Sermon preached by the Rev’d Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany – January 22, 2012
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
Peanuts cartoon character Lucy is sitting in her “five-cent psychology” booth where Charlie Brown has stopped for some advice about life. “Life is like a deck chair, Charlie,” “On the cruise ship of life, some people place their deck chair at the rear of the ship so they can see where they’ve been. Others place their deck chair at the front of the ship so they can see where they’re going.” Lucy looks at her puzzled “client” and asks, “Which way is your deck chair facing?” Without hesitating, Charlie replies glumly, “I can’t even get my deck chair unfolded.”
That humorous snippet seemed a good place to begin what I’d like to say today about the theme of the scriptures. Hopefully, by the time I dismount the pulpit, you will understand why! What they seem to present to us are two disparate reactions to a call from God to do something really big. On the one hand, we have the story about the world’s most reluctant prophet, Jonah, whom God has commanded to go preach to the Ninevites, a nation despised by the Jews because of the horrible things they had done to the Jewish people. Jonah attempts to escape this charge by boarding a ship going in the opposite direction.
Unfortunately, he was caught in a horrific storm thrown overboard, swallowed by a great fish, and finally regurgitated, after which Jonah agreed to go preach to the Ninevites who repented of their evildoing after just a short sermon. (Clearly, some preachers still haven’t’ learned that skill!)
It’s kind of a humorous story and the surprise is that if we think God’s love and grace are reserved only for God’s chosen people, better think again. God’s love and grace extends to all those we might exclude by definitions of who is in and who is out. God’s light extends far, far beyond any boundaries we can delineate.
Mark tells quite a different story. Here we find Jesus extending a call to a bunch of fishermen to follow him. Unlike Jonah, they buy in without hesitation and drop everything—including their nets—to follow Jesus. Both stories include a call to proclaim an important message from God and both require the messengers to take a huge risk in doing so. I get the Jonah story and his response to the call. I’m not sure that I would want to go preach to people who may do me great harm. Nor would I want to be eaten by a whale!
But what about Mark’s story of the call of the first disciples? Frankly, I think there is something both very compelling and very bothersome about it. These guys were fishermen who made their livelihood as such and fed their families by doing it. Their fathers fished. Their grandfathers fished. As far back as they had memory, fishing had probably been instilled in their DNA. Suddenly, some rabbi, who doesn’t even seem to introduce himself in this passage, comes up to them and says, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of people.”
The text says that “immediately they drop their nets and follow him.” Immediately. No hesitation. Then they happen upon two other fishermen mending their broken nets. They too, drop what they’re doing and follow. Four old hand anglers just get up and turn their backs on everything they have ever known. They drop all their commitments to go on what could well be a wild goose chase.
The thorny thing about this story is their unflinching, immediate decision to follow Jesus. Where’s the logical thought process here—the “let’s think this over a bit” reaction we’d expect? Or the “Maybe tomorrow—if the fish aren’t biting.” We have no indication that they had counted the cost. We’re not even sure that they stopped long enough to say goodbye to family and friends. They just up and leave everything to begin something they have no idea will mean for them. Just like that. Period.
Well, as is true for much of Mark’s writing, it’s a great story, but there is for me something missing. My guess is, and Biblical historians seem to believe, that this was not their first encounter with Jesus. They likely had heard him teach several times, maybe provided him food, perhaps had a meal or two with him. In other words, it’s my guess that they had already developed even a superficial relationship with Jesus. Yes, this was still a huge decision and one made at great risk, but they had been compelled by what they heard and saw and they had developed a level of trust in him. They were ready to respond to this huge invitation.
There is another character in the story that should interest us, the one about whom we learn very little other than his name and whose daddy he is. It is Zebedee, the father of James and John. He does not go with them. He stays in the boat somewhat dumbfounded as he watches them walk away from the family business, leaving him holding the broken net to mend.
I like to think that we have made the decision to follow Jesus as well—or are at least sorting out what that means for us—but let’s be honest—no matter how faithful we are to doing God’s work in the world, most of us won’t just walk away from our livelihood, our family, our friends, and go off not knowing what we’re getting ourselves into or where we are going.
What made Zebedee stay behind? Maybe he just wasn’t ready. Maybe he thought he was too old for such an escapade. Maybe he hadn’t heard Jesus teach. Maybe Jesus didn’t call him because he knew someone had to stay behind to run the store. Somebody had to mend the nets! In any case, out of all the characters in this story, isn’t Zebedee the one with whom we can easily relate?
These are really two stories about a summons to make a huge life change and we don’t typically welcome change nor do we necessarily see it as a good thing. Yet there is a sense of urgency in this call to do something really big, really challenging, really important, something that will take these people on a great and exciting journey.
Lucy would no doubt see Jonah and Zebedee placing their deck chairs at the rear of the ship so that they could see where they have been. And I’m sure she would imagine Simon, Andrew, James and John putting their chairs at the front of the ship so that they could see where they were going. Maybe our deck chairs would be lined up next to either of them—or maybe we’re just struggling to get the darn thing open.
God called Jonah and in Jesus God called the fishermen of Galilee. And God still calls God’s people to do great things. You and I are here because God has reached out, gotten our attention somehow, enticed us, wooed us, lured us in. The Good News of the Gospel is not so much about our search for God as it is an amazing account of the extraordinary lengths to which God will go to search for us. And, as we learn from the story of Jonah and the Ninevites, God casts a wide, broad, deep net and the fish that sometimes appear in the haul may surprise us—or those who discover that we’re in the net with them.
Where do you see your deck chair on this cruise? In the rear of the boat looking out at where you’ve been? Or in the front of the ship looking ahead to where you are going? Or are you trying to figure out how to unfold it and where to put it?
The call to proclaim Good News, to be a prophetic voice, or just simply to be a follower, seeking to discover a new way to serve God can be scary. It need not always be. In the Feast of Fools, Harvey Cox says that Christian discipleship needs to regain its sense of festivity. That is, on occasion, we must break with convention and simply overdo. A Christian should be more of a Dionysian: a pilgrim, a gypsy, a dancer, one whose security lies in learning to be at home on the road.
Where is your chair this morning? On what part of the ship do you want to put it? Perhaps you are thinking about what you left behind in 2011—the good and the bad, the memorable and what you want to forget. Maybe you are ready to move to the front of the ship to look for what this New Year holds in store—ready and willing to accept the change that may take you on an exciting adventure even one in new service to God in the world and in the church. Or just maybe you’re futzing with that danged deck chair trying to make up your mind what end of the ship you want to head for.
Know that God is waiting lovingly, patiently, for you to figure it all out and is, in fact, right there with you in the middle of the whole predicament. So let’s pick up our chairs and walk and begin to decide in which direction we want to face.