A meditation on the gospel passage Mark 1: 14-20, for the community of St. David of Wales Episcopal Church, Shelton WA. January 24, 2021, the third Sunday of the Epiphany.
When I was about twelve and staying at my dad’s house for a week, I came down with the flu, and had nothing to do but lay in bed all day and read while he and my stepmom were at work. So I reached for the Readers’ Digest Condensed version of Tom Sawyer on the shelf in the guest room. I read every word in that edition, but I never read an unabridged version, and have no idea if I missed anything important to the story.
For me, the Gospel of Mark is a little like that book on my dad’s shelf. When compared to the other gospels, Mark reads like a Readers’ Digest Condensed yet Urgent version. A “just the facts ma’am” account where the details of what happens are spare, and whatever occurs always happens immediately.
As someone who wasn’t raised in a church, my first exposure to Bible stories came, when, as a new Christian and churchgoer, I began teaching Sunday school to first and second graders, relying on Cokesbury curriculum provided by the United Methodist church. I don’t remember now in which gospel I first encountered the story of these four fishermen being called to follow Jesus, but I do know that I, along with my little class, cut out construction paper fish with paper punched holes at the mouth, tossed them onto a butcher paper river on the floor and began to fish with poles consisting of pencils, string, and paper clip hooks.
We were all surprised by Jesus, the bold stranger wandering by who called out for us to drop everything and follow him and start fishing for people. Startled though we were, we dropped our poles in the river, and marched out the classroom door following the student selected to play Jesus, who led us down the hall and toward the playground.
And I will confess that in the almost 35 years since then, encountering the call story of those first disciples in all four gospels, I don’t remember comparing or compiling the stories into a larger narrative, or putting them on a timeline — though it’s entirely possible I did that in a year-long adult Disciple Bible Study class when my children were young, and their needs and lives were the focus of my life and learning.
For me the Bible was full of impossible things that had happened: Moses being found in a basket in the river, Mary becoming pregnant with Jesus sans the usual method, Jesus rising from the dead and later appearing to his friends before he beamed up to heaven. Dropping everything to follow Jesus the second you’d met him seemed no less miraculous.
Even in my own life, God had done what seemed impossible, pouring love over me one morning in my mid-twenties while I showered. God’s appearance had seemed sudden and out of the blue, as did my attendance at church the next Sunday, the first time I’d ever set foot in a church since childhood when I occasionally tagged along with friends or grandparents.
But God didn’t really appear to me out of the blue. I’d been aware of the hole in my life even before my parents split up when I was nine; and I’d been trying to fill that void with friends, studies, sports, and later activism, work, and boys. In the months before my shower conversion, I’d begun to listen, rather than scoff and dismiss, when those I admired mentioned God, Jesus, and faith. And I’d even done a little reading, not the Bible, but some evangelistic pamphlets that came my way.
All this to say, that when God showed up in my shower, I was ready to receive and respond. Maybe God had come by before and called and I’d been too busy with school or work or preoccupied with surviving yet another parental divorce to notice. Maybe those Sundays when I’d felt like an interloper at church, God had managed to leave behind tiny snippets of God’s word that lingered beneath my memories of feeling alone and outcast. I don’t know.
But what I do know now, is that when Jesus shows up on the shores of Lake Galilee in today’s gospel reading and calls to Andrew and Simon, he is not a stranger appearing out of thin air making an outrageous request without context. Jesus knows Andrew and Simon. In fact, they have already been following him.
In the first chapter of John’s gospel, we learn that Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist’s, and when John announces that Jesus is the “Lamb of God” [John 1:36], Andrew goes to find his brother Simon, and says to him, “We have found the Messiah” [John 1:42]. At some point before John is arrested, Andrew and Simon return home and go back to work fishing. Perhaps they told Jesus they had to leave, or perhaps he told them go home to get things in order and said he’d come for them when the time was right. They’re still followers of Jesus, but they’re also attending to their livelihoods.
As for James and John, they’re fishing with their father, Zebedee, alongside, or at least nearby, Andrew and Simon. Some scholars speculate that James and John were business partners with Zebedee and his sons, who also are successful enough to have hired workers on their boats. It’s entirely possible that they also were already acquainted with Jesus, and perhaps already following him. Other historians guess, based on the brief mentions in the gospels of women who are following and supporting Jesus’ ministry, that James and John were Jesus’s cousins; that their mother and Jesus’s mother Mary were sisters, and that they were well known to one another.
Today’s scripture opens with Jesus beginning his public ministry, “After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”
It takes time, traveling through the region on foot, stopping every day to talk with people about change. The task at hand feels urgent, and it’s not something Jesus can do alone, so when he reaches the sea, he asks his fishermen friends to leave their jobs and follow him. He asks them to fish for people. To tell those they meet about God’s heart for the poor, about God’s desire for justice, about a God whose claim on your life is unlike an Emperor’s, it inspires but never demands allegiance.
I don’t know about you, but knowing that there are relationships in place at the time of Jesus’s call to the fishermen offers me a sense of relief. The idea of leaving behind your entire life to say yes to the beckoning of a total stranger with a superhuman charismatic forcefield seems to be either an impossible to live up to act of faith and courage, or an absurdly foolhardy and dangerous endeavor. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it.
But the idea of leaving your job, or of leaving your business in capable hands to commit your life to the cause of reconciliation and justice and the ushering forth of God’s kingdom on earth, a cause you’ve been thinking about, and dreaming about, in the company of a person who teaches, motivates, and inspires you to think and dream, that’s another matter. That’s an action I want to emulate.
Dramatic. Emphatic. Urgent. Mark’s account of Jesus calling the first disciples is filled with these elements. Mark has an audience, and a purpose, and knows that time is of the essence. And yet, from our place more than two thousand years after these events, we need more than the origin stories of our faith — the gospel accounts of how Jesus’ ministry began and how it ended just three years later.
We need more than the Acts of the Apostles and the letters sent to the earliest Christian communities as they formed and ministered and struggled. We need more than the stories of the saints and martyrs of yore. We need the ongoing stories of how we, as ordinary everyday people answer God’s call over sixty, or seventy, eighty, or ninety years.
We need stories of how to repent from the values of culture and society that discount human dignity, how to repent from the worship of the church of Jesus, to the worship of Jesus, how to repent from nationalistic Christianity, to living aligned with Christ himself, how to repent from complacency with the status quo, to a sense of urgency and purpose when the kingdom that is near seems oh so long in coming. We need to learn to follow what Bishop Michael Curry terms, “The Way of Love.” His book Love Is the Way: Holding onto Hope in Troubled Times, tells his own story, and offers us some glimpses into the lives of those who have shaped his own faith, as well as thoughts on how keep ourselves rooted in the way of love.
Some of you were born into the arms of faith, you were passed from pew to pew before you could walk, you knew Jesus loved you before you could talk. Some of you left church when you left home for work or college and returned a decade or more later. Some never left. Some never returned but still love Jesus. Some came stumbling to church from recovery programs. Some came after loss in the shadow of grief. Some came because their spouse did. Some came for their children. Some came for the music. Some came because of community outreach. Some came for no particular reason they can name. We’re all here for different reasons, but we’re looking, and maybe finding, something here that’s hard to find elsewhere.
And in the sharing of our stories, our faith journeys, no matter how dramatic, no matter how mundane, we glimpse ways of being beyond our own experience, we develop relationships that reach beyond barriers, we come to trust one another and ourselves and we learn to see signs that point to God. So let us tell one another our stories. This is how we follow Jesus. This is how we fish for people.
A meditation on the Annunciation, Luke 1:26-38, for the community of St. David of Wales Episcopal Church on the Fourth Sunday of Advent.
Growing up, my family had a set of paper angel ornaments that we put on our Christmas tree each year. They stood about two inches high with yellow curls stapled to their paper heads and gold paper wings stapled to their backs. Some held guitars, some autoharps like my teachers played, but my favorite were the singing angels who held white microphones with red tips right in front of their chests with pipe cleaner hands.
I made it my job to unpack the angels, and the year my parents divorced, while I waited for my mom to come home from work so we could decorate the tree, I placed the singing angels on risers made of the empty ornament boxes, separating the altos from the first and second sopranos, and sang for them, a one-girl choir belting out every Christmas carol I knew. And I knew quite a few, having memorized many popular carols to the fourth verse.
The December I was 21 and newly married, my mother gave a third of her ornaments to my sister, and another third to me. When we sorted the faded paper angels, my mother said the instrumentalists were playing mandolins and harps. I hadn’t guessed the instruments quite right, and that was okay, but when we came to the microphone angels, both my mother and my sister laughed and insisted the angels were holding candles, pointing to red tips they said were obviously flames. As soon as they said it, I saw how wrong I’d been all those years.
I was a bit disappointed when I hung mute angels from my tree, but I sang the carols for them anyway. The songs touched something hidden deep within me, something I would later understand as the life of the soul. At that point in my life, I was curious about God but cautious. I didn’t want to get too close or personal. I wanted my angels to carry microphones, to fly around the neighborhood, sing out good news, and give me direction from a nice safe distance that didn’t require any action on my part.
But as the years went by, and God came closer into my life, my thoughts about those candle carrying angels changed. I no longer saw them as mute and boring. I’ve always been afraid of fire. I never liked to light matches to start pilot lights or campfires, and I realized that to become a candle-holding angel, you have to strike a match and lean in close to the flame, you have to stay with the fire, hold steady, and act with care. You have to be brave and intentional in an act that’s ordinary and unglamorous. And in doing so, you help others to see.
And so I’m thankful for the appearance of angels this Advent, this season of casting light into the darkness, this time of anticipation, of looking forward to a birth that’s come, and comes again, anew. And in today’s Gospel reading, we have the arrival of the angel Gabriel. He arrives without instruments, microphones, or candles, but his message cannot be ignored, even if it is not easily understood.
“How can this be?” Mary asks as she considers what it means to find favor with God. I’m amazed that Mary has the presence of mind to speak up and ask questions. Impressed that she didn't run screaming, or cower under the bed. My fight, flight, or freeze response would’ve been firing away. But Mary takes it all in. Here comes an angel — cause enough for fear and trembling on his own — and then he offers an announcement to a small town teenage girl that God is going to break into human history through her, not some powerful king or ruler. An ordinary, yet extraordinary, young woman will carry and deliver God’s child.
Can’t you just hear my paper angels dropping their microphones at the news? Two thousand and some years later, our jaws no longer drop at the absurdity, we’re so used to this story. Over the centuries, we’ve immortalized it in scripture, and art and music, in the carols I liked to belt out along with my angel ornaments. We’ve tamed it with familiarity, painting Mary as meek, mild, everything as peaceful and orderly as a Thomas Kincaid painting. But when we peel back our familiarity, and the comfort we have in knowing the history of these events, the whole idea seems preposterous.
It’s crazy that the Creator of the Universe would plan to redeem creation by sending a baby to a poor and vulnerable young woman and her fiancé, an ethnic and religious minority couple living under occupation of an empire, forced to travel for a census and taxation. A couple who will soon become homeless refugees, forced to give birth in a stall with animals, and then hide out in another country while an army combs the countryside killing any baby that might possibly be Mary’s.
Though she had no idea about any of this when Gabriel appears to her, we can feel the weight of Mary’s yes. The gravity of her consent. The courage in her words: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Who among us would say yes with such conviction? My tendency, if I didn’t say, “No thank you,” immediately, would be to say, “Can I get back to you? I need some time to think about this.” I would try to be logical, making a pro and con sheet loaded with facts, driven by logic. And it’s doubtful my calculations would lead to a yes. Those lists never seem to lead to risking a “yes.” They keep us in “no.”
Thankfully, faith isn’t logical. As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Mary is our model of that deep faith. Her journey affirms what we already now: love always involves risk and suffering.
This year, the darkness of the season at our latitude has been magnified by the shadow of pandemic disease as we stay separated physically from one another, forgoing our usual holiday festivities. We hope for things unseen. The time when we can visit our families; a vaccine to curb the pandemic; healthy people, a healthy planet, and robust economies. Now, more than ever, we need to take heart and hope from Mary’s words and actions, from her wondering how this can be, and her boldness in saying yes to what she doesn’t yet understand.
As we wonder what comes next, as we ask, “how can this be?” as we live day by day with more questions than answers, may we find hope in the visitation of angels, in the messages flickering in their candlelight, and booming from their microphones. May we listen to assure us not to be afraid. May we ponder the miracle of Christ’s advent, his arrival, again and again, into a broken and weary world need of healing. And let us remember the promise of the Angel Gabriel: Nothing is impossible with God.
A Reflection on Matthew 25:1-13, The Parable of the Bridesmaids
Delivered at St. David of Wales Episcopal Church, Shelton WA
November 8, 2020
When I read this parable for the first time as a new Christian in the mid-1980s, the end of the world through nuclear war weighed heavily on my mind, and my newfound faith in God didn’t offer any comfort when I encountered this scripture passage. I wasn’t yet part of a faith community and I didn’t know how to read the Bible any other way than literally.
Jesus said, “Keep awake,” and I’d kept awake all my life plagued by insomnia as far back as I could remember. My father, a deputy sheriff, patrolled the streets all night, and I cowered under my covers at six, seven, and eight, afraid of intruders without him home to protect us. At age ten and eleven, alone overnight with my little sister, I tossed and turned all night, terrified of intruders without my mother home to protect us.
“Keep awake,” Jesus said. But my childhood vigilance couldn’t guarantee anything except exhaustion the next morning. I didn’t expect anything different as an adult. In my mid-twenties, I still lay awake in fear most of the night, if it wasn’t Armageddon, it was that my husband would leave at the slightest disagreement. I could keep awake away all night, but I still wouldn’t know the day or the hour that the world would explode, or my own life implode. Living through three parental divorces before I was fifteen and, having each one come as a complete shock, I knew I belonged with the foolish and unprepared bridesmaids. I knew which side of the door the nuclear holocaust and the second coming would find me on.
Now, in thirty-five years as a believer immersed in communal faith, worship, and study, I’ve learned something about the Bible, how it was written, and the varying contexts for its content. I’ve come to understand it not as an encyclopedia or repair manual, but as an ongoing conversation with God and the prophets, psalmists and apostles, Jesus and readers over the centuries. So, when I discovered that the Parable of the Bridesmaids was the gospel lesson for today, I was thankful for the opportunity to redeem this troubling passage and to form a new understanding of its meaning.
I turned, as I always do, to articles from writers, preachers, and theologians for their thoughts on the scripture. I was surprised, and a little relieved, to find that everyone I consulted struggled with this parable. In her essay at Journey With Jesus (.net)*, Reverend Debie Thomas, Director of Children and Family Ministries at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Palo Alto, CA, writes:
I’ve never liked the parable of the ten bridesmaids. When I first heard it as a child, I annoyed my Sunday School teacher by asking all the “wrong” questions in response: why do the bridesmaids have to bring their own light to a wedding reception? Why are the “wise” bridesmaids stingy and mean? Why doesn't the groom show up for his own wedding until midnight? Why does the bride — whoever she is — put up with such a ridiculous delay? Where even is the bride in this story? And why, after keeping his poor bridesmaids waiting for hours, does the groom blame them for lateness — and shut his door in their faces?
“In all honesty,” she says, “these questions still bother me.”
They bother me, too. I suppose some of the wedding logistics would make more sense to us if we lived in first century Palestine. We’d know what role the bridesmaids were expected to fulfill and what sort of delay the groom might have encountered that would’ve been long enough to put all the bridesmaids to sleep. I can only extrapolate from my own experience.
When I got married as a college student thirty-eight years ago, my husband and I ordered tuxedos from Sears to save money. On the wedding day, when one of his groomsmen went to pick up the order, Kevin’s tux was nowhere to be found. After fruitless phones calls and spread-the-blame-run-around, he was finally presented with a hastily tailored ill-fitting outfit pulled off a mannequin. During the delay, I sat with my dad inside an air conditioned building (unlocked only for us by an acquaintance), but everyone else stayed put at their stations and on folding chairs inside an arbor. The guests and wedding party sweated in the August heat as 1 p.m. came and went and the clock inched toward 2 p.m. Some worried there wouldn’t be a wedding at all, thanks to a groomsman who thought it’d be funny to say Kevin had cold feet rather than nothing to wear.
Through it all, none of my bridesmaids fell asleep, and none wandered off to a restroom to restyle her heat-wilted hair, or drove to the nearest 7-11 for a cold beverage. Everyone was a little thirsty and bedraggled when it finally came time to process. But everyone was there.
And for all the questions and interpretations this parable raises, for all the wrestling with the literal and metaphorical meanings of the over-prepared but stingy bridesmaids, of minimally prepared and flighty bridesmaids, of the never mentioned bride, and of the woefully tardy and arguably cruel groom, it is what happens to those who’ve fallen asleep once they wake up that intrigues me. It is the possibility of staying that shimmers in my mind as I encounter the scripture today.
What if the bridesmaids who were running out of oil stayed put and were there to welcome the groom in the sputtering lamp light as their oil ran dry? What if they stayed even if that meant being seen with all their faults on display and having to admit to their failures? What if the oil-poor bridesmaids stayed and seeing their plight close up, the oil-rich bridesmaids had a change of heart and shared from their flasks?
We can never know the hour or the day (sort of like this week as we waited for election results). And so far, the waiting for Jesus’ return continues. So, what if we accept the inevitability of falling asleep sometimes? And what if learn to keep awake in anticipation rather than fear? What if we say yes to the wedding invitation and come just as we are? What if God wants only us, and our inner light, not what light we carry in our hands?
What if together, we all learn to dance in the dark? What if?
*For more of her thoughts on this scripture, I invite you to read Debie Thomas’s reflection.
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash
I began blogging about "This or Something Better" in 2011 when my husband and I were discerning what came next in our lives, which turned out to be relocating to Puget Sound from our Native California. My older posts can be found here.