Thursday, January 29, 2009

Sermon for January 25, 2009

Gone Fishing
Jonah 3:1-5; Mark 1:14-20

From time to time, lobsters have to leave their shells in order to grow. They need those shells to protect them from being torn apart; yet when they grow, the old shells must be abandoned. If they did not abandon them, the old shells would soon become their prisons and finally their caskets. The tricky part for the lobster is the brief period between when the old shell is discarded and the new one is formed. During that terribly vulnerable period, the transition must be scary to the lobster. Ocean currents gleefully cartwheel them from coral to kelp. Hungry schools of fish are ready to make them a part of their food chain. For a while at least, that old shell must look really good.

We are not so different from lobsters. To change and grow, we must sometimes shed our shells - the structure, the framework - that we’ve depended on. As the great scholar of mythology, Joseph Campbell used to say, “We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.”

When God asks you to leave your shell and do something outside of your comfort zone, how do you respond?

The Bible cares about answering this question. In fact, today we heard to examples of people who answered this question in different ways. The first story came from Jonah. God’s voice must have stirred Jonah with a profound experience of God’s presence and power. It is a life changing event to hear the word of the Lord. However, before Jonah can enjoy his encounter with God, shock waves begin exploding in his mind. His heart sinks when he hears God say, “Go to Nineveh.” I can just imagine Jonah’s inner protests. “God, you can’t really mean Nineveh, the capitol city of Israel’s avowed enemy! They capture and torture their enemies. Prisoners of Assyria pray for death to come and relieve their suffering. You aren’t going to use me to preach forgiveness to these cruel and violent people! I am a prophet for Israel.”

So, instead of traveling 500 miles east to Nineveh, Jonah goes west, boarding a boat sailing toward the Atlantic coast of Spain. It would be a year-and-a-half journey to the straits of Gibraltar. Jonah figures he’s escaped the Lord. He has all the time in the world. Little does he know that God REALLY wants Jonah to go to Nineveh. A turbulent storm arises, scaring the sailors out of their wits. To quell the storm, the sailors toss Jonah overboard. Instantly, the sound and the fury of the storm, the yelling, the crying, the praying and screaming cease. The sailors shudder with wonder and praise God, but not the reluctant prophet. Jonah’s going to find new perspective in the belly of a great fish that finally throws him up at the very point from where he started running from God in the first place.

Let’s be fair. God gave Jonah an impossible mission. Nineveh was a city of conquerors, with a strong commercial base, superior technology and a powerful war machine. Jonah was from the boondocks. He had no credentials for international diplomacy. Imagine yourself suddenly being sent to the Sudan where the government is perpetuating a genocide. God tells you to march through the hot desert and tell the Sudanese leaders to repent, to stop the genocide, to hold democratic elections and respect everyone’s civil rights, use their wealth for the good of all the nation’s people. Do you think you would get their leadership to change their policies?

I think I understand Jonah. I have known I am supposed to be a minister since I was about 12 years old. You know how you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up. Some kids want to be fire fighters. Some want to be President. Some want to be sport stars. I told people I wanted to be a minister. There was no vision. No voice from heaven; just the abiding sense that God had a specific path of service for my life. That vocation stayed with me throughout my teen years and throughout college. But when it was time to follow through, I ran. I prepared myself to teach High School English instead. I didn’t want to preach. I didn’t want to deal with other people’s pain. I didn’t want church people looking to me for spiritual leadership when I still had so much to learn. So, here I am as a minister. What happened? I prayed and talked with friends and spiritual guides. I searched my conscience. My alternative plans began to fall apart. No other path was satisfying. I found no peace until I followed God’s call. To follow the call does not mean happiness, but once it has been heard, there is no happiness for those who do not follow

Running from a call seems to be a common theme in the Bible. Even in secular literature, people run from the gods. In Virgil's The Aeneid, Aeneas hears a divine summons to be the founder of Rome. But building Rome is not what Aeneas wants to do. Aeneas does not want to leave his home to follow his calling; He is forced to give up his love and his attachment to the past. It means leaving old dreams and old loves. But there is a larger and better destiny to which he is called. So Jupiter says of him, "That man should sail." And he does. Sailing means embracing the pain of leaving behind what he thought was his comfort and fulfillment. It means trusting that somehow he is not just moving into the future. He is being led from a call that he neither made, wanted, nor even understood.

Have you ever felt like Jonah? Have you ever felt like the world beats you down and tells you that we can’t change the big picture, so just fall in line and make the best living that you can for yourself and your family? Ever feel like God is calling to a God-sized task, but it’s easier to run away? Ever felt like you’ve spent some time in the belly of a whale, out of touch with your calling, your sense of meaning and purpose. Ever feel like Jonah -- fighting God at every step, but finally accepting the call God has for you. Ever think that God wants you to sail to your destiny, but you would rather not go? Remember, God can work, sometimes quite spectacularly, through the most obstinate person who accepts God's call no matter how long and hard one fights it. We must let go of the life we have planned, to accept the one that is waiting for us.

When God asks you to do something outside of your comfort zone, how do you respond? In Mark’s Gospel, we heard another fish story about how Jesus called the first four disciples to fish for a harvest of humanity so the reign of God will increase. While it takes three chapters for Jonah to get to Nineveh, in a remarkable four verses these anglers leave their nets, their security, and their families to follow Jesus. I know that I would want at least 48 hours to think through me decision, to weigh the consequences, to think about the family business and the implications of the career move. But Mark tells us nothing of their inner deliberations. We don’t know whether the fishing was good or bad, if they were religious people or not, if they got along with their father or had a desire to travel. Mark simply says, “Immediately, they followed him.” Jesus presented them with a risk. He offered them a new identity, one that had nothing to do with their geographic or social location. Instead, it would be about movement -- a willingness to take a journey, to begin a pilgrimage. Jesus does not spend a lot of time analyzing the big picture. His program is not very detailed. He doesn’t write a two-volume manifesto about how the world works and he probably would not have bee and very good pundit on “News Hour with Jim Lehrer” or “The O’Reilly Factor.” The call is an urgent, uncompromising invitation to break with business as usual. Jesus says, “God is near. God’s power is at work. Hear this good news and let’s go fishing.”

I read a story once about Alexander the Great. A few centuries before Christ, Alexander the Great conquered almost the entire known world with his military strength, cleverness, and diplomacy. One day Alexander and a small company of soldiers approached a strongly defended, walled city. Alexander, standing outside the walls, raised his voice, demanding to see the king. The king, approaching the battlements above the invading army, agreed to hear Alexander’s demands. “Surrender to me immediately,” commanded Alexander. The king laughed. “Why should I surrender to you?” he called down. “We have you far outnumbered. You are no threat to us!” Alexander was ready to answer the challenge. “Allow me to demonstrate why you should surrender,” he replied. Alexander ordered his men to line up single file and start marching. He marched them straight toward a sheer cliff that dropped hundreds of feet to rocks below. The king and his soldiers watched in shocked disbelief as, one by one, Alexander’s soldiers marched without hesitation right off the cliff to their deaths. After ten soldiers had died, Alexander ordered the rest of his men to stop and to return to his side. The king and his soldiers surrendered on the spot to Alexander the Great.

I really don’t like this story! It makes me very uncomfortable. When I hear it, I wonder if God really wants that kind of blind obedience from me. I doubt my own ability to follow when it means sacrificing that much. It’s just too much. If asked to make a choice between suffering for God or following my own comfortable life plan, I will usually choose comfort. God’s expectations are just too high. For God, obedience is not even an option. It is a demand – and I am not always willing to listen. Jesus did not just ask the first disciples to give something up–like not eating chocolate during Lent. When Jesus calls, their own hopes, plans, and ambitions get put on hold. He asks these fishermen to put aside their career, their families, and their way of life for a new fishing expedition. I think he asks the same of us. In many congregations today, we can’t imagine that such a challenge might be put to us. So we ramble on, meander for weeks, then years, never hearing the central claim and call of Christ to us today.

I went through the Bible and looked up many of the verses that ask me to obey. Here’s what I found out. The words in Hebrew and Greek that are most often translated as “obey” are mentioned about 500 times. In Hebrew, the word obey actually refers to a corral or pen made of thorns. When the ancient Hebrew shepherds were out at night with their flocks, they would build a corral of thorn bushes to keep the wolves and other night creatures away. The corral was seen as a guardian to care for the sheep.

Following our call is not just about blindly obeying the impulses of a punishing God. It’s not just about suffering at the hands of a divine masochist. It’s about guarding, protecting and cherishing the expectations of a God who guards, protects and cherishes you.

But following God requires some major adjustments. God is interested in developing the heart of a disciple in us. We can listen now. We can run away. In the end, God will never let us go too far without bringing us back. “We let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” If following God easy? No. Does answering the call mean we will have all blessing and no pain? No. Does God want to use you to accomplish a god-sized task? Does God want to use our congregation to accomplish a task with God-sized dimensions? I have no doubt. When we listen, when we follow, God will do something so amazing through us, that everyone else will know that God is at work.


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