The Gospel of Mark is famous for its brevity – it is the shortest of the Four Gospels under the cover of the Bible. Many scholars believe Mart to be the oldest of the Gospel and see it as the skeleton on which the authors of Matthew and Luke fleshed out their longer, more detailed accounts. But Mark just gives the essentials, and so it this Gospel that is often recommended as a place to start reading for anyone who is new to the Gospel witness.
In classic Markan style, our Gospel reading for this morning is a brief sketch of an amazing event – Jesus’s calling of the first 4 disciples. Mark makes it all seem so simple. Jesus somehow recognizes that the time is right, takes a walk along the beach, sees 4 fishermen, asks them to drop what they are doing and follow him which they do, without question or discussion, and then it is on to Capernaum in the next verse. Almost before this author has time to get the hearer or reader’s attention, this story of how the first followers came to Christ is over. There is no getting inside the mind of the author or the specific circumstances that led to the scant details. Interestingly the author of Matthew’s Gospel does not embellish the story at all, while the writer of Luke makes a radical departure. The author of Luke tells us that the call of the four fishermen involved Jesus telling them where to drop their nets in the water, which results in a miraculously large catch from waters that had yielded no fish for the entire night before.
But here, in the Markan version we have no miraculous occurrences, just a call and response. As with Mark’s lack of detail of Jesus life before his baptism – which I spoke of 2 weeks ago- the brevity of this story gives us the gift of wonder. It makes us ask questions. For instance it makes me ask, how did Jesus know it was the right time to actively being his ministry? The passage starts off with the news that John the baptist had been put in jail. Did that have something to do with Jesus’ sense of timing? For most of us, the arrest of our cousin and co-worker might have been received as a signal to lay low, or work covertly, but no so for Jesus, and for many seekers after truth and justice who have followed since – people like Mahatma Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr, Sojourner Truth, Oscar Romero, and Mother Teresa – none of whom played it safe in the face of risk or threat. As one commentator has put it, “like a Zen slap on the cheek, John’s arrest signals for Jesus the decisive moment – the very opening of freedom.”(Bill Wylie-Kellerman in Living the Word, p.51) So Jesus was able to read the signs and move ahead. Seeing that leads me to wonder about my own sense of holy timing. How is it that I decipher God’s movement in my life? In the third chapter of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes the author wrote, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” But how do I know the time and the season? How do you? How did Jesus?
My hunch is that Jesus knew because he, like we, struggled to know. I believe he was God incarnate, and he was also fully human, so must have struggled as we do with the question of what was the acceptable and right time for all manner of things in his life. And I suspect it was that struggle that led Jesus to persevere in the life of prayer, waiting as we so often do for guidance from above – from the power higher than we humans are. And when the spiritual scales tipped from waiting to action, he made his move.
But why did that move take him along the shore of the Sea of Galilee?
Again this Gospel is ruthlessly silent. So we wonder. Was there something special about fishermen that he knew would suit them for the life of a disciple? In a conversation with some colleagues about this question I received two very different answers. One told me “There is no more hopeful and patient a group of people than fishermen. Think about it, they bank solely on the hope of a good catch to make a living. Fishing for a living is only for those who are hopeful all the way down to their boots. But a second colleague countered, “I lived and worked on a small fishing island for three summers during college, and I have to say that the majority of the fishermen I met there were desperate alcoholics. It’s not that they weren’t good, hardworking people, but they were also people in a lot of pain and need.” Clearly these two colleagues had very different but perhaps not mutually exclusive views of fisher folk. From what follows in the Gospels we can see that Simon, Andrew, James and John weren’t perfect people. Rather, like all of us they were mixtures of glory and grime – mixtures of great hope and of great need. So clearly Jesus was not out looking to call only the most accomplished and talented. So maybe it did not really matter where he started his search. Maybe the market place would have been as good a place as the sea shore to begin. Maybe the important thing was to begin somewhere, and to issue a call that would bring a response, that would lead to subsequent calls and responses, that would eco down through the ages.
But imagine yourself in the place of those fishermen. Would you be able to do as they did? What would it take for you to drop your livelihood to follow someone you had never met before? What did they see in Jesus? He must have been exuding some sort of energy that they found very attractive, because according to Mark, they asked no questions, they just followed. Can we do that? Do we do that? What gets you here on a Sunday morning? What keeps you grounded in your faith when the evidence of life seems to point elsewhere?
If you are like me, the answer to those questions has to do with this place and the people in it. It has to do with the way God’s presence seems to settle in among us when we are gathered in here together – how God’s presence is communicated through big and little actions – from bread and wine to hugs and handshakes. God knew that it was not enough to shout directions from above. God knew it took incarnation – love divine in human body- to reach us. And mystically, now we have become that body.
It is a grand paradox that at the same time that we are the ones being called, we are also the ones through whom the call is being extended. That is how we continue to live on as a community of faith. And we should never feel complacent about this. For the call to follow where God leads in Christ is re-issued to us as individuals and as a community time and again. And each time we are called to follow, we need to respond from a different place, from a different season in our personal lives and in the life of this parish which has been entrusted to us for a season.
Just this week the Vestry spent a good part of our meeting talking about our ministry and the budget that supports it as we prepared for our Annual Parish meeting which will be taking place next Sunday, following a single service at 9 am. We talked about the call that we heard from God through the strategic plan for the parish that came into being 3 years ago. We celebrated the many accomplishments that have been realized through the work we have done together since. We noted also that there a number of initiatives in the plan that remain to be engaged with and worked on. One in particular that I am very aware of is the work of building up the connections of fellowship among us. As I looked out on the 10:15 congregation last week during worship I was struck by how many of you I do not know very well. In fact let’s do a little experiment – raise your had if you are new to St. Paul’s since January 2014. What about since January 2013? We have had an influx of new comers in the last year and with me being away for 3 months of it, I feel like I am running to catch up with a sense of who is who among our newer members. I also have had some conversations with newer members recently that have made me realize that in the business of trying to keep on track with all the various facets of our parish ministry, we can forget that a warm welcome to the newcomer is very important, but not enough. An ongoing getting to know one another is what enables us to join into community together and be woven into the mystical body of Christ by our cosmic weaver.
So in closing, I want to call us to consider the nets that the first 4 disciples had to drop before they could be free to follow Jesus. They can symbolize to us the preoccupations that hold our attention. What are the nets that we need to drop in order to follow the inspiration in our strategic plan to be more open to the building of blessed connections with one another? For the old timers a simple start might dropping the doing of church “business” at coffee hour so that we can be open to striking up conversations with newcomers. For newcomers it might be daring to go to coffee hour after the service, and introducing yourself to some others who are there. I have some other ideas about how we can intentionally forge connections among us, and will be sharing more about that next week in my sermon and at annual meeting. Please pray with me this week for further inspiration and please come back next Sunday at 9:00 am to hear and share more. Following Christ I offer these words. Amen+