Sunday, January 24, 2021

Epiphany III

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.

It would seem that sparse words summon the poets.  

But before we meet the poets, we need to consider the sparse words.  Mark, never one to gild the lily, describes the call of the disciples in as few words as possible.  In fact, we witness “the call” with as few disciples as possible—five, by my count.  By the third chapter there will be a general inauguration of the twelve, but we only learn how a handful come to follow Jesus.

On this day, it’s Simon and Andrew, then James and John, the sons of Zebedee.  For the first two, we get a transcript of the encounter, but by the next two we get more summary, and we have to assume the invitation was the same.  Mark is leaving more than a little room for the imagination when he records these words:

“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”

As we ponder these words, I can confess a certain weakness for obscure French philosophers, namely Paul Ricoeur.  Ricoeur would say that while trying to understand Jesus’ words we are “standing before the text,” meaning we can see the outline of what Jesus means, but the exact meaning (behind the text) is unknown to us.  So we use our imagination.  We interpret, we speculate, and we play with these words to find meaning.  And some, they write poetry:

Jesus, you have come to the lakeshore

looking neither for wealthy nor wise ones;

you only asked me to follow humbly.

For the Spanish poet, Cesáreo Gabaráin, the emphasis is on humility, both the humility of setting aside whatever work they were engaged in, and the humility of these people themselves.  They were not selected for wealth or wisdom, just a willingness to follow.  That’s one poet’s take, now another:

In simple trust like theirs who heard,

beside the Syrian sea,

the gracious calling of the Lord,

let us, like them, without a word

rise up, and follow thee.

Our second poet, with the rather poetic name John Greenleaf Whittier, the emphasis is on trust, and the willingness of the reader (singer) to engage the same simple trust.  Without a word they rise from their places and follow: no questions, no conditions, just trust.  It takes a skilled poet to challenge the audience without seeming overbearing or judgemental, and Whittier does it.  And one more example:

Long ago apostles heard it

by the Galilean lake,

turned from home and toil and kindred,

leaving all for Jesus' sake.

This time it’s Cecil Frances Alexander, the best known of the poets mentioned so far.  She wrote hundreds of hymns, including All Things Bright and Beautiful, Once in Royal David’s City, There is a Green Hill Far Away, and I Bind Myself to God Today.  The last one is a rewritten version of a poem by St. Patrick—fitting since she was married to the head of the Anglican Church in Ireland.  

The hymn I quoted, Jesus Calls Us, O’er the Tumult begins with what seems a reference to Jesus stilling the storm, but returns to the call of the disciples.  “Turned from home and toil and kindred/leaving all for Jesus’ sake” is a remarkable line, injecting the tension implied in the scene: yes, they were leaving home and kindred, but they were also leaving behind a life of toil.  They would, of course, pick up another sort of toil—perhaps emotional and spiritual—but there may have been some relief leaving the back-breaking life of a labourer.  

Again, the task of the poet is to take the shell of a story, or a few vague words, and turn them into something meaningful.  The twelve will need humility, simple trust, and a keen sense of what they are leaving behind in order to follow.  Likewise, when we take up the invitation to follow Jesus, we also need humility, simple trust, and a keen sense of what we are leaving behind in order to follow.  Followers of Jesus swap toil for toil, the hardship of meaninglessness for the hardship of service.  The hardship of despair for the need to care for the despairing.  Graceless living for costly grace.  I could go on.

Instead, I want to highlight another poet, this time Amanda Gorman, 22-year-old youth poet laureate of our neighbours to the south.  In an instant she became the most famous poet in the land, by doing very much the same work that our other poets did.  You see, the Oath of Office taken at the inauguration is the same 35-word statement recited since this experiment in self-government began.  So what do you say in response?  The job of the poet is to “stand before the text” and find meaning in the moment, or meaning for our time.  So I’ll share a sample:

When day comes we ask ourselves,

where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

The loss we carry,

a sea we must wade

We've braved the belly of the beast

We've learned that quiet isn't always peace

And the norms and notions

of what just is

Isn't always just-ice

Her brilliance is in naming the trouble in our times without being specific.  She doesn’t tell us what trouble she feels we should list as the trouble that truly matters, she simply points to trouble.  And in troubled times, this can only help us attach our worries and our hurt to her words and see where she will take us next.  She begins with the dawn:

And yet the dawn is ours

before we knew it

Somehow we do it

Somehow we've weathered and witnessed

a nation that isn't broken

but simply unfinished

It’s a longer poem and I encourage you to read it, but for today we are left with open-ended hope: not the answer, not any kind of solution, just the recognition that their nation isn’t broken—as many would claim—but simply unfinished.  Taken another way, it’s not a call to fix things, but to begin to finish what was already started—and get back on the best path.

Jesus called the twelve without a detailed program, without benchmarks, or a measure of performance.  Jesus simply said “there is unfinished work to do, the Kingdom of God has come near” and then “come, follow me.”  He gave them open-ended hope that the Kingdom would come, and that together they could be part of something larger than themselves.  

All they need to do, all that we need to do, is follow.  To follow and turn the outline of our lives into poetry, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.  


Post a Comment

<< Home