“Fish Stories”: Mark 1:14-20

Rev. Dr. Jan Gregory-Charpentier
Kingston Congregational Church
January 24, 2021
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Mark 1:14-20

Fish Stories

I have a dear friend named Susan who told me that when she was a young
Christian, she was terrified that if she was too open to God’s call, God was going to call
her to be a missionary or a faith healer, and she (by golly!) didn’t want to be a
missionary or a faith healer! I have a feeling Jonah knew exactly what Susan felt like.
The passage we heard from the book of Jonah is just a snippet of the larger story and
comes toward the end of the tale, after Jonah’s been, shall we say, “forcibly recruited” to
go to Ninevah. Jonah didn’t want to go to Ninevah―for some very good reasons.
Ninevah was the capitol of Assyria, the superpower of the region. The city of Ninevah
itself is noted in the text as requiring three days just to walk across. This is a big city, in
a big country, with big power to back it up. Jonah, a small prophet, from a very small
country, quite understandably has second thoughts about carrying the word of the Lord
to Ninevah. But added to Jonah’s understandable fear of Ninevite strength was his and
all Israel’s deep and abiding hatred of the place. Ninevah was full of nasty, bloodthirsty
heathen whom he was sure deserved all that God had planned for them, if not worse.
So, Jonah, hearing God call his name in verse 2 of chapter one, wastes no time in going
the other direction in verse 3. Of course, we know what happens. A big fish creates a
change in Jonah’s itinerary and in Ninevah he lands, where as one commentator put it,
he offers the shortest and worst sermon on record. Requiring only five words in the
original Hebrew, Jonah tells the Ninevites, essentially, “In forty days you’re toast!”
Amen. End of sermon. Which to Jonah’s great surprise and dismay wields extraordinary
effect, much beyond its merit, and all of Ninevah, from the king down to the cattle, dress
themselves in sackcloth and ashes, and forswear their evil ways. God called Jonah,
undeniably the Bible’s most reluctant prophet, and by Jonah’s less than missionary zeal,
converts the whole of Ninevah to the worship of God.

If Jonah’s response to his calling was extreme reluctance, Peter and Andrew’s,
James and John’s response to Jesus is just about the most unreluctant by far. In the
first chapter of Mark’s gospel Jesus is just beginning his public ministry. If you were
reading one of those “red letter” Bibles that puts all the words spoken directly by Jesus
in red print, then verse 14 would be the first splash of crimson in Mark’s story. And
Jesus’ message is pretty pithy, too: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has
come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” And then he moves right onto calling
his disciples. And only since the time of Jonah have so few words had such a strong
effect. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And “immediately” they do! No
questions asked, no hesitation, apparently no second thoughts.
The example of Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John has been held up to
Christians for centuries as the model of faithful obedience to a call. I don’t know about
you, but I see more of myself in Jonah at times than I do in these four exemplary
apostles. Like my friend Susan I have at times been hesitant to ask God’s will for me, in
case it meant being sent somewhere like Ninevah―or some other dreaded location. As
a seminary student full of zeal and a passion for changing the world, having entered
seminary after working in a homeless shelter and a halfway program for people with
mental illness, dealing with what I probably then called “real life,” I wasn’t too sure
where God would eventually call me to minister but like Jonah I was pretty sure where
God was NOT calling me to go: I didn’t want to be an associate pastor, I didn’t want to
work in a large church, I certainly didn’t want to serve in the suburbs. Guess where I
ended up a year after graduating? Serving a large, suburban church as their associate
pastor. I’m sure you’ve heard the familiar quip: “What’s the best way to make God
laugh? Tell God your plans.”

As much as I have over the years wanted to argue specifics with God, I have
come to believe that God’s call is usually open ended, more like “Follow me” than “Go to
Nineveh.” Every once in a while, we will receive a direct and clear instruction to pursue
a very specific goal, task or relationship. But more often than not I think I our calls (like
those of the four fishermen) are usually open ended, called simply to follow. Jesus
doesn’t give Simon Peter, Andrew, James or John much indication of just what it is that
they are going to be doing in the future. “Fishing for people” is a pretty vague job
description. The first order is just to follow. Details to be worked out later. I’ve come to
believe that discerning call is less like painting by numbers (follow the pattern laid out or
the right picture won’t emerge) and more like realizing that we have been handed a
fistful of brightly colored pencils in combinations and hues unique to us and there are
countless beautiful pictures we can draw with the colors we’ve been given. The first
order is that we do it; we use our colors to the best of our ability and create something
that only we can create that adds to the redemptive mosaic of Christ’s work in the world.
Are you familiar with Frederich Buechner’s definition of call? He writes: “The
place to where God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s
deep need intersect.” [repeat] God’s call in our lives comes by way of our heart. If we
never arrive at that place of deep gladness – maybe after an initial stage of heel
dragging – then we might safely conclude this is not where God has called us to be.
Likewise, all the comfort, success, and satisfaction in the world doesn’t validate a true
calling from God if it is not in some way addressing the needs of God’s people and
God’s world.

Remember my friend Susan, who didn’t want to be a missionary or a faith
healer? She eventually picked up her set of colored pencils and became a nurse in the
neonatal intensive care unit, a strange and foreign landscape to most, where she
brought the love of God to every struggling infant and family she met and through her
faith in God had a ministry of healing both bodies and spirits. And she said she didn’t
want to be a missionary or a faith healer! Funny, isn’t it? Just what she said she didn’t
want to be, is exactly where God led her. But her call came by way of her heart, by way
of her joy and by way of her true colors.

In the days, weeks, and years ahead, we’re going to be doing some coloring
together. You’ll bring your orange, and I’ll bring my yellow. He’ll bring his brown and
she’ll bring her green, they will bring their non-binary purple. There’s a good chance
we’ll come with our lists of preferences, too, our personal paint by number pictures.
“Good churches are like this…faithful churches do that…as long as we don’t have to
welcome Ninevites, I’m good.” And God will laugh, not a derisive, sarcastic snicker, but
a loving and wise chortle, like a compassionate teacher imagining all ways that our
eventual work of art will be faithful, beautiful and surprising, not the least of which to us.
The world needs our colors. God needs us to draw pictures of healing and hope.
We have a fantastic story to illustrate. It’s the story of a God who uses sea-hardened
fisherman to announce the kingdom of God and even reluctant prophets to speak truth
to power. This congregation, like all Christ’s church, is one of those crayon boxes with
a multitude of colors, including ocher, magenta and puce, and together we are called to
draw the best picture we can of what love and justice look like in our time and place. So,
bring your imagination, bring your creativity, bring your analytical skills, bring your desire
to scribble and go outside the lines, bring your vision of what following Jesus looks like,
even bring your reluctance and your inexperience (those don’t seem to get in God’s
way) then listening (that was last week’s sermon, remember?) listening to God and to
our neighbor we will create a one of a kind work of art that brings us deep gladness in
answer to the world’s deep need.

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