Sunday, January 23, 2000

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Ken Borden
on Sunday, January 23, 2000
at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church
TEXT: Mark 1:14-26

First of all, it is a delight to be with you all again for this exchange of preachers and readers as the Churches on the Hill celebrate the week of prayer for Christian unity. This has become a much enjoyed tradition by congregations and clergy alike. It is good to celebrate the unity we have. It has been a joy to participate in and to watch as we on the Hill have gotten to know each other through a series of shared worships and of work together. The rest of the Churches on the Hill were pleased when Timothy Eaton Memorial joined our cluster a little over ten years ago and we have quite enjoyed the addition of Andrew Stirling to our ministerial group on the Hill. We appreciate his commitment to our continuing relationship and working together.

On behalf of the other Churches on the Hill, I want to thank you especially for making room in your busy plant for the Churches on the Hill Food Bank. The program provides excellent service for hundreds and hundreds of people in our larger community. It is with ambivalence that I thank you for your part, because first of all it is something to celebrate, the way all the churches have come together in support through means and through people to do this excellent work. On the other hand, it is tragic that such a ministry is needed in a city like ours. It boggles the mind and we cannot rest on our laurels for there is much important work still to be done, work that we can best do together.

And so I want to reflect with you a moment this morning about why we work together, about why we celebrate shared worship experiences. It is not because we are basically nice people who like each other. Now maybe you are at Eaton Memorial, but I know me and my people at Calvin and there is a lot of orneriness in us. Canada has not yet washed away all the cantankerousness that our forebears brought over from the highlands and the islands and I suspect that you too share a few foibles.

No, the reason we work together and serve together has to come from outside of ourselves and according to the Gospel as Mark tells it, it is our common caller, the one who calls us who makes all the difference. Mark's account of Jesus, particularly at the beginning, is not at all amenable to our modern psychologies. Mark tells the story so tersely. Jesus came preaching. Jesus saw some guys in a boat fishing and said, "Follow me" and immediately they got up, left their boats and away they went. And the spirit of the age dwelling in us says, "Whoa, slow down." There are questions to be asked here. Things, important things we need to know. Is this the first time that those folks saw Jesus? Did they just up and follow him at that one simple invitation? Did Jesus explain anything to them, like sharing the mandate for his little following? Was there a prospectus, a plan they could see where they were going? Did they ask any questions about salary, days off, vacation, perks? Were they really just minding their business until Jesus up and said out of the blue, "Follow me" and they just walked right off, leaving the boats, the nets by the lakeside?

You see, we read everything from an interior perspective, from a subjective point of view. How does this effect me? How did these folks arrive at that decision to follow Jesus? What were the internal processes which led them to leave everything and follow Jesus? Inquiring minds want to know. There's absolutely no way that you and I would make that kind of decision in the way that Mark says those fisher folk made them. I'm convinced that Mark knew the answers to all those questions we asked and also believe that he left them out of the story on purpose. At other points in the Gospel he includes many details as he tells some of the events of Jesus' life, but here Mark intentionally tells the story with the total focus on Jesus, the one who calls. This is the coming year of the reign of God. It comes by God's mighty act in Jesus. It does not come because humanity has made it possible. It does not come because the people of God have created ideal conditions, it does not come because church folk have been faithful, it comes by divine fear and all the disciples can do when confronted by the one who brings the reign of God is to say, "I'm in."

From our point of view, we can read the text and say, "Wow! Jesus must have had some kind of power, some kind of authority, some kind of charisma for people to just up and leave everything and follow him.” And Mark would say to us, “Yes, you have heard the message.” By paring away all the personal details, Mark has laid all the emphasis on Jesus' authoritative command, "Follow me." Therein you see, is our unity, the one who calls us.

And if we fix our eyes on him, we will all end up at the same person. It doesn't mean we're going to look alike or walk alike, that we're going to carry the same equipment on the journey, walk the same speed or sing the same songs as we follow along, but it does mean that we have the very same destiny.

Like many of you, I was a scout when I was younger. What you call the Beavers, we call Cub Scouts. I was fascinated by the native lore that was a part of that tradition. I have since learned that all of it may not be authentic, but at the time I was impressed. I remember the story of three young braves who came upon a clearing in the woods. It was a winter day and there had been a fresh snow fall and the clearing was beautiful and glistening white before them, not a single mark on its pristine surface. The braves decided on a contest to see who could walk the straightest line across the clearing. The first brave led off and he thought that he could walk a straight line if he looked at his feet and carefully placed each foot in front of the other one as he took his step, so slowly, laboriously he put one foot and then the other and then the other across the clearing, but when he got to the other side and looked back, his path squiggled all over the place as he went across.

The second brave watched the first and he decided that the trick was to look where you had been, to come in a trajectory from where you were, to stay oriented to those past steps and if you kept following where you are in a line from where you had been, you were going to walk a straight line. So looking over his shoulder, looking carefully where he had been, he made his way across the clearing, but when he got to the other side and looked back, he had made this wondrous arc across the clearing.

The third brave stood at the edge of the clearing and he fixed his eye on a tall birch tree directly across and with his eyes focused on that tree, he stepped quickly toward it, never let his eyes wander to the left or to the right, kept them right on that tree. When he reached the other side, the three looked at his path, which was as straight as an arrow across the clearing.

That's the message of Mark in this passage. Jesus is to be the focus. When we look at one another's motives, when we compare statistics, when we focus on our own internal mechanisms, when we're always making sure that our next step is in line with our last step, we lose the primary focus and we will waiver and wobble all over the place. When we focus on the one who calls, we will all arrive at the same destination.

That to me is good news. When we focus on Jesus it moves us out of our ruts. Robert Tannehill puts it this way: the disciples left their family and their work to follow Jesus, and there's nothing in the story to indicate that the life they left was especially bad or evil. After all they were just simple fishermen, what's so bad there? But even a life that is not especially evil can be small and cramped. All of us suffer to some extent from cramped lives. Being human we are so small in comparison to the vastness of creation and in the presence of God. That's not going to change, but when we become comfortable in our smallness, when our vision becomes limited to our own small desires and purposes, we lose perspective. A blade of grass becomes large to us because we no longer see the towering trees. We attach too much importance to our few blades of grass and that can be destructive. The call to discipleship is accompanied by the discovery of a larger world, a purpose greater than our own, a greatness which makes ordinary value unimportant. This discovery may come even to those who have heard the call before, for our new and larger world may not yet be large enough. Our focus is to be on the one who calls us, on Jesus, who opens to us a larger world, the realm of the reign of God.

This is not to say that we're all going to do it the same way. In a world of infinite variety, I suspect that God has in mind that the church itself will reflect some of that variety and richness of creation. I was shopping this past week for a birthday card for one of my sons and I found a very clever card that on the front had six distinct pictures of a birthday cake with candles, but each one was drawn in the manner of a famous artist. There was a cake by Van Gogh in brilliant, bright colours, and there was an impressionistic cake by Monet, and the Salvador Dali cake was half on the table and half going down the side of the table, and there was a Picasso cake. Each was a recognizable birthday cake with candles and yet each was delightfully unique.

So is our experience of following Jesus. As individual disciples, as congregations, as denominational traditions. Focus on the one who calls and leave it to the spirit to use our particular gifts to create a wonderfully varied and beautiful church universal. There is one thing however that we need to note about the disciples. They acted, they followed Jesus without reserve.

When I came to Calvin fifteen years ago, we had a caretaker who has long since retired and I learned that whenever I asked Gordie to do something out of the ordinary, the immediate answer was: “No, it cannot be done,” and then he would reel off the reasons. It won't fit. There's not enough time. My back is acting up again and on and on down the list. But what I came to discover was that behind this list of things and reasons, there were really only two fundamental answers to why it couldn't be done. The first was, I don't want to do it and the second one was, I'm afraid to do it.

I suspect that when Jesus askes the church to move out, all of our practical questions, all the things we want to know can be boiled down to two things: I don't want to do it or I'm afraid to do it. My further suspicion is that for the church, more times than not it is fear which holds us back. All of our what-if sort of questions are fear based. This is precisely why Mark put the early focus and spotlight on Jesus alone. Jesus comes to do away with fear, in particular that paralysing fear that will not let us leave behind all of our baggage and free up our hands to follow Jesus. That's why we see the power and authority in Jesus so clearly, that there is nothing to fear once we have put ourselves into the hands of the living God and we discovered that the reign of God brings with it a whole new set of priorities and all that stuff that we were so afraid of losing just wasn't worth fretting about. That that which is of eternal value can never be taken from us.

So again, it is good to walk the path of discipleship with you. May it be our common prayer to follow Jesus in all of our diversity and richness. Thanks be to God for Jesus the Christ. Thanks be to God for you. Amen.