Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Could you give it all up?

Scriptures for Sunday, January 22nd, 2012.


We have probably heard the story of Jesus calling his first disciples to be fishers of people over and over again.  It is a favorite of Sunday school lessons.  So we probably miss how strange of a story it is.  Mark’s penchant for giving few details makes the story even stranger-  Jesus approaches Simon and Andrew as they are in the midst of their morning work.  It was probably a particularly ordinary day.  They got up well before dawn to once again troll the sea for fish to sell at the market.  They had done this day after day, and would likely spend the rest of their lives in this work.  But suddenly, they receive an offer from Jesus.  Now, there is nothing in the text to say they had a clue who Jesus was.  Perhaps they had heard him preach.  Perhaps they were aware of his healing work.  But frankly, we are still only in the first chapter of Mark here, so at least according to Mark, they wouldn’t have had much to go on yet.  If a wandering day laborer showed up at your place of business, asked you to quit your job and start to wander with him, to join him in proclaiming that we all need to repent because of the coming kingdom of God.  Is this what would make you quit everything and go?
And Jesus says-  follow me, and I’ll make you fishers of people.  Now- this has got to be a pretty non-sensical question to Simon and Andrew.  No explanation is given-  is this literal, metaphorical, meta-physical?  And yet, the future disciples are said not to ask a single question.  “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”  No space is given for doubt, for questioning, for debate.  Jesus asks, and they immediately leave their profession and follow him.
Now, perhaps we’ve all had a job in our life where we would take an offer, any offer, and immediately walk away.  Or perhaps Simon and Andrew are just more adventurous then the rest of us.  But I figure few of us would respond in quite the same way.   But, it is just a job I suppose.
So Jesus goes to James and John and offers the same question.  And he gets the same result.  Both immediately drop everything and come with him.  They too leave their jobs- but the text emphasizes something more-  they leave their father.  They drop not just their profession, but their ties to family.  At least they had each other-  the remainder of the disciples did not get to bring any family along.  Though we don’t have any information about the martial lives of these disciples, its pretty unlikely that men of this age wouldn’t have been married with children.  And yet, they leave it all and follow Jesus.
They leave their work.  They leave their homes.  They leave their families.  They leave their loved ones.  To follow a man they barely know.
So-  are you ready?  Can you drop every thing, immediately give up all, and follow Jesus? neither.  
I mean, what a radical call.  What a monumental commitment.  Can Christ be really asking us to forsake everything to follow him?
I sometimes think one of the mistakes we make is to diminish the radical call that scripture can at times place on our lives.  To be frank, their aren’t a whole lot of exceptions written into this passage.  No magic asterisk to imply that this offer and conditions don’t apply to me.  And yet, in my heart of hearts, I don’t think I could respond quite this way.  Give up my job?  Well, maybe, I’ve done it before.  But give up my family?  Give up the people I love?  To follow Jesus-  I’m sorry, I just don’t think I could do it.
Perhaps there are some here who are ready to be just that radical.  But I suspect that everyone of us has something sacred that they would cling to.  So if we admit that this passage is so radical that few of us could ever hope to obey, what do we do with it?  Do we ignore it?  Just move on to a different story entirely?  
Or perhaps, we can seek to find a point of entry, a way that we can begin to try.  One of the core tenants of Methodism is that we are all called to work toward perfection.  We are called to order our lives and our prayers, our relationships and our worship, toward becoming the people God created us to be.  John Wesley, our founder, believed that it was possible for some to be instantly transformed.  But for the majority of us, it required hard work and the support of a faith community who could help us to be honest with ourselves and gradually work to shed our sins and embrace the good works of God.
So I think, while maintaining the radical nature of this scripture, we enter into it seeking God’s will for a next step in our lives.  If we are called to give up all that holds us back from fully following Jesus, where do we start?  
Our psalmist today talks about waiting alone for God in silence, for putting one’s full faith in God.  He or she identifies one particular thing that holds us back-  “Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.”  Ahh, so the barrier that this psalmist chooses to mention is money.
Quite appropriate for addressing our culture, is it not?  We place so much of our identity in our wealth, our social standing, our homes, our cars, the things that we have.  But our things inevitably disappoint.  And when they don’t satisfy, we tend to think, maybe we just need a few more things.  So we get locked into a spiral of seeking more and more of something that just continually disappoints.  We become addicted to this material culture.
In light of the recent tragedies of heroin overdose in our community, I think its important for us to recognize how almost all of us enter into this addictive cycle.  Perhaps some of us are lucky enough that our addiction takes the form of food, or tv, things that don’t seem as immediately destructive as drugs or gambling or alcohol.  But when we seek our identities, our value, our joy in these things, we certainly risk spiraling our of control.  
And so the psalmist says to put our whole trust in God.  Perhaps that becomes our entry point for responding to this radical call of Jesus.  As we begin to think about what we have to leave behind to follow Jesus, we have to assess from what, or from whom, do we draw our identity.  These disciples were called to give up their work.  Is your work what defines you?  Is your joy derived from your relative success or failure in your employment?  What happens if it goes away.  Perhaps you need not leave your job, but perhaps a shift in priorities and self worth is a start.
Or maybe it is your family or loved ones.  Do you value yourself only in relation to what those close to you think?  If you were born into a family that didn’t have much love, do you know how to love yourself?  If you are in a destructive relationship, do you end up hating yourself?  Even in loving relationships, are you so caught up in your loves evaluation of you that you can’t be honest about your fears or hopes so that you come to totally rely on them for your identity?  What happens if it falls apart.
Martin Luther wrote that whatever one fears, loves, or trusts the most -- that is one's God.  As we take a step in following Jesus’ call, we have to begin by learning to identify ourselves primarily by our Lord’s love and overwhelming acceptance.  We have to know at our core, that in God’s kingdom, we are loved and valued and of worth.  When we begin to trust in that, we begin to be open to the possibility of doing some radical things indeed.
"Several years ago they buried a woman named Grace Thomas at the First Baptist Church cemetery in Decatur, Georgia. You probably never heard of Grace Thomas. No reason that you should. She was the child of a streetcar conductor from Birmingham, Alabama. She fell in love with a boy from Georgia Tech in Atlanta and she moved to Atlanta and married him, full-time wife. To support the family she took a job as a secretary at the state capitol in Atlanta. She was now full-time wife and full-time secretary.
Through her job she became very interested in politics and the law, so she enrolled at night law school. Now she was a full-time wife, a full-time secretary and a full-time law student. When she finally graduated from law school, she astonished her family by saying, “I’m not going to practice law. I’ve decided to run for political office.”
They said, “Mother, what office?”
Expecting her to say school board or library board, she said, “I’m going to run for the governor of Georgia. The highest office in the state.” Now this was 1954 and Grace Thomas ran for governor of Georgia. There were nine candidates that year: eight men and Grace Thomas.
There were nine candidates but there was only one issue. It was 1954 and Brown versus the Board of Education had come forth from the Supreme Court to integrate the public schools. And eight of those candidates for governor said that they thought Georgians ought to resist this every fiber in their being. Only one candidate, Grace Thomas, said that she thought it was the coming of justice. Her campaign slogan was “Say Grace at the polls.” Not many people did. She ran dead last and her family was relieved that she had gotten this out of her system. But she hadn’t.
In 1962 she ran for the governor of Georgia again. This time the civil rights movement was in full flower and the stakes were high. She went around the state with her message of progress and prosperity and racial harmony. She received death threats on her life and her family feared for her and traveled with her to protect her.
One day, she went to give a campaign speech in the little town of Louisville, Georgia. The centerpiece in Louisville is not a Civil War monument or a county courthouse, it’s an old slave market where human beings were bought and sold. She decided to give her speech under the canopy of that slave market. She addressed a gaggle of farmers and merchants and she pointed at the slave market and said, “This, thank God, has passed and the new has come. It’s time for Georgians to join hands, all races together.”
Somebody in the crowd shouted at her, “Are you a communist?”
“No!” she said.
“Well, where did you get those ideas?”
She thought about it for a minute. And then she pointed at the steeple of the First Baptist Church and she said, “I got ‘em over there in Sunday school!” Some Sunday school teacher had called Grace Thomas and now she was saying things she never dreamed she’d be saying and she was called into places she never dreamed she’d be called."  (Source- Thomas Long)
Grace Thomas was a woman born into a society that did not respect her gender.  She was a poor woman in a time when wealth was valued.  And yet, she didn’t draw her identity from those who hated her.  She lived according to the promise of the One who loved her more than life itself.  And it launched her into radical things.
Today, right here, let us embrace our identity as beloved children of God.  Let us know that we are loved by the very Jesus who calls us to be his own.  When we accept that love, when we identify by that kingdom, perhaps then, and only then, will we be prepared for the radical life to come.