A note of thanks before I begin: one of the great gifts of online worship, is that I get to experience other preachers, which we were rarely able to do when everyone was in their own building at the same time, many of us without an online presence. Two sermons I have heard recently on the call stories of Jesus to the early disciples have greatly influenced my approach to today’s Bible texts, so I’d like to give a shout-out to Rev Nancy Nourse at Northminster United Church in Calgary, and Pastor Shannon Kershner from Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago.
If your household has functioned anything like mine over the past eleven months, there has been a fair amount of binge-watching of TV series. One thing that I have noticed in the midst of this, is the difference between watching a series that is based on original or unfamiliar material, and series that are based either on a familiar novel or historical events. In one case, you have no idea where the story is going, other than foreshadowing that may be included by the storyteller; but in the other case, you know full well where the story is going to end up. When you know where the story is going, it is intriguing to see the twists and turns of the story as it heads toward its inevitable goal; but the other thing that can happen when you know how it’s going to turn out, is that you might forget that the characters in the story don’t have the advantage of knowing where it is all going to end, so things that are no surprise to you, are a complete surprise to them. They only know what they know at that moment, and make their decisions based on the input they are getting from their senses, their gut, their context, their personal history, rather than by a guaranteed outcome.
This morning, we have heard two gospel accounts of the calling of the first disciples: Mark’s version, as well as John’s. We know how these stories are going to unfold, the parables and the preaching and the healings; we know the tragedy of holy week, and the everlasting hope of Easter. These prospective disciples, however, don’t know any of that. So if you could place yourself in their place – walk a mile in their sandals, if you will – what would possibly compel you to leave the familiarity of what is, for this new journey that you know nothing about?
As Nancy Nourse has pointed out, this was a time of external and internal crisis in the land of Galilee. There was the ongoing, widespread oppression caused by the Roman occupation, and there were threats from within – internal pressure caused by the deep corruption and irrationality of King Herod the megalomaniac. And in Mark’s remembering of things, John the Baptist, the cousin and proclaimer of Jesus, had already been imprisoned, so the tension is palpable. These things set the context for Jesus to be propelled into action, proclaiming that the time was now, and the new realm of God where all this would be turned upside down was basically before them. And that same context would have affected how Jesus’ call to a new way of being was heard by Andrew and his brother, Simon Peter, and to another set of brothers, James and John, here referred to as the Sons of Zebedee but a couple of chapters from now referred to as the “Sons of Thunder”. Author Tony Campolo suggested several years ago that the “Sons of Thunder” may have been a resistance organization, covertly undermining the Romans whilst keeping an eye on the unstable, unhinged King Herod. So while part of me filters this story in Mark through Christian camp songs – “I will make you fishers of men, if you fol-low me” – the realities of daily life are writ large here. Especially in the Galilee, farmers and fishers were both heavily taxed as a daily reminder of who was in charge, and that meagre gain from a long day’s work would tend to make your ears especially attentive to someone who came and said, “you know, this system of heartless overlords and meaningless toil isn’t God’s plan for the world. Come start something with me, disentangle yourself and be reoriented to love, and justice, and hope.”
One thing that is not clear, in Mark’s account at least, is whether Jesus was a total stranger to them. He, like they, was a Galilean, but … they were fishers, living down on the Sea/Lake itself, whereas he’d grown up in the home of a tradesperson in the high country of Nazareth. The walk from Nazareth to Capernaum about 30 km, with a 500 metre drop in elevation – so you’d definitely want sturdy footwear and a good walking stick and good reason to make the trek. That being the case, unless they had heard about John the Baptist and what he had been doing down by the Jordan, chances are that this meeting was all about the context and the content, rather than any pre-existing relationship. They were in an unsatisfactory situation, and they needed to either trust this charismatic stranger, or not. Much in the way that the concept of truth vs falsehood has become so blurry in recent years, due to the bizarre political climate we live in and the largely unfiltered world of social media, these first prospects needed to decide on-the-spot if this new path, proposed by this new person, was trustworthy. Fortunately, they did make the sacrifice, leaving what was for what would be.
In the gospel of John, the recollection is quite different. In the gospel of John, the first two disciples, Andrew and another unnamed disciple, are not called at all. They were already disciples of John the Baptist and when Jesus walked by, John the Baptist said “there’s the guy I was talking about!” and basically refers his disciples to their new teacher. After a halting conversation, Andrew and his companion state a curiosity and Jesus invites them with the words, “come and see.”
Shannon Kershner picks up on the importance of the word order here. While we, for the most part, want to see first, and then make our move, Jesus reverses that process. We want the evidence of trustworthiness and effectiveness, the testimonials, the durability reports, and we want all these things first before committing ourselves to something. But Jesus has something new. In a culture overrun by Rome and mishandled by Herod, Jesus is not talking about a return to the “good old days”. Jesus is not presenting them with “going back to normal” or even a “new normal” that has been tweaked only slightly. Jesus calls them to a new way: they will see it as they be it.
In the same way that the year 2020 has taught us that if we are to see the world through God’s eyes, we cannot avert our eyes to racial injustice or the destructive road of selfishness, these disciples of John the Baptist were called to take a leap of faith into something new and still unfolding. Their curiosity and hopefulness led them to the precipice of a decision, which was met by Jesus’ immortal words, “come and see.” As they will soon find out, they are called to have a personal change of heart and to commit themselves to a fundamental reordering of their socio-economic relationships. This person Jesus, described earlier in this first chapter of John’s gospel as “the Word made flesh,” is re-introducing them to God’s path of justice and new life, a way that promises a whole new shape to my life, to your life, to our life, to the shared life of all living beings. And just as Mark says that this new way of being, this Kingdom of God is already in our midst, Jesus invites us to “come and see”. Yes, God’s path is, as Martin Luther King Jr. famously brought forward from Theodore Parker, a long arc that bends toward justice – but no matter how long that arc is, it IS. The path of discipleship is the path of God’s own love, embodied and put into action.
Today, we will be gathering for our Annual Meeting, reviewing the life of Ralph Connor Memorial United Church in the year 2020, the strangest year this community of faith has experienced in a long, long time. We will give thanks for the adaptations made along the way, for the creative contributions of so many to our worship life, for the faithful carrying-on of the work of Church committees, even when that work needed to happen over Zoom rather than in-person. We will remember the special moments, such as the three Sundays in the fall when we did get together in-person at the ball diamond, the socially-distanced baptisms, the renewal of the sanctuary, the huge Christmas response to the needs at Morley, the hundreds of phone calls made by our Care Contacts. As a congregation that is used to being shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip in our beloved little sanctuary, we will lament the space now between us, and, as always at an Annual Meeting, we will mourn the loss of all who have died during the past year.
But we will also attune our ears afresh to the call of Jesus Christ. Unlike the first disciples, we have the advantage of knowing where the narrative of Jesus goes from here. We know that renewing our yes to Jesus calls us to be people of hospitality, generosity and justice. And we imagine what that might look like, in a year whose landscape is uncertain yet in many ways more hopeful than the year just exited. We don’t know when we’ll be gathering in person again, the vaccination roll-out timeline that seemed pretty clear a few days ago is much less clear now, but there are other things we do know: we know the companionship on this journey of a God whose love pulsates throughout all of creation, the Christ who sets a path of liberation and hope, the Spirit who encourages and prods and consoles.
For most of my time in ministry, I’ve been reminded that the call of Jesus Christ is a big, expansive call offered to us as the ongoing body of Christ in the world, rather than a little personal pact of “me and Jesus against the world.” Yet at this point in our history, that bigger entity is a bit hard to grasp. So we return to those two gospel lessons we’ve heard this morning, and notice that in each case, it was pairs of people who were called and who responded. Jesus didn’t call all 12 disciples at once, it was a gradual and personal process. Personal, but not solitary: from the beginning, the decision to follow was supported, mutual, together, gradually growing into the group of 12 plus at least 60 other women and men who set aside other priorities to support the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Here in 2021 we notice how unusual it is to not be together as one, but I find it encouraging to remember that working in a more dispersed way is not unknown within our Christian history. Whether the followers of Jesus are a crowd of thousands on a hillside, or pairs of disciples being invited to a new way of life and sent out to heal in God’s name; whether there are 60 or 70 of us inside one room, or a diaspora of 80 or 120 individuals engaging a YouTube service in Canmore or Banff or Ontario or the UK, the agenda of love remains…and the heart that needs to turn toward others, is my heart, and your heart, lovingly supported by trusted companions.
Today we remember, and we anticipate. We give thanks, we open ourselves to the unknown. And we respond to Jesus, whom we know well and yet, still surprises us, as we are called to come and see. In Christ we see and hear, and reply. Amen.
Campolo, Tony. Unpublished lecture at Willingdon Heights United Church, Burnaby BC, 2016.
Kershner, Shannon. 17 Jan 2021 Sermon, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago. https://video.ibm.com/recorded/129206698
Nourse, Nancy. 24 Jan 2021 Sermon, Northminster United Church, Calgary. https://www.facebook.com/northminsterunited/videos/456606482179266
Parker, Theodore – quoted by MLK. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129609461#:~:text=Theodore%20Parker%20And%20The%20’Moral%20Universe’%20In%20talking%20about%20the,listeners%20pointed%20out%20that%20King
RCMUC 2020 Annual Report, https://ralphconnor.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/AGM-2020-FINAL-REPORT.pdf
© 2021, Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.