Sermon January 24, 2021: The Thirteenth Disciple (Mark 1)        Rev. Betsy Hogan

Here’s a phrase we often use in the church: “I will, God being my helper”. It’s a standard response that some of you may recognize from various church observances. 

It’s the response that our elders and stewards make when they’re installed as elders or stewards… Will you serve this congregation with integrity and faith? I will, God being my helper.

It’s the response that parents make at the time of baptism… Will you follow in the way of Jesus? Will you endeavour to show your child the Christian life? I will, God being my helper.

It’s a phrase that at once reflects sincere commitment to that which is promised – and reflects our concession that what we are promising is sufficiently BIG that we understand going in that we’ll be needing help from God to do it.

But even recognizing that, it still does stand in stark contrast to the legal making of a signficant promise that’s required by the state for example in the marriage service.

Because “Will you take this person from this day forward, in sickness and in health, et cetera, et cetera…” 

And “I will”. Straight-up, no mitigating clauses. Which we all know, because we understand that relationships take work and all work rests upon God’s help and God’s grace – we all know that God’s going to have to be our helper in marriage as much as any other promise we might make, and possibly more –

But it speaks to a kind of hidden subtext that we may not even be aware of. A sort of underneath and unspoken understanding that we carry around… That while ALL we do is done “God being our helper”, saying so is somehow lesser than the firm conviction of I will. As though there are times when the rubber’s got to hit the road.

Straight-up. With no mitigating clauses. Here’s a thing, we have a choice, and either we will – or we won’t. It’s a tiny tiny difference in language, but it’s kind of interesting to think about the difference in meaning. How we make promises. How we make commitments.

The stories about Jesus calling his disciples, the stories in which THEY make that commitment, like the one we heard this morning from Mark’s gospel – We have a tendency to hear them with church-ears. That kind of betray our subconscious awareness of that subtext. Jesus says to Simon Peter and Andrew, he says to James and John, “follow me”. 

And up they get, and they follow – and we say "Of course!" Immediate commitment! No mitigation, no safety net, just "I will".

But take off the church ears… as the Jesuits teach, put yourself in the actual scene at the actual time… and the story of Jesus calling his disciples is really quite jarring. 

It is not at all normal, reasonable, rational -- according to our usual parameters of what we consider sensible, never mind somehow inspiring. If anything, someone we care about hearing the words “follow me” and just hopping up to do so would be far more likely to inspire our concern… and maybe an intervention.

So this story of Jesus calling his disciples – we really should, frankly, hear it as actually quite startling. Because that’s exactly what it is. For each of them. This epiphany Moment with a capital M that apparently each of them experiences as NOT the time or the place for “well, okay, God being my helper… -- but instead this is when the rubber hits the road. Straight up. No mitigating factors. And I will. And up they get and leave everything behind. 

It really IS that shocking. And also inspiring? Maybe…

But here’s the thing that I think it’s important for us to remember in relation to the gospel stories about Jesus calling the first disciples –

Those twelve disciples were not the only disciples. Those twelve who hopped up and followed when Jesus said “follow me” were not the only disciples. 

They were the epiphany Moment with a capital M rubber hits the road disciples – they were the core disciples and the toss everything disciples, and the whither thou goest I will go, anywhere with you Jesus disciples – but they were not the only disciples.

Because there were in fact – and we see them all throughout the gospel stories – there were in fact loads and loads of other people who didn’t leave behind their boats and didn’t leave behind their nets and didn’t leave behind their families and jobs and responsibilities and ordinary lives – but DID (at least, God being their helpers) they DID nevertheless respond with enthusiasm and passion and commitment to the ‘be the change you want to see in the world, the reign of God is within you’ message that Jesus proclaimed.

And there were, if you’ll pardon the pun, boatloads of them, the gospels tell us. Seventy, who ministered in various villages according to Luke. Four hundred, five hundred men, not including the women and children, who are fed with the loaves and fishes according to Mark, Matthew, John. Martha and Mary, Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene, Zacchaeus – there are so many other disciples. Not the super-special “they hopped right up to follow him” twelve, but alongside those twelve.

Which brings us to Zebedee, watching it all go down with his sons James and John hopping up and leaving him -- but there he is, left behind, still mending those nets. Is it possible that once those nets were mended he thought maybe he’d go see what all the fuss was about? Is it possible he later heard Jesus’ teaching? Felt himself interested, drawn, inspired by the Way Jesus proclaimed?

It’s entirely possible. Do we know that this happened? No we do not. But it could have.

Because there were a LOT of other disciples whose discipleship was pretty much what Zebedee’s discipleship could have been. And maybe was. No less passionate. No less committed. Just different. 

The kind of discipleship that plays out NOT “on the road” as one of the special twelve like his sons, where the only thing they’re focussed on is listening, learning, concentrating on following – but instead the kind of discipleship that still has to mend nets. And fish every day. And get a decent price at market. That has to deal with the next door neighbour. And the next door neighbour’s barking dog. 

That really IS committed, that’s serious about living faithfully and with kindness and with generosity of spirit – but has all the responsibilities and worries and annoyances of… just ordinary life. It’s a different kind of discipleship. But easier? I don’t think so. And I think that’s important.

Because none of us here, not one of us, is actually Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Who get to toss every responsibility and connection and messiness that could possibly interfere or complicate their discipleship. Not one of us.

Who we are, in fact, is probably pretty much closer to our imagined Zebedee. With a discipleship we sort of plug away at. Because it has to unfold as best it can – not gloriously on the road, all for Jesus, all for Jesus – but instead in the midst of an otherwise quite ordinary life. Fraught with ordinary responsibilities and concerns, and a whole lot of day-to-day messiness.

Which makes it, I think, a lot harder. It’s rather like how people often mention that they feel closest to God out in the woods or on a beach or at the top of a mountain. Because of course that’s where we feel the most holy. It’s just us and creation: no one to get on our nerves! The really tough thing is to feel God’s presence, to have that sense of holiness, to keep ourselves travelling in the way of kindness and helpfulness and generosity – in the actual world. With actual duties and problems and people.

James and John can hop up and say I will – and good for them. But our imagined Zebedee, who’s maybe a lot like us? He knows the benefit of following it up with a seriously prayerful “God being my helper”. Because in the actual world? Many things that try our spirits, if we keep calm and keep the faith, they will indeed pass…. 

But a lot of other things just have to be lived with. And navigated through. And it requires not only God being our helper, but often quite a lot of work and creativity and self-reminders… to stay oriented and stay hopeful on a path that’s inherently about kindness and caring -- but also about bigger things like poverty and pollution and discrimination -- 

At the same time as we carry around money worries… and prejudices and fears… and a sense of powerlessness in a complicated world.

So our imagined Zebedee matters. This model for our own discipleship matters. Because he’s the lynchpin between the traveling rallying band of proclamation – and actually bringing to bear Jesus’ call for justice and peace and reconciliation on the actual system in which all of us are embedded. 

Zebedee, left behind in his so-called comfortable pew by the Sea of Galilee – Zebedee’s the one whose very comfort, whose very embeddedness, actually makes him a crucial agent for healing and change. IF he brings what he believes about how things should be to the dealings he has in his ordinary life. Zebedee matters.

Because when Zebedee “be’s the change he wants to see in the world, the kingdom of God is within you”, that’s provocative from his comfortable pew and his ordinary life. Because when Zebedee, who clearly depends on the market price of fish, who has to pay his rent and put the kids through university, who has to worry about the value of his pension – when Zebedee says "things are not right, and I'm ready to make sacrifices so they CAN be", that's provocative. And not easy. But crucial.

So Peter and Andrew and James and John, and “I will” they all shout and up they get and off they go? I think some like Zebedee were left behind for a reason. Embedded discipleship matters. 

And I think Jesus knew how much embedded discipleship, Zebedee’s discipleship, God being his helper, would matter. Plugging along, every day, in the actual world. Trying to follow the way of kindness and justice and peace. Trying to make a difference. God being OUR helper. Amen.