Uncommon Courage

Uncommon Courage

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 24, 2021

3rd Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 1:14-20


After John’s arrest, Jesus begins fishing for disciples. Surprisingly, they follow him, without question. To be honest, I am befuddled by this text. No doubt, the disciples’ immediate decision to leave their nets is inspiring. But it is also puzzling. I mean, can you imagine leaving behind your family, your home, your business—to follow some itinerate preacher—just like that—at the drop of a hat? Surely a decision to walk away from all that is familiar, to venture into the unknown, would take some thought, some prayer, some mulling over.


If we look to these four disciples as models for faithful discipleship, we might see ourselves coming up short. Is there even one of us who has left everything to follow Jesus? If not, does that mean we are less faithful than Andrew, Peter, James, and John?  It might help us to remember that some of Jesus’ disciples were first disciples of John the Baptist, so they knew something about the one John called the Lamb of God. It might also be helpful to recognize that even though they seem eager to follow Jesus, that does not mean they have it all figured out. They will fail him again and again. Nevertheless, with all the courage they can muster, they take that first step.


Cheryl Strayed wrote a memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.  It is the story of her hiking 1500 miles in the hopes of redeeming her life from the self-destructive course she had been on for several years—since the sudden death of her beloved mother when she was only 20 years old. In the book, Cheryl tells of her commitment to the journey as a journey in and of itself.


There was the first, flip decision to do it, followed by the second, more serious decision to actually do it, and then the long third beginning, composed of weeks of shopping and packing and preparing to do it. There was the quitting my job as a waitress and finalizing my divorce and selling almost everything I owned and saying goodbye to my friends and visiting my mother’s grave one last time. There was the driving across the country from Minneapolis to Portland, Oregon, and a few days later, catching a flight to Los Angeles and a ride to the town of Mojave and another ride to the place where the Trail crossed a highway. At which point, at long last, there was the actual doing it, followed by the grim realization of what it meant to do it, followed by the decision to quit doing it because doing it was absurd and pointless and ridiculously difficult and far more than I expected it to be…And then there was truly doing it.


The disciples make a choice to put one foot in front of the other to follow Jesus. They commit to truly following him, but do they really know where he will lead them? What will be required of them?


Joan Chittister, scholar, social activist, and best-selling author published The Time is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage in 2019. In her book and in an interview with Oprah Winfrey about the crises we now face as a nation and as the church, Chittister says the time is now for each one of us to ask ourselves this question: What am I going to do about it? As I watched the video and later read the book, her words resonated with me because I have been asking myself similar questions as of late: Holy God, what is mine to do? What is mine to say?


Part of the challenge before us, notes Chittister, is that part of the Jesus story has been lost to us. In her words:


We’ve lost half the dimension of Christian spirituality. We see ourselves as very Christian…most of the nation identifies themselves as such. But who is the Jesus we like to follow? We love to follow Jesus the healer—makes us feel good. Jesus was good to women, raised little kids from the dead, fed whole hungry crowds—that’s who I am. We want to follow that Jesus—Jesus the healer. But that’s only half of the Christian [story]. If you turn Jesus the healer over, what you find is Jesus the prophet. This is the Jesus who contended, contested, confronted, and challenged those who were making it necessary to feed the hungry, to raise from the dead… Jesus spoke for [those who could not speak for themselves].


I confess, I am much more comfortable with Jesus the healer. But if I care about being a faithful witness of God’s love through Christ Jesus, I must continue to ask: What is mine to do? What is mine to say? Is it possible that I have a moral responsibility to do more to make the world a better place for my children, and my children’s children? If I really care about equality, safety, security, and compassion for all, must I be open to the call of Jesus the prophet? And if so, what might that look like?


Chittister goes on to explain:


The prophet is the person who says no to everything that is not of God. No to the abuse of women. No to the rejection of the stranger. No to crimes against immigrants. No to the [plunder] of the trees. No to the pollution of the skies. No to the poisoning of the oceans. No to the despicable destruction of humankind for the sake of more wealth, more power, more control for the few. No to death. The prophet is one who speaks the truth to a culture of lies.


As I sit with these words and imagine Jesus’ prophetic nature, no wonder I prefer Jesus the healer. Saying no to the power structures of Jesus’ day or to the power structures of our day—takes uncommon courage. On second thought, now might be a good time to stop asking what is mine to do or what is mine to say. Maybe I am comfortable with things the way they are. Maybe the status quo works in my favor, too.


Chittister continues, “And while saying no, the prophet also says yes. Yes to equal rights for all. Yes to alleviating suffering. Yes to embracing the different. Yes to who God made you. Yes to life.”


When the disciples say yes to following Jesus, where do they think it will lead them? Do they imagine an end to the reign of the Roman empire? Do they imagine life is about to get easier? How do they feel when Jesus touches the leper; welcomes the stranger; converses with the Samaritan; elevates the status of women and children? Are they challenged in their own perceptions of who is in and who is out? How do they see their own role in bringing about change?


We are living in tumultuous times—as a nation and as the church, but there is hope for us. The Spirit has equipped us for the work ahead. Historian and filmmaker Ken Burns stated in a recent interview on NPR that he believes the U.S. has had three great crises—the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II. But we are now in the midst of a fourth great crisis, beset by three viruses—a year-long struggle with Covid-19, plus a 402-year-old virus of racial injustice, plus an age-old human virus of misinformation, paranoia, and conspiracies. But, he says, we have an opportunity to re-set, to appeal to our better angels. We will get through this tragedy if we work toward love and a sense of community.


Love and a sense of community—perhaps those are reasons that the disciples said yes. Yes to love. Yes to community. In the end, that is what Jesus is all about. But the question remains: What are we going to do about it?


*Cover Art “Be Fire!” by Ira Thomas from Catholic World Art, used by permission.