Jonah 3:1-5, 10 | 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 | Mark 1:14-20
On April 4th, 1967 exactly one year, to the day, before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he gave a speech at Riverside Church in New York City. The speech, which is about the Vietnam War, is one of his best and I highly recommend it to you. At one point, near the beginning, he writes these words:
And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the ideologies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.
This speech Martin King’s and his almost eerily coincidental assassination one year later have been sticking in my mind lately. As I’ve attempted to reflect upon his powerful words here, another passage, near the conclusion of the speech, is very helpful:
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message—of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
One of the things that King is talking about here is what it means to hear and respond to a legitimate calling in one’s life. Have you all found your calling in life? Our gospel passage this morning, too, is a story about calling. And it’s a classic. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” It’s the kind of story that’s very memorable, especially to children. I remember hearing this story for the first time as a kid in Vacation Bible School. I remember the teacher talking about the metaphor and what it meant for us Christians to start “fishing for people.” I think we even played a game where we would run around the church and try to catch fish with our little toy nets. For those of us who grew up in the church, the crisp metaphor of this story sticks into our minds and gives us a way of talking about what it means to be Christians in the world. What does it mean to be a Christian in the world? That’s a good question.
But I wonder about the disciples on that day: Simon and Andrew, James and John. What was going through their minds when this itinerant preacher showed up on the shoreline and beckoned them to join this movement? These men who were working tirelessly to earn a living, to bring home an honest wage and provide for their families. And Jesus, who simply appears to be passing by, calls out to them. He urges them to abandon their jobs, to abandon their families, and to begin a new kind of work, to fix their eyes on a different kind of goal. No longer will we catch fish, now we will begin to catch people. Jesus makes this wild request and, as the text says, “they immediately left…and followed him.” Now, I have to admit that I find this scene kind of surprising. I want to know why it is that these men so willingly followed Jesus. Were they sick of the 9-5 grind and simply looking for a new adventure? Maybe Jesus’ reputation preceded him and the disciples were chomping at the bit to join this charismatic leader, having heard the tales of his greatness from John the Baptist. Maybe, like Jesus, they were fed up with the darkness they saw in the world and they were eager to effect change. Maybe, like Paul, they too believed that “time has grown short.”
But whatever the reason, I’m still puzzled by the immediacy of the disciples response: “they immediately left…and followed him.” Immediately? Really? They didn’t need to say goodbye to anyone? They didn’t need to talk to their accountant? I’m not sure I would have been able to do what those disciples did that day. I’m not sure I would have been able to go…on that day. I mean maybe after a while. Maybe after I spend some time talking to my family and friends. Maybe after I sat down and made sure there wasn’t something else I should be doing. I would need a lot of time to decide. I think my response may have been closer to Jonah’s. In our passage from the book of Jonah we read of a prophet who runs from God, nervous about his calling to the city of Ninenveh. And though he fled to Tarshish and spent some time in the belly of a whale, God calls to Jonah again. And Jonah goes. He preaches this important message to the city of Nineveh and, believe it or not, Nineveh changes for the better. To Jonah’s dismay, God sees Nineveh turn from its evil ways and though God had originally planned to destroy the city, our text says emphatically, “he did not do it.”
The disciples heard their call and they responded with immediate action. Jonah heard his call and struggled to accept it, but eventually did. The texts this morning are beautiful stories. There’s no doubt about that. But don’t they get ahead of us a little bit? They get ahead of me. I don’t think I’m someone who struggles to accept God’s calling on my life, but instead I’m someone who struggles to understand what the calling is in the first place. What does it mean, for me, to be a Christian in the world?
I saw the movie Lady Bird on Friday night. It is a beautiful film about a young girl who is navigating the high school milieu, with all of its drama and struggle and heartbreak, while simultaneously looking to the future and applying for colleges in her senior year. In other words, Ladybird, who is the main character of the movie, is a girl who is “figuring things out.” She eventually does accept her call: she goes to college. She leaves her friends, her family, her city. With gusto, she sets out to do all the things she believes she is meant to do. In a reflective moment near the end of the movie, she thinks back to the people and places in her life—the ones who were with her in the process of becoming who she is today. The movie implies that the people in her life are just as important as the calling she now feels.
One of the best things about going to Grant Park Church is that we are a community of people who are all on a journey. As we continue to journey together into the love and knowledge of Christ, it may mean that we do different things in response to the darkness of our world. Some of us will protest. Some of us will march in the women’s march. Some of us will work hard to raise money for local causes and coalitions that desperately need money. Some of us will find ways to weave in acts of compassion and justice into our 9-5 jobs. And, some of us will take a step back, take time to be with family, friends, and loved ones and focus on self-care. These various ways of being Christian in the world, I think, do not reflect differences in commitment to the struggle, but instead remind us that we are all on the journey. So today and in the coming year, my prayer is that we can all learn to celebrate each other. To celebrate the beauty of all of our stories, to take care of one another, and to remember that to be in community with one another is to be in community with the Holy One.