January 18, 2015
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
When We Know Who’s Asking For Help
There is a splendid kernel of wisdom I picked up from the Twelve Step communities, and you’ll also find it making its way through the popular circuit of leadership seminars. It goes like this: “Things that are urgent are rarely important. Things that are important are rarely urgent.” I believe this is true.
Most of the time, when a demand is really important, there is time to think through all the possibilities, to develop a strategy and step into it slowly. Let all the zinging panic dissolve and give way to clear thinking and creative planning. Our church’s visioning process was important, we were not in a hurry to meet a deadline.
Most of the time, when a demand is drop-everything urgent, it might not really be that important in the grand scheme. I’ve learned that house-training a dachshund is an endeavor that can involve a lot of urgency. When it’s time to go, it’s time to go; sometimes we made it, and sometimes we didn’t.
Most of the time, it is helpful to tell the difference between that which is urgent and that which is important. We don’t have to live on hair-trigger alert that every email demands an instant reply, that every phone call is a crisis. We can choose to respond, instead of react. We can take our time with things that matter. Most of the time.
But what about the rest of the time?
If you come upon someone in need of CPR, that is both urgent and important. A person can be too hungry, or too thirsty, or too cold; a person can need help getting to safety, and in these moments, it’s not about seeing the difference between urgent and important. It’s about seeing the person and trying to help.
Jesus sees the men fishing and says, “Follow me!” Immediately they leave their nets and become his disciples, a choice so urgent and so important. What do we do when it’s both?— those rare moments when it’s God who’s calling and all you know is you have to go now, and your life will never be the same. I’m thinking these are the moments when it’s not about seeing the difference between urgent and important. It’s about seeing the person and trying to help.
Today we are beginning a new worship series which follows Jesus’ early ministry through the first chapter of Mark. Specifically we’ll explore what these Gospel stories could teach us about our own approach to outreach and service in this neighborhood.
Now the writer of the Gospel of Mark is famous for packing a lot of action into a few short verses. One of his favorite words is “immediately” which makes so much of this Gospel urgent and important! Also, our story today is set against a backdrop of distress. To begin with, John has been arrested, handed up to the authorities. This foreshadows the event we all know is coming, when Jesus will be arrested and handed up to the cross.
But here in the meantime, Jesus comes to Galilee to preach the good news of God. Hear what Jesus proclaims: “The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Two instructions: repent and believe. I know it is common to think of repenting as feeling bad about ourselves. Actually, “to repent” means to stop and turn around. In this context, “to believe” means to cultivate faith. In other words: Turn around and live your faith into the Gospel. Right now and forever. Hear this call so urgent. And important.
Next what happens is Jesus walks along the Sea of Galilee, and he sees Simon Peter and his brother Andrew out fishing, casting a net into the sea. He says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” If the story stopped here, I could live with that. Just leave the tantalizing invitation hanging in the air, let us come to terms with our own response, that would be fine, thank you. But this is not the end, and the next thing that happens, I don’t really understand.
Immediately Peter and Andrew left their nets and followed Jesus.
That’s not even a mistake, a hasty oversight by the Gospel writer, because it happens again. Next Jesus sees James and John in their boat mending their fishing nets. Immediately, he calls them. These two leave their father Zebedee in the boat, they get out of the boat somehow, and they follow him. They go with Jesus.
How do they make this choice? It would be one thing if Jesus hung a poster in the coffee shop with those phone number tear-offs at the bottom. I could imagine tearing off a phone number and taking it home, giving it some thought, and maybe calling to get more information. But Jesus is not taking phone calls. He’s not facilitating an application process or holding auditions for prospective disciples. He says, “Follow me” and they drop everything and go.
I wonder how they are able to do this. I wonder what it would take for me to become able to respond to God’s call when it comes with urgency and importance. What would it take for me to get out of that boat?
I wonder whether it might have to do with who is doing the asking…
All through Mark the disciples struggle to know who Jesus is, and usually they don’t get it. But here, they get it right. Here they go with him, like they want to find out who he is. If there is truth in this, this means our story is much less about following orders and much more about following a friend.
Here at Church of Peace, we try to follow Jesus through our work of outreach in this community. The Book Nook and the Food Pantry are two programs that respond to needs that are both in-your-face immediate and deeply important.
Often on a Friday, you’ll find Church of Peace members in the foyer of Rock Island Academy with a table and a store-like display featuring popular books for children and tweens. We sell new books for just a dollar a piece, so kids can enjoy the experience of selecting and buying their own books. By making these books available, the Book Nook not only helps children learn to read, it helps children learn to love to read. Through the Book Nook, we proclaim that when a child enjoys a book today, this influences their educational growth in the future. This is so much more than selling books at a low price.
Similarly, the Food Pantry is so much more than handing out plastic grocery bags with peanut butter, and spaghetti, and toilet paper. What do you if you got out of jail a month ago and you still can’t find a job because of your record? What happens when you have four children and you rely on your EBT card to buy groceries, but it goes missing, and it will take ten business days before one can be reissued? What happens if you can’t stay in your apartment, so you move in with your sister, but now there are nine people living in one house with two incomes? Here’s the thing: You can’t do anything about anything if your kids don’t have lunch.
Our Food Pantry does not solve all the problems of systemic poverty in the Quad Cities. Through the Food Pantry, we proclaim that whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you need to eat dinner tonight. You need someone to speak to you with kindness, to treat you like a person instead of a problem.
Through the Book Nook and the Food Pantry, we get to meet the people who have taken the time to come and meet us. Alexandra and Azeez. Michael and Keneisha. We get to learn the names of the people we help, just like we know the name of the one who calls us to follow.
In seminary, one of my classmates was doing her field placement at Puerto Rican congregation in Chicago. She loved to knit, and she worked to introduce a prayer shawl ministry at this church. Her vision was that the women in the church would gather and knit together, every stitch knitted or purled would hold a silent prayer, so they would be crafting shawls made out of prayer. Then these shawls would be given to women living with cancer.
Only problem was, the women in this church did not want to make prayer shawls for cancer patients. They wanted to make ponchos. (You might remember that crocheted and knitted ponchos were all the rage about ten years ago. Martha Stewart wore one of these ponchos when she was released from prison.)
As you can understand, my seminary friend was dismayed at this rejection of her prayer shawl ministry. Until, she started to notice what was happening.
The women got together and made ponchos instead of prayer shawls, and their teenage granddaughters started to come with them. This was a big deal because this church had been experiencing a rift between generations, the older generation wanting to keep everything in Spanish, while younger generations wanted more things in English. These women said to my friend, “Follow me” and she did, and grandmothers and granddaughters got to know each other through making ponchos.
I really believe, if we mean to take our outreach efforts to the next level, this will happen through building relationships with the people we serve — learning their names and telling them ours, saying “How is your day going?” and listening to their answer, finding out where they moved here from and what they need.
May our mission keep moving away from the work of transaction so cold and clinical and keep moving closer to the space for friendship warm and kind. Because of course, we would get out of the boat for a friend. And ready or not, as we keep getting to know each other, we keep getting to know Jesus. We go with God who comes into the world to go with us. Could there be anything more urgent and important? Amen.