Mark 1:41-20, 2:13-14
How to Pack for Summer Vacation: At the Beach
This spring several of us have been reading the Gospel of Mark together in our Saturday morning Bible Study. One of the things we’ve talked a lot about is Mark’s sense of urgency. His gospel is the shortest – 16 chapters – and he never seems to spend more verses or words on something when he can say it more succinctly. He seems to want to get straight to the point and communicate only the facts that seem absolutely necessary. In line with this, Mark uses the word immediately with great frequency in his gospel – almost 30 times, and more than all of the other gospels combined. When things happen in Mark’s account, they happen immediately.
Today’s scripture lesson is a perfect example. We get some seaside stories, where Jesus, seeming to just be out for a stroll on the beach, encounters first some fishermen, and then a tax collector, all of whom he calls to follow him. We read in Mark that Jesus comes to Galilee after John the Baptist has been arrested. He comes announcing good news of God, which Mark describes as this: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is near. Repent, and believe in the good news.” Over the years, people have come to use the phrase good news – which is what “gospel” means, actually – to mean, “Jesus Christ died for our sins so that we might have eternal life.” But both Mark, in his narration, and Jesus, in his preaching and teaching say that the good news is that God’s kingdom is near, at hand, arrived. Instead of waiting for some distant time and place to experience being part of God’s kingdom, instead of something you experience just in life eternal, Jesus’ good news is that God’s kingdom is for us to live into right now, when we repent, believe, and follow him. As he is sharing this message, travelling along the sea, he passes by Simon and Andrew, who are fishing. He says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” We read, “And immediately, they left their nets and followed him.” Then he encounters James and John, sons of Zebedee. And “immediately,” says the text, he calls them. And they lay down their nets, leave the work in care of their father and the hired men, and follow. A crowds gathers around Jesus as he teaches and travels by the sea, and next he happens on Levi, son of Alphaeus, a tax collector. Jesus tells him, “Follow me.” And Levi gets up, and follows.
There’s not much content to these stories, and yet what happens in them is so significant. Disciples are called. Lives are changed. People who become the leaders of what we call church are selected from hard-labor jobs like fishing, and unsavory jobs like tax collecting. Yet, what struck us in our Bible Study was how little conversation we see. Does Mark leave things out? Are we missing the Question and Answer session between Jesus and the soon-to-be disciples where they ask him what he means by catching people, how long they’ll be gone for, where he’s going, what they can bring, when they’ll be back, so on? Or do they really just go immediately? It is so hard for us to imagine. We could barely even agree to go on an overnight trip immediately, much less change the course of our lives in a snap.
[[Recently I’ve been reading – or rereading, I guess, since I read these books many years ago when I was a child – Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series. (Let me mention that they are a particular favorite of our own Rachel Bouwens.) One of the things I’m finding particularly fascinating is the descriptions of how each item in their household is made – things we take for granted in finished-product form only. You read as the family makes cheese, makes their beds, makes a rocking chair, digs a well, builds a house, sews clothing. All of these tasks take such time and effort and care. There’s nothing immediate about them. And reading these books in our world of unrelenting speed, I can’t help but find the pace of life awfully appealing. They worked very hard. But their lives also seem to exude a deep restfulness that I long for.
Have you ever found yourself wishing that the microwave wasn’t taking so long? Don’t those two or three minutes seem to last forever sometimes? Have you found yourself frustrated that your smartphone isn’t loading pages quickly enough, or your computer isn’t downloading something fast enough for you? Have you been exasperated by the amount of time it takes to travel to someplace on the opposite side of the country? How long it takes for a piece of mail to be delivered to someplace thousands of miles away? Part of us longs for restfulness, to be able to take our time, and enjoy every second as it passes. But I’m also frequently amused by the “time-saving” products that flood our markets. You can buy cheese “crumbles”, so you don’t have to do the laborious task of crumbling your own cheese. First, cookie dough started appearing in tubes, so you could have the joy of fresh-baked cookies without the time of preparing the cookies to bake, and then, the dough started appearing in pre-cut shapes. You just break apart the dough, pop it on a tray, put it in the oven. Lest you think I’m criticizing you, I’ve certainly purchased products like this myself. My point is: we certainly have the capability, and the ability, apparently, to sometimes take immediate action, to want things to happen quickly, immediately. So when do and don’t we choose to respond immediately? Why? What’s right?]] What’s all the hurry about? Why does Mark have us in such a rush?
Over our year together, Pastor Aaron and I have shared with you a bit about our calls into ministry. For both of us, there were points of deciding, choosing direction throughout our journeys into ministry. But mostly, discerning and following God’s call has been just that – a journey, rather than an immediate choice. Listening for God’s voice, trying to figure out what God is saying, testing and refining and settling into what I believe God is calling me to do. And then, starting all over again as God leads me into new places. I’ve rarely experienced God’s call in my life to feel immediate. And indeed, even when we are clear about our call, our ordination process makes sure we take our time confirming that call. It took me nine years, start to finish, to become a fully ordained pastor, and I did things pretty quickly. The process encourages some time for reflection, for waiting, for being sure before taking action.
And yet, sometimes the cry for immediate action, our immediate response, is so compelling. One of my favorite writings from Martin Luther King, Jr. is his Letter from Birmingham Jail. In it, King particularly expresses his frustration with white leaders, especially white church leaders, who kept trying to convince him that he was rushing with his calls for desegregation and racial justice, that his timing wasn’t right and he needed to wait. King wrote, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!"… This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."” King understood that the message that all were equal in the sight of God was not a message meant for waiting. It was meant to be shared – and put into action – immediately.
We seem to live in this paradoxical place between “hurry up” and “wait.” Waiting, slowing down, taking time, not rushing – sometimes this is just the right thing. Every year, we celebrate the season of Advent as a season of waiting, on purpose, intentionally, for the coming of the Christ child. We try hard to be better at waiting when the world wants to skip ahead straight to Christmas. The scriptures talk about the holy practice of waiting: “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength,” we read.
And yet, Mark is clear about his desired tempo: Immediate. Immediately Jesus calls. Immediately new disciples follow. Mark’s whole gospel seems to be in a rush. He seems so intent on sharing the good news that he can barely stay at his desk long enough to write the detailed gospel account we long for. He wants to get the word out as quickly as he can, with only the facts you really need to know. And maybe he uses the word “immediately” the most, but he’s not alone. The Bible is as full of immediate action as it is of long times of waiting. Over and over we read of God showing up and people immediately changing the course of their lives to follow God. So which is right? Wait on God? Or drop your nets and get going? How do we know, if we are always between, as people of faith, the hurry up and the wait? When do we wait on the Lord, and when do we drop our nets right now so we can follow? I don’t have any simple answers to this question, but here’s what I’m figuring out.
First, I think the message of Jesus is always immediate. When we find ourselves in a situation that is begging for the good news that God’s kingdom is already here, we should never wait on that, never withhold that. When I listen to the frustration in Martin Luther King’s writings about being told to “wait” in the face of injustice, that’s what I get: someone who knows the message of Jesus is immediate. The good news is that we are already one in Christ Jesus, and so systems of racism, of oppression, are in stark contrast to that good news and they have to stop – right now. That kind of stuff shouldn’t wait. Immediate.
And of course, I also think we shouldn’t wait when it is clear to us that Jesus is calling us to do something. Sometimes we’re trying to figure out God’s call, but when we get it, when we understand what God wants, it is time to follow. With the disciples at the beach, it was pretty clear, wasn’t it? Jesus said “follow me.” They could have asked Jesus to come back later, when they were ready. But there was no mistaking what Jesus wanted, and so Peter, Andrew, James, John, Levi, and more after them – they responded, immediately.
Then, finally, what do we do when we are trying to figure out what God is asking us to do and to be? What then? When the message isn’t so clear? I think that while we don’t know everything, and while we need to wait on God for answers about some things, things that we come to God in prayer about, things that we’re struggling with, things that God has yet to reveal to us, while we’re waiting, we should be acting on what we do know. Maybe we don’t know everything, but we almost always know something about what God wants us to do, or how God wants us to live. And that is the stuff that we should be doing immediately, while we wait on the other stuff. Not sure what God is calling you to do next year? Be in prayer about it. Listen for God’s voice. Enlist the aid of your trusted friends and mentors to help you figure it out. But in the meantime, right now, do what you know: work on feeding the hungry, loving your neighbor, advocating for justice, practicing peace, being a servant to all, sharing the good news that God is here. Follow after the heart of Jesus in these things, and I believe, truly, that the waiting will be very fruitful.
Immediately he called them, and immediately, they left their nets, and followed him. In our life with Jesus, it’s just a day at the beach. Amen.