The Fire Alarm

SJF • Epiphany 3b 2009 • Tobias Haller BSG
And immediately they left their nets and followed him.+

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, once said that the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech does not give one the right to yell “Fire” in a crowded theater. He was assuming, of course, that there was no fire. It would indeed be a dangerous prank to shout “Fire” in any crowded place — when there is no fire. People could be seriously injured, maybe even killed, in the panic.

But what if there is a fire? What if there is some imminent danger and you see it? What do the signs in the subway warn us? “Si ves algo, di algo — if you see something, say something.” Surely it is incumbent upon you to do something to warn those around you of danger they — and you — are in, and shouting might just be the best way to do it. This is part of our understanding of civic duty — the responsibility we bear for one another. And it is no accident that the ancient rabbis taught that one of the principle failings of the wicked city of Sodom was precisely that people there did not look after one another, did not look out for others. It was said that the people of that wicked town were the sort who if they saw both your and their house on fire, would fight the fire at their own house but leave yours to burn.

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In today’s Gospel Jesus bursts upon the scene fresh from his baptism and temptation in the wilderness, which in the headlong style of Mark’s Gospel have taken up only the first thirteen verses. We are hardly off the first page, and yet the story presses on. The story has hardly begun and here is Jesus storming in and crying out, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” And immediately, to use one of Mark’s favorite words, immediately he calls those four disciples — Simon, Andrew, our own patron James and his brother John — and immediately they follow him, leaving behind their nets, their boats, and in the case of the two sons of Zebedee, their bewildered father and the hired servants. It is as if Jesus has burst into the crowded theater and shouted, “Fire!” and the audience has jumped up and run for the exits, tossing buckets of popcorn in the air and leaving their coats and handbags behind in the rush to escape the disaster.

That is the immediacy with which Jesus delivered his message, and the immediacy with which the received it — at least by some of those who heard it. And let us recall what “immediate” means — with nothing in between, no intermission, no transition or connection. Those who follow Jesus will leave behind all the connections to their former lives: their nets, their boats, even their families. They will be transformed into disciples, and given a new task, to fish for people. And it happens all at once, without preparation or warning or transition. Jesus calls; they follow; no questions asked — immediately.

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It seems strange then to turn to our reading from Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. In contrast with the panicked immediacy of Mark’s gospel it is as if Saint Paul is saying, “Not so fast!” He says, “Let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned,” and later, “Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.” Could it be, after Jesus calls out, “Fire!” that Paul should counter, “Sorry folks; false alarm”? Of course not, and if we look more closely at what Paul is saying, we can learn that far from contradicting Jesus’ gospel, Paul’s warning is — in its own way — a realization of it.

Paul is not saying, ignore the call of Christ: on the contrary Paul is saying that Christ is calling at least some of the Corinthians to do what they are already doing, because that is what God wants. Let each of you lead the life, he says, that the Lord assigned, and the state in which God has called you.

While Jesus did and does call some to leave their nets and boats and families behind to follow him as disciples on the road, Paul assures the Corinthians that Jesus also calls some people — in fact most people — to stay right where they are, right as they are, to “bloom where they are planted” as the old saying goes. Paul assures us that God calls some to stay put and do the work God has given them to do with singleness of heart, and to do that work with the newly discovered commission that it is God’s work, and that the kingdom needs those who toil at home as much as it needs those who toil on the road. And what could be more immediate than continuation? Continuing to do God’s work without intermission, being assured at last that this is the task the Lord has assigned? Discipleship takes many forms: for some it means totally changing their lives, for others, a deeper commitment to the life they already lead.

For what matters ultimately is how one’s heart stands with God, how well one’s heart is attuned to God’s will for each and every one of us. The Corinthian congregation was being split apart by some troublemakers who were insisting that in order for Gentile men to become Christian they had to be circumcised. Others felt that anyone who had given in to that teaching had betrayed the faith, and should seek to remove the marks of circumcision. It is hard for us to imagine the church being torn apart over such matters, though we have been through many similar debates in recent years, which centuries or decades from now may seem just as absurd as the circumcision argument did to Saint Paul. “Circumcision is nothing, uncircumcision is nothing,” Paul affirms, “but obeying the commandments of God is everything. Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.” The problem, of course, as I’m sure some of the Corinthians must have said to Paul, is that the Scripture was clear. The Scripture demanded circumcision of any Gentile male who wanted to be part of the holy people, anyone who wanted to eat of the Passover. But as Paul would also say to the Corinthians, “That was then; this is now. Since Christ has come, he is our Passover who has been sacrificed for us. Things have changed, and Paul is trying to get the Corinthians to hear God’s call to them in the blood of Jesus, over the noise of their squabbles — and they squabbled over just about everything, spending their time in useless controversies instead of building up the church for which Christ died and rose again, and to whom he gave his body and his blood. That is the thing Paul keeps trying to call them back to again and again — the significance of that holy meal, the Holy Eucharist. But, of course, they even argued about that!

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This is a powerful lesson for us. This is a lesson for us as a congregation, and a lesson for all Christian congregations, a warning not to act like the Corinthians and let the church fall apart over matters about which God doesn’t give a hoot.

But there is also a lesson for us as individuals. Some of us will be called to life-changing tasks, like the fishermen by the sea-side, called to follow Jesus by leaving behind the nets of entanglement with the old life, abandoning the boats that provided security and livelihood, and even forsaking the comfort and support of family and home. Other of us, and if we can judge from Paul it will be the majority, will be called to follow Jesus by finding his commandments for us in our hearts, by discovering, like little Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” that there’s no place like home, and that we can be most effective blooming where we’re planted, bearing fruit in season and flourishing with leaves that do not wither.

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Downstairs in my office is a picture of a liturgy in this church from about 1985, and I can see myself in it, and I’m sitting right there. Father Basil Law is opposite on the other side, as Bishop Paul Moore preaches in the aisle. I had no idea at the time that God would call me one day to follow him on a path that would lead me to seminary and to priesthood, and a parish up in Yonkers; but then by his grace to be planted right back here just a few feet from where I was almost 25 years ago!

But that is how the call of God works sometimes. Sometimes when God yells out “Fire” you will discover that the fire is in your own heart, and it is a fire God doesn’t want you to put out, but to share, and God will help you find the place to share it best, if you will let him. That is what Paul tried to tell the difficult Corinthians, that by squabbling over the gift they were destroying it, like peevish children who fight over a toy and end up breaking it beyond repair, and neither of them can enjoy it. God calls us, all of us and each of us, sometimes to journey, sometimes to remain, but always to be his. God calls us each by name as I said two weeks ago, and gives us each a task as I said last week. He knows our going out and our coming in, our rising up to follow on the road, or our sitting down to work where we are. May we — each of us and all of us — answer his call, be faithful to our task, and ever conscious of his presence, the burning of the Holy Spirit, the fire of his love in our hearts; to whom we give — as Father Basil Law was always wont to say from this pulpit — as is most justly due, all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and forever more.+


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