Responding to the Call


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

January 27, 2019

Texts: Psalm 121; Luke 5:1-11

      In his novel The Call, John Hersey traces the life of David Treadup, a fictional account of an American missionary in China during the late nineteenth century. Based on the life of his father Roscoe M. Hersey, a YMCA missionary, Hersey’s account of the struggles that faced those who answered “the call” is inspiring and thought-provoking. Converted in the midst of the missions fervor sweeping North America's college campuses in the late nineteenth century and stirred by the preaching of "James B. Todd," historically John R. Mott, David is recruited by the International YMCA to take the Gospel to China. In 1905 he enters the net-work of YMCA ministries across China-including every-thing from urban evangelism to rural programs of literacy and agricultural reform. Early in the novel, one of his college classmates comes to visit his mother to ask why he is “throwing his life away” rather than returning to take the safe path.

       That is, of course, the question that is always asked when someone responds to “the call.” It wasn’t any different back in the days when Jesus walked the shores of Galilee and called the fishermen to come and join him in his quest. The Sea of Galilee, known by many other names, including, the Sea of Gennesaret, Lake Tiberias, is Israel’s largest freshwater lake, about 33 miles long by about 8 miles wide. Its ancient name in Hebrew Kinneret means lyre, which it resembles. At its deepest point, it is about 40 miles deep; like the Dead Sea to the south, it is significantly below sea level.

        The Gospel passage this morning contains two of three discipleship call narratives that we find in the first two chapters of Mark; the call of Levi comes later. Several traditional images come to mind when we read this story, mainly from the paintings of the early Ren-aissance. Two men look up at a red-haired man in a red robe with a blue outer cloak; Jesus in a white robe does not appear until the nineteenth century. The fishermen hold nets in their hands; their gazes are fixed on the man. In the background of one of these paintings, you see the man who must have been the father, a man looking distraught; his sons, called, were putting down their nets; they were going to leave. Wait! You could almost hear him shouting. Wait! Wait! And, in the faces of James and John is the expression of uncertainty.

        Uncertainty is the feeling of many who receive the call because we don’t know what will follow. Unlike the call in Mark that is a call to proclaim the good news, the call in Luke refers to “catching people.” The question becomes what is the meaning of this enig-matic statement. Does it mean the saving of souls in the traditional sense of the word or something else?

        What’s called “saving” souls is the easy part. It’s what comes afterward that counts. Unlike the tele-vangelists of our day, Jesus calls us to a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships. The first step in this process of dismantling the dominant social world is to realize that the political and the personal are one. Jesus’ call is not a call out of the world, but into an alternative social practice. It is uncom-promising; it is a call to break with business as usual.

        Breaking with business as usual is not an easy task. Like James and John, we want to go about our daily business with little interference. We want things to be “normal,” whatever that means. We get up, get our morning coffee or tea, think about the day ahead, and live accordingly. Then suddenly some event shatters our sense of normalacy, whether it’s a govern-ment shutdown or something that is closer to our lives, such as the death of someone we know or a personal illness.

         Here Jesus comes into the lives of these four men and shatters their lives. Reading this morning’s section without knowing the backstory raises questions, such as, why would Peter use the word “master” in referring to Jesus? After escaping the angry synagogue crowd in Nazareth, the text tells us that Jesus went to Capernaum, at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, about 40 miles away or about a three-day walk. You can do it now in an hour by car. During the walk, Luke tells us he taught crowds and healed a man possessed by demons.

        Jesus is not a stranger to Peter because he has met Peter once before because he has healed his mother-in-law from a high fever. Staying in Caper-naum, the text goes on to relate that Jesus continues his ministry of healing and teaching. Known now as a healer, crowds search Jesus out even when he tries to find solitude. Jesus broke all the expected norms.

          Throughout the history of Old First, we have had pastors who have broken with expected norms. When he decided to support the patriots, Abel Morgan took an uncertain road. Had the British won, he would have faced the consequences at the end of a rope – the losers would have been traitors – convicted of treason to the Crown. During the 1840s and 1850s, Old First cooperated with and supported the Under-ground Railroad! Yes! We smuggled slaves to freedom! Yes! We broke the law. Thanks be to God!

        During the 1950s, John Bates stood for freedom against the forces of the radical right that wanted to silence us. He continued to preach the Word – the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed – and he was excor-iated in the press. You may not be aware of it, but representatives of the John Birch Society actually came to listen to him to decide if he was really an “American” – as if being an American and a follower of Jesus the Christ were the same thing. God forbid! When is God limited to one nation?

        We are usually called to where we don’t want to go, to be sure. Indeed, sometimes we decide we are not really called because we don’t like the direction or the consequences of the call. The call to discipleship is an uncompromising invitation to break with the usual pattern of life around us. Luke’s Jesus does things that were unusual, indeed even scandalous for his age. He spoke with women; he healed Samaritans, he preach-ed the good news declaring that the kingdom of God was at hand. There’s even an apocalyptic quality that most of us no longer take seriously because we think of apocalypse as the end of the world. But I think Luke is actually pointing to another kind of apocalypse – the end of political power as he knew it, for like the other Gospels, Luke was penned in the aftermath of a disas-trous revolt against Roman rule.

         It goes without saying that the Romans did not take revolts lightly. During the 30s and early 40s, Palestine, especially Galilee, experienced sporadic vio-lence due to the growth of armed resistance. Following an attempt by the Emperor Caligula to install a statue of his horse as a god in the Temple in 40 C.E., armed resistance in the form of raids on Roman garrisons increased. The anti-Roman violence increased even more after the Jews and probably the Christians had been expelled from Rome. By the year 66, the year after Peter and Paul were probably executed in Rome, fighting broke out between Jews and Greeks in Caesarea. The Romans attempted to expropriate Temple funds to pay for the cost of their armies which radicalized even the clerical leadership, who had long been in collaboration with Rome to maintain their power.

         By the year 68 Jerusalem was under Jewish control. The Romans pursued a scorched earth policy in their pacification attempts. After two more years of intense fighting that probably resulted in the deaths of half the population in the countryside, the Romans besieged Jerusalem and took the city in the year 70. Every man they found, they killed; the women and children who survived were enslaved; the temple was destroyed. It seemed like the end of the world.

          As we will see during this year of reading and discussing Luke’s Gospel, Jesus offers a hope not placed in worldly power, for reliance on the might of the world only led to further destruction. Luke’s Jesus offers a different vision and he calls us to share that vision. Rather than relying on earthly power and coll-aborating with it, we are called to live the kingdom of God in spite of what the world tells us to do. Like Bonhoeffer, we are called to live in a confessing church over and against political power. It is a radical vision – it is a radical call. The question is how we respond.

         Let us pray: Lord, you call us to be your disciples and often we don’t know how to respond. Help us to discern the nature of your call and to live life as your disciples. In the name of him who showed the way, Amen.