A sermon preached on January 22, 2012 based upon Mark 1:14 – 20
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;* repent, and believe in the good news.’
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
The first specific act of Jesus’ ministry recorded by Mark is when he said to some fishermen, ‘Come, follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ As the first act, and the first specific words spoken by Jesus, we can assume something pretty central is getting expressed here. Unfortunately, when we hear this story, our tendency is to get distracted by the fact that we can’t imagine ourselves doing what those fishermen did — leaving everything to follow Jesus as he wanders about the countryside. Maybe it leaves us feeling inadequate – we don’t have the right stuff to be a real follower of Jesus. At best, we assume the story isn’t really relevant to us.
But the truth is, in all likelihood, it isn’t God’s will for the vast majority of us to do any such thing. Jesus encountered thousands of people in his ministry, and there were only a handful of people to whom he called to the specific ministry to which he called Peter and Andrew, James and John.
There might be some people who, when they hear this story, are intended to hear God challenge them to think about a change of employment. If your job is bringing out your worst stuff; if your job is about ripping people off – well, yeah, a job change needs to be considered. But for most of us, that’s not the issue. The issue being raised is, “Underneath everything, what am I really living for?”
The standard answer to this question – the one that society encourages us to think of as normative, is to say that we are living for ourselves. We are here to get as much comfort, pleasures, stuff, recognition, praise, and admiration for ourselves as is possible. We’re here to be loved and admired — to be a success, a winner, to make a name for ourselves in some fashion. The assumption that we are here for ourselves is so basic that we barely know how to question it.
In various ways we all buy into this assumption – our culture encourages us to do so – which is why when both John the Baptist and Jesus come along their message involves a universal call to repentance. It’s time, they say, to turn around. We’re all headed in the wrong direction. The “normal” way of being in the world is actually doomed. When we live for ourselves, we are destined to misery. When our lives are centered on ourselves, we are trapped in a cramped, little prison cell — our tiny, stuck ego — where we’re serving out a sentence on death row.
So when Jesus says to us, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of people,” what he’s offering us is a fundamental shift of orientation, where we are no longer simply living for ourselves, but we are living for something infinitely large: the kingdom of God, encompassing all of life. He’s inviting us to join him in a jail break — to lose ourselves in love of others.
For most of us, this doesn’t have to do so much with what our job is. Rather, it has to do with our fundamental attitude towards life. You can be a pastor and be all about yourself, and you can be a lawyer, the stereotype of a slime-bucket profession, and be all about serving others.
A professor in his sixties described what this change of attitude is about when he said that for most of his life, he resented the daily interruptions he experienced to what he considered to be his real life’s work. In his mind, his work was his research, his writing. It was here, he imagined that he could accomplish great things — get published and win the admiration of his peers.
But his work kept getting interrupted by these pesky students and others who would come to him asking for his time, his attention. How he resented their presence in his life.
Somewhere along the way, however, something began to shift for him, and he summed it up this way: He came to realize that his interruptions were his work. The real work of his life was in serving his students and others who came to him for help, for guidance, for support.
I visited my mother this past week. She lives in an assisted living facility two hours away. She can’t see or hear well, nor can she walk on her own. And her mind has a hard time staying focused. Her life is unavoidably isolated, and when we’re isolated it’s easy to fall into the dark pit of self-absorption.
I helped her make a list of people to pray for daily, which she appreciated, since her mind wanders so. Praying for others is a practical way to climb out of the prison cell of ourselves in love of others.
We listed all her family members, and her friends. Then I suggested the nursing staff who cares for her. She thought about that and said, “Yes, I can tell the ones who like me, just by the way they touch me.”
And it struck me. She was describing the nursing staff who had been able to embrace their work as not merely a job but rather as a calling. As they tended to the residents in the facility, they were fishing for people, as Jesus said.
So in a certain sense it doesn’t matter who your job is. Whether you’re a fisherman or a homemaker or a bank teller or a shop clerk, there is opportunity to serve and love the people God puts you in contact with.
The pertinent question, it seems to me regarding whether the particular job we find ourselves in at the present moment is the right fit is whether or not the job allows us to put to use the unique gifts God has given us to serve the world with. When we are exercising our gifts, we are less likely to fall into the black hole of our self-centeredness.
I heard John Bradshaw tell a story about a therapist by the name of Milton Erickson, whose basic premise was that every human being was unique, and needs to be paid attention to. He was flown in by a wealthy family to a town in the Midwest to treat a chronically depressed woman who had been through many doctors and therapists without success. Erikson came in to talk to her for a half hour. During that time he noticed two things about her life: that there were beautiful purple violets around her house that she cared for, and that she went to church every day. Before he left, he gave her assignment: She was to get hundreds of purple violet bulbs to plant, and then she was to start sending purple violets to people in her church whenever there was a some kind of significant transition in their lives: whether it was a birth, a baptism, a wedding, or a funeral. Six months later there was an article in the local newspaper about the “purple violet lady.” Exercising her gifts to serve others, she had climbed out of her depression.
Here’s how Albert Schweitzer put it: “I don’t know what your destiny will be but one thing I know, the only ones among you who will really happy are those who have sought and found a way to serve.”
A small group of men have been gathering with me Friday afternoons to listen to compelling talks and then discuss them. Week before last we listened to a professor of social work talk about how when you get down to it, life is about connection, a sense of belonging. This is what we all crave, but often fail to experience. Connection and belonging are terms that get at what Jesus was leading those fishermen to – the kingdom of God is where we are all connected and all belong. She made the point that in order to be connected, we have to be willing to be vulnerable. That’s where faith comes in; you need to be able to trust in order to be willing to be vulnerable.
This past week we watched a brain scientist (Jill Bolte Taylor, Tedtalks.com) describe her own experience of suffering a stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. The left hemisphere is the part of our brains that thinks in terms of language, and of past and future. It is the part of the brain that conceptualizes a sense of oneself as being separate from the rest of reality. It is necessary for functioning in this world – for problem solving. But when we live primarily out of our left brain, we inevitably feel disconnected, because that is how that hemisphere approaches the world.
She described what it was like to be, for a time, totally in her right brain. She felt connected with everything. She felt at peace and whole. She suggested that it was possible for us to choose to spend more time living out of the consciousness that the right brain, and that in so doing was to be found the hope of humanity.
Jesus’ preaching references time. “The time is fulfilled,” he declared, “the kingdom of God is at hand.” There is a sense of urgency to his message.
Time is a strange concept. If we haven’t truly lived out our purpose of losing ourselves in love and service to others, time truly is running out. It is a very sad thing to be growing old and to never have really loved generously.
On the other hand, a consciousness of time is connected to an awareness of the fact that we will one day die. Ironically, death is a terrifying thing if we are trapped inside ourselves. It means the end of everything that matters to us. But death isn’t such a big deal if we have learned the habit of love – of living in the connection of the kingdom of God. My little ego may die, but the larger life to which I am connected will live on to eternity.
It is in death that we literally imitate the fishermen in leaving everything to follow Jesus. When the time comes, if we entered into the kind of life that Jesus is leading us to, the letting go of all our worldly attachments won’t be hard at all.
I want to finish with a compelling quote from a theologian named Stanley Hauerwas about raising up young people:
“What we do when we educate kids to just be happy and self-fulfilled is to absolutely ruin them. Parents should say to their kids, `What you want out of life is not happiness but to be a part of a worthy adventure. You want to have something worth dying for.’ It’s awful when all we have to live for is ourselves; that’s not what the Gospel reveals to us. The Good News tells of the adventure that humans have been made part of through God’s grace, through Christ, and through the church. God made each Christian part of God’s sacrificial life so that the world might know that it is not abandoned and there is salvation. That’s who Christians are. Doesn’t that sound like a joyful thing. I use the language of joy because happiness is just too pale to describe this adventure.”
Follow me, said Jesus, and I will make you fish for people.