When I was a kid, I thought that the best job a man could have was being a minister (the way I was raised only men had any claim on that particular vocation). My dad was a minister until I was about Dominic’s age. My mom played the chocolate brown upright piano in the corner on Sunday for worship services. And my younger brother and I sat in the congregation by ourselves, soaking up the adulation of the adoring people who gathered, I thought, to worship God and pay homage to my family.
It was a great life. Then, as I got a little older, in the summers I went down to Mexico to stay with my missionary grandparents in the children’s home they founded. And when I wasn’t at the children’s home, I would often travel with my grandparent’s to report on the workings of the home to the churches in the States that supported them. Once again, I got the opportunity to bask in the glow of someone else’s ministerial glory.
I recall going all over the central United States as a child, and have people say, “Oh, you’re Ted and Wanda Murray’s grandson. I’ve known them for twenty-five years. Fine people. Fine people.”
Early on in life I thought that I would grow up to be either a minister or a missionary. I figured those were the two most glamorous professions available. Having done at least one of those things for most of my life now, I have been disabused of the folly that it is somehow a glamorous career track. But I can also attest to the fact that trying to do good for others, trying to learn to tell the truth, trying to figure out the best way to serve God day in and day out is a vocation worth giving your life to.
But glamorous it is not.
As a child, though, I didn’t know that. I still thought my dad and my grandparents were the most important persons in any room. In fact, I remember praying as an eight or nine year-old, “God, if you want me to be a missionary, or if you want me to be a minister, let me trip over a bush.” Then, I would walk casually by a bush, acting as if I didn’t see it, and let my foot catch one of the branches.
See, that’s how I thought being called worked: you had to trick God into calling you to do what you’d already had in your mind was what you should be doing. Because I thought, apparently, that God might miss a wonderful opportunity to use someone like me, who was obviously on a path to ecclesiastical greatness—or at least miss the opportunity to use someone who naïvely thought there was something that could be identified as “a path to ecclesiastical greatness.”
For years, I thought that’s how calls worked; there had to be some big sign placed in your path that you couldn’t miss. Something big, shiny, and unmistakable.
Turns out, God’s call is rarely experienced as a big flashing neon sign, planted in the middle of the roadway of life. It’s almost always something much more pedestrian, dim, whispery—something you might miss while you’re looking for God to drop some crazy portent from the heavens.
If you were here last Sunday, this passage from Mark may sound vaguely familiar. Last Sunday’s reading from the Gospel of John dealt with the calling of Philip and Nathaniel, and how they dropped everything to take up with Jesus and his roving band of ne’er-do-wells, based on nothing more substantial than Jesus’ rather thin pitch: “Follow me.”
Remember that? What do we have going on today?
Well, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is wandering down by the seaside, when he comes up on Peter and Andrew, fishermen. Just like last week, Jesus doesn’t do any fancy hocus-pocus, no slick recruiting spiel. He sees them and once again he says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
Simple. Straightforward. No Damascus Road experience.
How do they respond?
They look at each other, shrug their shoulders, drop their nets, and follow.
So, Jesus and his new crew amble on down the beach a ways, until they happen upon a couple of other brothers, who are also fishermen. Once again, Jesus says, “Hey! You guys. Leave the old man, and come on with me.”
What do they do?
They leave their old man in the rearview mirror and take off after Jesus.
But here’s the best part, the part that we might miss if we aren’t paying attention. What’s the qualifier that Mark uses to explain the exits the four newly-minted disciples make from their old lives, that narrates for us how they all put down their nets, said their goodbyes, and took off? Arguably the most important word in our text this morning?
That’s right. When Jesus calls, both sets of brothers drop what they’re doing, and fire up the family truckster . . . immediately.
They don’t focus group it. They don’t consult their Google calendars, their financial planners, their bosses, or their horoscopes. They just get up an go.
And it’s not because Jesus has given them any great reason either. He says “go,” and they go.
No big flashing signs, no voices from heaven, no emotional hammerlock. Nothing that I would have as a kid associated with “a call.” Just, “Hey, y’all have got to come be a part of this.”
But how do they know they’re supposed to go? This doesn’t seem like much of a call, does it?
It doesn’t seem like a enough evidence to bet your life on. But Jesus is sneaky that way. There is truth to proclaim; there are things to do. According to Jesus, the kingdom of God has come near. Not, “the kingdom of God is up there somewhere”; not “the kingdom of God is going to happen one of these days after the apocalypse”; not “the kingdom of God lies just on the other side of the grave.”
Nope. The kingdom of God has come near . . . now. There are people who’ve gotten too used to bringing up the rear, who need some help being ushered up to the front of the line.
And guess what? That’s us. The world can’t afford for us to wait for a lightning strike or dancing unicorns before we take seriously that God might be talking to us in the whisper of an itinerant peasant who just happens to be walking past when we least expect it.
There are folks who’ve lived too long with the belief that they don’t amount to anything because of what color they are, or where they were born, or whom they love, or because of what kind of shape their bodies or brains are in, or because their bank account doesn’t sport the requisite robust balance.
There are a lot of people out there who need to know the love of God that tells them they were made for more than defeat and despair, that tells them their suffering and oppression is a failure of the system and not their destiny, that offers to them God’s vision of a new world where they are what matters and that all the things that currently define their misery are not.
And, whether it conforms to your idea of what a call is supposed to look like or not, you just might be God’s idea of what it takes to reach them, to love them, to heal them. You might be it.
I had a conversation one time with a young woman who felt like she was being called to do justice work. She had some obvious difficulty coming to some kind of decision.
Do I pursue my career, or do I take this opportunity? What about my obligations at home? What kind of responsibilities do I have to my family? How will I tell them? (She worked in the family business, after all.)
Tough questions. Tough decisions. But who ever said it would be simple? Decisions would be easy if all we had to choose between were brussel sprouts and chocolate ice cream. The decisions we’re called to make as people who follow Jesus are almost always more nuanced, more complex. Usually, our choices are between two good things—like between more time helping track down housing for homeless teens or spending more time with our own kids; or between telling the truth and not wanting to hurt our friends; or between God’s call and our family obligations.
“I’m not sure what to do. I know we can’t settle it right now, but I’d like for you to pray about it. Maybe we can talk later.”
“I’ll be happy to pray for you,” I said. “And I don’t want to jump the gun or anything, but I’ve got to tell you something up front: I have a bias when it comes to cases like these.”
A nod, meaning, I think, “Go on. What is it? What’s the bias?”
“Well,” I said, “assuming it is God calling you (and I’d be willing to talk about that), but operating under the assumption that it is, in fact, God calling, I think you’d better go. I’ll pray about it, but I want you to know up front how I feel about these things. I won’t help you weasel out of it, if God’s after you to change the world.”
“What about the family business?”
“I didn’t say it would be easy. You may have to juggle some things. The church, I suspect, would be happy to help you out. But if God has you sized up as the person to do this big thing, I’m probably going to side with God. After all, you’re asking a guy who comes from a family of ministers and missionaries. I already have a bias. And besides, maybe I’m the one God’s using to tell you to drop your nets and follow. Maybe I’m the call. Or maybe not. Who knows? But it’s always a possibility.”
Maybe I’m the call. Or maybe that persistent pulling you feel.
Or maybe your Uncle Ed who’s always talking about those commercials on late night TV that haunt you with pictures of starving children.
Or maybe one of the grandmotherly types that greets you at the back of the church every Sunday, and reminds you how much your presence brings joy to folks everybody else just seems to walk past without noticing.
Or maybe that woman who sits on the same street corner every day, with the same cup held out in her hand, and a sign that asks for money for food. And you can see the faded pink Dora the Explorer backpack that holds everything she owns, and it’s so cold.
Or maybe that teenage kid who’s confused about who she is, and always seems to be in trouble because she can’t quite figure it out. And she keeps getting bullied at school every day—just for being different. And she looks at you like you’re maybe the only hope she’s got left in the world.
Or maybe that Hispanic woman with broken English who serves you coffee every day, leaning out the drive through window of the McDonalds—but who goes home after work to spend another sleepless night worrying whether her husband will be deported, leaving her to raise three babies on her own. And you can see the worry lines on her forehead as she hands you your change.
Or maybe it’s that young guy in a new city, who doesn’t have any friends here, and wouldn’t even know where to begin to look for them—and he’s lonely and scared, but he doesn’t know how to say it, and he doesn’t really have anyone to say it to any way.
Or maybe it’s me, right now. Maybe I’m the call to drop what you’re currently doing and do what you’re pretty sure God has been telling you to do for a long time now.
Maybe God’s trying to tell you something at this very moment. There’s not some big PowerPoint pitch to lay out all the pros and cons, not some incentivized benefits package, not some assurance that everything’s going to turn out right, and you’ll become famous, have wonderful, well-adjusted kids, and escape the ravages of arthritis.
Maybe it’s just a tug, a gnawing at the edge of your mind that you can’t quite shake, saying, “Follow me. Drop what you’re doing, and follow. Immediately.”
Or maybe not, of course. But it’s always a possibility.
Why not throw down your nets and find out?