RESPONDING TO THE CALL
This morning we've read two passages of Scripture that have to do with God's call on people's lives. We heard how Jesus began to live out his own calling, how he called his first disciples, and then in the OT passage how God called Jonah to a specific task.
The passage in Mark is simple and straightforward. We learn in just one brief sentence that Jesus begins to preach the Gospel just at the time that his cousin, John the Baptist stops preaching because he has been thrown in prison. Jesus picks up the message.
Right off the bat is something to chew on. I don't remember the exact day I noticed this, but I do remember that it made me sit up straight and take notice. I had always assumed that the sole content of the Christian Gospel was telling the world about the death and resurrection of Jesus. What made me take notice was verses 14-15. Verse 14 says Jesus is proclaiming the good news of God. That's the definition of Gospel...good news. Verse 15 is the content of the Gospel: "The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" Jesus is preaching the Gospel before his death and resurrection have even entered the picture. And people receive eternal life as a result.
I don't want to be mistaken for saying that the death and resurrection of Jesus are unimportant, but I do want us to realize that Jesus was bringing people to a saving knowledge of God before that happened. The Gospel...the good news...was that the Kingdom of God was among them...walking, talking, healing, teaching. Soon He would also be dying and rising, but that is the culmination of the story, not the entire book. Jesus life, it seems, is as important as his death in the message that we are called to preach. Once we've gotten that straight, Jesus is ready to actually recruit some folks.
So, in the next verses in Mark, Jesus recruits his first disciples...two sets of brothers. Simon, who later is re-named Peter, and his brother Andrew come first and then James and his brother John. All of them are fishermen. All of them are hard at work when the call comes. These four don't spend a weekend retreat trying to decide what to do when the call comes. Jesus walks by, says "Follow me" and they abandon their careers and families and go.
They don't even finish the project they were working on right then. There is no, "Sure, Jesus, just a sec...got twelve more stitches on my net here." They just go. James and John go and leave their bewildered and probably mad father in the boat to finish the job.. Imagine the conversation around that dinner table! "I'm telling you Martha they're gone....just up and left me without so much as an I'm sorry for leaving you in such a fix, Dad. Ungrateful is what they are...after all we've done for them to build up this fishing business for them to inherit." "At once they left their nets and followed him."
Abraham has a similar story. God simply calls to Abraham, orders him to pick up and move to a foreign country, and Abraham picks up and goes without so much as a grumble. Abraham and his descendants become the nation of Israel. The disciples and their converts become the Church. They are not chosen because of their special gifts. They are simply the ones who respond to the call of God with obedience.
This past week I have been away, fulfilling my duties as part of the Board of Ordained Ministry. Four times a year we gather for three intense days to examine candidates for ministry in the United Methodist Church. We wrestle with whether a person's theology is adequate for ordination. We watch videos of worship services that the candidates lead; we watch and read their sermons. We evaluate their Bible Studies, we examine their psychological testing and probe their life histories. Each candidate is interviewed for three hours. This week we interviewed 12 candidates, but I want to tell you about four of them.
None of the four are native to the United States. One is from Barbados, one from Nigeria, one from the Philippines, and one is from Korea. What they had in common was that each one had sacrificed greatly to follow the call of God...and I'm not just talking about their call into ministry. One woman was disowned, even beaten by her Buddhist mother for being Christian. Another had to flee his country because of his faith. They were cast out, persecuted, threatened, poor, but none of that deterred them from the faith that had given them life.
They each felt God calling them to a further step...to enter the ordained ministry...and they endured still more, each one eventually leaving behind all they knew and loved to come to this country for study and now for ministry. Two endured years of separation from their spouses because the spouse could not be brought here easily. They came anyway...Jesus had said "Follow me. At once they left their nets and followed him." They are full of joy.
They recognize that the Church has one foundation...Jesus Christ...and one mission...the making of disciples, in all the forms in which that can be done. In their homelands they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and preached the Gospel everywhere they went. And then they came to us–filled with the Holy Spirit and such passion for their faith that none of our interview teams wanted our time with them to end.
After the candidates went home and we turned to the task of evaluation, a number of us were sitting around the dinner table when someone said, "I am so afraid that being here is going to discourage them. I hope they can stay with it...after all, they know what real ministry is like, and now they have come here." We all looked down in our laps, because we all knew what the person meant. We had heard it even in some of their interviews.
One had been criticized for preaching too much about Jesus. Another had been told she paid too much attention to non-members. They were completely baffled at the concerns in their churches over furniture and hymn choices and styles of worship. None of them understood why being late for lunch seemed to be a spiritual problem important enough to cut short the worship of God. The man from Nigeria has been physically beaten five times for his faith. I dare any one of you to explain to him why worship should not go over an hour or why ten percent of a person's income is too much to ask. I dare any one of you to be happier than he is.
They had come full of life, from faith communities that were overflowing with joy and life even though it cost some of those faithful ones their families and their lives. They had Good News and it had to be shared. The Kingdom of God had come near in Jesus...right to earth...with us...here. God was love not fear; freedom not law. That knowledge changes lives...they know...it has changed theirs to such a degree that they would give up everything rather than lose the Savior they have found in Jesus. Their churches back home knew that was the main thing. They knew that the church existed to bring that good news to all who didn't know it and to show the love of Jesus through acts of mercy to the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized.
They came here to spread that word in America. They expected that it might be difficult to share the good news with the rich and comfortable. They were already prepared to undergo hardship and difficulty in their mission to those who were not Christian. But they never thought that the mission would be fought by the people IN the churches. They never before had encountered Christians who thought that church was about themselves rather than others, and they could not even begin to process what it meant to preach too much about the one who had given them eternal life.
When Jesus sent his disciples out to bring the good news to the surrounding towns, his instructions were that if they and their message were not received, they were to shake the dust off of their sandals and move on. I'm here to tell you that God is now turning to other nations to send disciples to us. God is finding there the ones who will get up, leave their nets, leave their parents standing dumbstruck in the boat and follow. And God is sending them here to try to wake us up with the Good News: The Kingdom of God is near...repent and believe the Gospel! Will they have to shake our dust off of their sandals?
Will we receive the Gospel? Jesus is walking among us, watching us mending our nets and preparing our boats to fish so that we might feed ourselves. He is calling to every one of us... "Follow me." What will you do? What are you willing to leave behind for the sake of the Gospel? We talk the talk sometimes...but can you leave your nets? Your safety nets? Can we give up our ownership of the Church and let Jesus have it back?
I was one of those at the table who sat and looked in my lap. The Conference looks to us as one of the most vibrant, alive and growing United Methodist Churches in New England. And yet even here I have heard that we can't help the poor until we determine whether they are deserving. Even here, where we could increase our seating capacity by 20% without even disturbing the paint on the walls, we would rather hang out a "no vacancy" shingle than change from pews to chairs. You just try explaining that problem to someone who grew up with hundreds of people of all ages crammed into a church for four hours sitting on a dirt floor. And even then not wanting to leave or be anywhere else.
Where is our fire? I tell you, I am seen as a leader in this Conference. But this week I wanted to sit at the feet of those I was charged to examine and simply learn from them. I wanted to really remember what it felt like when God first called me at age 14 and said, "Anne, preach. Tell others about me." I was there to judge their worthiness to minister in the New England Annual Conference, but what I discovered was my own lukewarmness, my own desire for comfort and stability, my own fear of being cast out for really preaching the Gospel.
These four pastors, the first four disciples, Abraham...they are not somehow different from us. They are simply committed...obedient...willing. Being a disciple is an act of the will. It is something you decide to do or not do. There is no more joyful way to live, but it will require all you have and are.
John was the only one of Jesus' disciples to live out a natural life. When he was very old and exiled because of his faith, he had a vision that has become the book of Revelation in our Bibles. Part of that vision was the Spirit of Jesus dictating letters to seven churches in Asia. Listen to the letter Jesus asked John to send to the church in Laodicea:
"I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.' You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches."
© 2003, Anne Robertson
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