A Reflection on Mark 1:14-20,
the Gospel for January 25th,
The Third Sunday after Epiphany
by David Somerville+
The Call to discipleship is a very strange thing. While blindly following the Call makes no logical sense because we do not know where it will take us, it nevertheless cannot be refused as the creator of our being is in charge, using the call for our soul’s development to be integral parts of the Church, the earthly continuation of Christ in the world.
American poet, short story writer, and wise cracking critic, Dorothy Parker (1892-1967) was best known for her wit, and eye for modern, urban foibles. She was of the opinion that “They sicken of the calm, who knew the storm”.
As I write this, I am on a trip with some wonderful friends that I have been growing to appreciate while serving as a “volunteer chaplain” for a mission group to the Dominican Republic. For several reasons the trip’s original objectives were modified due to things not being in place upon our arrival at El Colegio Episcopal, the Caribani neighborhood school, where the southeast convocation of our diocese has had a steady relationship for several years. We had planned to assist in drilling a much needed well for fresh water. But instead of the well driller, paint was delivered instead! So what then? A delightful couple of seasoned world travelers, Jacob and Mary Jo Nickodem, brought with them a wonderfully entertaining program of “Other Countries and Cultures”. They kept us busy, introducing the Republic’s beautiful elementary school-aged children, to the ways of foreign places. They challenged the kids by giving each a pair of chopsticks to use as an alternative to the more familiar fork and spoon. They also handed out pictures to color. They were of German volksmarchers in their native lederhosen. They introduced the kids to several other countries in a style that was as non pedantic as it was entertaining.
Eventually a well driller was procured for the fresh water project, but its progress was interrupted when its drill hit rock. There would be a delay of an unknown number of days before the rock-worthy drill bit could be put into the machine. All this led to our coping with the fact that our original plans were going to be impossible to carry out, so we found different things to do. It all turned out to be fun, but I had some misgivings at the onset – Were we really being useful? My penchant for orderly predictability made me feel a little restless.
The Rev. Dee Shaffer, interim priest-in-charge at St. Paul’s Church in Jesup, is our trip leader. She has a wonderful gift of the spirit: the ability to see an administrative or logistical snafu as a challenging new opportunity to learn! I am growing with Dee. Too often I, under circumstances like the paint mix-up, tend to throw up my hands and murmur something that does not bear repeating, and then write it all off as a failure that is somebody else’s fault.
We were not idled for long to wallow in our frustrations. Luz Mercedes Carbona, the school’s principal took us on a walking tour through her draught-stressed neighborhood of plain, cinder block three, or four room dwellings, only a few of which were equipped with indoor plumbing. Others had smelly, corrugated metal outhouses in their yards. We saw children playing in the nearly empty canal while their mothers, with tubs in hand, did laundry, The canal ditch had only the depth of a foot to eighteen inches of water and was littered with trash and raw sewage. I commented that the children splashing in the brownish green water seemed to look healthy. Charlie Nakash, our on-sight missionary guide, a communicant of Christ Church, Tom’ River New Jersey, said “Yes, they do look healthy – from a distance.”
Luz proudly invited us into her home. The rooms were small, but her furnishings were arranged to make good use of the limited space. It had a cozy feel, but nothing about the house was cramped. The roof (no ceiling) was corrugated steel. It was riddled with a constellation of holes with the sun shining through giving it the appearance of a starry sky. But this was a roof intended to keep the rain out! Luz explained that when it rains at night, she and her husband have to move to the living room sofa. What’s more the fragile, drift wood rafters that had been tied together in place for the corrugated roof, and then wrapped with newspaper, were a cause of a respiratory problem. Dry rot dust was getting into her lungs.
We asked what it would cost to replace the roof. The answer was about $650 USD worth of Dominican pesos. Before the sun set that day, we all dipped into our pockets for this non-budgeted expense, and bought the pesos at a local bank. Within the next few months we expect to see this little house made rain free, and Luz’s health begin to improve. It is easy to come up with a few hundred dollars because we know that a beautiful face like Luz’s, will smile in joyful gratitude. Her happiness, as she continues to serve her teachers and pupils so well, will be engraved into our memories.
Then the bit for the well driller arrived, and enough of a water source to produce just five gallons per minute eventually was the result. Disappointing, but at least a beginning.
At about half way through our seven-day mission, I am certain that we will return home with wonderful thoughts of how what looks to us like abject poverty is spiritual wealth in disguise. These kinds of experiences are the product of changed circumstances that ended up probably better than the fruit of our original plans! The great lesson we are learning once again is that committed discipleship involves living with uncertainty.
It seems to me that the gospel for the first day of any given week is read through the lens of the reader’s experiences of the week before. So I beheld Mark 1:14-20. What did I see? Something that made no logical sense, but, fortunately, not all things invaluable are things logical.
All of a sudden a stranger appears by the shore of Galilee. He commanded without explanation, “Follow Me” to Simon and Andrew, who were doing the logical thing of their occupational world–mending their nets. Then they illogically drop their work on the beach, and go! It may well have been that this happened not too far along the shore from Mr. Zebedee’s location to see his neighbors, suddenly departing. I wonder what the father of James and John thought as the stranger approached his party of workers – “Will this man come with an offer that cannot be refused? He certainly got something into Simon and Andrew’s heads…. What was it? An irresistibly attractive job offer? Will my sons react the same way? Not to worry” he may have reassured himself. “Opportunities are very scarce in the sleepy north. Certainly nothing that could beat the prosperous security of the family business here – like this dependable source of income we have been doing for generations.” Mr. Zebedee must have been fairly confident, as he continued with getting the boat ready to go out for another, no doubt, successful catch.
Then without hesitation, the Zebedee boys drop everything and go — just like Simon and Andrew! So what did their father then wonder to himself? “Hey, if life ain’t broke, don’t fix it! What is the matter with you kids? Are you nuts? You are throwing away your secured future.” James and John, their wives, and their children were destined to inherit the business, which it took years for the senior Zebedee to build up!
In the work of discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught, we are called to count its cost, and if it is cheap, then what we are doing is not discipleship. It involves risk. It involves surprises, most of which will not be of our own choosing. It involves the death of egocentric agendas, and personal ambitiousness – things which in the last analysis tend to be of limited value anyway. It involves the prospect of stormy weather, and sometimes it will break our connections with everything comfortably familiar, including our families of origin.
I really did not like Dorothy Parker’s observation when I first checked it out. But I could not let it go either. Her poetic assertion was weirdly enigmatic. I was not sure that I could agree with it whole-heartedly. Words like They sicken of the calm, who knew the storm seems too much like a death wish.
Whenever I go out to sea, I must remember that I am prone to motion sickness, and need to take the medication two hours before disembarkation. Motion sickness is a miserable experience. I have had it. So the first time I read Parker’s assertion, I was convinced that the statement was nonsense. But having experienced a little of the adventure of discipleship, and the growth in Christian stature that comes with it, I am convinced that without some turbulence, life can become like a stagnant puddle. So even with those occasional bouts of spiritual motion sickness (anxiety), God has better things for us to become than to continue always doing what we have always done.
Pursuing an honest trade like a fishing business is fine – if, like any other line of work it is done for the glory of God. But if the pursuit of worldly security is its only purpose, then one could be left anchored in the stagnant puddle of an unchallenged existence — where the mosquitos of discontent tend to be bred.
Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:
- SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/
2 Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/
by David Somerville+