January 25, 2015

No Exit


Text: Mark 1:18: “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

The theme today is decisiveness. Easy to read about, not so easy, maybe, to emulate. The people of Nineveh are decisive; they hear the warning of the prophet, shrill, harping Jonah, and they do the most unexpected thing ever—they actually stop doing the things God wants them to stop doing. What’s more, they start doing things that show they understand the error of their ways. It leaves poor Jonah completely flatfooted. Nowhere in his “Learn to be a Prophet” online training did anyone ever prepare him for success. Prophets don’t ever expect to succeed. They only expect to complain.

That plan gets thwarted by the decisiveness of the people of Nineveh.  God presents them with a message; they don’t spend a great deal of time analyzing the message or considering their alternatives. They simply respond, clearly, completely, and compellingly.

We get six short verses from the Gospel of Mark this morning, and within those six verses Jesus calls a third of his twelve disciples. Simon and Andrew and James and John—all of them have lives, all of them have jobs, all of them have families and commitments and people who depend on them and reputations in the neighborhood.

By the end of these six short verses they have chucked it all in and walked out of our view with the traveling preacher Jesus.

Of all the Gospel writers Mark would have made the best screenwriter, I think, because the descriptions he gives us are so cinematic. You can just imagine poor old Zebedee, the father of these last two brothers, standing there in dumb amazement, left alone in the boat among the nets with the Sea of Galilee spreading out behind him as these two crazy young men, his sons, his future, just walk away.

We are meant to understand that they have made a clear, complete, compelling decision. One moment they were on one path; the next moment they are on another, and they aren’t looking back.

That’s the kind of attitude, that is the way of being disciples, that Paul commends to people of the church in Corinth. Paul is saying that the time for decision is right here, right now; there isn’t a lot of future left to spend considering your options. We need to make a choice: a clear, complete decision.

So much for the readings this morning. I read these lessons and nod my head, and I know that this is the kind of discipleship expected of me. But that sort of decision seems somehow alien to me. I wonder whether it feels the same way to you.

We don’t go into anything that way. Something about our modern moment, something about the way we are raised, something about the values and expectations of our culture makes us approach major decisions very differently. We are almost never all in on anything. That’s what zealots do. That’s what fanatics do.

We are more calibrating. We are more careful. Even when we fly in the airplane we are trained to look for the exits nearest to us. We take that training into pretty much ever commitment we make. Even the idea of commitment itself seems somehow too controlling, to incarcerating.

God made us free; and so it must be the case that God wants us to have maximum freedom. Doesn’t that make sense?

Well, it does. Sort of. It’s a good story, and like all good stories, it’s only about half the story.

•  •  •

Here is the point of the sermon at which, if I were a better preacher, I would be offering the “how-to” part of the message. The sequence of these things is supposed to be exegesis, development, application, exhortation. Describe it, explain it, apply it, encourage the change.

Except that I’m just as much a product of the keep-your-options-open culture as anyone. I know that about myself. At least, for the first three decades or so of my working life I have been.

It wasn’t long after I first came to Saint John’s that I got my first job in the professional world, and believe me when I tell you that pretty much as soon as I got it I was trying to figure out how I would turn it into my next job. I suppose that goes with being young and ambitious. I was trying to build the ladder I wanted to climb, and I didn’t imagine anyone else was going to build it for me.

And that was pretty much the same way I approached my sense of ordained ministry, too. I felt this call to the ministry of the church, and I went to one divinity school at the insistence of my bishop even though I wanted to go to a different one, and I finally did end up going to that other one. I took an internship that led to my first job in ordained ministry, and that was the third time I’d made that happen in my working life. And then, of course, as soon as I got that job I was trying to figure out what the next job would be.

I am a person constitutionally programmed to keep as many options open as possible. I am sure a therapist could help me understand why that is the case by delving into my family history or my not-very-interesting list of childhood traumas. But to be perfectly honest I’ve never seen this as a problem, or as anything that makes me very different.

One way I know I’m not all that different in this is that I’ve counseled something like a hundred and more couples planning to get married. I’ve sat with each of those couples for something like between eight and ten hours before the day of their wedding. And I’ve seen in almost all of them, to a greater or lesser degree, that fear of closing out all the other options. That desire for a kind of insurance policy, or an out of some kind.

When I tell people in their mid twenties that they are talking about making a life-long commitment, they smile and nod in that way that is supposed to let me know that they understand what I mean, but that actually tells me they have no idea what I’m talking about.

•  •  •

When I first came back to Saint John’s in this role I had no sense that I was really making a choice at all, that I was foreclosing any options. I came here to be a substitute while you found the person you really wanted. And I came here at a moment when I wasn’t really sure where I belonged in the ministry anymore, or even if I did.

Well, to make a very long story very short, things changed. And now here I am. And the funny thing is, I can’t really even remember when it was I stopped looking around to know where the nearest exit might be. It’s as though suddenly I looked up and realized that I had no exit from this community, from Saint John’s, from all of you. Except that it wasn’t that sudden. I just finally figured it out.

I had walked away from the boats I had been keeping to carry me away to the next big thing, and instead I was stumbling along the beach, trying to follow.

And you know—once I realized it, once I saw that for me, there really wasn’t an exit anymore—I realized I have never been more free.

The old language of our Congregational brothers and sisters is just about perfect here. They didn’t distinguish between interim priests and rectors. They distinguished between transitional ministers and settled ministers. That’s it. To be settled is to be liberated from the anxiety of wondering about the next opportunity, a thing that seems like freedom but is, in fact, a prison.

That’s my story. And if I could give one gift to everyone here, one gift to everyone who makes this amazing community something I am so proud to be part of every day, it would be for all of us to be settled ministers, to put our roots down deeply here.

It would be the gift of that same happy realization, that same blessing, that there was really nowhere else to go, or at least nowhere else worth going, than this place; no horizon more inviting than the path right here toward a deeper relationship with God and the people God has given us to share this journey with.

I am so thankful that, even lacking that capacity for decisiveness, I am walking along with these disciples, trying to follow. Amen.