What a week this past one has been! Last Sunday, we had a magnificent Evensong with about 170 singers in the balcony praising God and lifting our hearts in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King. Everyone wore a grin from ear to ear as they left the church. Thank you Mark and Virginia!
Monday, banks and government buildings were closed as we celebrated Dr. King’s official holiday. This day has not long been a holiday in Virginia, and the fact that it now is a reminder of how far we have come since the civil rights days of the 1960’s.
Tuesday, smack up against celebrating a great voice of freedom, we inaugurated our first african-american president. Never did I think I’d live to see that day; and oh, how glad I am that I did. St. Paul’s church had a large screen set up in their parish hall, so I went down for the prayer service and then joined the mob in the parish hall, screaming and clapping and shouting with the loudest of them. It was a great moment to share in a crowd. Being in D. C. would have been even better, but it was too cold, and my common sense prevailed against even attempting the journey.
The week began on a euphoric high (for many, though not perhaps, for all) – a three day high; some traces of which still remain, thank God. However, on Wednesday, I learned that a friend’s daughter was losing her job; and on Thursday, another friend lost his. A third will close his business next Friday, and on the same day, along came the news that Microsoft, that giant of stability and popularity, was laying off 5,000 workers. The figures of unemployment in Virginia and across the nation are climbing at a staggering rate! A sobering reality hit like a ton of bricks.
The contrast between our highs and lows this week couldn’t be greater; yet so too is the contrast in today’s gospel passage of Jesus’ calling the disciples.
Take a look at the disciples; men sitting around, doing ordinary, mundane things. Simon and Andrew are in a boat out on the sea, casting nets. I watched two men doing this in West Africa last spring. It was a small boat, probably a similar size to Simon’s and Andrew’s – just enough space for the two men, their nets and some fish. Casting a net is a repetitive act: throw and pull in, throw again and pull in; and so it goes, on and on throughout the day. Exhaustion, or boredom, at the end of the day, depending on the catch. We all have days like that; where the routine is familiar and repetitive ad nauseum. The same old, same old dull routine of life.
Meanwhile, James and John were sitting in their boat, mending their nets. What a tedious job that is! But it has to be done, like it or not, otherwise they’d lose their catch; and in a poor economy, such as todays in West Africa, or in occupied Galilee, one couldn’t afford to lose a single fish. Lives depend upon their catch.
A fisherman’s life was made up of daily and predictable routine: mend the nets, cast the nets, haul in the fish, sell what you caught, cope with storms (frequent and sudden on the Sea of Galilee), and enjoy the calm when it came. Not to mention finding time for all the activities of daily living – cooking, eating, sleeping, and tending to family needs and friendships.
Into this life, Jesus intrudes, disrupting this comfortable routine with two words: “Follow me.” follow me? – Where? To do what? Why? How? When? Their world is suddenly, or to use Mark’s famous word, ‘immediately,’ turned upside down. Instead of a future of sameness and certainty, these fishermen face a world of too many unknowns and uncertainties.
Is this any different from the world we face today? Are these not the same questions those who’ve suddenly lost their jobs, or homes, or retirement funds face as well? Where am I going to go? What am I going to do? Why did this happen? When will I know security or stability again? How will I cope meanwhile?
It is so easy to be lured into the false assumption that life will continue in its comfortable routine as we have known it. It is so simple to believe that, because everything is written on our calendar, or in our blackberry, that we are in control of our lives and what transpires, according to our well laid out plans. But not so. Life is filled with surprises, twists and turns.
I’d like to share with you a personal example of how quickly our lives can be challenged and changed. As many of you have observed, my name has been on the prayer list for the past month, (and I thank you for your prayers). Two days before Christmas, I was scheduled for a heart catheter, after which I was told that I don’t push enough blood out of my heart, and that the measurement was so low that it put me in the category of someone who could drop dead at any moment without warning.
“Merry Christmas to you too,” I thought as I looked at the doctor in shock.
Mark’s famous word ‘immediately’ came to mind. “I could drop dead immediately!” those were words I knew in concept since my body produces blood clots. I’ve always known a stroke is possible. But, as many of us think, “that won’t happen until some day – when I’m old.” (never considering myself “old” even though I’m now 73 – and a little more than a half!) Well, ‘someday’ suddenly became ‘today,’ and needless to say my world has been turned upside down!
Questions flooded my mind: how to look death in the face, knowing it could be today? How to face a potential “last” Christmas without crying buckets of tears? How to cope with the unknown? How to let go of everyone and everything I loved? No way did I want to deal with these questions! Or any of the others that surfaced, such as: how to assess my life and its meaning? What to plan for a funeral? (thank goodness the will and power of attorney had already been done).
Trying to go to sleep at night was a nightmare, for that’s when the most questions intruded and kept me awake for hours. I felt as though I was staring into a black hole of space, being drawn in by its energy. Vainly, I tried to hide from myself and others the simple fact that I was afraid.
Sometimes I still am; but, I’ve not spent the last month looking for answers to my questions; instead, I’ve been seeking the courage, creativity, and commitment to live into the questions and the quest that results. I still don’t like the possibility that I could just drop dead without warning. (I’m grateful St. James’s has a defibrillator in the hall). And, to keep my spirits up I add a word and say “I’m drop dead – gorgeous.” you have to have a sense of humor to get through tough times.
What this experience has given birth to is what, for me, is the most crucial question: given the givens, how do I want to live; how can I be truly alive in this moment, here and now?
Being faced with death has focused me on living life. And this is also what I believe happened to the disciples when Jesus suddenly appeared in the disciples’ lives and said, “follow me.” Like all of us, the disciples discovered that their world had been turned upside down, never to be a safe, comfortable, predictable haven again. Yet, in the face of that uncertainty, they immediately left that cozy haven and plunged headlong into the unknown, choosing life.
There are several short clues in the gospel passage that help us to understand the empowerment offered to the disciples to make their choice. First, the presence of a charismatic young leader who spoke to them personally, and who called them by name to share his life, vision, and mission.
Second, he told them ‘good news,’ which Mark defines in two ways: he writes, “the time is fulfilled.” Immediately we can assume from the tense of the verb that right here, right now is important. Something’s happening – not going to come – but already exists. Now, doesn’t that get your curiosity going?
And then he goes on to say that “the kingdom of God has come near.” What is fulfilled is that one no longer has to go on waiting for that moment, for that someday when we hope to stand in the presence of God; we no longer have to wait for someday when God might be active in our generation. No, someday is now! The verb says it all: “the kingdom of God has come” – has come. God’s presence, love, and power are active right here and right now – for the disciples and for us. A new creation is in process.
The words, “has come” communicates to us that the fulfillment of God’s dream is not at the end of time; God’s creation began with God’s dream of it, and the reign of God is, has been, and always will be, alive – at this time, here and now. The disciples are offered an invitation to participate in that dream by following Jesus.
The question before them, as well as facing us, is the same one as posed by our baptism: how do we live into this new creation? How do we live as those who have been raised to a new life of grace? Once again, we pay attention to the verbs: we have been raised. We are already a part of that new life.
To do this, we take our clues from the gospel: Jesus empowers the disciples to live into his invitation to leave their security behind and to embark on a journey into the unknown. He empowers them with an invitation of relationship with him, with the knowledge that the time of fulfillment has come, and with the opportunity to make a commitment: “to believe in the good news.”
The opportunity to make a commitment is crucial in this story. Jesus offers an invitation into a process that is on-going. The details of: “Where are we going? What do we wear? When do we leave? How do we get there?” are not the primary issues. Today’s question is whether or not the disciples, and we, commit to the journey.
In the words, “follow me,” we hear God’s call to us to be co-creators in shaping the future of this world for the good of all people. Our choices and actions matter. Scripture affirms this point of view from the beginning of genesis, when God gave to humankind the responsibility of “tending” the earth, (a more faithful translation than “subduing” the earth or having “dominion over it”). The choices we make this day, and every day, reflect our commitment to choose that which creates life or that which destroys it, bringing death. That is the invitation Jesus gave to the disciples when he said “follow me,” and that is offered to us.
The good news about today’s gospel is that the invitation from Jesus to be a part of God’s vision and reign, is not just offered when times are good, when we have life all together and managed well, riding the crest of the wave of success. This invitation to participate in following Jesus is given in those down times as well, when all seems to be falling apart, when stress and certain death hover over us. And this invitation is not for the learned, or privileged few, but for all – as evidenced by those simple fisher folk long ago.
I’d sum up today’s gospel this way: the good news of God’s vision for life is that it is inclusive, intimate, and immediate. The good news is that God’s love turns life around and not just upside down, transforming us, and the world, into a new creation:
simple fishing becomes apostleship,
what may feel like a disaster becomes a blessing,
an ending is transformed into a beginning,
the death of old ways is turned into a new life.
Perhaps what was so extraordinary about the beginning of this past week is that the first three days happened precisely when our nation feels so insecure, so lost, and adrift, embattled by war and strangled by a failing economy. This short space of time, just three days of one week, honoring one who has died and another who has been inaugurated into a new life, has been an embodiment of how dreams are fulfilled, and justice and hope are born. We are reminded that Jesus’ call to follow means giving life to the words we’ve heard time and again:
Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with
Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.
Choose life, not death.
To fulfill these words means that we have chosen to live in God’s love which gives life to all people, events, time, and space –