January 20, 2009

Epiphany 3B

by Jesse Larkins
Mark 1:14-20
I have a brother who is a bit of an adrenaline junky. In many ways he is not unlike most 26 year old boys who have no house payment, car payment, girlfriend, wife or kids: footloose and fancy free. On the other hand, there is something quite unique about my brother. It is the fact that, on average, he risks his life 2-3 times per day. You see, my brother has made a life for himself out of pushing the envelope. If you were to ask him, he would tell you that airplanes were invented to be jumped out of, mountains were made to be crawled up and then skied down, and waterfalls were created in order to slide off in 6’ pieces of molded plastic. My brother’s primary raison d’ĂȘtre is white water kayaking. He has traveled all over the world finding and conquering the world’s wildest rivers and creeks. If we didn’t share the hallmark Shuman nose, you might wonder how we are related. When it comes to taking risks, we are as different as night and day.

One time, when we were in college, my brother tried to teach me how to kayak. I lasted exactly 10 minutes…in the swimming pool. The first skill that all kayakers must learn is how to roll—that is, how to right yourself when you are flipped upside down and the suction of the river’s current is trying to keep you that way. My brother put me in the pool, flipped me upside down, and said: “Roll up.” I couldn’t do it; mostly because I panicked and flailed around under the water like I was drowning. Sitting on the edge of the pool a bit later, I asked him what went wrong. His response was something like this: “You can’t fight the water. You’ve gotta let it lead you. You’ve gotta let go of control and just go with the flow.”

“Great,” I said. “But if it’s all the same to you, I’ll just watch you from the banks along with the rest of the crowd.” I admire my brother’s courage, fearlessness, trust, and passion, but I’m not ready to follow him down a river.

I thought of my failed kayaking experience this week as I was reading this gospel lesson about Jesus calling his first disciples. Jesus’ ministry, especially his healings and confrontation with demons, were probably, like my brother on the river, something quite amazing to behold. It didn’t take long until the crowds following Jesus grew and his popularity spread. Yet, throughout the gospel, when push came to shove, and Jesus said “Follow me,” there were only a few who dared to leave behind their nets and their families to truly follow him. The rich young ruler went away sad. The religious elites shouted “crucify him.” And the rest were content to remain on the banks admiring the show.

When Jesus called Simon, Andrew, James and John to follow him, it was during his first major preaching tour. Heading through the backwoods of ancient Israel, Jesus’ proclamation was a familiar one to those who heard him. They had heard these words before when John the Baptist came through: “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.” Many had turned and repented at these words of John. Yet, when Jesus comes with the same message, this time the one calling was the one in whose life the Kingdom of Heaven was embodied.

Finishing his sermon, he walked down to the lake shore where four men were working, and issued the ultimate altar call. “Follow Me,” he said, “and I will give you the gifts you need to embody this good news of the Kingdom in yourselves. I’m not offering you much that the world will understand—no signing bonuses, no great benefits package.

But the Kingdom of Heaven is not exactly something that will be recognized by the world on the world’s terms.

‘Follow me,’ and the Kingdom of Heaven can become YOUR proclamation.

‘Follow me’ and I will change your relationship to God.

‘Follow me,’ and I will make you fishers of people, bringing you into new relationship with everyone you meet, including your enemies.

If you trust me; if you can loosen your grip on those things you hold so dear—your house, your job, your reputation, your political opinions, your other loyalties and allegiances; if you can just stop trying to determine your future happiness on your terms and let me guide you, I can offer you a part in this Kingdom come. Are you in, or are you content to remain on the banks?” And there, in the lives of Simon, Andrew, James and John, we see what it means to truly follow Christ into the rapids, no longer content to stand on the banks as a spectator.

The rest, as they say, is history. Simon, Andrew, James, and John dropped their nets, said goodbye to Dad, and followed. Even with their questions and fears, they trusted God enough to step to the edge of the falls and give themselves fully to serving and embodying God’s Kingdom in their own lives. Though they would spend the rest of Jesus’ life seeming to stumble and misunderstand what “following” was really all about, they dared to step to the edge and “let go of control.” The moment they accepted Christ’s invitation to an entirely new way of being in the world, God empowered them to reach beyond themselves and to risk everything they had to follow. They followed Christ off the edge of the rapid, not because Christ promised that they would always land up-right at the bottom, but because the One they followed would already be at the bottom with strength enough to pull them up when they struggled.

We can be both encouraged and provoked by Simon, Andrew, James, and John. These disciples challenge us to ask what things in our lives we still struggle to control at all cost when Christ is calling us to “stop fighting the water and let go.” Yet they also encourage us to go ahead and slide off the edge of this wild adventure of discipleship though we may not know all that Christ has in store for the ride. Sure, we will have moments of choking and flailing as each of the disciples did, but the One who called us is faithful; certain to right us when we’re upside down, and ever ready to welcome us back to the journey once we’ve caught our breath.

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