Friday, February 06, 2009

By request: the Gibbs sermon

Many people were intrigued by the notion of comparing Jesus to Agent Gibbs from the television show NCIS, and even more intrigued when I said I also included a tune from a Broadway show. So, by popular demand, here is my sermon, entitled "Follow Me" and is based on Mark 1:14-20. I wouldn't say it's my best, and there's  certainly room for improvement, but I think it's one of those that's better preached than read. Sorry!

You know, there’s one thing I appreciate about reading the stories of Jesus’ life from different perspectives. Jesus has a different way about him in each of the Gospels, most likely reflecting the personalities of the people telling his story. Mark’s version of the Gospel is one I struggle with, but the way he portrays Jesus is pretty interesting. Jesus is not so meek and mild in Mark. Perhaps that’s why Marks skips the birth narrative, to avoid presenting Jesus to us as small and manageable.

 In this story from Mark, Jesus reminds me of Agent Gibbs on the television show NCIS. Anybody watch that show? It’s one of the many crime dramas on these days, and admittedly probably my favorite. Gibbs is a pretty strong personality. No mincing words, just straight to the point, just like Jesus at the Sea of Galilee. He tells the four men, “Follow me” and then moves along, just expecting they would do so. Later in the Gospel, the disciples often appear confused or clueless, and at those moments I can almost see Jesus slapping a few of them upside the head, Gibbs style.

 Anyway, getting back to our text, Mark doesn’t tell us the men’s thoughts about Jesus’ bold statement—if they questioned it at all, if they wondered what they were getting into, if they were curious about what he meant when he said “fish for people.” Instead, Mark says, they “immediately left their nets and followed him.”

 Wow, now that’s faith. It doesn’t say whether Jesus had ever met Simon (who’s later named Peter), Andrew, James or John, but it’s possible they had heard of him. I mean Jesus had been traveling around Galilee proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, so I’m guessing they probably had gotten wind of what he was saying. Yet they hadn’t independently searched him out—they were still going about their daily lives when Jesus showed up and changed everything.

 Follow me. Follow me. Earlier I spoke with the children about the choices we make about leaders to follow. Certainly this is not exclusive to children. Adults—perhaps even more so than children since there is no one else to make our choices for us—have to make many choices about whom and what to follow in our lives.

 There are many examples of ways we follow. We follow trends—market trends, food trends, fashion trends. How else can we explain bell bottoms and neon spandex? We follow politics and national events—how many people watched the inauguration on Tuesday? We follow TV shows—the producers try to come up with what they call “appointment” television—shows around which we schedule our lives, and it often works. You know, like, “Ooh, dinner Tuesday? I can’t, American Idol is on.” We follow sports, which can be exhausting. I remember following the Red Sox in 2004 and all those games that ran well past midnight!

 We follow people, too. Whole websites and magazines are dedicated to what’s happening in the lives of celebrities, sports players, public figures.

 So that brings us to the question: are we following Jesus?

 Ok, here’s a follow-up: what does that even mean?  How do we get up and leave our nets to follow Jesus today?

 Let me start out by saying I think our first clue is in the word “follow.” See, follow is not really something you can do once and it’s done, like stand, for instance. If you’re sitting, you can stand, and once you’re on your feet, the action is completed. Following generally means something continuous, ongoing. Certainly, you can follow something or someone for a set period of time—a season of sports or how an event plays out or simply following someone to a destination.

 But in this passage, Jesus doesn’t give a set boundary of where or for how long to follow him. He doesn’t say, “Follow me to Capernaum,” or “follow me until I’m arrested.” No, he says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” It’s opened-ended.

 Again, though, this brings us back to the question, “How do we live this out today?”

 Well, I think in a few ways.

 Let me start with what seems like the easiest one: joy. Perhaps my favorite saying about call is from Frederick Beuchner: “The place where God calls you is the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s great need.” Isn’t that wonderful? In other words, when Jesus says, “follow me,” he’s not asking us to give up all joy and pleasure in life to do so. God wants us to be happy. The writer Barbara Brown Taylor writes of an experience she had in which she was struggling to figure out her call. She just couldn’t figure out what it was that God wanted her to do and be. In her frustration and exasperation, one midnight, she says, she fell down on her knees in prayer and said: “Okay, God. You need to level with me. What do you want me to be? What do you want me to do? What are you calling me to do?” She said she felt a very powerful response, God saying, “Do what pleases you. Belong to me, but do what pleases you.” She said it struck her as very strange that God’s call could actually touch that place of her greatest joy, that she could be called to do the thing that pleases her the most. Following Jesus is joyful (that doesn’t mean easy, but I’ll get to that later).

 Another way to look at how we follow Jesus today is as “the continual refocusing on living in the kingdom of God.” A friend of mine describes this as “hitting the wall of ‘what’s next?’” When we’re following Jesus, that might mean working on a justice issue, or fighting for what’s right. If the justice issue is resolved, if the fight is won, then what? My friend offered the example of the inauguration. So many people were so excited on Tuesday, and even Wednesday, but then what? That’s not the end of a journey, but just a step. Jesus takes his disciples different places and visits different people, and the focus changes. One day it’s about the poor, one day it’s about the children, one day it’s a parable he has to explain to the disciples. We don’t stop following, don’t stop attempting to live into the realm of God when we reach one milestone. We have to step back and take a moment to focus on what’s next—because there’s always a “what’s next!”

 A third way to live out this message is to remember that following Jesus is not a one-time thing. Remember what I said about the word “follow?” Jesus didn’t ask the disciples to follow him just on that lakeshore. They were asked to follow him when they were in a boat during a storm. They were asked to follow him when there was a large crowd and not enough food to go around. They were asked to follow him when he was arrested, and tried, and crucified. They had to make a choice not just the first time, but every time he asked. And they didn’t always make the right one—but they kept trying. Even as scary and life-altering as things got, they kept trying to follow Jesus.

 But here’s where I think that it’s right about here when we come to a screeching halt sometimes when we’re trying to follow Jesus. The disciples Jesus called in Mark’s story are offered a new way to use their skills and passion for fishing, but they had to give up the old way, leave their families, become social outcasts, and enter dangerous situations. There are costs to discipleship. I think often we are totally gung-ho about following Jesus—as long as it fits into the life with which we’re comfortable.

 Let me give you an example. A couple of years ago I watched an Oprah show called “fascinating families.” A woman named Lysa described how one evening, she took her two young daughters to a performance by a boys’ choir from an orphanage in Liberia. She explained that she thought she was just going for this cultural experience. But during the concert, she said she heard God’s voice in her heart say that two of those boys were hers. Her reaction? An internal “Lalalala! I’m not listening!” She said, “I just went to hear a concert. I didn't go that day for life interrupted.”

 “I didn’t go that day for life interrupted.” I’m not sure about you, but I know that’s how I often feel when I sense Jesus saying “follow me” towards something big, or difficult, or frightening—or simply not in the plan for the day! And unfortunately, too many times, that initial reaction makes our decision for us, and we stay in our comfort zones. But if we decide to step out in faith, let go of our nets and take the risk of following Jesus, the returns can be beyond what we’d ever imagined.

 After the concert, Lysa said she went to the car and called her husband and said something like, “Hi honey, do we need milk? And by the way, there are two teenage boys from the other side of the world now calling me Mom.”

 Now, as happens many times when we act on what we feel is a call from God, Lysa’s four best friends were skeptical. However, Lysa convinced them to attend a concert, and all four adopted boys. One couple, whose two sons were in college, even brought over the boys’ siblings from Liberia, adopting a total of six kids! And it didn’t stop there—all in all, 14 families adopted a total of 31 children from the same Liberian orphanage.

 But here’s the thing: she still has to keep following. It’s not like she was given that one choice and there, she made it, she adopted those boys, she’s done. Every day she, and we, have to make decisions about whether we follow Jesus or not. What clothes we buy, what food we eat, which people we pay attention to, what words we speak or when we choose to stay silent, all those are decisions to follow Jesus or not.

 Again, though, this is not a once-in-a-lifetime shot. We can’t just say, “Ok, yes, I’m going to follow Jesus” and expect to be finished. There are two things that help us. The first is being in community with others who are also trying to follow Jesus, which, in my opinion, should be the main purpose for attending church. A second help is an idea stressed in 12-step programs: One Day at a Time. It can be overwhelming to think of trying to follow wherever Jesus calls you for the rest of your life…but today might be manageable.

 Follow me. Today, follow me. Tomorrow, try again. Like Gibbs on NCIS, Jesus doesn’t want to hear our excuses why we can’t do it, our protests about life interrupted. He just says, “follow me.” We either do or we don’t each time, but like the disciples, even when we make mistakes or doubt or don’t understand, we keep trying. We keep following.

 I like to put some music in my sermons whenever possible, and while reflecting on this idea, a song kept popping into my head, and so I’d like to end with it as a prayer, that each day we may follow Jesus “more nearly.” You may know it, and if you do, feel free to sing along.

 Day by day, day by day. Oh, dear Lord, three things I pray: to see Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, follow Thee more nearly, day by day…

Oh, and the congregation (small as it was) did join and and sing with me.

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  1. What a lovely post (and sermon). Thank you!

  2. I apologize for the weird formatting. Not really sure what Blogger did to my post!

  3. Love it! Thanks so much for sharing it.