Sunday, January 26, 2003

The Courage To Leave

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Mark 1:14-20
A. The Church Forms the Story

What do you remember about January 1963?

What do you remember from forty years past?

The passage from Mark 1 read a moment ago looks back forty years.

Mark is writing in the year 70 or so. Jesus' ministry in Galilee begins in the year 30 or so. What is remembered across four decades?

Very little. Nothing about the time of year in which Peter and Andrew found the courage to leave their nets. Nothing about the precise setting in which they chose to follow. Nothing about the manner of their discourse with the Master. Nothing about the reactions of families. Nothing about the effect on the fishing business. Nothing about what caused, in this idealized recollection, such a sudden change. No, at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, as at its middle and at its end, we hunt in vain for clear memory of Jesus. The Gospels allude to the history of Jesus but they are not written to tell the history of events forty years past. And, in fact, they do not. A reading of the Gospel that tries primarily to upend the Gospel for such an alien agenda misses the meaning of their message.

The scene before us today is an idealized memory, the memory of something that may or may not have happened in the way accounted, somewhere along the Tiberian shore. The story told today comes out of, is, as the wise men say, formed by, the church forty years later, shaped and formed by the church of the year 70, for reasons quite other than interest in history or biography or hagiography. The Gospel has bigger fish to fry than the Tiberian fish of April 30AD in the nets of Aramaic speaking laborers. The Gospel presents Jesus Christ, not Jesus. The Gospel presents Jesus Christ, the Son of God, not Jesus. The Gospel presents Jesus Christ, the crucified. The Gospel is not about Jesus, it is about you.

Today’s passage was formed in the life of the early church. Somewhere in the lost past, all of the detail now worn away like the memory you do not have of what you were doing, eating, wearing, saying, fearing, praying in January of 1963, somewhere in the lost past something happened over time to bind Simon and Andrew to Jesus. The church needed to remember this, and so, in this idealized, skeletal, and didactic way, the church did so. What is remembered, with accuracy or without, is recalled to meet a pressing need in the fragile life of a suffering church (repeat). If we miss this formative effect of the church on this material—the material mattered to a church struggling with grim and glorious matter of life and death—then we miss the point. Then the sacred Scripture becomes even for the church what it becomes in other settings—parlor game fodder, material for debate over beer and skittles.

Something far more frightening, more powerful is at work here.

What crying need does the church experience, in the years near 70 A.D. that occasions the forming of this scarecrow text? Why would the church want, at the very outset of the Gospel to remember the hurt of leaving? Think about the hurt of leaving. It hurts to leave.

It hurts to leave the womb. It hurts to have those first teeth leave their gums for the daylight of dinner and dentistry. It hurts to watch your daughter get on the bus and leave for kindergarten. It hurts to watch families leave a church and a community for lack of work. It hurts to see your son take the family car and leave for the evening with a young woman you do not know well or fully trust. We have been around college towns all our lives: it hurts to leave your child in the dorm, to carry the sweaty boxes up the stairs, to fiddle with room arrangements. At SU, after Labor Day, it got to the point that I could not look at the same repeated scene: a dad and mom, hugging their boy goodbye, and leaving town. It was a holy, frightening, powerful scene. Like our Bible reading today.

The Bible is not about some oddball potpourri of cluttered historical facts regarding fishing rights near Capernaum in the first century. The Bible has bigger fish to fry.

Today’s story is about leaving. Somehow, in the life of the early church, leaving became an issue for attention. How could it not? Look at all the leave-taking in the formative early period. Jesus leaves life. Peter leaves Galilee. Andrew leaves home. Paul leaves Judaism. The church leaves Palestine. Every time they turned around, someone was leaving nets.

If the legend of Peter’s martyrdom in Rome in 62 is to be trusted, Peter only started his leaving career with this leaving of the nets. The church remembered or crafted this scene out a dire need to teach disciples that discipleship bears a certain cost, and a certain cast: now and then one is invited to summon the courage to leave. The life of faith is an adventure, but an arduous one. Faith, the gift of grace, when accepted and lived will ineluctably lead to risk. Risk is a part of what we mean by faith.

B. Mark Tells the Story

Returning to Mark for a moment. We have followed Luke in 2001 and Matthew in 2002. Now the lectionary guides us through Mark. Notice, as you have in other settings five personal interests, present in this first chapter, but carried through the length of the Gospel:

1. A Secret

Mark’s messianic secret is a reminder to us that following the Christ means leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar, the present for the unforeseen future, the ready and easy for the unknown. His is not a cozy Christ. His Christ is One who calls upon us to summon the courage to leave. (1:24, 1:34, 3:12, 1:43, 5:43, 7:366, 8:26, 8:30, 9:9, 7:24, 9:30, 10:48)

2. Galilee of the Gentiles

The interest in evangelism, out of which the Gospel is written, is imprinted upon us in this very early passage. When you hear Galilee, think unchurched, think, outsider, think the nations, think the unreligious. With Paul, Mark asserts that Christ had died for the ungodly.

3. The Cost of Real Discipleship

In Recovering the Sacred Center, Howard Friend writes: “Biblical narratives remind us that transformation begins with courage to leave. Accounts of dramatic change in the lives of the people of God are told in the Bible in story form, usually journey stories. And these stories begin with leaving. Abram’s arriving at Canaan had meant, twenty-five years earlier, leaving Ur of the Chaldees—a walled city, safe and familiar. To become the leader of Israel, Moses left the safety and anonymity of the plains of Moab. Crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land had meant, forty years before, leaving Egypt—captivity to be sure, but safety and predictability. Ur of the Chaldees, the plains of Moab, Egypt—each a symbol of safety and familiarity—are difficult to leave. The moment of letting go and leaving is both awesome and agonizing. Ask Abraham, Sarah, Moses; ask Amos, Micah or Jeremiah; ask Peter, Andrew or James; ask Paul, Silas or Barnabas.”

4. Jesus Christ, Crucified

The suffering that Jesus endured was to be a watchword and warning for the first Christians. Mark teaches in this passage that at the very outset of the journey there is the experience of loss and bereavement that comes with leaving.

5. Apocalyptic Right Side Up

In sayings like this (I will make you fishers of men)--calling of disciples, native town rejects Jesus, the children cheer him, what makes up real family or kindred, nature of discipleship, worthwhile endeavors, praise for childlike understanding, reminders of gratitude, standards for judging a sacrifice, consolation to the sinner—Mark tries to put the Christian hope right side up, culminating in the warning of Mark 13 that of that day and hour, no one knows, not even the Son, but the Father only.

There are many kinds of courage when facing the summons to leave.

As the 1991 Gulf War began, we were meeting on Sunday nights, moving from apartment to apartment, with a group of graduate students. I remember very little about this fellowship, from more than 10 years ago, other than its convivial spirit, its population by forestry students—know as ‘stumpies’—and it production over time of several marriages. It also produced the single most unusual love “poem” I have heard, which came in the aftermath of a summons to leave. Keith met Amy in this group. They were both stumpies and both competitive lumberjacks and both very bright and very attractive young people. One night Keith was extolling the glories of his girl, to a few of us—her beauty, diligence, kindness, spirit. She came from a large family farm near Cooperstown and he from a similar farm in Medina. Keith offered his love poem, reminding us they met in the lumberjacking competition. With eyes glazed over, voice low and loving, with heart pounding, to this he added: “and she is also a great lumberjack…and man can she chop!”

I had their wedding in Hartwick Seminary some years later. I think of the two of them as two of the finest young people that Methodism in the Empire State has produced. Like the early church, I remember almost nothing of detail, expect the word, “chop”. A pungent saying, like, “fishers of men”. In those winter months of 1991, Keith bade farewell to us, as a member of the Air Reserve. He was summoned and he summoned the courage to leave. All political dispute aside for a moment, I honor even revere his courage to leave. You and I know that many others today; some from our own extended family will also summon that kind of courage.

One other word. Keith came back safe, yes, but as a part of bomber crew he came back changed. A different person. His eyes, to my eye, carried thereafter a lasting dimness, a dimness against which broken and lost limbs may be preferable.

C. We Are Invited to Live the Story

It is not just the church that formed this passage that knew about leaving. It is not just the Evangelist who tells the story of departure that knew about leaving. We too know about leaving. Leaving nets, neighbors, niceties.

Last weekend, Jan and I drove with a few others down to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. We went there to attend the funeral services for our friend, and Bishop, Violet Fisher’s Father, William Henry Fisher, who at age 87 had died early on a Sunday morning, after he had gone over to his church to turn up the heat and ready the sanctuary for worship. It was important for our congregation to be represented in bodily support of our Bishop, whom we love. But it was more important, for Jan and for me, to be with a friend, at the time of leave-taking. After all, all the other departures of life, with their laughter and tears and valedictions, foreshadow the final departure.

We traveled easily with the aid of a AAA triptik. Triple A is one of the world’s great, inexpensive deals. It is amazing what we can do together, is it not? Because I had a sense that we could do even better than the given directions, I took some alternate routes on the Peninsula. In fact, these alterations, mid-course corrections, did not make the trip down any shorter. We were not altogether lost. Certainly not disoriented enough to actually stop and ask directions. Nothing of that sort. Just an hour or two of further sightseeing. Anyway, since we had already gone out of our way on the way down, I just followed the directions home. Jan slept, and as the sun set, it fully dawned on me just how much our dear friend has left behind to be in ministry with us. It does not happen in a moment. The scene from Mark is an idealized one. Yet, over time, the Voice still calls to command, and, over time, people of faith summon the courage to leave. To leave the south for the north. To leave home for others. To leave family for ministry. To leave dad for the joy of service. To leave the energetic black church for the earnest white church. To leave the lengthy eclectic worship for formal, liturgical order. To leave familiar foods and sounds and rhythms and sights for a colder clime. To leave, to leave. “Immediately they left their nets”. How lightly we weigh others’ sacrifice.

Remember the struggles to decide enshrined in the best of our traditions:

To be or not to be? That is the question
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them?
To die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to—‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished

But that the dread of something after death
That undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied over with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents go awry
And lose the name of action.

Said Lawrence Summers, Harvard President, of late, “In the history of the world, no one ever washed a rented car.”

To lay hold of faith, you have to leave nets. To lay hold of the future you have to let go of the past. To lay hold of life we may summon the courage to leave. To leave the inherited for the invisible. To leave the general for the particular. To leave existential drift for personal decision. To leave the individual for the communal. To leave renting for ownership. To leave auditing for registration. (Some of us have been auditing the course on Christianity long enough. It’s time to register, buy the books, pay tuition, take the course for credit, and get a grade!) To leave engagement for marriage. To leave intimacy for pregnancy.

Faith, as human response, is a decision, a choice, that inevitably includes some risk. As Bonhoeffer wrote on this passage, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.”

Do you love Jesus? Then you must do something for him. Said Schweitzer, “He comes to us as one unknown…”

What we know in our own experience, and what Mark highlights in his arrangement of the Gospel, as in its first chapter, and what the pressing need of the fragile life of a struggling church before Mark crystallized and shaped and formed into an idealized memory is just this: discipleship involves departure, the leaving of nets.

As E. Kasemann said, “Faith means a continuous exodus from established positions.

Today’s Gospel comes from a church that held onto a memory of departure, from the evangelist who reflected on departure, and a recognition in our own experience that includes the courage to leave.