I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “immediate”. It’s been coming up in conversations a lot lately, and to be honest, it causes me a bit of anxiety because it infers that I need to do something “now”. There is a sense of urgency when the word “immediate” is used, and so I start to panic and I become very resistant to do anything. Unless I get a call that someone is in the process of dying and wants to make a last confession or receive a prayer, chances are, I don’t respond to “immediate”. It’s a mental block I have.
So to try to ease my anxiety around this word, I looked it up, hoping that I would be let off the hook somehow. According to Webster’s the word “immediate” means:
--occurring or accomplished without delay; instant
--following or preceding without a lapse of time
--having no object or space intervening
--of or pertaining to the present time
--without an intervening medium or agent; direct
Well, that didn’t help.
And then I was working on preparations for today’s sermon, and there’s that word “immediately”. The Gospel of Matthew says that Jesus calls his first four disciples to follow him, and they went “immediately”. It doesn’t say that they went home to talk it over with their wives. It doesn’t say they waited until the end of the day, after they had finished their work. They went immediately.
Now this isn’t the first time I’ve read this Gospel, and it’s not the first time I’ve preached it. In the past, the ideas of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry have stood out to me, or that he chooses fishermen to be his first disciples, and therefore anyone could be called to discipleship. But this time, it was the word “immediately” that stood out. God is obviously trying to teach me something.
Why would these four men have dropped everything to follow Jesus? What was it about him that was so compelling? When I think about these questions in my current place and time, I would imagine that no one would just stop everything to follow a guy they hardly know, if they knew him at all. Let’s be honest, if a man came walking through our streets today inviting people to follow him, we’d probably ignore him or worse, laugh. I seriously doubt that we would leave our homes, children, partners, work, pets, in other words, our everyday lives, to follow him, let alone “immediately”. So what is it that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew is trying to say about Jesus’ calling of disciples? Was there something special about Jesus that those early disciples knew or understood that doesn’t translate to us in 2014 that would cause them to follow him without a lapse of time?
The early disciples were Jews looking for a Messiah—a religious and political leader. They were looking for someone who was “God with us”.
In the reading from Isaiah today, we know that there was a hope for a time that was glorious. A time when light would shine on those who were in darkness. A time when their burdens had been released. Most scholars agree that at the time of Isaiah, the Jewish people were being occupied by the Assyrians; they were in a state of bondage and they were waiting for God to break in and free them. By the time of Jesus, the occupation had continued, this time under Roman rule, and the prayer was still being lifted up for a Messiah.
In the ministry of Jesus, freedom from occupation begins to happen. Not only are people freed from the bondage of sin, but Jesus begins to question all constructions in society that cause division. It is Jesus’ courage, hope and confidence as a preacher, teacher and healer, that speaks out against oppression. As James Cone, my favorite black liberation theologian states, “the true meaning of the gospel is ‘God’s liberation of the oppressed from bondage’”. In other words, in Jesus there is freedom and liberation; there is an answer to the centuries of prayer.
But that’s jumping way ahead, because in the gospel of Matthew, this is just the start of Jesus’ public ministry. It’s not until he’s called the first four that it then says he goes out to heal, teach and proclaim the Good News. Did those four fisherman know that Jesus would do those things and that’s what caused them to respond immediately? If we know anything about the disciples, it’s that they always had questions, they were always trying to understand who and what Jesus was about, so I’m not sure that foreknowledge is the answer.
As I worked my way through sermons already written on this topic in the past and scholarly writings, the word “discernment” became a theme. Those first four disciples had discerned Jesus’ call to “follow me” as an invitation of God.
There is quite a lot of talk in the Church about discernment. To discern means to be able to detect, recognize or distinguish with the intellect. In the Church, we discern not only with our minds, but also with our hearts, and we often do it with a group of individuals because we believe in shared wisdom and understanding.
Everyone I know who has taken holy or religious orders has a discernment story. Our own Marilyn has recently completed the formal “discernment process” which helps individuals understand how God is calling them in ministry. What I know about these stories, including my own story, is that discernment often begins very privately with a longing of the heart, a sense of being unfulfilled in their current situation, or even that nagging voice that says “follow me”. Discernment stories can be hard to explain because to non-Christians, or even skeptical Christians, the call doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Discernment stories often sound like the stories of crazy people…called to leave a current occupation, called to move to a different town or city, called to leave family behind. And so in our overly intellectual world, we hide or temper our stories so as not to be perceived as “crazy”.
But that’s the call of Jesus…a little bit crazy and requiring immediate action. Not everyone is called to take holy or religious orders, but no one is exempt from Jesus’ call to “follow me”.
Ask yourself, when you decided to volunteer for FISH, the Warming Shelter, or some other program, was it because you felt like you wanted or needed to do something to help others in the community? And did you need to think about it for years and years, or did you just “know” and go? Well, that’s Jesus calling.
How about when you offered care to a child, a friend or a stranger? Did you agonize and try to refuse this longing in your heart, or did you know and go? Yep, that’s Jesus too.
You see, Jesus is always calling us. He’s calling us all the time to do things to help heal and liberate each other, our communities, and the world. The question is whether or not we are listening.
Maybe the story from Matthew only makes me a little nervous. Perhaps you’ve completely reconciled the idea of responding to Jesus immediately. But if you haven’t, I invite you to consider the possibility of responding to Jesus’ invitation to “follow me” without hesitation. I know it’s something I’m constantly working on.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.