Finding God's Grace in an Overwhelming World
A Sermon by Teri Daily
As a mother, I tried to give our children specific choices when it came to things like what snacks to eat or what clothes to wear. In other words, not “What do you want for snack?” but “Would you like some cheese or an apple?” Too many possibilities can be overwhelming for a two year old, or, frankly, for anyone for that matter. But the problem is that as we get older, there’s no one to protect us from having too many decisions to make—what time to get up, whether to take a shower or a bath, call your mother or visit a friend. And these are just the mundane decisions we have to make—ones that usually don’t carry dire consequences. The up side is that we as human beings are gifted with rational decision-making abilities; we can choose. The down side is that we are absolutely inundated with decisions every second of every day, from every direction. It can be paralyzing and fear-inducing. There’s even a name for this kind of phobia—it’s called decidophobia. (Really!)
I recently came across the work of Elke Reinhuber online. She’s an assistant professor in Singapore, a specialist in the area of choice and decision-making. She’s also an artist, and a self-diagnosed decidophobe. Reinhuber created a panoramic work of art called Decidophobia; it’s a 360 degree video installation. You are surrounded by a perfect labyrinth projected onto the screen. There is nothing that gives you any clue about orientation. Paths appear and then disappear on the screen; new possibilities fade into missed opportunities. The whole time an audiotape plays, simulating voices of people passing by. Overlapping dialogues in several different languages fade in and out, saying: “What path should we choose?” “Shouldn’t we rather go back?” “Where does this path go?” They are like fragmented conversations that become audible briefly only to then fade away, once again giving the impression of missed chances, missed answers. It’s enough to make anyone anxious and decidophobic.
(For more information on the artist and installation, visit Elke Reinhuber's website here.)
I think that, in some ways, reading the gospel of Mark is like being in Elke Reinhuber’s art installation Decidophobia. More than any of the other gospels, the gospel of Mark has a momentum that propels the reader forward. Action follows action with rapidity; the Greek word translated as “immediately” or “straight away” occurs at least forty times in the gospel of Mark, creating a sense of urgency throughout. We see it twice in today’s reading alone. Jesus walks by the Sea of Galilee and sees Simon and Andrew casting their net, and he calls out to them: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. Jesus then sees James and John who are in the boat with their father Zebedee. Immediately Jesus calls to them, and they leave not only their nets but their father, too. No time to tell their mother good-bye, or to pack a bag, or to sleep on this big decision overnight, or to ask if there’s a training course for new disciples. We sense there is a window of opportunity, a brief moment before the path that is now open to them fades away. It is a moment that, no matter what they decide, will leave them forever changed—it’s a moment bound to delineate a “before” and “after” in the narrative of their own lives. A borderline decidophobe like me gets anxious just hearing today’s gospel!
But truth be told, this is precisely how the gospel usually confronts us in our lives—suddenly, unpredictably, unexpectedly, hinting at missed opportunities if we pass it by, threatening to change everything if we take the path it offers us. And when the gospel shows up (like Jesus did that day at the Sea of Galilee), it demands a response—we can ignore it, we can refuse it, we can act on it, or we can stand undecided until the moment passes. But in the end, whatever we do or don’t do is a response.
Such gospel opportunities can come at inconvenient times—someone comes to church in search of food five minutes before a service is scheduled to start. They can come when we are feeling our least Christian selves—like when a person whips into the checkout line right in front of you with her cart full of groceries and then ends up being a few dollars short (after the cashier needs to price a couple of items, of course). Gospel opportunities can be one-time events (like the man I met dying from AIDS on his way from Maryland to California), or they can be repeat occasions (like our established food pantry clients). Gospel moments can come with a cost—it did for the Rev. George Lee, a black minister in Mississippi who in 1955 was killed because he encouraged voter registration in his community. (Not to mention that today’s reading from Mark begins with the news of John’s arrest.) And gospel possibilities can be full of joy—the smile of a friend, a hand on the arm of someone who’s ill, or a prayer of encouragement.
Here’s the thing: such opportunities are not just the living out of our faith; they are our faith. Faith isn’t some abstract concept—a set of ideas or attitudes or beliefs. And the concrete aspects of our faith aren’t confined to the recitation of creeds (foundational though they may be), or the singing of hymns (beautiful though they may be), or the quiet stillness of meditation (necessary though it may be). Instead, our faith comes into being moment by moment, call by call, decision by decision, thousands upon thousands of them—changing who we are with each response, no matter how great or how small.
So, how is it that we can respond like Simon and Andrew, James and John? With that whole-hearted yes to the call of a given moment? Well, it’s significant that, before he calls his disciples, Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of God has come near. First and foremost, it is God who has already drawn near to us before we ever draw near to God; it is God already at work in us that enables us to answer the call of the gospel in our own lives. We trust that God is in the call itself. We also trust that the prayers we say week after week, the songs we sing, the scripture we hear, and the very movement of our bodies in worship—we trust that all of this will shape our hearts and open them to say yes when Jesus does suddenly appear, saying “Follow me.” Might it be costly to respond to the gospel with such abandon? Absolutely, but being part of a community that shares the cost of discipleship can help us take risks that we would never dream of taking alone.
And what if we make the wrong decision in a given moment? Ah, that’s the true fear of all decidophobes. We are bound at times to respond to gospel opportunities with what may not be the best option for the moment; we are bound to make mistakes. But week after week we come to the altar rail; we offer up our lives—the good, the broken, our successes, our failures in judgment or follow-through; and then we receive our lives back in the bread and the wine—redeemed, transformed, brimming with possibilities once again, call after call ahead of us, second chance after second chance.
If we have any doubt that that kind of grace is there for us, just look at Simon Peter. He may have immediately left his net when Jesus called, but the gospels tell us his journey of faith ended up being pretty rocky at times. The strong faith that made Peter step out of the boat and walk on water toward Jesus faltered when a strong wind arose, and he began to sink. On the night Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, saying “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me,” it was Simon Peter who then exclaimed, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” But that same passion would cause him later that night to draw a sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave. It was Peter who once confessed, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” That same Peter, though, warming himself in the courtyard of the high priest’s residence the night before Jesus’ crucifixion, denied even knowing Jesus.
But despite Peter’s very human failings, his missteps, and his need to start over and over again, Jesus never ceased to call him deeper and deeper into a life of ministry. In the last conversation between Peter and Jesus in the gospel of John, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Simon son of Peter, do you love me?” It’s a chance at redemption for every time Peter had denied him. Jesus ends that conversation with the commission, “Feed my sheep.” Only a few short weeks later, it was Peter who at Pentecost stood and boldly proclaimed Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. What grace!
It’s precisely that kind of grace that gives us the freedom to respond in the moment. We don’t have to be paralyzed when confronted with a call to follow Jesus. When a gospel path opens up this week; take it. It may be inconvenient, time-consuming, and costly in much greater ways, too. We may not respond perfectly, and most likely the results will not be what we expected. But one thing is for sure: it will be life-giving.