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Fishing for Change
January 24, 2021
Pat Dirken is a member of the Bethesda United Methodist Church in Bethesda, Maryland. Some years ago, he was surfing in the ocean when a large wave crashed him into the shoreline, breaking his spinal cord and transforming him into a quadriplegic.
That led to months of physical therapy and strenuous work to rebuild his life, while he was confined to a wheelchair that he operates with just his breath. Amazingly, the result of all this is that he feels as if he is a new man.
His experiences have strengthened his faith and reinforced his belief that God answers prayers. But, even so, he couldn’t quite make sense of why such a tragedy would happen to him. That is until his church introduced him to the Wounded Warrior Project.
Once a month, members of Pat’s church go to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to provide lunch to military personnel who have been injured in the war in Afghanistan and to their families. Pat accompanied them, offering a friendly heart and a kindred spirit. He was able to talk to the men in a way no one else could. Thinking about that, he says, “It’s a God thing. I feel called.”
Being called to use our abilities on behalf of God’s Kingdom is the subject of our gospel lesson today. Specifically it is Mark’s account of the call of four of Jesus’ disciples — Peter and Andrew, James and John. All of them were fishermen, partners in a commercial fishing enterprise. But all of them instantly set that aside to follow Jesus.
Simon and Andrew, along with James and John, were successful entrepreneurs, who owned or co-owned expensive boats and fishing equipment and who had very specialized knowledge which had earned them good livings. However, those skills would be of no apparent use when it came to being religious disciples. Nonetheless, they left everything at the drop of a hat to follow Jesus.
What could impel four grown men — at least one of whom was supporting a wife and possibly children — to leave everything behind and follow Jesus after hearing a single-sentence invitation? Don’t you wonder what Peter’s wife thought about that decision? For that matter, don’t you wonder what Peter’s mother-in-law thought about that decision?
Surely both of them were used to him making impulsive and maybe even impractical choices. And just as surely they would have been worried about this one.
What about Zebedee — James’ and John’s father and business partner? What did he think when his two sons jumped out of the boat to follow an itinerant preacher?
There had to have been something so amazingly attractive about the person of Jesus that it overcame these men’s personal sense of inertia and led them to embrace a vision of an as-yet-unknown future, one that had the potential to help them find the meanings of life beyond their own individual horizons.
Leslie Barnwell has described the scene this way: “Jesus saw the men, their boats pulling slowly against the sea. I expect he knew them — at least by sight — maybe more. […] So one day when he stopped while they fished and called out to them, first Simon and Andrew, then James and John — looked up. It was as of he sensed their readiness, their restlessness — as if he knew them almost in a way they didn’t know themselves. Sometimes it happens that way. Looking at someone else you recognize yourself. So Jesus called them — invited them — challenged them to something new, something strong. This man, his voice, his presence — his call reached into a deep place. It was time for them. They wanted more.”
And that description fits perfectly with Jesus’ call to “repent, and believe in the good news.” That’s because repentance means more than just a turning away from something; it also means turning toward something — or someone. It means coming to your senses and embracing God.
As one author puts it, “It’s not so much looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry’....Rather, it means looking to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’ It means to look at the possibilities for growth, ministry, friendship, [and the] unlimited opportunities.”
in that regard, Jesus was offering people a positive alternative to the life they were leading and many responded, including those early disciples who went on to follow him through thick and thin.
As later gospel stories prove, the disciples didn’t really understand the full scope of what Jesus was calling them to do. Nevertheless, they experienced the call to follow Jesus as one of those rare moments when you catch a glimpse of something bigger and better that what you’ve already experienced and they didn’t hesitate to grab that vision.
There’s a large billboard that greets you as you cross the Julian Dubuque bridge from Illinois to Iowa. It features an advertisement for the the Iowa Lottery with a display of a current total of the winnings someone might receive. Then it follows that up with the tagline, “Just imagine the possibilities.” That’s exactly what we’re seeing when the four fishermen drop their nets to follow Jesus.
The truth is that after Jesus had called his original 12 disciples, he never stopped inviting others to join the party. That calls reaches out to you and me. I don’t know how that has worked out for you. Your call may have come as an expectation within your family that everyone has to go to church and you simply adopted that expectation as being your own without giving it too much thought.
Or you may have had a period of questioning or rebellion in which church seemed to be totally outmoded and irrelevant. And yet, something ultimately brought you back to church — perhaps a wedding or a birth or a death. Or perhaps you may still be in that questioning mode, not really sure if church is for you.
Or perhaps you experienced one of those dramatic, undeniable moments of conversion. Whatever the case may be, Jesus calls each of us to an abundant life — to a life filled with those spectacular, take-your-breath-away moments, and yet somehow we’re willing to settle for the easy and the mundane. Is it possible that we’ve really stopped listening for the reality of Jesus’ call in our lives?
Robert Coles is a child psychiatrist who has written many books about poor and problem children. But one of the most thought- provoking case studies he ever wrote was about a young boy from a well-to-do family. Coles himself refers to this case as “the most devastating story I’ve ever written.” Larry was a rich nine-year-old from Florida who became active in the local Presbyterian Church.
As a result, he started talking about Christ to his teachers, advocating on behalf of the poor to his parents, and quoting the Bible to his friends.
The more he gave himself to Christ, the more he was seen to be a “problem” by his teachers, his parents and his pediatrician. Finally he was forced to receive psychotherapy treatments. His parents were told to stop taking him to church, and eventually, thanks to the so-called “help” of various professionals, he was “cured” of his Christian faith. That’s the moment when they said he became a joy to his family and friends once again.
Is that what Jesus had in mind in our gospel lesson this morning when he called on people to “repent, and believe in the gospel”? William Willimon writes, “When Jesus comes calling us to repent, to change down to the very depths of our souls, to be born again, [and] start over fresh [and] new, [to] let go [and] venture forth, do we believe him? Is there really a power let loose in our world which is able to work more than we can think or say on our own?”
The Bible says over and over that the answer to that question is yes. There is an unimaginably powerful God who created all things and through whose attention all things continue to have their being. This very God calls us to go beyond our limited vision and move out into a world that is far greater than any we could possibly imagine. It is there where lives are truly touched and fulfilled.
That’s why the great German pastor, Helmut Thielicke, used to have an old photograph of a Christmas pageant on his desk. It was the picture of a group of rather grizzled-looking men who were wearing white robes and holding candles in their rough hands.
Another group of men was kneeling in front of them, pretending to be afraid. It was clear that they were supposed to be the Christmas angels, announcing the birth of the Messiah to a group of frightened shepherds. But why was that photograph the only one on his desk?
Thielicke explained that it was taken in prison, while he was a prison chaplain. The men in the scene were all convicts, hardened criminals whose lives had been transformed by Christ.
Those murderers and thugs were dressed like angels and, thanks to the grace of God, that image was no longer something impossible to believe.
For Thielicke, that photograph was a parable — a visible reminder of the awesome power of God to transform us and move us beyond ourselves. And yet how many of us are willing to settle for some weak substitute instead of the awesome, refreshing power of God?
Walker Percy was a novelist and physician who was called “the moralist of the deep South” and “the doctor of the soul,” because he attempted to write both fiction and nonfiction that addressed the great themes of life from a Christian perspective.
In an interview with a national magazine shortly before he died in 1990, Percy said that he was a believer; that he went to church regularly, immersed himself in the Bible, and studied various theologians. The interviewer, incredulous at what he considered such naiveté, asked the distinguished writer, “How is such belief possible in this day and age?” Percy replied, “What else is there?”
So the reporter replied, “What do you mean, what else is there? There is humanism, atheism, materialism, agnosticism, Marxism, behaviorism. Buddhism, Sufism; there is astrology, occultism, theosophy, metaphysics.” And then Percy said simply, “That is what I mean. What else is there?”
In describing the mysteries of the Christian faith, the second century book known as the Epistle to Diognetus had this to say about Jesus Christ: “This is he who was from the beginning, who appeared new and was found to be old, and is ever born young in the hearts of the saints.”
That very Christ is calling to each of us today. Listen to his message once again: “The time is fulfilled and, the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Amen.
by Jim McCrea
Rev. Jim McCrea
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