I still remember the conversation that I had with Kimberly the first time that she came to Mammaw and Granddaddy’s for Thanksgiving. “You have to be careful what you say in front of Granddaddy. He has some, uh, triggers.” And so I sat down with her and warned her of the landmines for her to beware of:
“Don’t talk about my cousin’s boyfriend. We don’t want to get him started on him.”
“And don’t talk about the neighbors next door to the East.”
“Or to the West.”
“And definitely never mention the Kennedy’s.”
“Or any Catholics, for that matter.”
“Or any Democrats.”
“Especially Clinton. Granddaddy has always gone by his middle name – Clinton – until Bill got elected. Now he goes by Lewis.”
“You might just want to avoid all politics It’s safer that way.”
“And race. Never talk about African-Americans or Japanese or, well, anyone who isn’t white.”
“And Texas. Be sure to never say anything bad about Texas.”
“Or actually, don’t say anything good about Texas either, because then one of the son in laws will have to correct you and say something bad about Texas, and it’ll be a mess all over. Avoid saying anything about Texas.”
“See, we love Granddaddy. And he can really be loving and kind and generous. But he can also be racist and prejudiced and, well, we don’t really trust him enough to know which one will show up to dinner.”
Anyone ever had a similar conversation? Anyone ever had a similar Granddaddy? Anyone ever chosen to simply avoid the hard topics with them because it is just too divisive? Too explosive? Not worth the hassle?
We are masters of avoidance. Avoiding hot topics. Avoiding uncomfortable conversations. Even avoiding eye contact if we think it will cause us to engage in difficult ways.
I love Garrison Keilor’s old joke: “how do you know if someone is an outgoing Midwesterner? He looks at your feet when he talks to you!” Especially here in the Midwest, we love to avoid the tension when we know that there is a personality conflict, or an ideological conflict, or any kind of conflict.
I’ll own it myself. I remember back when the morning news shows – the Today Show and Good Morning America – moved to a more conflictual format. They would bring in people on two sides of an issue in order to have them fight it out and shout how the other was wrong. That format is now standard fare in the cable news world, as they bring on those with completely opposite ideas and hope that the conflict will sell some ad share. And what did I do when that format took over? I turned the channel. I hated it.
And I’m not alone. I can’t count the number of people who I know who have sworn off social media until after the election, because they don’t want to read the incessant claims from supporters of one candidate or the other. They just don’t want to engage in the conflict.
And I understand. I’m the same way. Maybe because I am a Midwesterner at heart. Or because my personality tends toward the peacemaker.
Or maybe because I don’t trust enough. I don’t trust that after the end of conflict, there will still be relationship left. I don’t trust that we can come into that place of disagreement and still be friends at the end. Still leave the table together at the end of the Thanksgiving meal.
So, I need today’s Scripture passage, because it is clearly an overwhelming example of trust. Let’s be honest here. How on earth did Jesus get these guys to drop everything and follow him? Was he that persuasive? Were they that desperate? Mark gives us absolutely no clues here – according to his Gospel, Jesus just walked onto the beach, said the word, and they couldn’t jump out of the boat fast enough.
What was it that made their trust so clear?
Mark doesn’t tell us. Mark isn’t much for backstory. His is the shortest of the Gospels, and so it reads like Reader’s Digest: enough to whet your appetite, but never in depth.
So, for backstory, we turn to Biblical scholar and social scientist Bruce Malina. Malina writes about the formation of small groups in First Century Palestine, including Jesus’ followers. He suggests that there were three requirements necessary for a small group to form:
- Society was yearning for change.
- A voice appears that offers a new vision for the future.
- There are members of the society who trust that this new vision will work.
Number one is a pretty big deal. First Century Palestinians seriously yearned for something to change. Rome was the Empire du jour, and it had conquered the entire region and set up the Herods as local governors in Palestine. Wanting to show that he could bring some culture to the rednecks of Galilee, Herod had set up a significant building program. He had built a palace, a new capital, had completely re-built the town of Sephoris, just up the road from the sleepy little town of Nazareth. His buildings became the talk of the town in Rome.
But the locals were not amused. Most of them had no use for the shiny objects that Herod used to make himself look good. They were tired of his taxes to build his monuments. They were tired of his condescending act that he really cared about their faith and religious practices. They were simply tired of the Herods, and ready for anything that would provide an alternative. They yearned for change.
Which brings us to Malina’s second element: there were those whose voices offered an alternative vision. Over here were the Pharisees, who believed that if you threw yourself into holy living, religious perfectionism, then God would reward you. Over here were the Zealots, who thought that a knife in the back of any Roman was a good start. Way over here were the Essenes, who ran off into the desert because they believed that God was going to smite all of the Romans and wanted to keep their distance.
And then, out of the desert came a man preaching. Baptizing. Calling for repentance. And when he ticked off the Herods enough, they put him in prison. And so his cousin picked up where he left off. He offered an alternative vision. A reoriented vision of the self as God’s child. It is a vision of forgiveness. Of grace. Of healing. Of rejection of power- and money-worship. Of service. Of repentance. Of reconciliation. Of humility. And so, Jesus begins in this passage gathering his faction.
Which brings us to Malina’s third element: those willing to trust enough to follow. Their yearning for change meant that they must have been ripe for Jesus’ new vision. In fact, it was clear right away that they trusted that this Jesus had the right vision. And they left it all. Fish still in the water. Nets still on the shore. Heck, James and John even left their dad sitting there in the boat, mouth undoubtedly a little open, wondering when they were coming back. Poor Zebedee!
And all he needed to say was “follow me.” But in the Greek, the word follow didn’t mean “walk in this direction.” But “walk in this way.” Follow this way of life – of forgiveness and humility and repentance. I am not only teaching about this, but doing it.
For whatever reason, they trusted that God was speaking through this guy, and knew that they had to follow him. Jesus had given them something more than a new task – he had given them a new identity. The NRSV doesn’t capture the Greek as well – Jesus doesn’t just tell them that they will fish, which is a task. He names them as fishers for people – a new identity.
And that is the true gift that Jesus gave those men on the side of the lake that day. His gift was this new vision for who they were and what it meant to be a child of God. And that vision gave them the courage, the power, and the wisdom to live in such a way that they had yearned for, hoped for. The true gift was the abundant life that John talks about. The Kingdom life that Mark and Matthew talk about. The Spirit-filled life that Luke and Paul talk about.
But what about you and me? What does Jesus offer us in our culture? In our worlds? Malina’s categories ring true, even today. Clearly, we as a culture yearn for a change. The popularity of “outsider” candidates in this year’s election makes that obvious. And clearly, Jesus has given us a new vision for how to enact that change. But the question remains: do we trust that that Jesus vision – of humility and reconciliation and peace and forgiveness – will work in our world today?
That seashore seems a long way off today, doesn’t it? Geographically, temporally, and culturally. We have heard the “fishers of men” line in Sunday school so often, that our ears have become deaf to it. But what if Jesus were to call us? Today? In our world? Would we be willing?
- What if Jesus walked into your classroom where you are teaching a room full of kids and said, “put down your iPad and follow me?”
- What if Jesus walked onto the golf course, as you are trying to impress the women in the senior league, and in the middle of your backswing says, “put down your four iron and follow me?”
- What if Jesus walked into your school band concert and says, “put down your French horn and follow me?”
Jesus does the same thing for us that he did for the disciples. He shows us what it looks like to follow. He gives us a new identity: of course, we will pick up the iPad and the French horn, and even the four iron again…but we will do it in a new way. And that is the true gift that we receive as well. Because the abundant life, the Kingdom life, the Spirit-filled life that Jesus was offering the disciples is a gift offered for us, as well!
My Granddaddy died 11 years ago; he would have been 100 this year, had he lived. His Alzheimer’s led him away from deep relationship several years before his death. But my avoidance of those triggers and pitfalls led me away from deep relationship with him long before that. I never got to really know my Granddaddy as an adult, because I always avoided those hard conversations with him. To me, he died as a caricature, instead of a person who had been haunted and hurt enough to lash out against so many individuals and groups of people. And so I grieve not only the Granddaddy I knew, but the Granddaddy I never let myself meet.
People of God, may it not be so with us! Let us not be a people avoiding the hard conversations in life. Living in our own silos, afraid of risking conversations and honesty that might lead to true relationship. To abundant relationship. Kingdom relationship. Spirit-filled relationship. Leanna Fuller drops this on us: “Faith communities that aren’t safe enough for people to be vulnerable will lack authenticity. Such communities may be free of open conflict, but they will probably also be free of real, deep intimacy. When faith communities are completely free of discomfort or challenge, they may become stagnant, and they will find it difficult to follow where God leads.”
The world around us tells us that there are two options: put two people in the same room to fight about things until the next commercial break. Or turn the channel. But the call of Christ offers a new way. Malina says that the hallmark of the Jesus faction is this trust that they have in each their leader. But one of the hallmarks of the post-Jesus factions – those of us who have come since – is that our shared trust in Jesus brings us to a new sense of trust…in each other!
Let me tell you, it is absolutely nuts to start a conversation about gay marriage in the middle of an election year. Certifiably insane. Everyone is already on high alert, ready to trust no one. The pitfalls are aplenty. The triggers are numerous. And yet, here we are. Because we believe that our God is much bigger than four-year election cycles. Bigger than opinion polls. And bigger than any issue that threatens to divide us. Because we believe that Jesus is still giving us a reoriented vision for the world, still giving us an abundant life, led by the Spirit in our midst.
We believe. And we always have.
For over 161 years, we have. Imagine the controversies that this church has weathered over the last 161 years. Slavery. The Civil War. The Great Depression. Two world wars. Civil Rights. Any one of them could have caused us to close our doors. And yet, here we are. Because we said that we are family and that we would worship God and serve neighbor together – as family. That is my hope for this time, as well. God has walked beside us through controversy in the past, and I believe will walk with us now. Why? Because we trust that God is bigger than that which threatens to divide us. We trust one another to engage instead of avoid. We always have. And, with God’s help, we always will.