A. The Church Forms the Story
Do you feel like you are loosing your grip on the pigskin of life? Do you sense that you are loosening your grasp on the football of existence? Do you wonder if the air has gone out of you? That you are a couple of spiritual pounds of air pressure short of divine regulation? In a word, if I may, do you experience a little late January…deflation? Aiming at conflation and avoiding inflation with others across the nation do you experience deflation? Do questions keep hounding you, even after you have repeated: ‘I don’t know. I have told you everything I know. No. Nope. No Sir. No.’ (No, no, never, never…) Are you lower than a wet, deflated, muddy, cold football in the bowels of Gillette Stadium?
Well then, tune in for 20 minutes, turn on for 2100 words and hear the good news in 7 verses! Turn to something ancient, good, holy and true: Mark 1: 14-20.
The passage from Mark read a moment ago looks back forty years.
Mark is writing in the year 70 or so. Jesus ministry in Galilee begins in the year 30 or so. What is remembered across four decades? (What do you remember about January 1975? What do you remember from forty years past?)
Very little. Nothing about the time of year in which Peter and Andrew found the courage to turn, to leave their nets. Nothing about the precise setting in which they chose to turn and follow. Nothing about the manner of their discourse with the Master. Nothing about the reactions of families. Nothing about the effect on the fishing business. Nothing about what caused, in this idealized recollection, such a sudden change. No, at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, as at its middle and at its end, we hunt in vain for clear memory of Jesus. The Gospels allude to the history of Jesus but they are not written to tell the history of events forty years past. And, in fact, they do not. A reading of the Gospel that tries primarily to upend the Gospels for such an alien agenda, misses the meaning of their message.
Because. The scene before us today is an idealized memory, the memory of something that may or may not have happened in the way accounted, somewhere along the Tiberian shore. The story told today comes out of, is, as the wise men say, formed by, the church forty years later, shaped and formed by the church of the year 70, for reasons quite other than interest in history or biography or hagiography. The Gospel has bigger fish to fry than the Tiberian fish of April 30ad in the nets of Aramaic speaking laborers. The Gospel presents Jesus Christ, not Jesus. The Gospel presents Jesus Christ, the Son of God, not Jesus. The Gospel presents Jesus Christ, the crucified. A powerful voice, a personal encounter, a perplexing adventure in faith—the church formed our text out of its own early experience.
The Gospel is not about Jesus, it is about you.
Today’s passage was formed in the life of the early church. Somewhere in the lost past, all of the detail now worn away like the memory you do not have of what you were doing, eating, wearing, saying, fearing, praying in January of 1975, somewhere in the lost past something happened over time to bind Simon and Andrew to Jesus. The church needed to remember this, and so, in this idealized, skeletal, and didactic way, the church did so. What is remembered, with accuracy or without, is recalled to meet a pressing need in the fragile life of a suffering church (repeat). If we miss this formative effect of the church on this material—the material mattered to a church struggling with the grim and glorious matter of life and death—then we miss the point. Then the sacred Scripture becomes even for the church what it becomes in other settings—parlor game fodder, material for debate over beer and skittles. But for us, here, the Scripture is the very Word of God.
Something frightening and powerful is at work here.
What crying need does the church experience, in the years near 70ad that occasions the forming of this scarecrow text? Why would the church want, at the very outset of the Gospel, to remember the hurt of leaving, and its requirement of the courage to turn? Think about the hurt of leaving. It hurts to leave.
Life in faith means difficulty. It hurts to leave the womb. It hurts to have those first teeth leave their gums for the daylight of dinner and dentistry. (My friend the dean of Dentistry and I introduced ourselves one evening on an elevator, to which our fellow traveler replied—“Great. Here I am riding along with the two things I hate most, dentistry and religion!”) It hurts to watch your daughter get on the bus and leave for kindergarten. It hurts to see your son take the family car and leave for the evening with a young woman you do not know well or fully trust. We have been around college towns all our lives: it hurts to leave your parents and go in the dorm, to carry the sweaty boxes up the stairs, to fiddle with room arrangements. Here at BU on Labor Day, it gets to the point that I can not look at the same repeated scene: a dad and mom, hugging their boy goodbye, and leaving town. It was a holy, frightening, powerful scene. Like our Bible reading today. Now that we have physically left home and in are in college, say, we may need to turn, to turn our minds and hearts and souls toward the challenge of this new situation, really to turn, to leave home in spirit as well as body. The fall term freshman year you physically leave home. But now the snow is falling. The spring term freshman year you spiritually leave home. You begin to fashion another part of your identity. What an adventure!
The Bible is not about some oddball potpourrie of cluttered historical facts regarding fishing rights near Capernaum in the first century. The Bible has bigger fish to fry. Even regarding fish the Bible has bigger fish to fry, as Gershwin said of Jonah, which is the outreach edge, the evangelism and ecumenical high water mark of the Prophetic tradition, the inclusion even of the Ninevites:”
It ain’t necessarily so
He made his home in that fish’s abdomen—
It ain’t necessarily so
Today’s story is about turning. The gospel gives the courage to turn.
Somehow, in the life of the early church, leaving became an issue for attention. How could it not? Look at all the leave-taking in the formative early period. Jesus leaves life. Peter leaves Galilee. Andrew leaves home. Paul leaves Judaism. The church leaves Palestine. Every time they turned around, someone was leaving nets. Someone was turning. Someone was turning up, turning around, turning out, turning down, turning. To everything there is a season—turn, turn, turn.
The church remembered or crafted this scene out a dire need to teach disciples that discipleship bears a certain cost, and a certain cast: now and then one is invited to summon the courage to turn. The life of faith is an adventure, but an arduous one. Faith, the gift of grace, when accepted and lived will ineluctably lead to risk. Risk is a part of what we mean by faith.
B. Mark Tells the Story
Returning to Mark for a teaching moment. We have followed Luke in 2013 and Matthew in 2014. Now the lectionary guides us through Mark. Notice, as you have in other settings five personal interests, five finger prints, present in this first chapter, but carried through the length of the Gospel, which you will hear this year:
1. A Secret
Mark’s messianic secret is a reminder to us that following the Christ means leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar, the present for the unforeseen future, the ready and easy for the unknown. His is not a cozy Christ. His Christ is One who calls upon us to summon the courage to leave. (1:24, 1:34, 3:12, 1:43, 5:43, 7:36, 8:26, 8:30, 9:9, 7:24, 9: 30, 10:48 [total 12, at least])
2. Galilee of the Gentiles
The interest in evangelism, out of which the Gospel is written, is imprinted upon us in this very early passage. When you hear Galilee, think un-churched, think, outsider, think the nations, think the unreligious. With Paul, Mark asserts that Christ had died for the ungodly.
3. The Cost of Discipleship
Mark reminds us that transformation begins with the courage to leave. The moment of letting go and leaving is both awesome and agonizing. Ask Abraham, Sarah, Moses; ask Amos, Micah or Jeremiah; ask Peter, Andrew or James; ask Paul, Silas or Barnabas.
4. Jesus Christ, Crucified
The suffering that Jesus endured was to be a watchword and warning for the first Christians. Mark teaches in this passage that at the very outset of the journey there is the experience of loss and bereavement that comes with leaving, changing, with turning
5. Apocalyptic Right Side Up
In sayings like this (‘I will make you fishers of men’)—in the calling of disciples, there is a harbinger of what is to come. Mark tries to put the Christian hope right side up, (perhaps correcting for his community, the reading today from 1 Cor. 7, a time grown short and a form passing away), culminating in the warning of Mark 13 that of that day and hour, no one knows, not even the Son, but the Father only.
Here is the Gospel hand reaching for you in 2015—holding a secret, loving the Gentiles, counting the cost, preaching the cross, right-wising apocalyptic.
C. We Are Invited to Live the Story
It is not just the church that formed this passage that knew about turning. It is not just the Evangelist who tells the story of departure that knew about turning. We too know about turning. Leaving nets, neighbors, niceties. It takes a courage to turn. Students live and know this.
From 40 years ago I recall a courageous Spanish student, Guzman Garcia Arribas, who turned away from Francisco Franco and turned toward a freer life. From 30 years ago I recall a graduate Syracuse Forestry student, Keith Parr, who turned from studies to service with his Air National Guard in the Gulf War. From 20 years ago I recall an architecture student, Barry Jordan, who turned and traveled with us in mission to Honduras. From 10 years ago I recall a BU undergraduate, David Romanik, who left the nets of historical study to turn to ministry in the Episcopal Church.
Last week we remembered the struggles of Rosa Parks, Andrew Young, Edward Brooke, Martin Luther King, who found the courage to turn enshrined in the best of our traditions:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied over with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents go awry
And lose the name of action
The courage to turn is the courage to lay hold, to register, to sign up, to rent to buy, to take on real weight.
To lay hold of faith, you may just have to turn. You may have to leave the nets, or leave the nest. To lay hold of the future you have to let go of the past. To lay hold of life we may need to summon the courage to leave. To leave the inherited for the invisible. To leave the general for the particular. To leave existential drift for personal decision. To leave the individual for the communal. To leave renting for ownership. To leave auditing for registration. (Some of us have been auditing the course on Christianity long enough. It’s time to register, buy the books, pay tuition, take the course for credit, and get a grade!) To leave engagement for marriage. (Where is Engagement Ohio? Half way between Datin’ and Marryin’) To leave intimacy for pregnancy.. And that takes the courage to turn.
Faith, as human response, is a decision, a choice, that inevitably includes some risk. As D. Bonhoeffer wrote on this passage, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.”
And A. Schweitzer: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”
And E. Kasemann said, “Faith means a continuous exodus from established positions.”
In the exquisite recent film, The Theory of Everything, there comes a moment to turn. Said his first wife, as she turned away from him, to Steven Hawking: I have loved you…
It takes courage to turn–to morning prayer, to daily study, to weekly worship, to monthly giving, to yearly faithfulness. It takes a kind of courage to turn, to get up from a dormitory bed on Sunday morning, and file past all the sleeping sleepers, and get ready, and walk down Commonwealth Avenue, and find a seat in the back of the chapel, and bow for prayer.
A courage to turn, to turn away, to turn again, to turn out, to turn up. To take another turn: in a relationship, in a church membership, in a roommate relationship, in an abusive relationship. Have we the courage to turn
As a society, when shall ever find the courage to turn away from gun violence? Again this week, in Boston, we have ample reason to ask, and ample reason to seek the courage to turn, to turn away, to turn a corner, to turn round right. People know this. 85% of Americans agree that back ground checks should be used for purchases at gun shows. And: 81% of gun owners agree. When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn? As a people we await the courage to turn.
Today’s Gospel comes from a church that held onto a memory of departure, from the evangelist who reflected on departure, and from a recognition in our own experience that includes the courage to depart, to leave, to turn.
When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed
To turn, turn will be our delight
Til by turning, turning, we come round right
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