Gracious God: help us today not only “to see the light but be the light” and to know “that our country is not broken, just not finished.”
Many of us spent most of last Wednesday in tears. I know I did, shedding tears I didn’t even know I had. After the last wrenching two weeks – or for some of us four years – it seemed that life had returned in beauty and decency with a stunning array of firsts, including the words of a brilliant young poet, whose words I just quoted.
January has been quite a month so far –-kind of like a see-saw. Yes, here’s enough vaccine–but not where you live. Let’s impeach–but not slow down the healing. I’m so grateful for Zoom. I hate Zoom. (This idea will return soon).
Today’s Gospel from Mark is deceptively simple. Jesus calls two sets of brothers to follow him. However, there is more to it than that, just as there is more to it for most of the choices we make, especially now when a simple decision to go to the grocery store could put our very lives at risk.
With most choices, it’s not like we have all the options before us like a video or a spreadsheet where we can examine each choice before we make it and where we are informed about the implications of each decision. A friend of mine told me that she was tired of people telling her that she needs to examine her bad choices around men. “It’s not like it’s a smorgasbord,” she explained, “where I say – ‘Gee, I’ll take that cute dysfunctional one in Row Two, please.’”
The Gospel of Mark is in a hurry. The most commonly-used word in Mark is “immediately.” So in today’s lesson, John is arrested and Jesus is ready immediately to inaugurate his ministry by forming his team.
Galilee itself is a run-down Podunkville, a burg where nothing much happens and the Sea of Galilee is actually a small lake. Jesus walks by on the shore and calls out to two fishermen — Simon and Andrew – and “immediately” they follow him. Further on, he sees James and John who were mending their nets. Jesus calls them and “immediately” they drop everything and follow him – leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, probably saying, “What just happened here?”
At this time, rabbis didn’t seek out followers; it was the other way around. People came to them. But Jesus walked among ordinary people and invited them to follow – no questions asked. Jesus chose them and they chose Jesus.
The choices we are called to make can be complicated. There is a tsunami of information that comes at us each day and many of us agonize over our decisions. But here is the particular importance of this Gospel: responding to a call or an invitation is not all up to us. A call can be both invitation and transformation. Jesus called the disciples, and God gave them the courage to say yes.
A call is specific, as in this Gospel. My literary mentor Christian Wimans says: “The meanings that God calls us to in our lives are never abstract. Though the call may ask us to redefine or refine what we know as life, it does not demand a renunciation of life in favor of something beyond it.” So we don’t usually receive a vague call to just be a better person or pay more attention to our “spirituality”. More often it is to take a specific action – call Jenna, make a casserole for the Thomas family; read the book on the desk, sign up to help on a committee, attend Morning Prayer. It is to align our lives with what God specifically seems to be asking.
Secondly, a call usually can be absorbed into our daily life. Rarely are we called to uproot our lives in all-consuming ways, to move to Africa or throw out all of our technology. We are called to repent, to change, to redirect some of our energies. The Benedictines have been modeling this for 1500 years, with each day including prayer, work, and study. This was also the rhythm of Jesus.
Sometimes our call may be to surrender, to stop fighting so hard, to stop trying to make something work that is irretrievably broken, or to accept yourself as a person of faith. Christian Wimans again in my favorite passage: “When I assented to the faith that was latent within me …. it was as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert that had been blooming impossibly year after in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief. .. Perhaps it is never disbelief, which is at least active and conscious, that destroys a person, but a need for belief so strong that is continually and silently crucified on the crosses of science, or humanism or art…” or I would add the culture that sees religion as naïve and Christianity as relentlessly evangelical, politically reactionary, and even dangerous. A young woman I know recently confessed that she has kept her decision to join a church a secret from most of her friends, knowing that they will see it as anti-intellectual, weak, or delusional. I responded that it helps me to realize that many of the smartest people I know, as well as the most compassionate and alive, worship each Sunday in church, and that the Episcopal Bishop of D.C. regularly voices the most ardent, articulate and intelligent responses to injustice of anyone in the country.
The story of Jonah appears in the Jewish Bible, in the Christian Scriptures (as our lesson for today) and in the Koran. I hadn’t realized what a gem this little book is, and its humorous overtones. Jonah himself is a real piece of work.
God tells Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh (a three-day walk) and tell the people to repent because their evil ways are getting really bad. Jonah doesn’t want to accept this call so he runs away, boarding a ship going in the opposite direction from Nineveh, and (long story) ends up in the belly of a whale.
After the whale spits him out, God gives Jonah the same command, so he goes to Nineveh and preaches to the populous, probably in this tone of voice: “Listen up. Forty more days. God will destroy the city. Shape up. I’m outta here.” And even with the indifferent delivery, Jonah is pretty powerful because they do – shape up.
Now I will reveal a major lapse in our lectionary, which is surprising and problematic. We read in verse 5:” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone great and small put on sackcloth” (which is an uncomfortable burlap fabric that hurts to wear). We skip verses 7-9 including verse 8 where the king says: “Let people and animals be covered with sackcloth.”
We can’t be trusted with this verse because why — we might laugh? Think about a cow in a burlap blanket or wondering who got the job of fitting the Golden Doodle into her outfit. Did some of the animals not cooperate – like the pig saying, “That fabric, babe, it makes me look fat. Not gonna do it.” Or, “Hey, the darned chickens have picked apart their outfits again. Somebody get on that.”
Wouldn’t kids have fun with that? I don’t know if I’ll ever trust the lectionary in the same way!
So God changes his mind and the city is saved — I like to think that seeing the animals dressed up made God laugh so hard he gave in.
But Jonah is still not happy, he’s pouting, sitting under a tree God provided to shade him from the heat. So God sends a worm to take down the tree and Jonah is even more angry. And God says to him, “I saved Nineveh and you’re all distressed about a dead plant?”
Jonah – quite the drama king — says, “(Breathe) I’m so angry I wish I were dead. I can ‘t even….”
But God said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. … And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people and (here it is) many beasts as well?” And the book ends on that question!
What is Jonah’s problem besides being a real jerk? What accounts for his anger and reluctance? I found this explanation:
“Jonah never wanted to go to Nineveh in the first place because he did not want to see the Ninevites turn from their sin. He ran, not because he was afraid of preaching in a foreign land, but because he was afraid God’s Word might change the hearts and minds of Israel’s hated enemies. So, when the people did rend their hearts and garments, Jonah grew angry at the Lord for being merciful.“
The Jews read the story of Jonah on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, to remind them that the most flawed people can be used to accomplish God’s mighty work.
My favorite preacher with whom I share a first name, says that the calling of the disciples is not a hero story but a miracle story, reflecting the idea that a response to a call is both individual action and God’s grace. She writes this: “Sometimes following may mean staying at home. It may mean taking care of Zebedee when he gets too old to fish. It may mean casting the same old nets in a new way, or for new reasons. It may mean doing something different with the fish you catch or spending the money they bring in at market it in a different way. It may mean doing less every day, not more, so there is time to watch how the light changes on the water, and how the happy fish leap out of it at dusk, happy to have outsmarted you one more time.“
When some of the first sections of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico were being built, enterprising children on both sides decided that some things were more important – like fun. So they put a plank through a break in the wall, creating a see-saw.
After a while, the grown-ups caught up and two enterprising design companies (one in El Paso, one in Juarez), initiated a joint project that turned a section of the border wall into a series of pink seesaws – inviting children on each side to come and play together.
The metal wall was meant to be a stark barrier dividing the U.S. and Mexico, the centerpiece of President Trump’s aggressive immigration policies. But the see-saws served as a series of bridges instead.
The Seesaw Project was chosen out of more than 70 nominees from dozens of countries for the design world’s equivalent of the Oscars – the Beazleys – given by the London Design Museum for the Best Design of 2020. Losing out was a customized “stab-proof vest” that the artist Banksy designed for musician Stormzy.
The images today are overpowering: seesaws turned into bridges, Jonah turned into comic relief, fishermen turned into disciples. The call of Jesus to follow him can be as subtle as a stab of conscience; it can be intuition; it can be as clear as a bell or as quiet as a whisper. It can be hard to figure out stab us in the heart. Our response to that call can be instantaneous or take decades to discern.
As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “What (we cannot lose) is a full sense of the power of God – to recruit people who have made terrible choices, to invade the most hapless lives and fill them with light, to sneak up on people who are thinking about lunch not God, and smack them up the side of the head with glory.”
And this can all happen, even to you. Immediately.
David Jacobsen, Mark: Fortress Press Commentaries, 2015.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “Miracle on the Beach,” in Home by Another Way, 1999.
Christian Wimans, My Bright Abyss, 2018.
Internet material on the Border Wall and the See Saw Project.