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What Are You Waiting For?

25 Jan

10914810_943495065669859_3116296514221921099_o(a sermon for January 25, 2015, the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20)

“And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

As Mark’s gospel tells the story, that’s about all there was to it. Two fishermen called by Jesus to follow, and they do; that’s all, with no more details and very little that would offer up any dramatic coloring. In terms of storytelling, that’s pretty striking: I mean, if you and I were writing the story we’d probably want to at least set the stage first; maybe give some background on these would-be disciples; say a little bit as to how and why something like this happens; or, if we were feeling particularly creative, perhaps even speculate as to the inner psychological dynamics that motivated them at this one particular moment to leave everything to follow Jesus!

In short, we’d fill in the blanks; but not Mark. As is typical of his version of the gospel, Mark’s story is lean and sparse, and it tells us virtually nothing about Simon and Andrew; all we know is that on the basis of a brief, ten-word call, they left it all to follow Jesus. And we are left to marvel at both the immediacy and the sheer audacity of it: that these men would quite literally abandon everything else in their lives – their work, their homes, their families, any semblance of financial security or even normalcy in their lives – all to run off after some itinerant preacher who has just come by announcing that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is now!

Even given that we know this story, it’s still a hard thing for us to comprehend! And that’s because for all the times as children we sang “I Will Make You Fishers of Men,” in all honesty most of us could not in our wildest imaginations envision leaving everything behind on the basis of a simple invitation and promise. Life is much more complex than that! After all, we’re people with lives and responsibilities; you can’t just go change the entire direction of your life on an impulse! You’ve got to weigh all the possible options; you need to do research; you have to clarify your values and put together a feasibility study. You don’t just get up and leave… immediately!

And yet… as Mark tells it, when it comes to these disciples of Jesus, that’s exactly what happens!

And therein lay the truth of faith that’s at the center of this story: that at the beginning of faith, there’s a call; and it’s a call that aches for a response. Bottom line, you and I can talk about faith and we can profess to living faithfully, but that only takes us so far. Because before you know, here’s Jesus, standing there on the shoreline of our lives, and calling out to us as simply and as clearly he did to those fisherfolk of old: “Follow me.” The call is clear, unalloyed and inevitable; the question is – it always is – how we’ll respond to it.

And the fact is that responding can be quite, shall we say, disruptive.

One of the first things I discovered when I entered seminary years ago was that the whole idea of being “called” to ministry was not as clear-cut for many of my classmates as it had been for me. As I’ve shared with you before, I’d known pretty much from the time I was 15 years old that this is what I wanted – this is what I needed – to do with my life. But for a lot of others, the mere fact that were at Bangor Seminary and were even contemplating a call to ministry represented a major disruption of everything they knew to be true about themselves and their lives.

There was, for instance, the mathematician who gave up a tenured position at an Ivy League college so he could immerse himself in the study of theology; there was the former CIA operative (or was he… we never quite knew for sure!) who always seemed like he was struggling with his place in the world; the retired newspaper print man whose children were perplexed as to why he was spending their inheritance on seminary tuition; the young woman who’d spent some time homeless and living on the streets of Boston. And then there was the man who several years before had been working as a manager at a drug store on the west coast and one night was shot at point blank range during a botched attempt at stealing drugs from the pharmacy.

Incredible stories, representing a vast array of life experience; certainly far removed from my own. Yet there was this one thing that had brought us all together, and it was this nagging feeling inside of each one of us that God was calling us to something more; the notion that we should leave everything else in our lives behind to follow Jesus. It was a sense of call that was at once clear and confusing, exhilarating and devastating all at the same time; and truth be told, a whole lot of my classmates that year simply hadn’t a clue why they they were there, much less have any sense as to what they were supposed to do next!

Now, I’d like to tell you that all of us ended up engaged in some sort of formal ministry or “Christian vocation,” but in fact some of those who’d arrived in Bangor that fall disappeared soon thereafter; and there were more than a few who struggled our whole three years together trying to figure out the reasons they were there at all. But at the end of the day (or the end of the degree, in this case) most of us just kept following the call. It was best summed up by one classmate of mine who used to say that he didn’t decide to go into the ministry; it was just that God had called him there, and at some point he simply “stopped saying no to God.”

I think that at the core of it, that’s what’s amazing and challenging about our Gospel reading for this morning: not simply that these disciples left everything to follow Jesus, but that they’d even said yes to begin with! Because we know, do we not, that there are a multitude of reasons we can find not to say yes; every reason in the world to hold back, to wait to see what happens before we act. Ann Weems writes about this in her wonderful book Reaching For Rainbows: “Christ said, ‘Follow me,’” she says. “And, of course, I’d rather not. I rather pretend that doesn’t include me. I’d rather sit by the fire and make my excuses. I’d rather look the other way.” But, she goes on to say, “I said YES and that means risk… it means here I am, ready or not.”

The flip side of all this, of course, is illustrated in our reading this morning from the Old Testament book of Jonah; specifically the story of God’s call to Jonah, who it is safe to day was perhaps God’s most reluctant prophet. Jonah had been sent by God to bring a message of repentance to the great and much despised city of Ninevah; and as we pick up on the story today, we find out that as Jonah proclaims God’s call to change, wonder of wonders, the people of Ninevah actually hear this word and repent! Which is great; except if you remember your Sunday School, this wasn’t the first time that God had called Jonah to go to Ninevah! The first time God calls Jonah, Jonah responds by saying in effect that he’d rather die than go to Nineva; and in fact, immediately books passage on a boat sailing in the opposite direction!
Eventually, after several misadventures, including one involving a huge fish with a stomach ache, Jonah relents and says yes to God; albeit with a continued amount of anger and grumbling. But the question remains: why did Jonah keep saying no? Biblical scholars suggest that politics, prejudice and fear had a whole lot to do with it: the Ninevites were his people’s most hated enemies, after all, and Jonah wasn’t about to be the one breaking down those boundaries. Moreover, what if he did go to Ninevah, and what if the Ninevites did repent of their sin, and what if God were actually to forgive them… then where would Jonah be?

It’s one thing, after all, to go out there and do something good for God; it’s quite another to have give up old and cherished ways of thinking and being in the process; to let God change us for the sake of a new vision and a divine purpose! Truth be told, Jonah was never one for that kind of change, which was a shame, because when Jonah said yes, that’s when amazing things started to happen.

I said this last week, and I’ll say it again: we are all called to ministry; each one of us here has been set apart as ministers of the gospel, and called to some unique facet of God’s purpose and plan. We are being called to follow God where God leads, and amazing things happen when we follow; so why do so many of us say no? Why do so many of us spend our lives fighting that call, saying no because we can’t let go of old assumptions, worn out predjudices and lingering fears? Why is it always “not me, not now?” Why do we insist that God find somebody younger; somebody more financially secure; somebody with more skills; somebody better, somebody… else? Honestly, the question we really should be asking is how many missed opportunities have their been for God’s vision and purpose to unfold all because we were reluctant to step up and step out as true disciples?

I remember that in one church that I served as pastor, for several months in our time of prayer we’d been lifting up the name of a young man who, suffice it to say, was in a world of trouble. He was the estranged son of one of our members; he’d some real substance abuse problems; he’d been in and out of jail several times; and frankly, most of the time nobody, including his parents, even knew where he was or even if he was alive. But God love them, that congregation was always supportive of this kid, prayerfully and otherwise.

Eventually, however, the boy’s father moved away and over time we sort of lost track of how his son was doing. After awhile, it occured to me that we had no longer had any real sense of what we were praying for, and so one Sunday I simply opted not to lift his name up; and much to my surprise but probably not to yours, I heard about it! Quite emphatically, in fact; as I tried to explain my reasoning to one of the women of the church who’d come to ask me about; as I suggested that since we knew nothing of what was happening with him, maybe it didn’t make sense to keep lifting up his name, she just said simply, and not unkindly,”Just because we can’t see him doesn’t mean that God doesn’t see him; so it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t continue to stand in the need of our prayer.”

And you know what, she was right.

It is true that that God is doing so much in our lives, in our world, and as illustrated by our annual meeting last week, in our church; but it’s also true that so much of what God wants to do involves us and our willingness to follow. It may very well be that that at that moment in his life, that one particular young man was being held together by the prayers of some strangers in some sanctuary a million miles away from him; what if we had said no to that? By the same token, it may very well be that right here and right now our God has a purpose in mind, a vision and plan that involves one not-so-random group of church folk gathered for worship on Mountain Road; what would happen if we said no to that; or more to the point, what will happen if we say yes?

Jesus is still calling, beloved; he calls us o’er the tumult of life and living; calling you and me to cast aside the nets of normal life and to embrace a new life, that of being fishers of people.

So what are we waiting for? What’s holding us back? There’s so much that can happen: some of it difficult, yes; a lot of it challenging; but also remarkable, life-changing and life-giving. Amazing things can happen in following Jesus, but it’s all contingent on a response from us, an answer to the call.

I hope and pray that each one of us will have ears to hear the call, eyes to see the possibilities, and the faith to say YES.

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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