Sunday, January 22, 2012

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 1
14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him.
19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

If you want a glimpse of the future of work, I give you

Back in my day, if you had a lawn mover or a snow-shovel, you saw every neighbour as a potential revenue source. “Cut your lawn, Mr. Smith?” It was win-win, really. Mr. Smith gets a chore out of the way, you have a couple of extra bucks in your pocket, and someone else pays for the gas (a kid can’t be expected to buy gas!)

Some clever person took this same concept to the internet in the form of Under the byline “The place for people to share things they're willing to do for $5” the site appears only limited by the imagination of the sellers. A few examples:

I will write a Shakespearean sonnet for $5
I will give you relationship advice for $5
I will have an uncomfortable conversation on your behalf for $5
I will help you apologize with a song for $5
I will be your girlfriend at facebook for 10 days for $5
I will proofread any document up to 5 pages double spaced for $5
I will translate your tattoo to Hebrew for $5

Thank good it belongs to the future, because it doesn’t translate well in the past:

I will follow an itinerant preacher around the Galilee for $5
I will tidy the nets you cast aside in your haste for $5
I will replace you in the boat with Papa Zebedee for $5

It doesn’t work in a subsistence economy where no one had $5 to blow on a Shakespearean sonnet, and it doesn’t work when the new system Jesus introduces revolves around trusting in the generosity of others. The message is free, the invitation is free, and the life of a disciple is seemingly free. Or is it?

In fact, the costs begin to mount almost immediately. Four young men removed from the community in as many verses. We don’t know who Simon and Andrew supported through their fishing, but the first person to make a sacrifice to this endeavor is named: Zebedee, father of James and John. That two sons are gone means more men to be hired. The initial ridicule he would face at allowing his sons to wander off may have been offset by the growing fame this little band received. Eventually there is the sting felt at the martyrdom of his son James, perhaps made easier by the long life of his son John, and the knowledge that John was closest to Jesus.

Clearly the life is not free: discipleship promised years of travel and adventure, but also constant danger and (in the early days) a violent end for most. So we could say the cost was large for everyone involved, a cost not reflected in almost casual invitation “Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people.”

But how else could Jesus frame it? On one hand you could argue that Jesus was unaware of the full extent of his ministry, or at least unaware of the violence that would come. I’m not sure that works for someone who was present on the first day of creation, and I don’t think it works for someone who understood the true nature of humanity and the length we would go to remove God from our midst, given half a chance.

So I’m willing to argue that Jesus was aware of what was coming, understood that initial excitement would turn to rejection when it became clear that Jesus was not here to overthrow Rome, at least not following the timetable they would prefer. Jesus understood the way of the crowd, and the path of least resistance, and the extent to which the call to repent becomes unwelcome pretty fast considering how deeply Jesus wants us to go.

So you start small, or slow, or both, when you are trying to attract followers. You don’t list the cost up front, or you will frighten people away. I’m sure no one said “leave your comfortable parish and someday you will be Chair of the Board.” Or “marry Barb, move to Weston and someday you will be Chair of the Trustees.” Or “join a youth choir and someday get trapped in a wooden box with pedals.”

And the ongoing invitation is no different. When I was back in minister’s school they insisted we should put everyone through membership classes, with lists of expectations, how much money you will give, which committees you will join, how much study you will put into this new endeavor you are volunteering to undertake. Basically, the idea was tell them up front that discipleship is costly, and weed out the weak ones. We were trained in vetting: decide who was worthy of baptism, who was worthy of membership, who was worthy of marriage, and so on. Never were we told to follow the example of Jesus, who simply said “follow me,” walk with us for a time, see of this is the place for you.

The one costly thing I will set before you, the one thing that may make you squirm in your pew and risk slivers is the very work that Jesus began. Jesus said “follow me” and we are meant to say it too. He didn’t say read my blog, look for my ad in the York Guardian, he said: “come with me.” A personal invitation is the only way to grow a fellowship. Advertising doesn’t work, congregational visioning doesn’t work, putting on a shiny new roof apparently doesn’t work, only the personal invitation where each of us says to someone else “let me take you to my church.”

1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
3 But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD.
4 Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up.
But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. 6 The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”
9 He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

That’s one way to avoid God’s call. So what would you rather, invite someone to church or end up in the belly of a whale. Those are really your only two choices. Okay, go ahead and pick the whale, but I’ve got to warn you, it’s easier going in than coming out.

So Jonah accepts his call. He goes to Nineveh, and spends three days crossing the vast city shouting a message of repentance. He has been running, he has the ultimate gastronomical experience, he has shouted until his voice is hoarse, and then, just like that, they repent. ‘Okay,’ they say, ‘we can do that, sorry.’ And now Jonah is just mad. He wanted God to call down fire. He wanted the shock and awe. He wanted to see the people punished, not for their misbehavior, but because he worked so hard to see something happen. Then, it’s all sackcloth and forgiveness.

If we ask the question “did Jonah even want them to repent?” then the answer seems more no than yes. He was clearly unhappy, and the source of his frustration seems to be all his suffering while the people of Nineveh were so easily spared. They are all relieved and happy and Jonah still smells like the inside of a whale.

If we ask the question “do we really want to add people to our fellowship, to grow the church?” a truthful answer might be “I’m not sure.” More people would be nice, to be sure, but more people brings more problems: more people to get to know, more people who will share their brokenness, more people with quirks and strange ideas and the sense that everything could change because they’re not tied to any kind of status quo. You might say new people are more trouble than they are worth, and you might get an insight into the state of the United Church of Canada from sea to sea.

Too often the message at the door (unstated) is come on in, but don’t expect us to change, and make sure you are willing to undertake the projects we want you to do, and worship the way we like to do, and express your faith in the way the rest of us do.

Jesus said “follow me” but he didn’t say “follow me and stop being you.” Did he know that he would someday weep at the grave of Lazarus, his heart broken for the pain his friends were feeling? The disciples are as much a part of the story as Jesus himself, engaging in conversation, demanding explanations, no doubt challenging Jesus and maybe even changing Jesus’ mind from time to time. Having followers is messy, having companions of the road is messy, being a congregation is messy, but it is the call we follow, even through the belly of a whale. Amen.


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