I carry in one of my wallets a little 3×5 index card that has been folded in half and tucked away in every wallet I’ve had for almost 30 years. The crease is getting weak and the edges are tattered, so I don’t open it up too often anymore. But I know it’s there and many of the words written on it are seared in my memory. It’s a list I made in the 8th grade, a list of things to do before I die, a bucket list, written before the term bucket list existed.
It’s a strange mix of things I could actually accomplish by my own hard work, determination, and planning (achieve a certain score on the SAT, perform in the All-State Orchestra, visit Africa, be a missionary) and things that are completely out of my control or are impossible to achieve (give birth to twins – out of my control; own a chimpanzee – impossible). One of the items has been staring at me this weekend from the list’s spot among a ridiculous collection of frequent flier membership cards. I know right where it appears on the card, “March for something important in Washington, DC.”
I remember the day I added that to the list. It certainly wasn’t the first time that I had heard about the August 28, 1963 civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that culminated in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But talking in my civics class that day about the right, responsibility, and privilege we have as people of the United States of America to march and peacefully assemble in order to make their voices heard, I was left with both a desire to use my voice for good and a worry that I might not know when to speak, when to act, who to follow.
Would I have marched in 1963? Would I have known it was time to step up? Thirty, forty, or fifty years later it seems so obvious. But I know that good and faithful and compassionate people, people I know and love and respect today didn’t join in the efforts. Was it as
simple as knowing and not knowing, going and not going? What makes me think I would have been there? How can I know that I will be there in my own time?
These same kinds of questions arise in reading the story of the beginning of Jesus’s ministry and the calling of Jesus’s first disciples. When John tells the story, the story we heard last week, the disciples have John the Baptist right there, actually pointing to Jesus, on two consecutive days even, saying, “This is him! This is the one I’ve been talking about. Leave me. Go with him.” It’s a little more obvious, more direct.
When Matthew tells the story (and most scholars believe he told it before John) they don’t have a whole lot of preparation in the moment. The fishermen don’t have John the Baptist standing with them giving them the inside scoop. In fact, John the Baptist has been arrested. His ministry of preaching about a new kingdom is so threatening to the current political kingdom that they simply remove him from public view. Those in power use their power to silence him.
It’s this event, a political event, that seems to spur Jesus into his active ministry. His baptism revealed his identity as God’s Son. His temptation in the desert showed his faithfulness to the call. But the signal that it was time to act, the news that told him he had to move forward to proclaim the gospel was the arrest of John the Baptist. It was an act of the state that kicked off his ministry among the people. The scared political leaders, the empowered establishment had attempted to silence the one sent by God to prepare the way for God, so God had to get moving.
Even saying the word “political” can get some preachers in trouble in their churches. People will tell them there’s no place for politics in the church, that they come to church to get away from politics. The only problem is that the scriptures that point us to the God we worship are inherently political; they are about the “polis,” the city, the earthly realm and structures that order our lives and communities. The history included in the first testament is largely the shared history of a number of political entities, nations. The prophecies are full of indictments against the behavior of kings and kingdoms and how they treat their subjects and interact with other kingdoms. The very incarnation of God happened in the middle of a particular time and place and political situation, when Augustus was emperor, Quirinius was governor of Syria, and King Herod ruled in Jerusalem. The political situation of Jesus’s day and how he is interacting with it is mentioned in one way or another on just about every page of every gospel. The early church, too, was founded under the threat of government opposition.
Practically every bit of our story of faith is political in one way or another and never should our faith shy away from being engaged in the political reality, the reality of the city, of the people, in the present, because Jesus didn’t shy away from such engagement. He took to the streets, leaving his home in Nazareth to settle in Capernaum in response to a political event. He began his ministry of freedom and preaching renewed allegiance to a higher kingdom in the ancestral lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, two nations that were overcome and conquered by an oppressive government.
He started his work with a political statement about the power of God’s promise and redemption, and he showed us from the start that the kingdoms of the world, whether political entities or the tides of culture, aren’t always in lockstep with the kingdom of heaven. Discipleship, therefore, calls us to live according to a different politic than any one we’re used to hearing from any party. The gospel and discipleship are political – *not* partisan, but political – by their very nature, but gospel values and the walk of discipleship, when held side by side with many of our cultural norms, can sometimes look like foolish nonsense.
The same question I asked when learning about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s is a question I ask when I read this story of the calling of the first disciples. Would I have known as they knew? Would I have followed as quickly, as completely, as they followed? Would I have known this was the time, this was the one? Presbyterian Christian educator Rodger Nishioka tells the story¹ of growing up watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with his whole family, including his Presbyterian pastor father. He remembers a particular episode about elephant seals in Argentina that would come to the shore to give birth and then return immediately to the ocean to feed before coming back to nurse and care for their young. Rodger remembers watching the program and wondering as all the mothers left their pups on the beach, hundreds of them all along the shoreline, if and how the right pairs would be reunited.
However, the camera followed one pair and when the mother came back to the beach well down the shoreline from her pup, you can see her calling out to her pup and listening through the cacophony of calling seals for the sound of her own. Somehow, soon the mother and baby train their attention on one another, following sound and scent that has already been imprinted in on another’s memory. Rodger remembers his father turning to the family and saying, “You know, that’s how it is with God. We are imprinted with a memory of God, and God is imprinted with a memory of us, and even if it takes a lifetime, we will find each other.”
How did the disciples know it was the voice of God calling to them this time? How do we know when God is inviting us to follow? God’s voice touches something deep inside of us, stirs awake in us a need to go in a different direction. God calls us to God’s very own self and to a life that is centered not on our own needs, even our own livelihood and wealth, but to a way of life that builds relationships, that gathers people together, that lifts up community.
Dominant voices in our culture around us tell us we are wise to work as hard as we can to make as much money as we can to save for ourselves and our immediate family. The financial experts say we should put away for the future and if we can’t do that we should at least have a cushion in case of emergency. Yet when Jesus calls his disciples he practically creates an emergency.
He calls them away from their jobs. He calls them away from the way they feed their families. He calls them to follow, to drop their nets, to leave their boats, to walk away from their family and their hometown, just as he left all these things, in order that they can join him in proclaiming the good news.
The flip side of this call away is a call to, and that’s where I think we begin to learn to discern the voice of God among all the other voices shouting on the shoreline. In calling the disciples away to follow him, Jesus also calls the disciples and their families deeper into community. Simon and Andrew, James and John, none of them can both follow Jesus and rely on their own abilities to take care of themselves. Instead the disciples, as they travel with Jesus, will have to rely on the kindness and hospitality of strangers. Everywhere they go they will have to create community with new people in new places. Likewise, their families who stay behind will count on the support and compassion of neighbors and extended family.
The voice of Jesus is never a call to individualism or self-preservation. The voice of Jesus doesn’t call us to care for those closest to us to the exclusion of those who are farther away. The voice of Jesus calls us to care for those in deepest need first, not the ones who aren’t wealthy enough, but the one who are burdened with poverty, with disease and dis-ease. The voice of Jesus says that allegiance in the kingdom of God is an allegiance broader than the family we are born into, the town in which we live, the nation whose flag we raise, but an allegiance to all children of God, across our political party lines and beyond our borders.
When the kingdom of heaven comes near, when the voice of Jesus calls it is not a call to put our own interests first, but a call to depend on one another for our very life. When the kingdom of heaven comes near, it isn’t in a call that promises safety and protection. It’s a call that in a sense creates a crisis and an emergency, a crisis only met and overcome when neighbors welcome neighbors, strangers look out for each other’s well-being, and community is created. When the kingdom of heaven comes near, it isn’t in a call to serve just the people we know, the people with whom we feel comfortable. It’s a call to serve all those with whom we share humanity, those near and those far, those who look like us and those who are different, those who speak our language and those whose tongue is foreign.
It’s a call that flies in the face of so much of our conventional wisdom. It’s a call that sounds foolish to those who are perishing in a sea of individualism. But to those who are listening for that ancient voice, to those who have ears to hear, it is the power of God.
¹Story retold in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, p. 285-6.
Photo of the Civil Rights March on Washington is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.