Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 25, 2009

2009.01.25 “Still He Calls”

Central United Methodist Church

“Still He Calls”

Mark 1: 14 – 20

Pastor David L. Haley

January 25th, 2009

“After John was arrested, Jesus went to Galilee preaching the Message of God: “Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message.”

Passing along the beach of Lake Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew net-fishing. Fishing was their regular work.  Jesus said to them, “Come with me. I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you. I’ll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass.”  They didn’t ask questions. They dropped their nets and followed.

A dozen yards or so down the beach, he saw the brothers James and John, Zebedee’s sons. They were in the boat, mending their fishnets. Right off, he made the same offer. Immediately, they left their father Zebedee, the boat, and the hired hands, and followed.”  – Mark 1: 14 – 20, from The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson


       Well, it has been quite a week, has it not? 

        After an uneventful flight home from Rome on Monday, it was with even greater anticipation that I watched the Inaugural on Tuesday, as I’m sure most of you did as well.  What a day it was!

        As a communicator, what did I think of President Obama’s swearing-in and speech?  Of the swearing-in, Chief Justice John Roberts tried to do what I recommend no speaker every do: say your part from memory, even if it’s only 35 words. As the question circulating this week asked, “How many Harvard law school grads does it take to mess up the Presidential Oath of Office?  Two. 

        Which is why, while standing in front of you, thinking about six other things occurring or about to occur in the service, I sometimes mess up the Lord’s Prayer. I could have forewarned Chief Justice Roberts if only I’d known what he was about to do.

        As for President Obama’s inaugural address, it wasn’t all I hoped it would be, but it was good. Not as good as John Kennedy’s, but then, the times and troubles we’re facing are not the times and troubles Kennedy faced. 

        If anything, I thought President Obama’s speech was more sermon than speech, addressed to the American people, on where we are, and considering that, what we need to do. I especially appreciated his continual use of the word “We”, and his reminder that – in fact – the fate of country depends more upon us than it does upon him.  As he said:

“As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment — a moment that will define a generation — it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”

        And he went on to say:

“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”

I quote this at length because it is also the point of today’s Scriptures, and my sermon.  Because if there is anything the Bible makes clear, it is that God is still calling us to do God’s work; that Jesus is still calling us to fulfill his ministry. This call to serve God and others is therefore not only a part of our civic calling, but a part of our Christian calling as believers in God and followers of Christ.  We may ignore or resist this calling, we may even refuse it, but nevertheless this call to share God’s work on earth still comes is to each of us.

As examples of God’s call to us, the Scriptures today give us two: one from the Old Testament and one from the New; one of what not to do, the other of what to do. Each story separately and both together make us think about how we will respond to God’s call to us.

The first is the Old Testament story of the prophet Jonah, often called the reluctant prophet.  Jonah, the son of Amittai, lived in the vicinity of Galilee during the 8th century before Christ. Most of us know the story of Jonah from Sunday school, the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale.  But what we may not know is that Jonah wound up in that predicament because he said, “Thanks, but no thanks” to God’s call to preach to Nineveh, and ran from God. 

And that’s where today’s text begins: “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

        Jonah didn’t spent a lot of time on his sermon. The message is 4 words in Hebrew, 8 in English. And can you imagine the delivery?  All the enthusiasm of Rev. Lovejoy on the Simpsons’:  “Forty days more . . . and Nineveh . . . shall be . . . overthrown.”

        To Jonah’s astonishment, his tepid sermon was a stunning success!  Out came the sackcloth!   Into the fire went all the little statues of fertility gods. Who knew this whiny excuse for a preacher could move the sorry heathens of Assyria to sing – all together now  – “Just As I Am Without One Plea”?

Well, there’s much more to the story of Jonah, but for our purposes today, the question worth asking is, “Can you refuse, resist, or escape God’s call?”

Sure, you can refuse, even resist, like Jonah did.  But can you escape?  I don’t think so.  I think God’s call to you is so clear and so persistent that it will keep coming back, like a trick candle at a birthday party, until you finally accept.  After all, we must believe that God’s call to us is what we were made for, and what we were meant to me, and therefore our lives will never be right until we find ourselves in the place we’re meant to be.

Do you remember Francis Thompson poem the “Hound of Heaven?”

“I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;

I fled Him, down the arches of the years;

I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears

I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

Up vistaed hopes I sped;

And shot, precipitated,

Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,

From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.”

        To what, to whom, to where is God calling you?

The second story illustrating God’s call is from the New Testament, from the Gospel According to Mark, the call of Jesus to his first disciples.  Like the story of Jonah, it also has a bit of a fish smell to it, as the first people Jesus called, according to Mark, were fishermen.

In some ways, it’s an even more amazing story than Jonah’s, because, instead of saying no, they said “Yes” without knowing more, or without asking questions.

Upon Jesus’ call, “Immediately” – the text says – “they left their father Zebedee, the boat, and the hired hands, and followed.”

There is so tantalizingly little. Did they know Jesus, or anything about him? What was he like?  Why would he ask them? How much would they make?  What would they get? What was it about him that made them do as he suggested, drop their jobs and leave, the beginning of a wild adventure that would take over their lives.   Little did they know where it would lead.

Last week, in Rome – just maybe – I crossed paths with one of them:  Peter.

While Michele’s parents stayed with Becca and Anna, Michele and I took the SCAVI excavations tour under St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Because the tour descends through narrow passages to a level of about 45 feet underneath St. Peter’s, we immediately lost 3 people out of our group of 15 to claustrophobia.  We then found ourselves – underneath St. Peter’s – walking down the street of a 1st century Roman necropolis, or cemetery.  Among those tombs were some Christian tombs, illustrated with early Christian symbols, such as Christ the Good Shepherd. Among those Christian tombs was one tomb thought to contain the mortal remains of — St. Peter.  We all got a chance to look, and, if we wanted, a chance to pray.

Now, I confess I’m not totally convinced, for there is not historical corroboration – not even in the New Testament – that St. Peter went to or died in Rome.  And there is another tomb with the name of Simon bar Jonah on it that has been discovered in Jerusalem. But here’s what they surmise might have happened.

In the mid-sixties of the 1st century, both St. Paul and St. Peter wound up in Rome, the capital of the empire.  In AD 67, a fire broke out, and burned a large part of the city.  Some sought to blame it on the Roman Emperor, Nero, claiming that he wanted to clear space for new construction.  Nero, seeking a scapegoat, blamed the new and suspect religion of Christians for the fire.  So Christians were persecuted and killed, some covered in pitch and used as human torches; others, perhaps including St. Peter, killed as half-time entertainment at the Roman circus. 

One such circus, identified by the location of an Egyptian obelisk, was located by the Vatican hill.  It was there St. Peter was thought to have been crucified upside down. From there, Christians removed his body to an adjacent Roman cemetery; where it was marked and revered, secretly, as evidenced by early Christian graffiti.  When the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the 4th century, in 324 he laid the foundation of a new church in honor of Peter on what he thought to be St. Peter’s tomb.  The first St. Peters was replaced by the second and current St. Peters in the 16th century.  But it wasn’t until the 1930’s that Pope Pius the XII gave archaeologists the permission to excavate what lay underneath, and the discovery of what is thought to be St. Peter’s tomb, as announced by the Pope in December of 1950. Through a convoluted archaeological story, the bones inside, thought to be those of St. Peter, were actually lost, until finally rediscovered. Such that, on June 26, 1968 Pope Paul VI announced that the relics of St. Peter had been found.

You see, when Jesus calls you, you never know where it’s going to lead, what it going to cost, how many, in times to come, that you are going to influence.

So it is that even today, God is still calling us to do God’s work.  Like those he called by the lakeside, Jesus still calls us to follow him and fulfill his ministry. Whether through “the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job, the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, or a parent’s willingness to nurture a child.”

On March 31st, 1968, about a week before he was killed, Martin Luther King gave a sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., entitled, “Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution.”  It’s not as famous as his “I Have A Dream Speech” or his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, but it was significant nevertheless.  In this speech he addressed the issues of why the time was right – indeed overdue – for social and racial change, and also reiterated his opposition to the War in Vietnam, for which he was catching much criticism, even by some of those who had previously supported him. In this speech, in a pithy phrase, he also addressed how human progress occurs. Dr. King said, and I quote:

“Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” sermon at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., March 31st, 1968)

Progress awaits. Problems persist. And still, God calls. Looking for the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God.  Are you?


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