|The Private Intellectual
Ecclesiastes-Based Real Estate Advice
Monday, January 26, 2015
Rev. Ben Dueholm
January 24-25, 2015 (Epiphany 3B)
Messiah Lutheran Church, Wauconda
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus said to Simon and his brother Andrew, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
I want to talk about what it means to follow Jesus today. It is, believe it or not, a topic that has absorbed a good deal of my adult life. It has absorbed so much of my life because I keep learning about it from people who have tried to do it.
Earlier this month I was at a meeting of Lutheran clergy in Lake County. We watched a short film during our worship together about the role of the African American church in the civil rights movement and about the assassination of Martin Luther King (it was his birthday). And one of the pastors there, a man who’s been retired for almost 20 years, reminisced about being a Lutheran pastor in churches on the South side of the city in the 60’s and particularly when Dr. King brought the freedom movement to Chicago in 1966. He talked about the real crisis that was caused by the corrupt real estate practices at the time. African-Americans were confined to certain neighborhoods, and kept out of others. Speculators would scare white homeowners into selling their homes cheaply and quickly because they were afraid that black people were moving into the neighborhood; then those same homes could be sold to black Chicagoans at a huge markup, largely because black people were excluded from getting mortgages. People were losing their equity. They were afraid and angry. But often, instead of directing their fear and anger at the corrupt real estate practices, they directed it at their new African-American neighbors. This pastor tried to preach through the crisis. When you preached about loving your neighbor—which had to mean loving your black neighbor—some people, he told me, treated it like a political message. And he said he used to compare notes with his Roman Catholic colleague in the neighborhood, to see how many bottle caps came in the offering plates when they preached about loving your neighbor, as the faithful would express their displeasure with the message.
Those bottle caps, and the fear and the anger they represented, have been on my mind ever since that meeting. That pastor, who did his best in those days and had some scars to show for it, has been on my mind—as have all those who took bigger risks and paid higher prices, starting with Dr. King himself. He’s a national hero now, but when you read what the Chicago Tribune wrote about him, you see that it wasn’t always so. It was controversial, it was dangerous, it was a crisis.
My throat clenches a bit when I read this first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. Because Mark’s Gospel begins with controversy. It begins with crisis and danger. We hear today of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. And it comes when John the Baptist is arrested. John is arrested and the movement he had gathered, a movement aimed at what he called the kingdom of God, had been deprived of a leader. So it falls to Jesus, who takes up the message of the Kingdom of God. And it was inescapably a controversial message and you could even say a political message. Galilee had a king. It not only had a king, it had an emperor too. And whatever this Kingdom of God was, it was something they may not have been interested in hearing much about.
The Kingdom of God, Jesus preaches, has come near. It is close at hand. It is within reach. It’s time to repent—to change your mind—and to believe this good news.
As Jesus goes along, preaching his gospel, he sees Simon and Andrew fishing. And he asks them: Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. They left their nets and followed Jesus. And he goes to James and John the sons of Zebedee and he says come and follow me and they leave their father and the hired man in the boat and they follow. John the Baptist is in prison and this is risky business and something big and unknown is maybe going to happen and they follow.
Now here’s my question: does it ever strike you as odd that they decided to follow?
They could have been good and faithful people if they’d just pretended not to hear, the way I do when I hear something uncomfortable out on the street. They could have watched Joel Osteen on the weekend and subscribed to a nice devotional magazine and said their prayers and caught their fish and been perfectly good people.
But they didn’t. Somehow they didn’t. They decided to drop their nets and follow. They decided to follow Jesus and become part of something called the Kingdom of God. Three of these four men would eventually be executed for the sake of this kingdom, executed by the human kings and emperors who did not care to have God for a rival.
They left their nets and they followed him.
Last weekend Messiah played host to a beautiful and unexpected event. A 21-year-old man with bi-polar disorder went missing from his home in Cary. Scores of friends and family searched for him in abandoned homes, restaurants, anywhere they could think. A good-hearted person in Wauconda had the idea to check homeless shelters and came here with a flyer. Our PADS ministry hosts 35 homeless men every Saturday night from October to May, with area churches staffing our makeshift homeless shelter each weekend. And the volunteer—last week it was Transfiguration Parish who provided the volunteers—said, I think this guy is here. Soon after the man and his deeply relieved family were reunited.
This story is so powerful to me. It’s not powerful because it’s a happy ending—it is not an ending at all. The struggle of mental illness doesn't go away because something good happens. And it’s not powerful because I imagine God’s finger nudging a Good Samaritan to the door of Messiah on a PADS night. It’s so powerful because PADS was there. People voluntarily handing over their Saturday nights, voluntarily cooking food, voluntarily doing laundry and cleaning up and keeping people company so that a lost and very unwell man could land somewhere and be found—that is amazing. And not just that. But people voluntarily handing over their money to pay the heat bill and the light bill and the mortgage on a space that does not have to exist, so that a very unwell man could land there and be found—that is amazing. People who are perfectly free to stay at their nets, or in their beds, or to put their few extra dollars in their IRA somehow hear something about the Kingdom of God and they follow, in whatever way is available to them.
This, my friends, amazes me.
I regret sometimes that people who do what I do are looked at as sort of expert followers of Jesus, because we’re really not. To tell the truth, my job doesn’t require all that much generosity or altruism or courage. It doesn’t. I get paid a reasonable salary to do what I do, and if I had to fake the religion bit I probably could, at least for a while. To tell the truth, I would just as soon go and sit with some ill people at the hospital as do the things you have to do for a real job.
It doesn’t take much courage for me stand up here and say “the Kingdom of God has come near; change your minds and believe in the good news,” and to ask myself and ask you to imagine that Kingdom of God being not just over the horizon of this life but now, near, and not just for me and you but for the prisoner, for the poor child, for the person living in a war zone halfway around the world, for the desperately unwell lost man at PADS, for the unborn child, for the neighbor who came here without documents because it was the only way he could see to care for his family—it takes no courage on my part to ask you to believe that good news. You could get tired of hearing it or I could get tired of saying it and I can do something else and we’d all be just fine. There are nets and boats there for us all—including me. There are bottle caps to give if we want to give them. I’ve given a lot of bottle caps, so to say, in my life and I’m not done giving them yet. What takes courage is believing the good news and following when you hear it.
The amazing thing is not that a man was found. The amazing thing is not that somebody does what I do. The amazing thing is that people follow when Jesus calls to them. The amazing thing is that somebody—that is you all—gives something they are absolutely allowed to keep for themselves. The amazing thing is that the people of this church put their money together so that I can go and sit with a man most of you don’t know, who has forgotten who I am, and pray God’s blessing on him, a man who can never pay you back for your generosity. The amazing thing is that the people of this church keep the light on, the furnace running and food on the table on a Saturday night when you could be doing literally anything else in the world. The amazing thing is that we hear about this Jesus who got promoted because his teacher was arrested and we can try to open up this good news that makes us face ourselves and each other with sometimes terrifying clarity and yet you all don’t fill the plates with bottle caps.
Because this is the thing: there is no special punishment for Simon and Andrew and James and John if they don’t follow. There’s no hell for staying home and mending the nets and watching Joel Osteen on the TV. The punishment is only this: you don’t get to see the Kingdom of God near at hand. It’s that the world goes on exactly as it did before, exactly as you’d expect, with Herod as King and Caesar as Emperor and God safely up in heaven and no room in the world for the lost person. The only punishment is that there is no freedom movement, no PADS, no electric bond between us and our neighbor, no dream that can become a reality, little by little.
Those are the blessings of listening when we have the right to close our ears. They are the blessings of following when we have the right to stay with our nets. They are the blessings of opening our hands when we have the right to give only bottle caps. They are the blessings of believing that the world does not have to be what it has always been, that there is more than one course a life can take, and that the coming of Jesus changes things, not just here in our hearts but in our hands and everything they touch with his love.
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