Fish Or Cut Bait (Answering the Phone)

Everyone of us wants to be called.  Consider the alternative: sitting by a quiet phone, wasting the night away hoping for the door bell to ring, hitting the refresh button on the email inbox waiting in vain for a subject line that reads “Here’s your call.”  What if no one ever comes calling?  Maybe that means we aren’t worth anything at all–we’re just taking up space.  We were never noticed, never recognized as having a unique and special ability.  If Christianity was a mega-business we’d be the equivalent of corporate fat.  Everyone is trimming down these days, handing out pink slips like they’re Tic-Tacs.  If we aren’t doing something valuable, I mean if we haven’t received marching orders from corporate headquarters, then perhaps we’re on the chopping block.

When Peter, Andrew, James, and John received their call they were fishing.  It was their profession of course, but I laugh when I think about it.  Fishing is the anti-call.  For us it is the pastime we do when we aren’t engaged in what we are really supposed to be doing.  You’ve seen the bumper sticker: Born to fish, forced to work.

Manny, Abby, and I ice fished during our vacation.  We caught one salmon, one trout, a couple perch, and one cusk (which is a strange half fish, half eel).  The whole time we were fishing, we never once saw Jesus.  He never came to us while were tending out tip-ups (a ‘tip up’ is an ice fishing trap–it has a flag that ‘tips-up’ when a fish spins line off the reel).  Jesus never appeared telling us the time was fulfilled, and the kingdom of God had come near, and that we should repent and believe in the good news.  There was no call.  We just kept fishing.

It was cold, maybe that’s why he didn’t come.  Not exactly weather a Judean born sandal wearing Israelite finds comfortable.  Maybe he was worried about the ice–it was still early in the season yet, there were parts of the lake it wasn’t safe to walk on.  Of course last I checked Jesus never worried much about drowning.  Whatever the case we had the lake to ourselves–well us, and the guy next to us who seemed to know much better the places in the ice to chip a hole and haul out fish.  But even if Jesus had come, what are the odds we’d hear him and listen?  We’re fishing.  It’s fun.  You ever been on the ice and had a flag go up?  It’s exhilarating.  Why would we leave that to fish for people?

The problem is that the story in Mark 1 of the calling of Peter, Andrew, James, and John is so condensed.  It seems unreal, inauthentic.  They just up and leave everything!  Who does that?  No one, that’s who.

If their response isn’t believable certainly the call itself is a bit suspicious as well.  You know how carefully we select leaders.  Who walks up to just anybody and calls them in service to the kingdom?  Of all the piers on the Lake of Galilee, of all the tethered boats, why this one Jesus?  Was there a string of rosary beads hanging from the rudder?  Did you catch your eye on the glue-on fish symbol adhered to the bow?  Did Peter and Andrew catch the most fish that day (not according to the other gospels)?  Is it really true that the only thing you said to them was “Follow me”?  Probably not, but we’ll never know.

The other call narratives in the gospel of Mark are identical.  The call of Levi is only one verse long, it reads, “As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.”  That’s all of it, I left nothing out.  When Jesus called the twelve apostles it was over in a heartbeat, “He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve.”  I promise, that was all there was to it.

What about the inner struggle?  What about the hesitancy?  These are life altering decisions we’re talking about here.  I mean nowadays we have classes, read books, and consult spiritual advisors when discerning our call.  It’s a complicated matter.  We take inventory of our talents and abilities, we consider our situation in life, our age, our health, our children, our available funds, and we look out at the present needs of the world, and we carefully mull over our place in the grand scheme.

It’s like the world is a giant six billion piece puzzle, and each of us is one of those tricky middle pieces with little to distinguish it from the millions of other middle pieces that look just like ours.  The problem is only one spot in the whole puzzle is our right one.  If we make a mistake then we’re forever out of our proper location, not to mention we’ve taken someone else’s unique spot and ruined their lives too!  How can he just call the first fisherman he sees, and how can they just drop their nets and leave their boats?

The word Mark uses is “immediately.”  Mark says “Immediately, they left their nets and followed him.”  What is it with Mark and this word “immediately”?  He uses it forty-two times.  Everything that Jesus and his followers do they do immediately.  The word appears eleven times in chapter one alone.  It’s like when Christ came on the scene everything started flying forward at the speed of light.  Everything is condensed.  The time to make a decision is now.  The time to act is right away.  So drop those nets, or don’t drop those nets, but you have five seconds to make the decision.

If you keep reading one wonders if they made the right decision.  There is no other gospel so hard on the disciples than Mark.  The disciples routinely fail to understand Jesus’ teaching and parables (as scarce as they are in Mark, there is too much to “immediately” do for Jesus to take the time to say much).  It seems that all the disciples are pieces of the puzzle that are drastically out of place.  An apt illustration is found in chapter eight when Jesus gives the enigmatic warning, “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.”  The disciples had no idea what Jesus was talking about, and their ignorance showed.  They said to one another, “It is because we have no bread.” And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?  Jesus’ frustration is palpable.    Who are you clowns? And how did I get stuck with you?  Well perhaps he should have chosen better!

There are other instances of disciple screw ups that are unique to the gospel of Mark: they reprimand Jesus for taking some time alone with the Father when there was so much work to do, they freak out in a storm, they bicker about who is the greatest, they ask for seats of honor, they disbelieve the resurrection witnesses.  Poor Jesus, if only he had taken a little more time in the selection process–but no way, everything had to happen immediately.

Then again, there is a danger in moving too slowly too, isn’t there?  Jesus’ coming presented a crisis of decision.  Participate in the kingdom, or turn away from it.  Decide.  Now.  Immediately.

Perhaps for some of us we spend a little too much time discerning calls.  It could be that the time we take discerning calls is just time we spend resisting them.  It could be that we’ve all decided to just stay fishing and watch for the tip-ups.  It’s fun, trust me.  We’ll know the right call when it comes.  It will fit like a glove.  The puzzle piece will slide right in.

What biblical call do you remember that was convenient?  Was it God asking Abraham to up and move to a strange and foreign land?  Was it God telling fugitive Moses to return to the land he had run from as an outlaw?   Was it God telling Israel that they were a holy nation, a royal priesthood, the people of God, so therefore they could not live as the nations lived around them?  Was it God telling Jonah to preach an oracle of judgment to hostile and brutal Assyria, Israel’s sworn enemy?  Was it God telling Jesus to preach the immanence of the kingdom and the end of the present world order?  Truth be told none of those calls seem right–they take too much faith.  They’re a square peg in a round hole.  What we need is to find the place that our puzzle piece fits just right, where there is no mistaking God’s leading, a fool-proof, sure-bet, can’t-fail, call–then we know we’re on to something.

But what if it never comes?  It might not.  We might wait forever by the phone.  You’ve got things narrowed down.  There is nothing immediate when things get all narrowed down.  You’re fishing with one line.  You know what they say: the way to catch the most fish is to cast a broad net.

But what if you dive right in and you don’t have any idea how to swim?  What if the waves leap everywhere about you?  What if you reprimand Jesus, and freak out in a time of storm, and bicker about being the greatest, and ask for seats of honor, and struggle with disbelief?  What if when it comes times to suffer you tell Jesus “no thanks” and in turn he calls you Satan?  Welcome to church life.

O ye of little faith.  You will be no worse off than the twelve apostles who play the part of bumbling idiots in the next sixteen chapters of Mark.  When did you get the idea that entrance into the good graces of God, or your position in the kingdom, was dependent upon your flawless performance?  According to John’s Revelation all twelve of those silly, rash, impulsive apostles have their names on the walls of the foundation of the very holy city of God.  It had nothing to do with their impeccable flawless service.

I don’t mean to downplay thoughtful and well planned work for the kingdom.  Not at all.  Would that we all be thoughtful and well planned.  But stop waiting for your call.  Don’t wait by the phone, or the doorbell, or the email inbox.  Every baptized Christian has a call.  You already received it.  Because in baptism you received the good news of the immanence of the kingdom, you repented, you believed, and you said to Jesus, “Yes, I will follow you.”

So follow him.  He’s just about to enter the synagogue in Capernaum and cast out an unclean spirit.  So follow him into that place and be with the mentally ill.  Then he’s walking over to Simon’s house to heal Peter’s sick mother.  Follow him into that house and be with the sick.  And when he is done he’s going to spend some alone time with God.  So take his lead and go to the Father.  And then it’s a leper, and then a paralytic, and then a withered hand, and there are mouths to feed, and a woman who is bleeding, and the blind, and those that lack faith.  Keep up, it’s all so fast.  Immediately, straight away–the kingdom is near!

Where is our sense of urgency?  This is a crisis of decision.  You are needed for the kingdom.  Quit casting and mending your nets.  In the process of discerning our calls its time to fish or cut bait.  What piece in the puzzle are you waiting to open up?  Get in there, make it fit.  Drop everything, and follow him, for the time if fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.

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