Called by Love Mark 1:14-20
January 24, 2021 – Epiphany 3
By Rev. Dr. Kristin Philipson
A couple of weeks ago my family and I watched the new Pixar movie on Disney+ called “Soul” – I encourage you to see this film if you get the chance. The main character is a man named Joe Gardner. On the spectrum of practical and idealistic Joe skews definitively toward idealism. He is a passionate jazz pianist who, in middle age, is still waiting for his big break. In the meantime, he pays the bills teaching music at a middle school. When the principle of the school offers him a permanent position on staff – fulltime hours, a pension, health benefits – Joe feels conflicted about taking her up on it despite his financial precariousness. He believes was born – he was called – to play music and nothing else. He’s an idealistic soul who, through a series of misadventures – I don’t want to give too much away – finds himself mentoring a young soul who needs to find her “spark,” the kind of starry-eyed idealism about callings and meaning and purpose that Joe has in spades: Soul.
Another “Joe” – Joe Biden – in his inauguration speech this past week told the story of Abraham Lincoln signing the emancipation proclamation. The story goes that, as Lincoln put pen to paper, he said “his whole soul” was in it. Biden then went on to say that his “whole soul” is given over now to bringing America together. There was no shortage of idealism on stage last Wednesday at the inauguration of US President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris; the ideals of the United States was on full display: the triumph of democracy, the reveling in the expression of the will of the people, the diversity represented, so many present on stage the living embodiments of adversity overcome, the brilliant idealism shining through the words and performance of the poet laureate of the inauguration, Amanda Gorman. “This moment has called me for a reason,” she said.
We are inspired by stories of people caught up in their ideals and idealism, people like Joe from the movie, “Soul,” who simply live to play music, pension or no pension; stories of idealistic people like Joe Biden who ran not once, not twice, but three times before he was finally successful at becoming President; the kind of idealism embodied in the very posture and poise and poetry of the starry yellow-frocked Amanda Gorman. So why is it then, that the kind of idealism that we see in this week’s scripture story fill us with suspicion and questions rather than inspiration?
Jesus emerges from the wilderness with a pointed proclamation – “The time has come” – and after the briefest of invitations – “Come, follow me” – a group of random fishers drop everything to do just that. It’s a picture that seems doctored, airbrushed, idealized. Jesus makes the monumental look too easy. When I think back to a time in my life when I’ve had to step into a new role I wasn’t confident and self-assured, I was racked with nerves. But here we read that John the Baptist that powerful and provocative voice for change is all of a sudden put in prison and Jesus immediately steps right up to take John’s place, no qualms at all, proclaims his message like he’s been at it his whole life: “Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe” (Mk 1:15). It all seems to go so smoothly. We don’t hear that Jesus is terrified of failing, that he worries maybe no one will listen to him, that he doesn’t feel adequately prepared; Jesus seems to have no sense of trepidation that what happened to John might happen to him. We see in this story only Jesus’ conviction and courage. Well, okay, maybe that’s not so surprising, perhaps we can suspend our disbelief when it comes to Jesus, given who we understand him to be – “so filled with the Holy Spirit was he,” it says in A Song of Faith, the most recent statement of faith from the United Church of Canada, “that in him people experienced the presence of God among them.”
Maybe this ideal portrait and idealism makes sense in Jesus, fine, but his followers, these fishers – Simon and Andrew and James and John – their behaviour is very strange, they are idealistic to a fault, it seems there is not a practical bone in their bodies. Jesus says, “come, follow me,” and immediately, all of a sudden, they drop everything and follow. Surely, this is an idealized portrait, I mean, who does that? Who can afford to do such a thing? James and John even leave their father and their hired hands just sitting there. Who can believe that a person could find him or herself called to follow Jesus in such a way that they immediately stop what they are doing, press pause on their commitments and respond? One has to wonder at the practicality of doing such a thing. For example, we know that Simon is married; when he brings Jesus and this new group of disciples home to stay we hear that his mother-in-law is there. What did Simon’ wife make of his decision? And did they have children? How did Simon propose to feed them, now that he’d abandoned fishing for fish to become a fisher of people?
It is simply unbelievable that none of these first disciples considered any practicalities in their pursuit of this ideal. One cannot simply ignore practicalities. The Globe and Mail published an article back on New Year’s Day about a family who left their “nets,” so to speak, to pursue a more idealistic existence. They had been living the suburban dream – a big house, a pool. The “Mrs.” in the equation stayed home with the kids while the “Mr.” commuted to a good job at a bank. “But after years of living that life,” the author wrote, the two realized that “they wanted something else;” they longed for a more authentic kind of living. They sold their house and all of their belongings. The Mr. quit his job and the couple bought an RV. The plan was to travel around North America for eight months but it’s been four years now and they’re still traveling. They’ve visited 30 US National Parks and 100 State and Provincial Parks. Oh, it sounds ideal, in a lot of ways, but we have to consider practicalities, don’t we? The “Mr.” has a job that allows him to work remotely. If all the farmers and doctors and nurses and janitors sold their belongings and took off in an RV well what would happen then?
Perhaps we approach the story of the calling of disciples another way. How would our understanding change if, instead of puzzling at the disciples behaviour and the practical ramifications of their impulsive decision to drop everything, we wondered at the content of the call that compelled them to do just that? When Jesus called his first followers it wasn’t to a vacation. Their first stop as a group was Capernaum where Jesus preached in the synagogue and was heckled by a man whose whole body had been taken over by the suffering and evil that had been inflicted upon him. “That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed,” Mark wrote in his gospel (1:32). “The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases” (1:33-34). When Simon and Andrew and James and John dropped their nets to follow Jesus, they followed him into the depths of suffering. Mark describes so many people needed healing that “Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere” (1:45). Jesus’ family worried about him. Mark tells a story about Jesus and his disciples entering a house “and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat,” Mark says (3:20). “When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind,’” Mark reports (3:21). It’s not just the fact that Jesus’ original followers could ignore practicalities, it’s not just the fact that they dropped everything to follow him – we must wonder at the content of the call, the ideal that inspired them. “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it and whoever wants to lose his life will save it,” Jesus says (8:35). What ideal would inspire you to take this line to heart? Or this one: “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last, and the servant of all (9:35). Will you come and follow him if he but calls your name?
What is that ideal embodied by Jesus that makes us as followers willing to put our needs last, to kneel at someone’s feel with a basin of water and a towel; to see washing of feet as the very highest calling and purpose to which we can aspire? What is in Jesus that compels him to touch the man with leprosy who “came to him and begged him on his knees, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean’” (Mk 1:40)? What is in Jesus that he can say to the woman who touches him – the woman subject to bleeding for twelve years – “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering” (Mk 5:34)? I like the words of the hymn writer, Colin Gibson: “He came singing love and he lived singing love and he died singing love.”
When Love calls all practicalities cease to matter. After my daughter, Emma, was born my mom came to stay with us for a few weeks. At that time my husband and I lived in a tiny apartment on the second floor of a house. My mother had to sleep on the couch. In the middle of the night, when newborn baby Emma’s eyes were wide and alert after a nursing session, my mom came to collect her; she held Emma for hours in the middle of the night while Emma got her clock sorted so I could sleep, then she’d bring Emma in to me when Emma need to nurse again. And when I would emerge in the early morning, there was my mother – awake – after staying up half the night ready with a mug of hot coffee for me. She must have been exhausted, but love is not always practical.
“Love is patient, love is kind…it bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things” St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians (13:7). There is nothing practical about love. You know this. I send you an email. I say, “there’s someone in the congregation who needs help with meals, someone who can’t cook for themselves right now” and there are a lot of good reasons why it is very impractical for you to cook an extra meal for this person: your kids are at home; in-person school is cancelled; you’re still trying to work fulltime from the closet in your bedroom; you have no time – but Love calls and right away you drop your nets and follow. I’ve seen you answer the call to love in the most impossible circumstances: through addiction, through the slow progression of disease, when others say you should give up, when others say this particular social struggle is too big and too complicated – you hear Love call, and you follow. “That’s not very practical,” some would say, but then these well-meaning folks may not be aware of who and what is calling love in and out of you.
“Come, follow me,” Jesus says, “and I will make you fishers of people.” Did you hear that? This Love which calls you is not an ideal you sustain and live out on your own. “I will make you fishers of people,” Jesus says: this love is Spirit-fed. At his baptism, when Jesus came up out of the water, the Spirit descended on him like a dove. When he went into the wilderness for 40 days to test his call, Mark tells us that, “the angels attended him” (1:13). In A Song of Faith we read that, “for the sake of the world, God calls all followers of Jesus to Christian ministry…to embody God’s love in the world” – God calls. It is Divine energy that propels and compels and equips us to answer the call of love, so that when the time comes and that call reaches our ears and we drop everything, leave our nets, and follow, we know that we do not bear all things, hope all things, endure all things alone, but in partnership. “Come, follow me,” Jesus says. And with starry-eyed idealism, with our whole soul in it, we leave our nets and follow where Love will lead us.