Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Have it your way

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
Third Sunday after Epiphany (January 21, 2018)
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20

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.”

So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Here is a story about God’s call to someone. It’s a shame that the editors of the lectionary cut off the Jonah story with that last verse because we miss that temper tantrum that Jonah throws when God shows mercy to the people of Nineveh. It’s also a shame that they skip the earlier part of the Jonah story.

Do you know how this story goes? If you don’t, I’ll tell you. Jonah ends up on a boat that gets caught in a turbulent storm and the sailors on board are like, “You must have really ticked off your deity! We’re tossing you overboard!” And then Jonah ends up getting swallowed into the belly of a giant fish. It’s funny because it’s supposed to be!

But as I said, we also miss the part where Jonah gets livid with God for not smiting the Ninevites, which was the threat undergirding all Jonah’s warnings to that city to “repent or else.” God lavishes her grace on those who repent, the lesson goes, even those who are one’s mortal enemies.

God’s call to Jonah takes him outside of his comfort zone geographically, but Gods grace and mercy lie even farther outside the lines of what Jonah considers desirable or fair.

Now onto our next call story, and our next fish story, coincidentally, the call of Jesus’ disciples…

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

This is Holy Wisdom, Holy Word… Thanks be to God!

This reference is going to sound out of left field, but I promise you I’ll do my best to connect the dots. Will you try to stay with me?

There was a commercial on TV a long, long time ago. It was for Burger King. It had a catchy (annoyingly catchy) little tune: “Have it your way. Have it your way…”

In the commercial this poster family of four bolts out of their station wagon and into the Burger King and eagerly runs up to the counter to order. They sheepishly asks if they can have their meals customized. The dad asks if they can hold the pickles and the woman behind the counter sings into the mic, “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us, all we ask that you let us have it your way…”

And the family skips out of there with the dad remarking to the mom, “That’s how things ought to be. Our way!”

Those are the cultural, economic, and social waters in which we swim, aren’t they? It’s the American Way, some might argue, to have it your way, to have it our way as consumers, as citizens, as whatever other social category you want to put us in. And not only to obtain what we want, how we want it, and when we want it, but to also to avoid anything that unsettles or challenges us. We can wall ourselves off in our neighborhoods. Or choose places to work where people look or sound like us. Our social media spheres are essentially echo chambers. We can find media outlets that confirm our political biases. We’re cocooned in existential bubble wrap.

Consider this: in what environments do we find ourselves face-to-face with others outside of our racial, socioeconomic, or other cultural circles in an unguarded way? In what spaces are we forced to encounter the mutual humanity of an “other”? There aren’t many.

“Have it your way. Have it your way…”

Not so with God’s call to Jonah. God sent Jonah to a city that was wicked and filled with the mortal enemies of Judah. It was once the capital of an evil, oppressive empire.

Not so with Jesus’ call to Simon and Andrew and Zebedee’s boys. There they were, busying themselves with the family fishing business, painstakingly mending their nets as they always did. Just another day on the Sea of Galilee. There was nothing more ordinary, more close to home than a day spent casting and mending nets. “For they were fishermen,” Mark notes. Maybe not a bubble, per say, but it sure was familiar and predictable place for them.

“Have it your way. Have it your way…”

But then comes this guy. This man comes along preaching about what it would look like if God was in charge in Judea. And he tells them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
And if that wasn’t bizarre enough, then this happens: “Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.”

Have you ever thought about how strange that is? Immediately. To leave everything you know to follow someone you don’t know to a place that you don’t know? Immediately. Mark gives us zero clue as to their internal motivations. We don’t know if it was Jesus’ charisma, or the stirring of the Spirit in their hearts, or if they were bored. I bounced this idea off of a colleague earlier in the week: “What if ol’ Zebedee was pain to work for?” to which she said, “Um… that’s a stretch.”

But what we do know is that Jesus’ call to follow him and fish for people propelled them out of the safe, the comfortable, and the familiar.

“Have it your way. Have it your way…” Quite the opposite!

Not so with Jonah, not so with disciples, and no so with us. So often one solid indicator of the nudge we’re sensing to do something is the call of God: it takes us outside of our comfort zones. Might we be led to do something difficult? Or tell a hard truth? Or take a risk? Or drop what we’re doing?

Now, a disclaimer: so many times these call stories involve leaving home or being sent somewhere. But not all of us can neglect our mortgages or quit our jobs or forsake our families. Not all of us have the health or the money or the emotional capacity to pull a Jonah or Simon or James. There’s an insidious element when we talk about calling in the church in such a way that makes following God’s call into something heroic or dramatic, out of reach for ordinary people. Yes, Jesus took those fishermen to Jerusalem (eventually) but they spent a fair amount of time wandering around Galilee, too.

Sometimes following God’s call, for some of us, entails taking a small step right where we are, or being sent much closer to home than we’d expect, but it is still a call that summons our courage.

I heard a story about this very thing this week. Ana Chaverin is her name and she gave me permission to share her story. Ana is an organizer with one of our partners, Pima County Interfaith, or PCIC, a community organizing network. She is a truly amazing person who, on top of raising a family, going to school, and working a job supervising others at night, finds time to get faith communities to mobilize on issues of common concern.

Ana told me about the time she first mobilized a group… She was seven years old, a student at an elementary school in Agua Prieta, Sonora. The teacher of her class was kind of cruel in that he made the children, when they were disruptive or disobedient, take a bottle cap, stick it to their foreheads, and lean against the wall in a way that pressed the caps into their little foreheads. Ana said she would watch him do this and shrink back as her classmates cried.

One day he told her to grab a bottle cap and stand against the wall. You could imagine the internal dialogue: “Should I do it? He’s the teacher. I should do what he says. But I don’t want to hurt my head or be embarrassed. But this is wrong; this man shouldn’t be asking us to do this. But I could get in trouble…”

“No,” she said, defiantly. “No, I will not. And you shouldn’t be making us do that anyway.”

Incensed, he yelled at her, “You get up there… NOW!”

“No. I won’t!” she yelled back. Seven-year-old Ana then marches right out of the classroom and into the principal’s office to tell him what’s happening.

The principal calls the teacher in, who denies the whole thing. “She’s lying. She’s a troublemaker.”

What does a little kid, a good kid, do when confronted with the hypocrisy of an adult? What does a kid do when a teacher calls her a liar in front of the principle? Should’ve stayed quiet…

But no. She tells the principal: “You go into that classroom right now. Look at the kids who have bottle cap marks on their foreheads as we speak!”

The principal did. Ana was vindicated!

But when the principal called all the parents of the students in for a conference, she was absolutely terrified of what her father would say.

He laughed his head off. “I am so proud of you!” he said.

Thus began her call to community organizing.

Looking back over our personal histories, how many of our lives have changed because of those moments when we followed the tug of the Spirit and took the riskier, less convenient, or more truthful route?

“Have it your way. Have it your way…”

It’s often in the opposite direction of having it our usual way that was Jesus said comes into full view: “The kingdom of God has come near.”


Featured image: He, Qi. Calling Disciples, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library