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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Deeply-Committed Mark 1:14-20

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.

Jesus was walking along the lake, and seeing the fishermen in their boats, he said, “Follow me,” and they did. Easier said than done! Back in January, I met up with a friend in DC. We planned to go grab some breakfast and she wanted to show me her office. Since I was then leaving town and she was staying at work, we took separate cars. She hopped in her car and said, “Follow me!” Easier said than done.

We went across DC in morning rush-hour combined with however many million people trying to get out of DC after a major event. There were accidents all over the place, stalled-out vehicles, and blocked intersections. As we drove across town, she forced her Honda Civic through places it was rude for one car to squeeze through, let alone two, especially when the second has out-of-town tags! Now, I learned to drive in New York and I have no problem being a bit “assertive” and pushing my car into places I need it to be, but even my limits were stretched on that. “Follow me!” she said, which is sometimes easier said than done.

Today is the third in a three-part series of messages on our mission statement. We are taking a good hard look at everything we do here at St. Paul and why we do it. You’ll find our mission statement on the front of your bulletin; let’s turn there together and say it together. The mission of St. Paul United Methodist Church is to be a Christian community where all people are valued and become deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ. Two weeks ago we explored what it means to be a Christian community. Last week we talked about what it means to value all people. Today, we’re talking about being deeply-committed followers of Jesus. May we pray.

As Mark tells it, it was all very simple. Jesus said, “Follow me!” and the disciples did. Jesus said, “I will make you fish for people,” and they all nodded as if they completely understood everything he was saying.

But I wonder if wasn’t more complicated than that. I wonder if the disciples asked where they were going to be following? Or for how long? Or why they should follow him in the first place? I wonder how Zebedee felt when he watched his business succession plan drop their nets in the boat and walk off without even stamping their timecards. I wonder if Simon Peter or Andrew or James or John stopped and said, “He’s going to make us fish for people? Does anyone know what he means by that? Are we going to be gone for just a couple of hours or what? And WHEN are we stopping to get something to eat?”

When Jesus calls these fishermen to follow him, to be his first disciples, we realize that we are being given a glimpse of the beginning of their journey with Jesus. Think of being one of Jesus’ disciples as a journey with Jesus. Journeys, as you know, have a starting point and a destination, but there is a whole lot that has to happen between those two things. For example, I have driven between North Carolina and New York many times. I have a beginning point in mind and a destination, but there are a whole lot of things that happen in between them. I have to head through desolate parts of Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Eventually, I’ll arrive, but I won’t arrive there all at once. It will happen over time, mile by mile, as I close in on my destination.

I think it’s easier and more exciting to become a follower than it is to remain a follower. Becoming a follower of Jesus is pretty easy on day one. Or starting a new diet, or a new exercise regimen, or quitting smoking, or getting organized or any other new venture is always easiest on day one. Starting something is easy, but sticking to it and following through with it is a little more difficult.

Think of the commitment your most significant relationships take. With your partner, your children, your parents, your siblings – these relationships require constant commitment. When the relationship is new, it’s exciting, it’s fresh, it’s a constant adventure. But somewhere along the line, you get used to it. And, you may even begin to get bored with it. That’s where the commitment kicks in.

This is one of the things I stress to couples who are about to get married. A wedding, though it can be costly and somewhat stressful, is easy. But marriage can be more difficult. The wedding is fun—a great big party with all your friends and family, everyone dressed up in fine clothes, celebrating, happy, smiling—that’s just a fun occasion! But marriage—the day-to-day ins and outs of communicating, putting up with weird habits, and learning to place someone else’s needs higher than your own—that takes a lot of work. The wedding is the fun part, but marriage takes work. It takes daily commitment. It takes waking up every morning and saying “Today I am going to treat my partner with greater honor than I treat myself.”

A wedding is great, but you know what’s even better, in my opinion? A third anniversary. After about three years, the shiny has worn off. Things may not be as exciting any more. Quirks that used to be adorable are now annoying. A third anniversary is something that should be celebrated, and a 5th anniversary, and a 9th, and a 14th – these should be celebrated because they are reminders to us that two people have stuck it out through what may have been very difficult, painful, or just plain boring circumstances. I can still remember the party celebrating my grandparents’ 50th anniversary. Papa publicly thanked Grandma for 27 happy years of marriage.

By the way, I don’t recommend that. Members of my family delight in pushing my grandmother’s buttons just to get a reaction, and we all learned that from him. But it was also an honest admission that it wasn’t all wine and roses, but these two people chose to face it together instead of apart. They were in it for the long haul.

Jesus said he was going to make the disciples fishers of people. Now, many of you are probably familiar with catch and release fishing. This seems an odd practice to me. When I was growing up, we didn’t catch fish simply to throw them back in the lake. If you aren’t going to take it home and eat it, why would you want to catch it, torture it by poking holes in its lip, and then put it back in the water?

I wonder if that wouldn’t create a lake full of fish with low self-esteem and bad attitudes. You have to go back to your friends and family with holes all in your lip and explain that you weren’t good enough. They didn’t want to eat you. All your life you’ve wanted to grow up and feed a hungry family, and then you’re caught, they look you over, and throw you back in the water.

Can I tell you something about the way Jesus fishes? Jesus isn’t into “catch and release.” When Jesus catches you, he means business. Jesus cast his net and caught these fishermen up into the kingdom of God, and there was no looking back. And so it is with us. When Jesus catches you, he’s not offering you a leisurely vacation. He’s not offering you a three-hour tour that turns into a fun time on the island with a movie star, a farmgirl in skimpy clothes, and a professor who can make anything out of coconuts. He’s not catching you simply to throw you back into the water. When Jesus catches you, it means that he wants to keep you, that he is committed to you, that he makes an everlasting promise and covenant with you that begs your participation and cooperation.

Think of what happens every time we celebrate a baptism. Baptism marks the beginning of our journey with God, it marks when Jesus walked beside the lakeshore and called our name, it marks the day that we became a disciple of Jesus Christ. God is committed to us, and God asks us to commit to nurturing each other in the Christian faith. And you know what? This is something that will happen daily. Today is not the end of the story! Baptism is the beginning of a journey, a time when God has said “yes” to each of us, and it anticipates the days and weeks and months and years of our continuing to say “yes” back to God. It’s a journey, but by the grace of God, we will commit ourselves to God. We will follow Jesus with everything we’ve got.

Becoming a deeply-committed follower of Jesus Christ is not a one-time static event. Being a follower of Jesus is something that happens each and every day of our lives as we say “yes” and recommit ourselves to the life offered in Christ.

Friends, when Jesus goes fishing, he’s not into catch and release. When he catches you, he wants you to be a one of his followers, to deeply commit your life to him. He wants you on his fishing crew, casting his net far and wide, a fishing crew that doesn’t only work weekends, or who plays catch and release, who pick and choose among all those who are dying to know God. We don’t have the freedom to decide who gets to be loved and accepted and called by God. We don’t have the leisure to say, “This one is no good. Throw ‘em back in.”

We are a Christian community where all people are valued and become deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ. That means some things! First, we are a Christian community. Who do we belong to? Jesus! We will make his priorities our priorities, and we will order our life together around the things that Jesus wants us to do. Second, we value all people. We don’t just tolerate, we don’t just welcome, we value the wonderfully diverse and complex ways in which the human tapestry is woven. Third, we are becoming deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus has walked the shores of our lives and called our names, so too do we go and fish for people, catching them up in a vision of the kingdom of God that is bigger and brighter and more glorious than any of us could imagine.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to be fishing for people, I want to be the best-tasting worm on the hook for Jesus that I can be. I want to be the best-looking bait in the water. I want everything in my life to be something that will cause people to wonder and explore, and I want them to be drawn to God through my life. But I realize that the only way my life is going to lead anyone to God is if I am becoming a deeply-committed follower of Jesus Christ.

This is what we do. We find examples of people who are doing what we want to do, who have already arrived where we want to go, and we pattern our lives after them. Not long ago, I was having dinner at the home of some family friends who have been married for over 40 years. The wife loves to play match-maker, and was going through her latest list of suspects for me to pair off with. Then she noticed her husband setting the table “wrong,” (at least to her, it was wrong), and she scolded him up one side and down the other. Without missing a beat, he looked at me and said, “You should get married soon, so you can have the happiness I’ve found!”

The best case for that permanent committed relationship is a happy couple who are deeply-committed to each other. The best case for Christianity is a joyous Christian who is deeply-committed to Jesus. If I am going to fish for people, I want to be the best-tasting worm on the hook for Jesus that I can be.

So what is a deeply-committed Christian? I answer that it is simply someone with a Christlike character. A deeply-committed Christian is someone through whom the love of Jesus shines so clearly that the person disappears and you are literally standing in front of Jesus. Guess what folks? The scriptures teach us that our hands and feet belong to Christ. The scriptures teach us that we are members of Christ’s body. Even the very word “Christian” means “little Christ.” It was a derogatory slur hurled against the early followers of Jesus, because they patterned their lives so closely after his. Would that would we follow him so closely that people would say the same thing about us.

I think about another derogatory slur that was used against a certain group of Christians. A group of students at Oxford University in the 1700s were ridiculed as “Methodists” by their classmates, because of their “methodical” way of studying Scripture and practicing spiritual disciplines. They were deliberate about becoming deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ, and they practiced the spiritual disciplines to become deeper and deeper in their commitments.

John Wesley was one of those Oxford students, and in his lifetime, he led the spread of the Methodist movement that eventually spanned the Atlantic Ocean and forever left its mark on all expressions of Christian faith that would ever come behind it. Methodism began as a campus ministry, which, incidentally is one reason why we should pay our Higher Education apportionment. John Wesley stated that the character of a Methodist was one who has the love of God shed abroad in his heart. The early Methodists were intentional about becoming deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ. They took seriously, and so should we, the admonition to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbors as we do ourselves. This is Christlike character. This is the character of a Methodist. This is the character of one who is a deeply-committed follower of Jesus Christ.

A deeply-committed follower of Jesus Christ evidences this Christlike character. Friends, we are called to be such followers. We are called to do the things that Jesus does. We are called to go the places Jesus goes. We are called to follow him so closely, that we are covered with the dust his sandals stir up, so closely that when people examine our lives we disappear entirely and they only see Christ.

What is a deeply-committed follower of Jesus Christ? Someone who is Christlike. Christlike is its own evidence, it requires no explanation. Think of the Christian life as a ladder with Christ at the top. He is the goal, he is the one we pattern our lives after, his is the grace that makes our very existence worthwhile. We are all climbing that ladder, getting closer to him, living our lives in such a way that we might find ourselves a bit closer to him today than we were yesterday. But it’s nothing we brag about, because it is a gift of grace that we are able to be formed in his image in the first place. Part of a Christlike character is humility. Anyone who tells me they are a model Christian, that they are close to attaining Christlike character, that they have almost reached perfection, automatically drops three rungs on the ladder in my opinion. Because I don’t know about you, but sometimes the closer I get to Christ the further away I feel. The closer I get, the more I realize how much further I have to go. The closer I get, the more I realize just how dependent I am on his grace. The closer I get, the more I realize that I can’t do it on my own, that’s it not about me, and I’m only there by grace, not by my own efforts or ingenuity.

We are called to be deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ. Jesus walks the shores of our lives, and he casts his net. He calls each of our names, and he shows us the kingdom of God. But then, he puts us to work fishing for more people, casting his net wider, valuing and welcoming the people who feel the most devalued, offering everyone an opportunity to be reunited with a God who has waited and yearned for each of us to come home. Every week, we people of Christian faith join in prayer for God’s kingdom to come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven. This is our objective! Not to go and be with Jesus after we die, but to be with Jesus now! Not to head to the kingdom of God after we die, but to bring about the kingdom of God now!

St. Paul United Methodist Church must be a place where all people are given the opportunity to become deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ. If you are a member of this congregation, I ask you to commit yourself to habits and practices that will help you grow in the Christian faith. As members, we have each made commitments to support and participate in the ministries of this congregation through our prayers, our presence, our gifts and our service. Being a member of this congregation carries with it more responsibilities than it does privileges. In fact, there are no privileges to joining. The entire life and ministry of our congregation is open to you whether you are a member or not. Membership here is a commitment, a commitment we take seriously, and I ask every member here to take their commitments seriously. Many times, we think that being busy is a good mark for how well we’re doing as a church. I don’t want anyone here to be just busy. I don’t want the same people showing up to every activity we do, burning themselves out. We’re not called to be busy. We’re called to make deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ.
The first thing I ask you to commit to is regular worship attendance. I ask you to be present in worship every Sunday unless you are sick or out-of-town. If you haven’t noticed, Sunday morning is sort of the main event around here. Someone said to me this week, “I’m afraid to miss church because I feel like I’ll miss something!” Good! I want you to feel like you’re missing out if you’re not here, because guess what – you are!

The second thing I ask you to commit to is participation in at least one activity designed to help you grow deeper in your faith. This could be a Sunday School class, a Bible study, a small group, an accountability group, a spiritual retreat, or something similar.

Now, I also understand that it can be difficult to assimilate into an already-existing group. People may be perfectly friendly, but it’s hard to work yourself into a group that might already have decades of previous history together. If you’re already part of an existing group, listen up, because you’re not off the hook. Within the next year, every Sunday School class or group needs to plan to give birth. Every group needs to be part of starting a new group, where people who are not currently connected can find a place to belong. I want two people from each existing group to commit themselves to leave their current group to be part of starting a new group. Every Sunday School class, Bible study, women’s circle, etc is included in this. We need to be intentional about doing whatever it takes to cast the net wide and fish for the very people Jesus wants us to reach, and that may mean leaving what we already know and are comfortable with. Is the goal of church to simply be a place where everybody knows our name? I’m pretty sure that we’re not here just to have a Christian version of Cheers. This is not a social club – it’s the staging ground for forming people who deeply commit their lives to Jesus Christ. If they are going to make that commitment, we need to commit to providing the places and relationships where that can actually happen.

Jesus continues to walk the shores of our lives, calling each of our names, and inviting us to be caught up in his net. He wants each and every one of us on his fishing crew, casting the net far and wide – touching every person with his love and grace. We can only commit to God because God has first committed to us. That is what we celebrate in baptism, that the grace of God was available to each of us long before we were aware of it or even asked for it. You notice that the baptismal font is here front and center today. Today, we are going to remember our baptism and recommit ourselves to the promises that were made at each of our baptisms. God commits to each of us, and in renewing the vows made at our baptism, we have the opportunity to recommit ourselves back to God. After a time of prayer, I invite everyone to come forward via the center aisle, touch the water to your forehead as you remember your baptism and are thankful for it, before returning to your seat via the side aisles. Just as, from time to time, married couples will have a time to remember and renew their vows, so today we are taking the opportunity to remember and renew the vows of our baptism, as a time to remember our commitment to God and the ways we will live out that commitment here in God’s church.

We are a Christian community where all people are valued and become deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ. Today, we celebrate that Jesus has walked along the lakeshore of our lives, calling our names, and inviting us on the journey with him. At the same time, we commit ourselves and re-commit ourselves to joining him on that journey, to join his fishing crew, and to cast his net far and wide until all people, people who are valuable beyond belief, are caught into his net, have committed their lives to him, and are cradled at the center of Christian community.

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