, 2023.01.18. https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2023/01/18/church-of-england-bishops-propose-offering-blessings-to-same-sex-couples-but-not-marriage/
 “Draft prayers of thanksgiving, dedication and for God’s blessing for same-sex couples published,” Church of England, 2023.01.20. https://www.churchofengland.org/media-and-news/press-releases/draft-prayers-thanksgiving-dedication-and-gods-blessing-same-sex
 “Justin Welby ‘joyful’ at C of E switch but will not bless same-sex civil marriages,” The Guardian, 2023.01.20. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jan/20/justin-welby-archbishop-of-canterbury-church-of-england-same-sex-civil-marriages
 “Trained, Armed, and Ready. To Teach Kindergarten,” The New York Times, 2022.07.31. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/31/us/teachers-guns-schools.html