Sunday, January 25, 2009

Audio from Jan. 25

Val Jenks reads the Scripture at the beginning. After the end of the sermon (25:25), we sang "It Is Well With My Soul." The benediction is tacked on to the end. For those of you who are seeing this on facebook, you can get audio at my blog,

I'm back...and here's the sermon from Jan. 25

Based on Mark 1:14-20.

I wasn’t sure what to think this week when I went on the website of an independent church in Indiana and read the section on becoming a Christian. Its title was “Becoming a Christian is as easy as ABC.” A: Admit you are a sinner. B: believe that Jesus Christ can save you. And C: Confess him as Lord of your life.” ABC: that’s what it takes.
Like I said, I wasn’t exactly sure what to think; on one hand, that’s true, that’s what it takes to become a Christian. But at the same time, I’m always wary of people who tell you how easy it is to become a Christian, that it’s just a matter of saying a certain something or praying a certain prayer. Again, there’s a sense in which that’s true, but there’s also a sense in which that is too simple. To become a Christian is simple, perhaps, but to live as a Christian is a terribly complex thing, one which demands the rigorous involvement of our minds, our bodies and our spirits.
At least that’s the way that Jesus talked about it when he made his initial pitch for followers. Jesus’ initial approach was not to tell people about how easy it was to follow him, but to stress how following him meant that everything would change. Jesus’ message seems simple: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Again, simple; just one sentence. But there’s an awful lot jammed into this sentence. When he says, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus is making an apocalyptic statement. Good Jews at the time of Jesus believed that the Day of the Lord would come at some point, and that that day would be an apocalyptic day, a day the whole world was shaken, a day everything was turned upside down. Most importantly, there would be political ramifications and Israel would be restored to a place of prominence, a powerful nation in the world. No longer would they be an insignificant people tucked away in an insignificant corner of the Roman Empire; no longer would they be a people conquered by the Assyrians, the Babylonians or the Romans; now they would be a powerful people, like they were in the days of King David and King Solomon. Jesus says, “That time has come; in me, the whole world is being turned upside down; in me, Israel is being glorified, but in a way you can scarcely imagine; in me, history is pivoting.” We heard that word being used a lot on Tuesday during the inauguration, how we were at a pivot point in American history with our first African-American President. And if that is truly a pivot point remains to be seen; you could argue that America will continue to struggle with racism just as much as ever regardless of who’s in the White House. But Jesus laid claim to being a real pivotal figure in history; he claimed that in him one age was passing away and another was beginning; in him the world was being turned upside down and history was turning on its head.
Thus, Jesus says, “repent and believe in the good news.” Repent is one of those words that has simply lost its meaning in our modern situation. It has come to mean something like, “having willpower to break a bad habit,” or “saying I’m sorry.” Repentance, though, is a far bigger concept than that; it has to do with the whole orientation of your life. Repentance is a complete turn-around from one way of living to another. In short, what Jesus is saying is, “I have come to change the whole game, the whole thing. Turn your life around to match what I am saying. What I am saying is at odds with the way the whole world thinks about things, and I want you to re-orient your life and live as if what I say is true, not the things you have always believed are true. I want you to reject the stories that the world tells you about how God works and choose to live as if my account for how God works is true. Repent, believe the good news: believe that the world is turning upside down, believe that you can trust me to show you what’s true, believe me, not what you have always believed, not just what your parents told you, but believe me. Believe me with your mind and spirit, and repent so that you live that belief out with your life. That is what Jesus is saying here; it is not simple or easy, not a matter of ABC, but re-think everything you know about the way the world works and follow me. Re-think reality and follow me.
Brian McLaren is a Christian author who sometimes infuriates me and sometimes inspires me. I think he has a very helpful way of thinking of this, though: he talks about framing stories, stories that define reality as we know it. The culture we live in has one framing story, about achievement, about conquest, about competition and winners and losers. In this framing story, the powerful ones are the ones who achieve the most or are the most beautiful or are the celebrities, those that climb the ladders well. Jesus has a whole different framing story: life is not about winning at all, but about laying yourself down. Jesus dares to say, “I am God come to earth, and I am demonstrating in my birth, in my life, in my death, that life is not about asserting yourself, but giving yourself away completely.” When Jesus says to repent, he is inviting us to change framing stories, to leave behind one way of thinking and looking at the world and to take on another. To leave behind one set of priorities and to take on another.
Jesus’ message is difficult and it doesn’t appeal to everybody. In fact, in some way, it doesn’t really appeal to very many people at all. Because you know what? Most of us don’t really want to re-think reality. That’s a whole lot of trouble to go to. And you don’t really want to go to that reality if you have a pretty nice life. I mean, I have a pretty nice life. Wonderful wife, two beautiful kids. I don’t live in a fabulous home, but it keeps me warm and there’s plenty of room for the four of us to live. I’ve got a couple of advanced degrees and another one on the way that should contribute to my ability to provide for myself and my family. I’ve got paid vacation and benefits. Who wants to re-think reality when that is your reality?
No doubt most of you have pretty nice realities too. Many of you have nice homes to live in, great families, rewarding jobs, a career path to follow...and all of this makes it difficult to re-think this reality. Who wants to re-think reality when your reality is so pleasant? Who wants to repent, to reorient their life, when their current life orientation is pretty nice? The world’s framing story is sweetly seductive in many ways, especially to those of us who are the winners many times. To the young, to the achievement-oriented, to the talented, the world’s framing story promises prosperity and success and love. It is difficult to leave behind that framing story for the framing story of Jesus.
This is part of the reason the gospel has always been so much more popular among the poor, part of the reason why the Bible consistently declares God’s love and favor upon the poor. The poor have no illusions about life, no illusions that their current reality is worth defending. When you have trouble getting food on the table, you don’t think reality is so great that you have to go around preserving it all the time. When you’re having trouble putting a roof over your family’s head, you’re willing to hope that this reality is not all there is, that there is a reality to which Jesus calls us and the burden of repentance is comparatively small to the good news that there is more than this.
But let’s be honest for a second and think about our mostly comparatively wealthy lives. Think for a moment about the collateral damage of the world’s framing story. Yes, the world’s framing story has gotten some of us a lot of wealth, but at what cost? At what cost spiritually? Jesus said it this way: “What does it profit a person if they gain the world but lose their soul?” What does it cost us to live with this framing story? Well, for one thing, this framing story pictures the world as constantly in competition with each other. Doesn’t that cost us something, to see ourselves as constantly in competition with those around us for jobs, for money, for love and affection? For another thing, this framing story values those who achieve. Doesn’t that cost us something when age or disability robs us of the ability to achieve? Doesn’t it cost us something spiritually to hold up actors and athletes as our heroes when 99% of us can never do what they do no matter how hard we work? The wealth this framing story gives us is appealing, but in the end we realize how much it costs us, how much it harms us, how much it robs us of the dignity with which we were created?
Jesus’ invitation to repent, to choose another way of life is still good news. It threatens us because it makes us rethink dogmas of the world that we hold dear. But it is good news because it invites us out of that deceptive way of life, that way we all live by but sucks our souls, into a new and life-giving framing story that says the heroes are not the rich and wealthy high achievers, but the heroes are those who have humbled themselves completely and given themselves to God totally. In Jesus the Kingdom of God has come near; it is up to us to believe that is so and repent, re-orient, re-prioritize everything in our lives.
I am fascinated by the following verses in this text. Four fishermen hear Jesus’ message and immediately follow him. A fisherman in that culture was not exactly the top of the social food chain, but it wasn’t exactly the bottom either. It was a respectable profession. Sure you smelled like fish all the time, but at least you could make a respectable amount of money and spend time with good friends out on the water. It wasn’t the kind of thing one gave up easily.
And yet Jesus sees Simon (who will later be called Peter) and his brother Andrew out on the water, casting a net out into the sea. They must have been somewhere close to shore, because Jesus sees them from the beach and calls out, “Follow me and I’ll make you fish for people.” While Jesus does not use the word “repent” with them, he’s asking nothing less of them. He’s saying, “Leave your life, leave everything you know, and follow me instead. Where are we going? I’m not gonna tell you that. Just follow me.” And as far as Simon and Andrew know, it’s just some stranger on the beach hollering to them. And we read that immediately they left their nets and followed him. Just like that—snap your fingers, they followed him.
And then he goes further on and he sees James and John, two sons of a man named Zebedee, and they’re all fishermen as well. They’re not out on the water, they’re engaged in the tedious task of mending the nets. And Jesus says to them, “Follow me.” And why James and John did, I’ll never know. Their father Zebedee had more sense than to follow a stranger away from the only life he knew. But that stranger—he didn’t even introduce himself!—that stranger had something about him that made men repent. There was something about him that made people throw away the lives they had loved to follow him into the great unknown. Simon, Andrew, James and John—these four—saw him and simply, instantly, decided to follow him and become, as he said, fishers of people.
What is it that makes grown men instantly re-evaluate everything about their lives? A fisherman is a realist, man. Fishermen are not wild-eyed dreamers; fishermen are cold, calculating, steely. You don’t wake up every morning before the fish by being a lazy type who works when the mood strikes. You don’t go out on the water and the sun and the wind and the dry air (all this 1900 years before chapstick) without being a realist about how hard life really is. What is it that makes grizzled fishermen go all soft? What is it that makes realists throw caution to the wind and dream again?
The answer is both simple and complex: it is the presence of God. When Simon and Andrew, James and John looked out on that shore, they did not see a simple teacher, they did not see an excellent moral example, they saw God. They saw God in the flesh; and if you see God in the flesh, no matter how much you like fishing, you realize, “It’s just fishing. An opportunity like this comes along once in a lifetime, and only to the very, very lucky. I’ve gotta go and I’ve gotta go now.” Who knows why these four men could see God and Zebedee and the hired hands saw a mere man? Who knows why some could sense God and some could not?
So it is with us, who come to church this morning, some of us fresh from our own fishing boats, whatever they are. Each of us has made our peace with a certain routine, even if we hate it; we wake up in the morning, we brush our teeth, we look in the mirror with our tired eyes (if we have babies, anyway) and we do what we always do. We drive to work, make breakfast for the kids, we put in a full day’s hard work, we grab pizza on a break, we know what we do. We know the fabric of our lives, we know our own fishing boats, that routine that simultaneously gives us meaning and sucks us dry. All of it is mending our nets, or casting them into the sea.
Now here’s the secret: that same God is here, the God who called on Simon and Andrew, James and John. We asked him to be here when we prayed. That same God is present and that same call to repent, to turn everything upside down and follow him, that same God is speaking to you and to me on our own fishing boats. And likely most of us will miss it somehow; most of us will not sense the presence of God and will continue mending our nets or casting them into the sea. But maybe four of us, or fourteen of us, or forty of us, will encounter him today. Maybe four or fourteen or forty of us will hear his call to turn things upside down, to re-orient our lives. Maybe four or fourteen or forty of us will realize that his claim that the world is not what we think it is is really good news instead of a threat; maybe four or fourteen or forty of us will give our hearts to him today and follow him as did Simon and Andrew, James and John. Will you hear the call?