Monday, January 26, 2009

On Second Thought

Psalm 65:5-12 and Mark 1:4-20
January 25, 2009
Mount Vernon Place UMC, Washington

They started arriving on Saturday, bringing with them bags of all shapes and sizes. A single mother who works at our United Methodist Committee on Relief and her teenage daughter from New York were the first to arrive. This duo was the most prepared, bringing with them not only sleeping bags but an air mattress, as well.

Next came a college student from Colorado and her friend. They secured a coveted ticket to the swearing in ceremony on Friday of last week and were desperate to find a warm surface on which they could lay their heads at night. They were delighted to see the theatre dressing room where they would be spending three nights.

A pastor from the Midwest arrived with a friend, checking into the children’s nursery where the floor had been cleared as much as possible.

On Monday, many more people started to ring the door bell of our church. A family of three arrived from, proudly sharing how there were United Methodists from New York. Joan had already shared when contacting our church how her parents were slaves in Puerto Rico, owned by the church. Joan, her husband, Gary, and their twenty-two year old son with Downs Syndrome just “had to be here” for the inauguration.

Four women who had contacted us many weeks ago then arrived. When we showed them where they would be staying, apologizing for only having a floor, one explained, “This is great. You should see where we slept after Hurricane Katrina.” These women were from New Orleans.

And then an unexpected pair of guests arrived. A woman and her twelve-year-old son walked in the door. They each carried two plastic grocery bags. They had arrived on a bus from New York City, sharing with me how they also had to be in the city. They came not knowing where they would stay, but they needed to be here. “Can we please stay?” After some deliberations with the volunteers on duty, they were escorted to a second dressing room in the downstairs hallway.

Guests from near and far – some prepared well and others ill-prepared. Some with remarkable stories that know well the pain of oppression and displacement and other individuals who know well the prize of privilege all descended upon our church, eager to be part of history in the making.

And if truth were to be told, there are some people who I was eager to welcome more than others. Some people had carefully made their plans far in advance. Some had taken the time to read our list of expectations, eager to help us take out the trash each day, helping us in our efforts to keep critters at bay. Some of our guests were well prepared. Others pushed me to question their judgment. “How is it that a mother can bring her child to a crowded city with nowhere to stay?” I asked over and over again. My initial thought was not to welcome everyone – even though we had vowed to participate in a weekend focused on not just hospitality – but on radical hospitality. I had to think a second time – listening for the voice of scripture and the voices of some of you who pushed me beyond my initial thoughts to the message that Christ would have me hear. On second thought, all who sought a place to stay were welcomed into this building last weekend.

On second thought – why is it that so much of our discipleship comes as a second thought? I yearn to keep the two greatest commandments – to love God with all that I have and all that I am while loving my neighbor as myself. And yet, there are so many times when I fail to act – when I fail to exhibit this love. Often, the ability to love comes not automatically – but after some time of pondering – on second thought.

And, as I read the words of the Psalmist that are recorded in today’s lectionary text, I wonder what it would mean for us to live a life like his? What would it mean for our faith to be a way of life – something that stands at the core of our being? How is it that we get to the place where we can say with the Psalmist, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.”

For God alone.
For God alone my soul waits.
God alone is my rock and my salvation.

I can easily say that God is my rock and my salvation – but the word “alone” is what gets to me. God alone is my rock. God alone is my salvation. I yearn for this place – but this place seems so far away at times.

And then there is this call of the disciples. Each time I read the call of Simon, Andrew, James and John, I stand in awe of them. Mark tells us that Jesus comes to Galilee, proclaims a message about the good news of God and says that the kingdom of God is near. He asks people to repent and believe in the good news. We’re then quickly told how Jesus makes his way along the Sea of Galilee. He encounters fishermen in the midst of a busy day. Simon and Andrew are doing what they do best – fishing – for fish – and Jesus asks them to follow him so that they can fish for people. Mark says that they immediately leave their nets and follow Jesus. Simon and Andrew immediately – without thinking a second thought – leave the source of their livelihood and follow Jesus. The three men journey along the shore a little further, encountering James and John. Jesus calls them, and they do the same thing. James and John leave behind their boats, their father and the hired men and follow Jesus. They leave it all behind – without a second thought. They do exactly what Jesus asks them to do – without a second thought. Jesus calls. They let go of everything. They follow - without a second thought.

The disciples and the Psalmist both demonstrate in very real and powerful ways how faith is not a set of beliefs. Rather, faith is a condition. Faith is a way of life. In the words of Timothy Beach- Verhey, “The fundamental question of faith is not ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘Whom do you trust?’”[1] The Psalmist and the disciples have concluded that God is the only sensible way of orienting their lives. There is nothing else that can give them a strong motivation for living and loving.

It was an uncanny group of people who stayed in our church this past week. As I think about them – the hodge podge of people who showed up to stay at Mount Vernon Place, I wonder if there is anything else that could have possibly united this group of individuals other than the inauguration of our country’s first African American President. I ask the same question as I look at the countless photographs that have covered our newspapers, magazines and televisions this week. Hundreds of thousands of people were compelled to come to Washington because of what our nation did in electing an African American to the White House. Millions of other people are standing behind this man – waiting for him to perform miracles. Countless citizens around the world are putting so much faith in our new President, believing that he is capable of turning the tides of history, making the stock market rise and the value of our homes increase, improving our nation’s school systems and making sure everyone has access to affordable health care, enabling wars to stop and bringing Palestinians and Israelis together once and for all. It is almost as though we have never heard of hope before.

But how is it that we believe that one very charismatic person can take away all doom and gloom in this country while so often having such little faith in God – in the one who created the heavens and the earth, you and me – the one who causes the sun to rise each morning and set each night? We seem to believe that Barack Obama can solve every problem – even the protestors that are always at the Pentagon when I take the Metro have gone home, seemingly content that peace will prevail in a matter of no time.

But as Beach-Verhey explains, “The career that shows such promise, the children that seem so exceptional, the nation that appears so strong; they are like shifting sand, which offers no security, no permanent purchase.” Beach-Verhey continues to write something that we all know but seemingly have a hard time believing, “God is the only source of hope and peace for mortals. If life has any significance, it will be found in God. If our families, communities, nations, and churches have any worth, it will be located in God.”[2]

For God alone my soul waits in silence.
My hope is in God.
God alone is my rock.
God alone is my salvation.

But the Psalmist does not leave the prayer personal. Instead, the Psalmist goes from offering a personal explanation of who God is to him before turning to the people around him. In verse 8, the Psalmist begins to plead with those who will listen, asking others to put their trust in God, to pour out their hearts before God because God is a refuge for us. The faith the Psalmist has found is not a secret to be kept to oneself but a gift – a precious gift – that is to always be shared with others.

And Jesus makes it clear that this sharing of the good news is to continue. Jesus comes fishing for men. Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James and John by name, extending to them an invitation that they do not refuse. They are caught by Jesus first, and as a result, they are asked to go and catch other people. Because they know they are caught – they know they must go and catch others – in the name of Jesus.

When Jesus calls our name, things are supposed to be different. We worship a God who loves to turn things upside down – one who constantly invites us to repent – to live a changed life. We worship a God who yearns to set us on a different path – who wants desperately to be our God – hoping that we will follow this God instead of making a political personality, a bank account, a rising star, or an achievable dream our god. Our God – our God alone wants to be our rock and our salvation. Our God wants our allegiance – desiring for us to drop whatever it is that is keeping us from following Christ as faithfully as we can. And, if we have found one who is, indeed, our rock and our salvation, then we should be so filled with joy that we cannot help but to go and share it – to go and tell others about the one who has captivated our attention, setting things right in our lives – not making things perfect, but providing us with a way to maneuver through the imperfection.

Millions of people are finding hope in a man named Barack. Millions of people see this one as the author of hope – but the hope provided by a president – no matter how visionary or different or charismatic the president might be – is only temporary.

Presidents cannot stop the earth from shaking. Only God can.
Presidents cannot heal brokenness. Only God can.
Presidents cannot offer steadfast hope when everything else seems to be falling apart. Only God can.
Presidents cannot make peace prevail. Only God can.

It is our business – the church’s business to share this hope that is found in God alone. We are called to tell others about a God who offers hope in good times and in bad times, in thick times and in thin times. This hope is our rock, our salvation, a firm foundation that cannot be shaken no matter how strong or how weak the economy or the housing market or the political landscape might be.

When people started to believe in Barack Obama, many of them got behind him completely. They spent Saturday mornings going door to door, knocking on the doors of strangers, hoping to find people whose minds they could change. The message of this candidate was this compelling – compelling enough that people did whatever they could to get this man elected to the highest office in the land.

We have a message, church. The message is so much more amazing than any promise we were told by a political candidate this fall.

“Follow me,” Jesus says. It’s time to fish for people.
And without a second thought, they left everything. They left everything, and followed him.

[1] Timothy Beach-Verhey, in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 1, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008, 274.
[2] Beach-Verhey, 274, 276.

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