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The Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell The Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell

The Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Decatur, GA.

Member of:

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

Representative of:

First Baptist Church Decatur


Our First Calling

Mark 1:16-20

September 07, 2008

Maybe you've noticed that one of the features of Mark's Gospel is that the BIRTH of Jesus is completely left out. No Bethlehem, no shepherds, no Wisemen, no angels. Doesn't say anything about Mary or Joseph--or the baby. By the time Mark picks up the story--Jesus has long--since crawled out of the manger--and is done with his swaddling clothes. He's developed his voice--he's found his legs--and he is loose in the world.

At Christmas we pretty much have Jesus the way we like him best--weak and silent. There's a terrific movie scene that bears this out--and OK--I guess it's time to confess that I paid hard-earned money to see "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby." In this movie Will Ferrell plays the role of Ricky Bobby, the most successful driver on the NASCAR circuit.

But Ricky Bobby has these fatal flaws--he's just morally and ethically bankrupt. The only things that matter to Ricky Bobby are winning races and self-indulgence. But the scene that got my attention--just grabbed me by the lapels--is this moment in the movie when Ricky Bobby prays. In this outrageous juxtaposition of reverence and irreverence, Ricky Bobby prays to the "Lord Baby Jesus." And he refers to "The Lord Baby Jesus" throughout his prayer.

And, finally, people actually interrupt him as he prays to the Lord Baby Jesus--both his wife and his father-in-law--point out to him: "You do realize that the Baby Jesus grows UP!" And Ricky Bobby--irritated by now--says, "Listen, you can pray to any Jesus you want to. You can pray to the teenage Jesus, you can pray to the adult Jesus, I don't care! But in this house we like the baby Jesus and all his magic, baby powers and swaddling clothes."

I don't know for sure, but I have a hunch that the writers of Talladega Nights must have spent some time in church, because they really did get that part right. The Jesus of Bethlehem really is small enough and passive enough to pick up for a little while like a puppy, and then put down again when we're good and ready to get on with our plans. And you know what--that's OK. Because everybody needs a starting place with Jesus.

The thing is, he won't let us keep him that way. So very soon he ditches the manger, breaks loose, and comes after us. And unlike the baby in Bethlehem, he's got a voice now and he uses it. He calls people's names. Mark's gospel just blows right past the whole birth episode; and after just a few words about John the Baptist and Jesus' baptism and temptation, Mark dumps us out on the beach, invites us to watch four fisherman who are just minding their business, literally, when a thoroughly grown-up Christ comes to where they are and crooks his finger and says, "Come on!"

Simon and his brother Andrew are the first pair. Jesus sees them doing their job--you know--throwing their nets...And Mark doesn't tell us any of the details--what they saw in each other, why Jesus picked them, what kind of conversation they might have had, what questions might have been asked, what feelings these fishermen may have felt. Mark just cuts to the chase. Jesus says, "Follow me," and without a word they get up and go.

James and John are next. Farther down the beach they're sitting in a boat with their father mending their nets. And, again, here comes the story in fast forward--Mark doesn't show us anything but the highlights. Jesus comes to them, he sees them, he calls them, they go.

I don't know about you, but sometimes it's hard for me to find a personal connection with these particular stories because they're so condensed. As Mark tells these stories, he doesn't give us any sense of the very real, inner struggle that's involved in making this kind of decision--in discerning your life's purpose. Mark pretty much leaves out the process of deciding, discerning, choosing--all the stuff we'd really like to know.

But maybe Mark leaves out the process because, in the end, the process is not the point. The point is that Jesus finds us, calls us, and the call is to go with him. This is about committing to the person of Jesus Christ. It's not about committing to a doctrinal statement or a program or some denominational tradition--it's about personal commitment to Christ. Jesus never said--"Come, be a Christian" or "Come, embrace this philosophy" or "Come, do this ministry." He said, "Come with me --belong to me--follow me."

I think that when most of us think about the issue of "our calling"--we automatically think of something we're supposed to do or some career God may be asking us to take up. And some of us--let's be honest--get a little chewed up about this, maybe even a little frustrated that we don't have a better sense of what we're supposed to be about. "Lord, why don't you show me what you want me to do? What's my calling? How can I find it?"

But here's the thing: The Bible itself is amazingly unanxious about all of that. For us one calling comes first. Give yourself to the person of Jesus Christ. Know him, follow him, love him, listen for him. And in doing that you and I will find a huge freedom to do what we do best, to do what we love best, but see--that's not the main thing! Our first calling is to belong to Christ.

And isn't that good news? For one thing--if our first calling is to belong to Jesus, this gives us a huge freedom to change along the way--to grow and to become! You read the Bible and it becomes clear that Jesus has no investment in putting anybody in any kind of vocational straight jacket. Who among us doesn't just assume that the shape of our calling--the details of how we're going to lean into our one-and-only life down here--are going to change over the next 10, 20, 40 years? We can never predict how our lives are going to unfold.

I have a friend. He's a man in his late 60's. Rugged, burly, brilliant guy. He's always reminded me a little of the Marlborough Man. He studied at a prestigious university in the East some years ago, and then he moved to Texas to work on his doctorate. But somewhere along the way he became addicted to cocaine--just tumbled into that dark hole. Lost his family, lost his place in graduate school, lost big pieces of himself. But somehow he washed up on the shores of a good church. And when he did, he was so fragile--he looked like he'd been "rode hard and put up wet"--as they say in Texas. But the folks in that church put their arms around that man and slowly he started to heal, and eventually, miraculously, even reunited with his wife and children.

We had this couple in our home for dinner and the man began to talk with Tim and me about where his life was going. "I want to believe," he said, "that my best days aren't behind me, and that my life can still count, can still make a difference for God." He sat at our table with his head in his hands. "I just can't help but feel like I've blown all of my best chances," he said. That's when his wife, who's just this wonderful, middle-aged bohemian Texas flower child kind of woman, reached over and took his hand and said--and I'll never forget this--she said, "Baby, you've got to take your sticky fingers off that steering wheel. If God could yank Jesus out of a grave, I figure he can make something beautiful out of busted parts." And I tell you what --if I live to be a hundred and ten, I don't expect to hear the gospel better articulated than that.

Remembering our first calling--to be with Jesus--gives us a huge freedom to change--and to grow--and even to blow it and find our way back again.

But it's good news for another reason: In those long seasons when our calling doesn't change; and in fact sometimes seems unbearably demanding or dull, remembering our first call--to belong to Christ--will help us become better servants in his name. Can we be honest? Gospel ministry is not for the squeamish! Sometimes it's hard being a Christian because the thing is, you love Jesus but people can make you bug-eyed crazy! There are days when all I want to do is come home from church with a carton of Ben & Jerry's and hide, and some days I do.

But God won't let me stay there. And in those kinds of worn-out, bleary-eyed moments God always reminds me of the day when Jesus was about ready to punch his time card and call it a day. But he looks outside--sees the whole city gathered around his door! And he sighs and he puts his time card back in the slot and reaches down into the empty well of himself and tells his disciples: "Bring them in...this is why I came." When we lean into our first calling, we'll remember that belonging to Jesus and serving in his name means ministry with some tears in it and some sweat in it and even sometimes flecks of our own blood in it.

By the way, there is one constant in the stories from Mark today and it's this: that everyone who answers the call of Christ leaves something behind--did you notice that? Andrew and Simon leave their nets; James and John leave their father. We can't follow Jesus and not be willing to change what's in our hands and what's in our hearts, to leave more and more of the past behind in order to move forward with Christ.

We have some friends from seminary days who, ten years ago, discerned that Christ was calling them to leave their quiet life in a lovely little village in Scotland--and to move their family of five to Luanda, Angola--to come alongside the people there in that country ravaged by war. And so they traded the bleating of sheep on the hillside for the whizzing of bullets over their heads at night. Even their missionary supervisors encouraged them to consider a different field of service, maybe one more appropriate for a family with young children. Some of their circumstances have indeed been harrowing and extremely difficult. But you'd never know it from hearing them speak. "We feel deeply honored," says my friend Scot, "to be called and sent to a place of such desperate need. We know our limitations," he says, "and we're trusting God to use us here in whatever way seems best." Following Jesus always means leaving some things behind in order to go with him.

So I wonder, if Christ is calling you and me today--and he is, because his calling comes fresh every day--what might you and I need to leave behind in order to get up and go? To follow Jesus means to be changed, to move on, to leave some things behind. When Jesus says, "Follow me," and we say, "OK," we never can predict where that's going to lead us. It's all right not to be sure of what it all means and how it'll all work out. All that matters is that Jesus has seen you as you are, has loved you and called you to follow.

That's enough light for today. And as you walk in the light you're given today, you can trust that more will be given tomorrow and the next day and the next.

And so, Lord Jesus, thank you for finding us where we are and loving us so uniquely, for calling us to yourself, and giving us such a towering vocation in this world as your disciples. Please give us strength for the journey and joy to walk in the light you shine on this day. For it's in your name that we pray. Amen.


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