“And immediately, they left their nets and followed him.”
Mark 1: 18
I can never forget it.
I was walking to lunch with a young woman, a reporter who I supervised. We came upon a bum. He had vomited and had walked out of his pants. He was mumbling, lying there in the street, half-clothed, half conscious. Workmen moved in and out of a nearby building. Lunchtime strollers chatted cheerily past. All ignored him. I was hurried, full of being in charge, being the editor with a mission. We talked as we walked.
I saw, but I did not see.
My companion, without a moment's thought, turned and said: “We should help this man, don't you think?”
She stopped, fell to her knees and gently comforted. Helped get his pants back on. She ignored the pool of vomit, the stench of an unwashed body. I ran and called an ambulance, and they came and took the man away. We had a hurried lunch and returned to work.
Months later, I found myself worrying about something, I don’t remember what. I prayed. I was a church-going man, so I prayed.
“Help me,” I said.
And God’s voice rang out in my mind, as clearly as if I were in the heavenly presence.
“Who do you help,” the voice asked.
And I saw the man on the sidewalk.
The weak one had shamed the strong, and the shame refused to go away. The question haunted me. It burned. I could no longer ask without being asked.
John Wesley described the experience in a sermon, “The Spirit of Bondage and of Adoption.” The natural man, for the first time in his life, by “some awful providence... at last sees the loving, the merciful God is also a ‘consuming fire’; that He is a just God and a terrible, rendering to every man according to his works...” Then Wesley went on to describe the wondrous understanding of love and grace which rises out of struggle, as natural man “truly desires to break loose from sin.”
That famous old song says it: “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fear relieved.”
This one incident and the reflection process that grew out of it changed my life. My prayers changed. My understanding of wholeness changed. My attentiveness to worship changed. I felt God calling in ways never heard before, in ways that could not be resisted. My eyes were opened in a new way.
The brevity of most episodes in the gospel of Mark forces one to see, again and again, the main issue. Mark’s telling of the call of the first apostles by Jesus lacks embellishment. It consists of two elements, a command from Jesus and the response from those who hear. “Follow me… Immediately, they left their nets…”
This seems improbable. A man walks up to other men, issues a call, and they immediately leave behind everything of meaning in their lives. This is how it is when God looks you in the eye. You suddenly see yourself as you really are, and you catch just a glimpse of what God would have you to be.
“I will make you fishers of men.”
Not every person is called to ordained ministry or full-time professional church work. But every person is called away from a life of weakness and brokenness into a life of fulfillment and service, a life of wholeness. If you hear the call, you will walk away from something in order to walk toward something better.
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. What does God ask you to leave behind?
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 5: 3
A French philosopher once said, “The whole world is on a mad quest for security and happiness.”
Long ago, I worked for a millionaire who had no happiness.
A young woman, 19 years old, beautiful, talented, loved, well-housed and fed, looked me in the eye and said, “I have nothing to live for.”
A famous Grecian dancer said late in her life, “I have never been alone but what my hands trembled, my eyes filled with tears, and my heart ached for a peace and happiness I have never found.”
I remember an elderly man married more than 50 years, retired after a successful, prosperous and influential career, living in his own home with his wife, not left alone for even a day, now nearly 80 and still healthy. He felt overwhelmed and tried to kill himself.
A man went to a psychiatrist. He said, “Doctor, I am lonely, despondent, and miserable. Can you help?” The psychiatrist suggested he go to a circus to see a famous clown who could make even the most despondent person laugh. His patient said, “I am that clown.”
One of the world’s great statesmen once said to Billy Graham, “I am an old man. Life has lost all meaning. I am ready to take a fateful leap into the unknown. Young man, can you give me a ray of hope?”
We live in a materialistic world that rushes onward in a quest for happiness. We seek joy in a thousand thoughtless ways, in a meaningless race to nowhere. O God, we say, bless me in the lottery and I’ll be saved. O God, we cry, heal my illness and I’ll be happy. O God, we say, ease the loneliness, and I’ll be OK. O God, let me take charge of my life, and I’ll be content. We race to the campgrounds, head to the movies, turn to the games, look at fine furniture, buy grand houses, work until our souls are like ground beef. We teach our children that many toys equal happiness.
Do you want to be happy? Are you looking in every corner for a glimmer of joy?
Makarios, Jesus said. Our Bibles most often translate it as “blessed,” but like many words it has many meanings. It could be translated as “happy.” It carries connotations of “peace,” of “salvation,” of simply being “Okay.”
Tony Campolo, speaking to a nationwide group of United Methodist ministers, reflected on a survey he had seen regarding spirituality in America. The survey revealed that the most spiritual people were not monks or ministers, neither theology professors nor Biblical scholars. The people identified as most spiritual were elderly African-American widows in a small section along the border of two southern states, women who lived in one of the poorest areas of the nation.
Campolo explained in a single, colorful sentence.
“You don’t know Jesus is all there is,” he said, “until Jesus is all you got.” [i]
William Barclay, the Bible commentator, examines language. The Greek word ptochos (poor, dependent on others, beggarly; sometimes used to describe those who are oppressed, disillusioned, in immediate need of God’s help, and likely to receive it[ii]) describes absolute poverty, the inability even to sustain one’s self with the work of one’s hands. In Aramaic and Hebrew, Barclay notes, the idea of poverty went through a four-stage development that began with simple poverty, moved to include the lack of any prestige or influence, expanded to include the idea of being downtrodden and oppressed, and finally grew to mean those who have no earthly resources whatever but who must put their trust in God.[iii]
We find happiness, you see, when we realize we are so utterly helpless that only God can help. In this absolute poverty of spirit, we finally catch a glimpse of heaven.
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. How do you depend on God?
“… the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”
John 10: 4
The pastor didn’t know what he was going to do. He wanted to return a favor, and now it seemed as though it might fall apart.
He was serving a little, poor, black church in central Detroit. Two hundred members, only two with jobs. A suburban friend’s congregation had refused to accept a newly-arrived Laotian refugee, and he had asked the inner-city pastor if his church would take the person in.
The pastor said yes, not thinking how his church might feel. He was stunned when he went to his board. They didn’t want an Asian refugee.
“They’ll end up owning the neighborhood,” one board member said. “They come in and end up buying all the stores, then we spend everything we have, paying outrageous prices.”
The board decided the congregation must vote. They knew, and the minister did too, what would happen. The congregation would vote no.
Came the meeting. The church was packed. Just as things were ready to begin, a taxi pulled up out front. You know every church has its saint, its own person whose holiness stands like a beacon. Here it was Momma Jones. Momma was an old black woman, crippled with arthritis, bent and weakened by the years. Over the past 50 years she had helped every woman in the church. She didn’t come very often anymore. It was hard. The taxi opened and Momma Jones emerged, canes in hand.
She hobbled slowly up the sidewalk, into the church, then the meeting room. She didn’t say a word, but just hitched her way slowly to the front. Didn’t even look for a chair. Just walked to the front, turned, and spoke.
“I just had to come,” she said. “I’m so happy to hear what’s going on. This church opened its arms to me 70 years ago when I came from Haiti, and I ’ve never forgotten how you took me in your arms. I’m so happy that now I can share that love with someone else who needs a new home and a new country. Momma Jones has to go now.”
She hobbled back to her taxi, got in, and disappeared. The pastor knew a good thing when he saw it. He called the vote.
The church took in the Laotian refugee. Then another. Then another. Eventually, it had nearly 40 Laotian refugees, many of them unable to understand English. The boards talked business using translators.
On the day I visited, one whole row of pews was filled with Laotian Bibles and hymnals. When that church makes a joyful noise it’s just that -- a joyful noise. One third sings in Laotian, two thirds in English.
The Good Shepherd doesn’t care what hymnal we use. Doesn’t care about meetings and votes. Or languages. The Good Shepherd speaks to all. Those who know his voice follow. When I visited, the church was looking forward to next week when it would receive its first refugee from El Salvador. They were going to need a third row. Spanish-language, you know.
By the way, the board was right. The lady from Laos was a business genius. A property owner had given the church an abandoned building that was once a whorehouse, and the congregation worked five years restoring it, using donated boards and paint and shingles. The Laotian lady helped the church get a contract with an auto manufacturer to provide five-gallon drums of heavy detergent for use in its factories. The little company now employed 20 church members and was buying up old sewing machines to fill a contract to make air filters for auto plants. Fifteen more would get jobs.
The good shepherd, you see, watches out for the sheep.
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. Where is the shepherd calling you today?
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”
Mark 1: 1
Mark is the earliest gospel, the first written, and it contains no information about the birth and early years of Jesus. It does not show Jesus in a manger, nor does it show any miraculous communications with wise men, shepherds. or angels. Here we find Jesus, fully grown, striding onto the stage in the middle of nowhere, accompanied by a great parade of sinners.
The language is strange. Its first words are these. The beginning of the good news. The evangel. In Greek, the word is euangelion. This is strange language. The euangelion was the victory parade that a Roman general made when he returned to the center of the world, to Rome, after completing a successful campaign. He would enter Rome at the head of a parade, followed by wagonloads of booty and chained slaves, a laurel on his head, announcing the good news of Roman victory. Crowds would cheer, and the Senate would welcome the victorious soldier.
The euangelion took place in the most prominent place. The capital of the known world. It involved the greatest military moments, the greatest economic achievements, the most important political moments. Everything about it spoke of great strength, of Rome, of power and significance. The streets were paved. Great buildings lined the path.
The beginning, Mark tells us, of the euangellion.
But this euangellion begins in the middle of nowhere. No great crowd lines a street, for there is no street. No huge buildings line the avenues, for there are no buildings. No people of importance cheer the parade. And the parade itself consists not of victors, nor of great generals, nor booty or chained slaves, but rather a motley group of sinners.
Think about that. The earliest gospel opens with a parade of sinners, and Jesus comes with them. [iv]
This parade takes place in the least attractive place, in the furthest corner of the smallest part of the Roman empire. No political power, no military greatness, no economic miracle. Nothing to imply greatness.
The only person there is a man who eats bugs, dresses in rough clothing, and who speaks a promise of God given centuries before to Isaiah.
The promise was this. God would make a way through the middle of nowhere. God would cut down the mountains, fill in the valleys, and make a straight, smooth path for the oppressed people of God in order that they might find their way to the kingdom God would have them inhabit.
The truth of this gospel is that the victory comes from God. It comes to the weak ones, the ones who are suffering, who are struggling, who are far, far from perfection. We see the truth of this story in the selection Jesus makes of disciples. Reflect on just who he chooses. Does he choose a priest? A graduate of the academy? A great speaker? A trained leader? No. He chooses rough fishermen, despised tax collectors, students. People from the periphery.
God chooses you, you know. God chooses you in your weakness.
So whenever you doubt yourself, remember the gospel of Mark, the earliest gospel, the simplest gospel.
It begins with a parade of sinners accompanied by Jesus.
It ends with another parade, where Jesus finds himself yet again in the company of sinners, bandits who will join him on the cross. That parade and punishment fail to stop the never-ending work of Jesus. When the women visit the tomb, they find it empty, and a man dressed in white tells them where he is.
Go back to Galilee, he says. He’s there.
Among the sinners.
Reflect on God’s love for 10 minutes. Think about Jesus being present, filled with love for you, even as you sinned.
[i] Tony Campolo, Plenary Address at School of Congregational Development for New Church Development, Turn-AroundChurches & HighPotentialChurches, Houston, TX, Aug. 2, 2002.
[ii] A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature by Walter Bauer,;William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, transl. [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979], 728.
[iii] William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1, Revised Edition [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975], 91-92.
[iv] This reading is based on the work of Ched Myer in Binding the Strong Man, a Political Reading of the Gospel of Mark, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY.