January 25, 2015
Rosa Parks was an African American woman living in Montgomery, Alabama. She worked as a seamstress in a local department store. One afternoon, tired from work, she got on a Montgomery bus to go home. The bus was full, and a white passenger needed a seat. The bus driver ordered her to obey the Jim Crow laws of segregation and move to the back of the bus. She refused. It was December 1, 1955.
I would guess that most of us know this basic story about Rosa Parks, whether we lived at that time or not. With her act of civil disobedience, Parks – also known as the first lady of civil rights,” and “mother of the freedom movement” – struck the proverbial chord of unrest that became the Civil Rights Movement throughout the south and across the country.
Although I’ve often heard her story told as if that were the first and only time that she made a spontaneous, immediate decision to disobey unjust laws; in reality she had been preparing and training for that moment. She was involved with the local chapter of the NAACP. She had attended the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which was a training center for activism and activists. Her actions on that bus were not planned. I don’t believe she started off that day with civil disobedience on the top of her to-do list. But when the moment came, when the opportunity presented itself, she was ready. She was trained. She was aware. And most importantly, she was weary of the laws which were vehicles of oppression.
When the time was right and ripe, Rosa Parks was ready.
Perhaps the disciples were ready as well. There is much speculation in scholarship about what it was that made the Simon and Andrew, James and John drop their nets, forego their livelihoods, and leave their families to follow Jesus. Not only did they make the decision to follow Jesus, they did so immediately. There’s that key word in Mark’s gospel again. Immediately. These four fishermen left what and who they knew to follow Jesus. Immediately.
What was so irresistible and compelling about this man and the call he issued that they were willing to leave behind home and hearth to follow him? Did his divinity shine through his human form? Did they recognize the Messiah in him at that moment? I’m somewhat skeptical about these possibilities. Mark does not minimize Jesus’ divinity to be sure, but it is his emphasis on Jesus’ humanity that is most striking. Perhaps these four fishermen had heard the growing buzz about Jesus. Perhaps like Rosa Parks, they had been building up to that moment for a long time. Maybe they were as weary of the oppressive laws that kept them under the Romans' thumb, as Parks was of the segregation laws that did the same. Maybe they heard Jesus’ words, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,” and they realized that their time, their moment had come as well. All we can do is speculate, because there is nothing in the text that gives us a hint about what they knew of Jesus and what they didn’t.
It’s also true that Mark also makes no attempt to soften the fact that while they answered Jesus’ call to discipleship immediately, from that point on they did not get it. They did not understand him. They did not grasp what he had come to do. Eventually they will disappoint him, betray him, misunderstand him, and abandon him. But in this moment, in this particular defining moment, the disciples recognized something in Jesus. They found his call irresistible. Maybe it was not a moment of perfect clarity for them about Jesus’ true identity, but at least for those 60 seconds, something about Jesus got through to them. They answered his call -- immediately.
Two brothers, Simon called Peter and Andrew, were doing their daily work. They were casting their nets into the Sea of Galilee, when Jesus walked by and said, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Simon Peter and Andrew answered his call. They dropped their nets and followed him.
With the two of them in step behind him, they came upon the brothers James and John -- also fishermen, also doing their daily work. They were in their boat with their father, Zebedee, mending nets when Jesus issued his call, and like Simon and Andrew before them, they dropped everything, said goodbye to their father, and followed. Immediately.
Jesus issued this irresistible call to follow, and that’s what they did. They followed him immediately. As I said earlier there’s nothing in the text that gives us a clue as to why they followed. What made his call so compelling? We know nothing about why they would leave everything to follow a stranger, who tells them they will be fishers of people? This translation of Jesus’ words is slightly off kilter. When we hear that they will be “fishers of people,” it sounds more like that’s what they will do. But the more literal translation is that they will become fishers of people. It’s a subtle difference, I know, but in becoming fishers of people, it also becomes an issue of identity. Following Jesus, choosing the course of discipleship, is not only about action, it is also about identity. It is about becoming. In choosing to answer this call their identities were changed, defined, made full. Immediately.
I love this story. I love the call narratives in general, and Mark’s in particular. The way these four men answered Jesus’ call so decisively is both inspiring and intimidating. I once believed that I was incapable of answering a call to discipleship like that. I couldn’t just drop everything, leave my work, my home, my family and follow. I’d need some assurances that I would be okay, that my family would not starve. But when I think about it, I have answered Jesus’ call in that way. I think we all have. If we were to really think back, we could probably all identify a moment when heard Jesus’ call and felt compelled to follow. We may not have understood why we felt that way, why we sensed the urgency of the moment and responded. But we did.
The problem for me is not that I answered the call to discipleship that way once. It’s that I continue to be called. The call to follow isn’t a one-time only deal. I have learned that it comes again and again and again. Just when I think I’ve got this whole discipleship thing down, when I believe that no new calls will come, Jesus walks by me, hold out his hand and says, “follow me.” But do I respond immediately? Do I take seriously the urgency of that call? Or do I hesitate? Unlike those first four disciples, I know the rest of the story. I know where Jesus is heading. I know that the path they have chosen leads to the cross. Maybe the path of discipleship doesn’t lead to a literal cross, but it can lead to sacrifice. The call to discipleship can and does ask us to do hard things. It asks us to put our trust completely in God through Jesus, and rely not on ourselves but on the One who calls. This is what makes answering the call to follow so hard and so frightening. It takes courage. It takes trust. Especially when we need to answer immediately.
When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus, the civil rights movement which had been simmering burst into flame. The immediate response was the Montgomery Bus
Boycott. Parks' resistance inspired the African American community to respond immediately by not taking the busses. They would walk. And one of them who chose to walk was an elderly woman. She was frail and the walking must have been hard on her. The boycott organizers went to her and said that she didn’t have to walk with them. They knew she had difficulty. She could ride the busses, and no one would think less of her. But when they told her this, she merely smiled and replied. “My feet may be weary, but my soul is rested.”
Maybe that’s what gives us the courage to answer Jesus’ call again and again. We know it will be hard. We know it will challenge us. We know that we won’t follow perfectly. But we also know that we are not alone. That's the good news. We don't answer this call, we don't walk this walk, we don't follow Jesus alone. Jesus doesn’t call us, then abandon us. Jesus leads us. Jesus walks with us. Yes, we know the rest of the story, but we also know that we are not called to be alone. We do not follow alone. And maybe knowing that, we also know, like that woman in Montgomery, that while our feet will grow weary, our souls will be rested, because we do not walk alone. Jesus calls. Over and over and over again. Jesus calls. May we answer with courage. May we answer with trust. May we answer immediately. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.