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Immediately!

Written by Pastor Dan Wilfrid. Posted in Sermons

 Epiphany 3B      Mark 1: 14-20

A common complaint about life these days is that it simply too busy and moves too fast. People no longer seem to have the time to just sit and just be, to reflect and ponder, or to plan and prioritize, even it seems to worship and pray. With texting and twitter and jammed email inboxes, most conversations seem to happen in short bursts, if you can call them conversations at all. Schedules and obligations pile up at breakneck speed. Crises small and large seem to always disrupt plans and change prior arrangements.

I certainly see in church life. Scheduling visits with people, even about important things, seems so much harder to do. Gathering groups for church meetings and events has become a daily juggle. It seems every time we’ve settled on a day and time for a meeting or event that works for the most people, the emails start coming: “Something’s come up. I have to miss. Sorry, I can’t be there."

Once, not too long ago, I inadvertently got added to a soccer Mom’s text group and was amazed at the messages that flew back and forth in one afternoon, just to arrange pick-ups and drop-offs for a practice only moments before those rides had to happen. From 24 hour news channels to emergency alerts on cell phones, life seems to just keep moving faster, and not leave us even a moment to consider things like making choices, assessing priorities, much less bigger questions like where we’re headed, and “what’s the point?,” or “what is it all about or for?” Even retired people tell me “I’m so busy these days, I don’t know how I ever found the time to go to work.” Indeed, life moves very fast, and the pace only seems to accelerate.

Now it may well be that the people for whom this is most true are the people who aren’t here today, but I know it’s also true for many of you who are, and that this hour that you’ve somehow managed to squeeze out may be the only “pause to ponder” that you get all week. So even as we decide to condense our Sunday schedule into one worship service, and shift our Sunday School time a half-hour later and try new ways to engage children and youth in both, and even as we explore other non-Sunday options for offering people food for faith and focus in their discipleship, we need to be sure that we not only honor and make the most of the time people give us, but remind them in clear words and ways why it is we do it, and why it matters, and what it costs them and us when the clutter and pace of life keeps us away.

Today, Mark’s gospel assures us that our problem is not new. Mark, it seems, knew very well a world that seemed to be moving and changing quickly, even too fast, even 2,000 years ago. His gospel is way more than 140 characters, but it is in some ways, a “tweet” of a gospel. His was the first and shortest and most urgent telling of the story of Jesus. In his sixteen chapters, most things happen very fast. There’s no time for a Christmas story or other accounts of where Jesus came from. Mark’s gospel starts with Jesus fully grown and ready to begin his ministry. His stories of Jesus’ miracles and ministry move along at breakneck speed for ten chapters before Mark slows down at all. And then he spends his last six chapters telling us slowly and in great detail about just one week of Jesus’ life: Holy Week and all the events that led to his crucifixion and ending with the startling discovery of his empty tomb.

But for those first ten chapters, “immediately” is one of Mark’s favorite words. He uses it 39 times, two of them in today’s reading. Jesus calls Simon and Andrew to follow him, and IMMEDIATELY, they do so. IMMEDIATELY, Jesus calls James and John, and they drop their nets, leave their father in the boat, and go. “Something’s come up,” they tell those with whom they’ve made prior plans. “Something’s changed. A more urgent need has emerged. Suddenly. Immediately. I had to respond. I had to go and follow.”

And in the stories that will come next in this year of Mark’s gospel, we’ll hear him tell how after immediately calling disciples, Jesus immediately began to heal those who needed healing, and to love those who needed loving. Jesus taught people with urgency that God’s reign was near, even in their midst. He urged them to repent – turn around, change direction, refocus how they used the precious time they had - and believe the good news.

So maybe in this year of Mark, we too can learn about how to better be a church in a too fast-paced world, how to not only form study groups and take surveys and make deliberate decisions, (the things we know how to do and do so well), but also to respond with immediacy to opportunities that pop up quickly and unexpectedly, to try offering some spur of the moment opportunities, maybe even on-line and available whenever people find themselves with a moment to spare, to engage people in worship and learning and fellowship and service alongside all of the scheduled and well-planned things we already do.

Perhaps instead of complaining about how distracted people are by other things, we could try harder to be one of the most compelling things among their immediate options, maybe learning to say more powerfully and clearly why this gathering of people baptized into Christ matters to us, and be more specific about the difference it makes in how we live our lives (assuming that it does), and the difference we’re trying to make in our world, and how much it would mean to have others join us.

In the centerfold of this month’s “Living Lutheran” magazine is a four-page reflection on the future of the church written by our New England Synod Bishop, James Hazelwood. And yes, I know, nobody has time to read printed magazines anymore, but if this one wasn’t “immediately” deposited in your recycle bin, I urge you to pick it up and read it.

In this reflection, our Bishop identifies four “pain points” of our time that impact the church. They are an absence of spiritual vitality, a lack of financial support, changing demographics and turbulent social times. He also lists three helpful things for navigating this fast paced and rapidly changing world. They are an openness to experiment, try new things and discover what might work better than what we’ve always done before; becoming centers of spiritual strengthening and engagement in the needs of the wider community, and then for more pastors to learn how to be entrepreneurs since fewer congregations are going to be able to provide a full-time salary and benefits.

You can see for yourself in our Annual Report, that of the pain points, we seem to be feeling the last two more than the first two. We thankfully don’t lack for financial support right now.  And while spiritual vitality isn’t as easy to measure, I see many signs of it also being one of our strengths. But we don’t control things like changing demographics, much less the turbulence of our political and cultural life, so even here, the pain points are real. And the helpful things on his list could indeed all be helpful here in the days to come. All we need, I suppose, is a bit of Mark’s urgency.

Next week’s decision to change our Sunday morning schedule, for example, may seem sudden to some, but it’s been coming for a few years now. It’s been abundantly clear that a Sunday schedule that used to work well for our members as well as to draw in new people, hasn’t been doing either for quite some time. But that reluctance to change shouldn’t surprise us. People and institutions don’t generally like change and only choose it when they don’t really have much of a choice, or when something urgent requires it.

Like Ninevah when Jonah warned  them that they only had forty days to change direction or face destruction, or like the early church in Corinth who needed to be reminded that all present forms of this world are transitional and passing away and that time had grown short and they needed to focus on what was eternal.

And like Simon and Andrew and James and John, who liked fishing just fine, but somehow saw and seized an opportunity pretty much on the spot, compelling enough to take something they knew (namely fishing) and re-deploy those skills as disciples for Jesus.

Like them, I think we know what needs to happen. We just need the urgency: that sense that the appointed time has grown short, and that God’s time is fulfilled, that God has come near and is up to something new and something good and inviting us to be a part of it.

At the end of his article, our Bishop insists that the church isn’t dying, but it’s being reborn, and part of what we’re experiencing now is simply the labor pains of that re-birth.

What then might God be birthing here in this New Year? For what about our life together has time grown short? For what new approach or endeavor or mission is the time being fulfilled?

Those are questions well worth asking, because that’s where we’ll find the urgency that can get us out of the boat and off the bench ourselves, and give us the real and immediate reason to say directly and clearly to all of the constant clutter and clamor for our time and attention: “I’m sorry, but something’s come up. I have to miss this time. I just can’t be there. I need to be with my people –my family of faith - at the Lord’s table, where the kingdom of God comes near enough for me to touch and taste and experience, and where the rest of my life is given its power and purpose and meaning. 

…Life is just moving too fast, and time has simply grown too short for me to be anywhere else.”    AMEN