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Sunday, January 22, 2012

How Clear?

Today’s readings are filled with dramatic calls to turn to God, to follow the Son of God.  For us, focusing on the drama of these calls might cause us to miss our everyday calls to serve God, to do justice, to bring in God’s kingdom.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Third Sunday after Epiphany, year B; texts: Mark 1:14-20; Jonah 3:1-5; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

I am amazed by the people in today’s readings.  They have unbelievable clarity of vision and they act with urgency.  Jonah walks into a city of over 100,000, cries out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”  And “the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.”

Then Paul, former persecutor of the Church, today tells his hearers that there is very little time to act, that the days of this world are almost over, and urges them to follow his example after his conversion, and completely change their lives.

In our Gospel, Mark uses the word “immediately” twice.  That’s not unusual for him, “immediately” is his common transition word throughout the Gospel, but what happens “immediately” today is eye-opening.  Jesus shows up on the lakeshore, calls the brothers Andrew and Simon to follow him and fish for people.  “And immediately they left their nets and followed him,” Mark says.  “Immediately” after they follow, Jesus calls James and John and they also leap, leaving Mark to describe this sad little scene:  “And they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.”

These people are convicted somehow, changed somehow, moved somehow, and they follow, they repent, they live life as if each day was their last day.

It’s almost tiring just to think about.  Why aren’t we that way?  Have any of us ever completely changed the way we live to begin to live in God’s ways?  Have any of us ever dropped anything to follow God’s call?
And what would happen if we did?  Because the other powerful image that sticks with me from our readings today is the sight of poor old Zebedee, standing in the boat with his hired hands, helplessly watching his two sons – his future, his business, his life – walk away after an itinerant preacher.

This whole “all or nothing” drama in our readings today seems foreign to us, and if anything, it is concern for our lives, for our own Zebedees, which perhaps prevents us from dropping everything in response to God.  Or maybe the problem is that we just don’t think experiences like this, calls like these, actually happen to us.

These are dramatic, compelling stories.

The people of Nineveh’s wickedness is so great God sends special warning in the person of Jonah.  And they listen, they believe, they repent!  Their immediate and complete turnaround is astonishing.  Think how long it would take most of us to change our lives so completely and radically, to re-do our way of being.
And Paul’s call to the Corinthians to put aside anything which distracts them from their following of Jesus comes directly from his “drop everything” experience on the road to Damascus.

The first disciples’ response is at least as compelling.  It’s hard not to worry about their families, including poor Zebedee.  But how can we not admire them?  They saw the Son of God, they felt his love, and they said, “I need to be a part of that.”  And they left everything with that clarity, and followed Jesus.

While we might admire these people, our difficulty is that even if we were to sense such a dramatic call from God, we’d struggle to act on it as they did.

These people, these stories, are easy to admire from a distance – they’re ancient, they’re in a book.

When it comes down to our own lives, though, we’d rather not change in a way that total repentance calls for.  The disruption to our sense of who we are, our “normal” way of being, would be profound.  And we’d rather avoid that.  So we pretend it’s not so bad, our lives don’t require a radical shift of focus.

And, we’d rather not drop everything, leave all that we love, and follow.  This one’s easier to understand – we have people who depend on us, lives which require our attention, details which only we can do.  What mentally healthy person would simply uproot at a moment’s notice and leave everything?  Paul seems to suggest these things are distractions, but to us they are life, and even though there are a couple places where Jesus himself suggests we need to let go of anything which prevents us following him, even family, it’s a move we actually don’t feel justified making.  After all, aren’t we serving God by caring for those who surround us?  So we argue ourselves out of following in this way.

And third, we’d rather assume we’ve got years to live instead of living as if we were on our last day.  In part, Paul’s urgency is muted for us because 2,000 years later we’re still here – it’s hard to get excited about this being the end of time, as perhaps the early believers did.  So we act as if we have all the time in the world.

But at the heart of our problem perhaps is that believing in the Triune God has become comfortable for us.  We live in a society which allows us freedom to believe.  So we don’t have persecution, we don’t have risk in coming to church.  We can be active in a congregation if we want, or not.

And unlike Nineveh, Paul, or the disciples, we’ve heard this message our whole lives.  There’s nothing new to us here.

And we live 2,000 years after the person of Jesus, God’s Son, walked, taught, lived, died, and rose.  He’s not, after all, standing in front of us on some beach, looking directly into our eyes, saying, “Come, follow me.”  And mostly we like that.  We can serve God with our lives, or we can serve ourselves, and not really have to fret about the repercussions or consequences.

Human nature often prefers order, predictability, planning.  Nothing disrupts all that like a voice from God, be it prophet, preacher, or Jesus himself, that calls us to see the world differently, live in the world differently, look at our lives differently.

So there are two questions: first, does God still call us to follow, to repent, to live as if the time were short, or not?  And second, would we respond like these folks if God did?

First question: is God calling to us today?

It would be hard to argue the negative here.  Our Biblical examples have clear needs that must be addressed: Nineveh’s wickedness cannot continue.  And they need to hear of God’s forgiveness as well.  And Jesus has people that need to be fished for, people who need the Good News.

The same reality exists today.  There is still great evil and injustice and wickedness in the world that needs addressing, not couch sitting.  Many people don’t have the option to sit back and do nothing.  Death and hate and pain force them to act, to live.  Doesn’t God need those of us who are comfortable and free to use all our power and wealth to do something?  And not just for the sufferers, but also for the evil-doers?  After all, God loved the Ninevites.

And there are still many in this world who have not been reached with the message of God’s love in Jesus, about the life that is ours in Christ.  Doesn’t Jesus still need people-fishers, good-news-tellers?
And our lives still aren’t close to perfected, they aren’t lived as Christ, so surely a call to repent like Nineveh isn’t out of order?

It seems that God’s love for this broken world still reveals a lot that we are uniquely capable of doing or need to do.  So why is it that we too often take our faith as a comfort rather than a challenge?  Or that we see such calls as in our readings today as relics of the past, not our present reality?

I wonder if our focus on these dramatic calls leads us to miss the ways we could follow God today.

This will get us to the second question, but first, I think that we make a mistake in admiring the dramatic shifts for these people.  Yes, these are dramatic stories, with apparent tremendous life-changes attending.
But in fact for all of them, the hard part was living after these events, and daily making changes and answering God’s call.  The Ninevites surely didn’t instantly become good.  If they truly were repentant, it was going to be a day-to-day effort, with regular attention to old patterns and choosing new ones.  Paul apparently converted all at once, but it still had to be a constant effort to hear God’s call, to make decisions based on his new reality, to follow where God led.

And the four fishermen?  Well, evidence within the Gospels suggests that they got home from time to time, and probably helped out with the business occasionally.  But the deeper evidence is that this was for them the beginning of a new life, not the achievement.  Their bumbling and lack of understanding eventually transformed in the light of Jesus’ resurrection into fearless preaching and martyrdom.  But it was a daily, if not hourly change.

So we might think we’ve not received such powerful life-changing calls to be different, to follow, to turn to God.  But if we look at our lives, and at the way our Lord Jesus is calling us to live, we can see plenty of room for turning around, for change, for new life.

It may not be a call to sell everything and move to the mission field.  But that doesn’t mean it’s any less dramatic a change.  Even if we stay with our lives, and care for our families and our neighbors and our community, we are called to repent, to serve, to follow with our all.

And that’s where the rub comes, the second question: if God is calling us just as with the people of the Scriptures, are we at all interested in following?

And I’m not sure I’m capable of answering that here – that becomes something for each one of us to take home and ponder.  The needs for God’s world are still there, and the call of the Scriptures, through whom the Holy Spirit speaks to us and shapes us, applies to us as much as Peter or Andrew, Jonah or Paul.  And so we have to ask: are we willing to face the changes it will mean in our everyday lives, our personality, our way of living, our interaction with others, to be followers, disciples of Jesus?  Or not?

We may find ourselves with a clarity of call which we try to confuse or obfuscate simply to avoid its clarity.

We may hide behind the excuse that no such dramatic events have ever challenged or called us, and therefore we’re perfectly fine living our lives as we want, without worry about what God might need from us.
But I think we know now that isn’t true.  And that just as God reached out to these people of the past, God is reaching out to us.  We’d do well to listen, to seek counsel from each other, and to pray for the courage to follow.

Because you are needed.  I am needed.  And our Lord is waiting to see and hear what we do.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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