January 21, 2024 Hamilton Coe Throckmorton
Mark 1:14-20 The Federated Church, UCC
You may know the old story about the woman who goes to her son’s room one Sunday morning to wake him up for church. She knocks on his door and says, “Time to get up.” He says, “I’m not going.” “Why not,” asks his mother. “I’ll give you two reasons,” he says. “One, they don’t like me. And two, I don’t like them.” His mother answers, “I’ll give you two reasons why you WILL go to church. One, you’re forty-seven years old. And two, you’re the pastor of the church.”
Now that does NOT describe me, I hasten to say! I very much want to be here! I do sometimes wonder, though, why you’re here. You’re not paid to be here. In fact, you come here and you relinquish some of your money in the offering. There are a thousand things you could be doing today instead of coming here or tuning in online. You could be sitting at your favorite coffee shop or scrolling through your news feed or social media. You could be taking a walk or working out at the club. You could be calling a friend or anticipating a playoff game.
Why do you come here? Why do you give up all the other enticing things you could be doing and plant yourself in a pew or on your couch and make this a priority? I honestly don’t know. But I’m going to hazard some guesses today, and you can let me know afterward if I’m close.
While there may not be a single one of you who would put it this way, I think that, in some sense, you feel called here. You feel beckoned by something or someone larger than yourself. You feel drawn to a mystery that you hope will share its secret with you. You feel led to fill out a part of your life that is, in one way or another, incomplete. And you know that if you were not part of this, you would be missing something crucial. You’re hungry, and it’s here that you are fed. You’re thirsty, and it’s here that you receive drink. You’re empty, and it’s here that you are filled. Just as were Peter and Andrew, James and John, you have been called by One whose face we do not see, by One whose name we never fully know. And you and I, each in our own way, have followed.
The biblical story is strange, isn’t it. These four people who find their livelihood in fishing are beckoned away from their nets and their boats to walk the path on which Jesus calls them. They’re breadwinners. Their families depend on them. One pair of brothers leaves their father to mind the family’s nets without their help any longer. And likely without exception, we all think, “I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t dream of leaving the firm or the business or the school or the hospital or the service agency I work at to follow this person I’ve never met on a path whose contours I can’t possibly foresee. What dimwit would do that? If that’s what Jesus expects of us,” we might well think—leaving job and family to roam the countryside with him—“then someone else can take that role, thank you very much.”
As is so often the case, though, these words can’t possibly be taken literally. If they were, we wouldn’t have any grocery store clerks or CPAs or snowplow drivers or police officers or surgeons or clothes-makers or farmers or car mechanics. We would all just be traipsing along in Jesus’ wake, none of us with our own distinctive and rewarding work. In no real way would that be a better world than the one we have.
What Jesus is really saying, I suspect, is that, if all we do is those jobs, if all we do is accomplish the many and varied tasks of daily living, then something vital is missing. You and I are undoubtedly called to do the jobs we’ve been given. The world wouldn’t work if we didn’t. But we’ve also been called to an additional purpose, a purpose that sings with transcendence, a purpose that shines with a luminous grace, a purpose that radiates something of shimmering wonder.
We don’t always see that graced texture in this place, do we. We sometimes get mired here in sticky details, bored by a hymn, ground down by grief, frustrated by thwarted expectations, fragmented by disagreements, friction rubbing raw the sheen of the call of Jesus. The church isn’t some magical place where the rough edges of life are smoothed to a glistening perfection. It isn’t some Edenic spot where everything works precisely as we hope it will. As someone once said, “The church is like Noah’s ark. The stench inside would be unbearable if it weren’t for the storm outside.”
There is a storm outside, though, and it’s in the church that we find the antidote to that storm’s fierce winds and rains. Here, despite the fuss and factiousness, we listen together for a word of hope. Here we’re reminded that no ill is too all-consuming, no trouble too relentless, no challenge too overwhelming that, with God’s help, there won’t be a way out of no way. Here we remember that into division comes reconciliation, into disease comes healing, into brokenness comes wholeness, into despair comes hope, into death comes resurrection.
You and I have all witnessed pain and death enough to slay us. And who would be surprised if it totally undid us. And yet, and yet, and yet . . . we have also been held in tender hands and pointed in new directions. Time after time, sometimes thwarting all expectations, a ray has peeked through the clouds. I vividly remember a time in an earlier church I served when we were trying to decide about whether to adopt a new hymnal for worship. Devotees of the old hymnal faced off against advocates for a new hymnal. We scheduled a meeting in which the music team would discuss this, and the tension was thick. I remember practicing in my head a kind of speech I planned to make, about how important it was that we listen respectfully to each other and that we speak our minds in a considerate way. I never spoke my piece, though, because just as we started the meeting, one of the passionate advocates for the old hymnal, a woman widely respected in the church, said, “Why don’t we make room for both. We can rebuild the pew racks and have the two hymnals side-by-side.” Everyone in the room was slack-jawed at the simplicity of her solution. A group of people rebuilt those pew racks, and we happily employed both hymnals for the rest of my time there. A way had come from no way, and grace had shone through.
You and I come to this place, to church, trusting that, relying on the providence of God, we might find a way to live richly and harmoniously together. I don’t know about you, but I need to be reminded of that. I need to remember again and again that God has done great things, and because that’s who God is, that’s what God will do again. We come here to remember, and thus, to hope, and thus, to be led into a new way.
We come here, too, not just to remember and to hope, but also to rejoice. The world, as we know, can be a pretty brutal place. It can beat us down and make us think that life is just one long problem after another. So we come here, I think, yearning for a twinkle. We come to laugh and to experience just a taste of elation. When we get out of the way, sometimes when we least expect it, God shines in a way we couldn’t have guessed.
In the last church I served, during the season of Advent one year, as we headed for Christmas, I was telling a story during the sermon one Sunday morning about my dear spouse, Mary. And just to make it clear whom I was talking about, because we were anticipating the birth of Jesus, I said, as a kind of spontaneous aside, “My Mary, not the virgin Mary.” And the congregation howled in laughter. I couldn’t even go on. Mary was teaching Sunday School that day, and when worship finished, people virtually ran to the Sunday School wing to tell her what I had said. We get up on Sunday morning, you and I, even when we may not feel like it, and we come to this place because God gives us hope. And we come here, too, because in the midst of sometimes challenging lives, God gives us an effervescent joy.
When this morning’s Bible passage lets us know that Jesus “proclaim[ed] the good news of God” (Mark 1:14), this is, at least in part, what Jesus is doing. He is announcing that no problem is too thorny, no sorrow too deep, no death too final that there isn’t, in the midst of it, a sparkle of hope and joy. This is why it’s called “good news.”
In the context of that good news, though, there’s another dimension to the story of why we are all part of church. And that is that you and I each have a ministry. We each have a way or ways to convey this good news to those in our orbit. Jesus calls us, and Jesus equips us, to extend ourselves for the sake of something larger. Some of us recognize the existential threat to this planetary home of ours, and they devote themselves to alerting us to ways in which we might save water and use less gas and plant more trees and advocate for corporate change. Others see the degrading way in which trans people are so often treated, and they write letters to their representatives and demonstrate at the statehouse. Others, such as our Christmas Eve offering recipients, Humble Design, make it their mission to settle vulnerable people into comfortable homes.
Still others have a love for knitting and make scarves and lap blankets to warm people who might need them. Recently a couple were flying back from a vacation in Mexico, and they were seated on the plane across the aisle from a woman named Megan who was crocheting. The couple had an infant in their laps. Baby Romy was fascinated by Megan and her crocheting. Megan noticed that the yarn she was using was the same yellow color as the baby’s outfit, and she decided, on the spot, to crochet a beanie for the baby. So she crocheted furiously during the flight, and finished the beanie just before the plane landed. And she gave the beanie to little Romy. It fit perfectly.
We are all called to a mission, to a ministry that conveys God’s boundless love. Or it may be several ministries. And it may change over time. What characterizes each of our ministries, though, is that they convey the joy and adoration of God in some place that it’s needed.
Not long ago, a woman I know died. She had several grandchildren. The youngest of them, a girl of about eight or nine, saw how deeply her grandfather grieved the loss of his spouse. So the girl went to her grandfather the day the woman died, and she asked him about what happens at death, and the two of them sat together and talked for a long time about the Grandma and spouse they had together just lost. At a high school basketball game the day after the woman died, this same little girl went to the sister of the woman who had died and sat in her lap, and at halftime asked if this great-aunt of hers wanted a snack. The girl had, and has, a ministry of giving care.
A few weeks ago, as I was getting some rest after a hectic Advent and Christmas season, our son and daughter-in-law were visiting with their two children. As I’ve mentioned before, when the two girls were young, they were so smitten with Mary that I sometimes felt as though I were on the outside looking in. That dynamic has changed drastically, though, and now the three of us so often have a great time together. So one evening, they both came to me and said, “Can we play monsters?” And I said, “Sure.” And then we started racing around the house, chasing each other and trying to get each other. And finally, five-year-old Allie turned and faced me, and her eyes became little slits and she motioned at me with her hand, and she said, “Bring it on! Bring it on!” And I died laughing. I was totally transported outside of myself and my fatigue and I was welcomed into this space of joy and grace. And whether they knew it or not, Allie and Riley had lived out a kind of calling with me. They had followed Jesus in conveying the richness of the good news of God. And it was full of connection and delight and grace. And it made all the difference. Why are you and I here? Like them, we too are called—to be agents of hope and healing and joy and love. May we go and do likewise.