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The Cost of Discipleship

Mark 1:14-20

Mark 1:14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

16 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. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

*****

Can you think of a time when you wanted to be chosen for something? Maybe you’d applied to a school. Or a job. Or maybe it was a date with someone you had a crush on. Regardless of what it is, there’s something so vulnerable and scary about that desire to be accepted, wanted, chosen, before it’s answered. And for some reason, if you’re like me, when you’re waiting for that person or institution to say “yes” to you, you can’t help but catalogue all of the reasons why they won’t chose you. Ah my grade in that class could have been better; I didn’t answer that interview question as well as I could have; I don’t have enough experience; that cute person probably thinks I’m super weird (they probably do, but that’s no reason for them not to like you).

There’s so much bound up in our desire to be desired. We’ve received all kinds of messages about who is worthy to be chosen and what we have to do to prove that we’re among their number. For the most part, no one ever sat us down and gave us a list of these things, but we learned them all the same from our friends and our parents, from the movies we watched and the pictures in magazines. There’s this kind of person we’re supposed to be if we want to be wanted.

Our Scripture this morning opens up some opportunities to reflect on these unspoken assumptions we have about ourselves and our neighbors. This story from Mark’s Gospel has something to tell us about who Jesus chooses and what that means for the rest of us.

Today, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he chooses four fishermen, Simon and Andrew, James and John. Why them? When Jesus finds them on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, they are just in their boats, doing their work. The first disciples are laborers, just like Jesus had been. This isn’t a superhero movie, where the leader goes around finding people with magical gifts or mutant powers to forge them into a super-team. Simon isn’t catching fish with his mind. These people don’t have exceptional abilities. They’re just people who don’t really own much so they have to sell their labor to make a living. They’re just regular people.

That’s who Jesus calls. Not the best of the best. Not the elite. Not the gifted and talented. Not the smartest, the cleverest, the richest, the highborn with the most prestigious names and the best connections. No, Jesus goes to the Galilee and calls fishers. Regular people. Which means, Jesus might be calling us, too.

Have you ever felt like the real work of holiness or justice, of being God’s people in the world really falls on other people, exceptional people? You know who I’m talking about. They have radio programs or podcasts and thousands of people come to hear them speak at conferences. The real movers and shakers. (Have you noticed how pretty all of those people are? It’s almost like they’re just celebrities saying churchy things.) If that’s who God’s using, then my job is just kind of to be a nice Christian person who doesn’t rock the boat so much. That’s for other people, more accomplished ministers or businessmen, who do the bulk of the work.

This reminds me of the Catholic nun Dorothy Day, who started to gain some notoriety for living and working with the poor in New York City. People started to talk about her as a saint, someone who, according to the Catholic Church, lived a truly holy life. One day a reporter asked her about what she thought of people calling her a saint, and her reply was, Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily. She was saying, “I’m not this special magical person. I don’t float above the ground like an angel. I’m here with you and you’re here with me. Don’t call me a saint and think that gives you an excuse to get out of this kind of life.” The call of discipleship is not one for the privileged few based on ability or power. It’s a call for everyone.

When we imagine discipleship to be something accomplished by heroes or exemplary figures, we dismiss the possibility of our own calling before we’ve even heard it. We catalogue all the reasons why God couldn’t really want us. Of course Dorothy Day sold everything she had, became a nun, and went to live with the poor in Hell’s Kitchen. Of course Martin Luther King, Jr. marched in the streets and was arrested for the sake of justice and rallied thousands and thousands to the cause of Civil Rights. Of course your favorite pastor or teacher or writer or organizer did things that showed God’s love in remarkable ways. Of course! They’re saints. Heroes of the faith. Super Christians. But not me. I’m just a regular person. But what Dorothy Day is saying is that those people some of us think of as Super Christians were really just regular people, too. Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily. God’s calling y’all, too.

This is part of what we affirm when we talk about the “priesthood of all believers.” We don’t have to go through the talented or the wealthy to get to Jesus. God’s kingdom isn’t the kind of thing that exceptional people bring about by their skill or their pretty faces. God’s desire is not only for the people we’ve been taught are desirable.

So Jesus calls regular people, amidst all the limitations that regulate us, because God wants us. God wants Abraham; it’s Abraham who says, “I’m too old.” God wants Moses; it’s Moses who says, “I talk funny.” God wants Gideon; it’s Gideon who says, “But I’m scared of literally everything.” And God doesn’t want us in spite of those parts of us, but with them. God wants the old and the scared and the quiet and the anxious and the crazy, your aching back and your weary soul. Come to me and I will give you rest. No matter how well you talk or if you can talk at all. God wants you. Not because you’re smart or rich or pretty or measure up to some imagined normal that we’ve been taught to wield against ourselves. God wants you just because that’s who God is, that’s the kind of God we find in Jesus who calls to Andrew and Simon and James and John and you and me and them, too (whomever “they” are).

Of course, God’s desire for us is often hard to hear. We have this sense we have that God only wants certain kinds of people, and I am not included among them; this sense that some are blessed and gifted and chosen while others are just kind of second class citizens. We’ve been taught that there are some people we give the benefit of the doubt and some people we should never listen to without suspicion.

This is not an accident. There are forces at work under the surface, behind the scenes, over our shoulders, regulating us, telling us to stay where we are; convincing us that we are not called, but then also teaching us to point to others and say “If I’m not called, they’re really not called” so that we feel a little better about ourselves.

Before Jesus calls the four fishers, the storyteller drops in, almost offhand, the detail that this all happens right after John the Baptist was arrested. That is the context for calling, for discipleship. Not this placid, bucolic scene in the countryside where rustic fisherman choose to leave their blessed existence behind for Jesus. They live in a world with a cruel king killing people who go out into the wilderness preaching the kingdom of God. They live in a world where people are taught to stay in place, and stepping out of place can get you killed. They were disciplined to hold onto their nets and catch more fish.

Hold onto your nets. I wonder if sometimes it didn’t seem like their nets were holding onto them. Like they were the ones who were caught. These forces that shape the world, these voices whispering stories in our ears about who we are (that we are not desired for anything more than what we produce), they can become so familiar, so constant that they become a part of us. We can’t tell the difference between those voices and our own.

And so to know that we are called, desired by God, desirable in ourselves, we might have to let parts of us die. Sometimes when Christians talk like that, it’s another voice of negation, like “you’re basically bad so you better let God end it and try again and maybe in heaven you’ll be alright.” But I think there are other directions we could walk with the Scriptures about dying to self: like maybe, you are essentially loved and God breathed, but you’ve taken on some luggage filled with things you think you need but you really don’t and they’re killing you but you don’t see that you are still you without them. Like a hoarder who can’t bring themselves to get rid of some things even though there’s barely room to sit. And so to find life, you’ve got to put that stuff down.

Maybe, to remember that we are desired, called like Andrew and Simon, James and John, we’ll have to drop our nets, stop mending them, stop peeling the scabs off our pet wounds and learn to live with the scars. If you are convinced that your desirability is found in your work, then that means you will have a very hard time if you can’t find a job or if you are retired. If you are convinced that your desirability is bound up in your family looking a certain way, then you will torture yourself if it doesn’t look the way you wanted it. If you’re desirability is bound up in your health, feeling good, then when someday you inevitably get sick or lose some of you ability, what then? To know that you are desired apart from those things, you will have to put down those nets, let go of those stories about yourself, some of which you hold very dear. Putting down our nets, losing our lives to find them, is the cost of discipleship.

But it is also the gift of discipleship. Because so often those nets are just holding us in place when God wants to take us somewhere new.

So my friends, may you know that you are called, that you are beloved, that you are desired by God. And may you have the courage to put down your nets, to step away from any story you’ve received, any toxic relationship perpetuating those stories, any routine, any job, anything at all that tells you you are not desired by God. May we decide to follow Jesus, who calls to us, and invites us to share with each other and our neighbors that Good News of God’s desire and the end of our nets. Amen.

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