Hooked on Jesus? Again?

A Sermon on Mark 1:14-20

Are you hooked on Jesus?

That's the question that came to me when I looked at this text last month with Pastor Bob and our other downtown senior pastor friends, who are also pulpit-swapping today. Our familiar story about Jesus, which, thankfully, we no longer, in our translations, limit only to men—"I will make you fish for people"—along with that "big fish" story of Jonah, invite us today to consider God's call . . . and our response. You may think a "call" to follow Jesus is limited to clergy. But that kind of thinking gets you "off the hook." (!!) Anyone can get hooked by Jesus. And when we are hooked by Jesus, it's only a matter of time before we are invited to be hooked ON Jesus. Being hooked on Jesus means, among other things, making an adult commitment to the Christian faith. It also means letting ourselves fall in love with God enough to embrace the hook Jesus has in us, even though being hooked can be painful.

When I was in my early thirties, I worked for a company in a suburb of Chicago. A consultant was brought in to do vocational testing with the company's officers and managers. During my debriefing, the consultant looked at my MMPI and other standardized tests we had taken and said, "What are you doing here?" So I enrolled in an MBA program at night. After a year, I was clear that business school wasn't what I was after, either. But I finally knew that I was after something. Actually, something—rather, Someone—was after me. His name was Jesus. He had hooked me when I was a child. And a teenager. And a young father. And here he was, trying to hook me . . . again!

At that time I was getting more active in a local Episcopal church, settling into the life of that congregation. Oh, how I loved being a part of ministry! During one particularly interesting week, three different people, in three separate conversations, each asked me, "Have you ever thought about going to seminary?" After the third person, whom I barely knew, asked me that question, I gave in. I was hooked again, in a new way. Actually, I think Jesus had me hooked all along. I just didn't know it. Sometimes I forget just how hooked on Jesus I am. And how hooked Jesus still wants me to be.

Now, you might not be comfortable with the language I'm using. Maybe it's not helpful to you. Maybe you don't feel like you have a close relationship with Jesus, close enough to be hooked. Maybe you don't feel like you have a relationship with Jesus at all. Or with God, for that matter. Maybe your mother or someone else dragged you to church this morning, and you didn't even get to hear a sermon from a Lutheran! Or maybe all this "Jesus language" is just a bit too much for you.

If so, here's one more part of my story that might be helpful to you today. When I was on the fence about seminary—Should I go? Is this the right thing to do?—I had a conversation with my parish priest. I had it, because I chose to. I was ready to talk with him. He was someone whom I trusted would give me good advice and tell me the truth. He was, in fact, my first spiritual guide as an adult. Today I'm grateful for all those friends and guides and companions who have joined me for part of my spiritual journey over the past thirty-or-so years. Pierce was the first. One Sunday afternoon, after those three people had spoken to me, I said to him, "I'm thinking about going to seminary. What do you think about that?" And Pierce said, "Well, if you want to change your life, JUST DO IT!"

In today's Gospel passage, as Mark tells it, Jesus arrives in Galilee, having just spent forty days in the wilderness, getting clear about what to do with his life. He has some Good News and some challenging news. The Good News is that God's reign, God's kingdom is near. The tougher news is that, in order to believe and receive that Good News, we have to repent. We have to change our lives.

What does changing our lives look like? Does it mean we have to give things up, not just for Lent, but forever? Does it mean you have to go to seminary? Perhaps. But probably not. What changing our lives does mean, I believe, is, first, to take a long, loving look at just what we are doing with our lives. Parker Palmer's little book, Let Your Life Speak, begins with a poem by William Stafford, called "Ask Me," in which the poet says, Some time when the river is ice, ask me / mistakes I have made. Ask me whether / what I have done is my life. . . .

As Parker Palmer reflects on that line—"Ask me whether what I have done is my life"—he ruminates that, to some readers, it will be a nonsense question. "'Of course what I have done is my life! What else would it be?' But for others, and I am one," Parker writes, "the poet's words will be . . . piercing, and disquieting. They remind me of moments," he says, "when it is clear—if I have eyes to see—that the life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me. In those moments I sometimes catch a glimpse of my true life, a life hidden like the river beneath the ice. And in the spirit of the poet I wonder: What am I meant to do? Who am I meant to be?" (p. 2, preacher's emphases).

Perhaps, before we ask the question, Do I need to change my life? We need to ask, Is the life I am living the same as the life that wants to live in me? Perhaps, this is a question you have already asked yourself: Is the life I am living the same as the life that wants to live in me? Do you or I have a clear sense of meaning and purpose? Do all the pieces of our lives fit together to form a coherent whole? When we catch of glimpse of real, true life, what do we see?

The unexamined life, Socrates said, is not worth living. Today, I want to challenge you to an examination: a SELF-examination. Today, I invite you to join me in what my wife calls "the work before the work." Today, thirty days before Ash Wednesday, let's do some spiritual work in this, the church's season of Epiphany, before the spiritual work of the season of Lent. Before the official work of self-examination and repentance, let's do some unofficial self-examination. Let's start today, before we try to do the work of repentance tomorrow. Let's look at our lives before we try to change them.

I have learned, often the hard way, that to change my life, to repent, means I must turn around and take a fresh look at the life I have. Again. The other religious word that means literally to "turn around" is to con-vert. To change our lives for the good is to keep our minds and hearts open; to keep taking a fresh look; and then, to let ourselves be converted one more time, for goodness sake.

Truthfully, I cannot tell you what that will look like for you. I can't honestly tell you what part of your life—or your heart or head—needs to be examined. I can't say what part of your life needs to be changed today. But God, working through the people who love you—your family, your friends, your church—God in Christ Jesus can show you the way. Following Jesus means listening to what he teaches, learning how to use his teachings and, then, living them out with love, in our daily lives. Just like us, Jesus needed to stop and look at his life in that desert, for forty days and nights, before he began his ministry. Throughout his life, Jesus stopped and withdrew from the crowds, making time to rest, to reflect, to pray and to re-examine his life, before living the life that wanted to live in him.

Here's one more story about my own experience of self-examination and repentance, of looking at my life, deciding to change it and trying, imperfectly, to stay hooked on Jesus. It has to do with my journey with people whose sexual orientation is different from mine. This story began when I was the editor of my seminary's newsletter. One evening, someone submitted an article and an announcement about a meeting for gay and lesbian seminarians. It would be the first time for a notice of this kind to be publicly announced. The article had been slipped under my apartment door several hours after the deadline for that week's issue. Frankly, my initial thought was, "I'm sorry, but your article is too late."

General Theological Seminary is located in a New York City neighborhood with an especially large gay and lesbian population. Real, authentic ministry in that local community automatically means caring for LGBT people. But at the time, I just didn't understand that. All I knew was that I didn't want to run that article, and I didn't know why. I wasn't yet willing to look at my own life to see what was going on. I did, however, have a friend who was willing to help me with some self-examination, before I might dare try to change my life around this issue. So I called my trusted friend, now a professor at another Episcopal seminary, and I asked him to come to my apartment and take a look at the article. He did, and he said, "I don't have a problem with this. What's YOUR problem?"

Nearly thirty years later, I can tell you that, in congregations in Pennsylvania and Kansas where I served as rector, or senior pastor, the gay and lesbian members of each of those churches came to me and said, "We want to form a chapter of Integrity, a ministry of support, and we'd like you to accompany us when we talk to the Bishop about it." With some fear, I did that, and both chapters were formed. I also presided over dialogues on human sexuality, recommended by the Episcopal Church's General Conventions in 1991 and 1997, in each congregation. What I learned, slowly, in those two faith communities—what I am still learning—is that, while people's minds and opinions might not change, their hearts can often be transformed. People can begin to feel safe enough to tell their stories and to talk about the deeper issues and experiences of life, things we often hold in common. Men and women who would not speak to each other, before those dialogues began, ended up embracing and weeping when we finished our sacred conversations. That is what happens when we share sacred space and allow ourselves to journey spiritually with others. That is what happens when we get hooked on Jesus.

Sisters and brothers in Christ here at Evangelical Lutheran Church, I believe that when we are willing to look at our own lives and see what God might be saying to us about changing the way we live, Good News happens. When we let our lives speak, God's kingdom—God's KIN-dom of all God's children, all of us kinfolk—God's reign of love, mercy, justice and forgiveness can and will happen. Then, maybe, just maybe, Jesus will hook us, for the first time or for the hundred-and-first.

Because before we go and start fishing for people, as Jesus told those first disciples to do—before we might possibly hook others for Christ, we, first, must get "hooked." Christians must be hooked on Jesus and then stay hooked on Jesus. Again. And again.

In the name of Jesus—who is God, here, with us, waiting again this morning to hook us all.


—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
guest preacher at Evangelical Lutheran Church
January 22, 2012