The Bad-Christian Affirmation

NB: I preached a version of this sermon on January 25-26, 2014 (Epiphany 3A) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Do we choose our vocation? Or does our vocation choose us?

There’s a great, great scene at the beginning of the 2012 movie Wreck-it-Ralph. I guess you know you’ve embraced parenthood when you don’t even find it strange anymore that one of your favorite recent movies is a kids’ film about a video game character. But I loved, loved, loved Wreck-it-Ralph

It’s the story of a guy–Ralph–who is the villain in an arcade game. But he doesn’t like being the bad guy. He wants to be a good guy. He wants to be a hero. He wants to win a game and get a medal. And in this early scene, he goes to a meeting of Bad-Anon, the support group for video game bad guys. They share, and it’s funny, and they close with the Bad-Guy Affirmation: “I am bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There is no one I would rather be than me.”

Near the end of the movie, as Ralph has left his own game and tried, without much success, to achieve the sort of popularity he associates with being a “good guy,” Ralph repeats this line. Lives are on the line and he has just made a terrifying choice. But it’s his vocation. His vocation is to use his huge, ridiculous fists to smash things. He wanted to be someone else, but what he needed to learn was how to do what he was already called to do. “I am bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There is no one I would rather be than me.”

Today’s Gospel story is about vocation–about being called. It’s about Jesus being called to take up the work of John the Baptist after John’s arrest by Herod. And it’s about Jesus, calling his first disciples into his new community. 

For Lutherans, “vocation” is a big concept. For us, it’s the idea that every Christian has a “religious” calling in life, and not only priests and monks and nuns. This was important in Luther’s day because back then people thought that most jobs were “secular” or “profane” and the real work of religion was done by specialists. So Luther, and William Tyndale, and John Calvin and other people at the time insiste that every baptized person has a religious, a sacred vocation. In those days, of course, you didn’t really choose your vocation the way we think of it now. There were no career inventories, no guidance counselors, no summer internships. You either inherited your parents’ trade or you were sent off to be an apprentice full-time with another family. Your parents could give you to the church, or you could run off and become a soldier or a sailor. For most people, a calling was more like an assignment. And as Luther argued, having a vocation meant doing that assignment faithfully, honestly, with good cheer and without envy or complaining, as a sacrifice offered up to God. God had placed you in the farm, the butcher’s shop, the court of law or the battlefield–now do your assigned task well and with a good heart. “I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There is no one I would rather be than me.”

But now take a look at what Jesus does in today’s Gospel. He is living in Galilee, a region of mixed religious and ethnic groups. And he goes out to preach and make disciples. I want you to notice with me today two things about this first calling of disciples: First, where it happens, and second, what Jesus tells them.

First, notice where Jesus goes. He does not go where you might expect someone recruiting for a new religious movement to go. He does not seek out the schools of religious leadership. He doesn’t look for people who are knowledgeable in the Scriptures–for teachers, lawyers, scribes, religious specialists. He doesn’t go to the places where God is discussed. He goes to the seaside. He finds men who are in the middle of their vocation and minding their own business. 

Now this is not a random choice. Galilee had been the site of an uprising shortly before Jesus was born. The authority of Herod, the king who ruled the land with the support of the Roman Empire, was perhaps not as strong or as popular there as it was further south. And fishermen worked primarily for export, and Rome forced unfavorable prices on them. Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John may have been more open to a radical-sounding message about the kingdom of God than the average person. 

Second, notice what Jesus says. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” 

He does not say, “Follow me and I will save your souls.”

He does not say “Follow me and I will teach you wisdom.”

He does not say “Follow me and I will reveal spiritual truths”

He does not say “Follow me and you will no longer be bad, but good, and you’ll be the person you always wanted to be.”

Lots of other ancient teachers and preachers told their disciples one of those things. They still do. Even Christian preachers. I’ll be honest: it’s easier to offer people a saved soul, or wisdom, or spiritual experiences, or self-improvement. Easier to sell those things than it is to do what Jesus does: to call someone to become a fisher of people.

And that’s where we get to the real heart of the matter for Jesus calling his disciples. He calls them to be who they are–fishermen–but to use their calling and their identity in a new way. Today you go in boats and you cast your nets and you catch fish for the market. Tomorrow you will go by foot and cast the net of your words and your deeds and you will gather people for the kingdom of God. Today you mend nets. Tomorrow you will mend hearts and bodies. Today you scrape and scheme and struggle to have something you can sell. Tomorrow you will scrape and scheme and struggle to have something to give away. You don’t need anything that you don’t already have–except a willingness to go out there and be face to face with new people, face to face with strangers, face to face with all the mess and sickness and sin and obscene wealth and bottomless despair that your fellow humans will show you. Except a willingness to show as much care for those people and their hearts and their bodies as you show for your fish and your nets. Except a willingness to believe that the world does not have to be only what we see in front of us, but that God has much, much more in store for his creation and his people.

I will never be good–I will never be wise, I will never be spiritually enlightened, I will never be a different sort of person, I will never be a “saved” soul–and that’s not bad. There is no one I would rather be than me.  

In the weeks and months to come we will hear again about healings and miracles, but today the miracle we get is this: the four disciples answer this calling. They drop their nets. They step out of their boats. They take themselves, all that they are and nothing else, and they follow Jesus for an adventure. Amen. 

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