Oh, The Places You Will Go
The scripture lesson today is from the first chapter of the gospel according to Mark. As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen, and Jesus said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people," and immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther he saw James, son of Zebedee, and his brother John who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
Let me set another scene. Moses is dead after forty years of wandering in the wilderness. The people of Israel have arrived at a river. On the other side they can see their destination—the Promised Land. The account is in the first chapter of the book of Joshua. After the death of Moses, the servant of the Lord, the Lord spoke to Joshua, son of Nun, Moses' assistant, saying, "My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people into the land that I am giving to them, the Israelites. No one shall be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not fail you or forsake you."
You may not identify with much in the Bible. You may not ever have seen a burning bush. The voice of God may never have spoken directly to you. You may never have seen anyone walk on water. However, there's not one of us who cannot identify with those people gathered on the banks of the Jordan River, all their belongings, all their traditions, all their history behind them, peering through the morning mist into the future, the Promised Land. How are they feeling that morning, forty years of nomadic wandering about to come to an end? Four decades of a routine they had long ago accommodated about to confront a radically new future. My guess is that they are anxious, scared. They feel like going back, and if that isn't possible, they're seriously considering going no farther. They're talking about stopping right there on the verge of Jordan, as the old hymn puts it, which is to say, they're feeling a lot like you and I feel much of the time. Who can't identify with them?
Personal change, movement is a life reality. One of five of us makes an actual move every year, and if we're not moving locations, we're moving from one job to the next or trying to or planning to or hoping and wishing that we could. Some of us are thinking of making a move relationally, planning to move from autonomy to intimacy, from independence to inter-dependence. Some of us are contemplating total commitment—marriage. Ministers know why brides sometimes weep and grooms faint. It's not only love and nervousness. This is a frightening move. Who knows these days how it will turn out? Or to put it more correctly, how can you tell if the person you will become in ten years will still love the person he or she is in the process of becoming. Some of us know the anxiety and fear which results from one of the biggest life moves of all—aging and retirement. It's a defining moment, I think, when out of the blue you receive notification that you are eligible for membership in AARP, and for the first time, perhaps, you find yourself thinking the unthinkable, namely that there is a day ahead when you need to find something to do other than the job which has been your life for all these years. That change comes after about the same number of years Israel wandered in the wilderness before ending up on the banks of the Jordan peering through the morning mist into the Promised Land and shivering, not only because it was chilly that day (who doesn't know about that experience?).
My proposal today is that the life of faithfulness is a journey, a moving from place to place. The story of faith in the Bible is not an account of people sitting down and figuring out what they believe. It is a story of people moving on a journey, a pilgrimage. It begins when an elderly couple, Abraham and Sarah, hear God's promise and God's call, and in their old age do something very unlikely—they pick up and move, and the story continues when the descendants of Abraham and Sarah urged and pushed and prodded by Moses finally pack up and move out of Egypt and travel through the desert for forty years. Of course, there is the chapter of this story to which we have our closest affinity which begins when a man walks by a group of fishermen mending their nets and says, "Come, follow me."
It often seems that moving, travelling, getting up and going somewhere is what faithfulness means in the Bible, and it is always an experience of exhilaration and energy, ultimately, but first, it is an experience of anxiety and fear and reluctance. In fact, sometimes it seems that the opposite of faith in the Bible is not sin or unbelief, but the simple refusal to get up and move.
The title of this sermon comes from a distinguished man of letters, a commentator on modern life, the late Dr. Seuss. As you know, Dr. Seuss wrote wonderful children's books which I think somehow managed to become wonderful adult books. Oh, The Places You Will Go is a book for graduates or for anyone about to move into a new future. I found in this book a word for those people peering through the mist of the river into the Promised Land and even God's personal word for each of us—"Congratulations, today's your day. You're off to great places. You're off and away. You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own, and you know what you know, and you are the guy who'll decide where to go."
There are some risks. Dr. Seuss warns that the going will not always be smooth or easy. "I'm sorry to say so, but sadly it's true that bangups and hangups can happen to you. You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted but mostly they're dark. A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin. Do you stay out? Do you dare go in?"
Sometimes it seems that the opposite of faith in the Bible is not sin or heresy but the refusal to get up and move. Alvin Toffler's important book, Future Shock, taught us that in a time of rapid social change when everything is moving and nothing is pinned down you and I are inclined to create for ourselves what Toffler called personal security zones, that is areas of life that are stable, unchanging, often nostalgically based on the past.
Regardless of the fact that faith in the Bible is described as a journey, a moving from here to there, we want stability. Give me that old time religion. If it was good enough for Moses, it's good enough for me. We don't want to follow Jesus into a new future.
Martin Marty in a now famous quip once said that the last seven words of the institutional church will be, "we never did it that way before."
The story is told of a little girl watching her mother prepare to bake a ham. At the end of the process just before placing the ham in the baking ham, she cut a small section off each end. "Why do you do that, Mommy?" the little girl asked. "Why do you cut the ends off the ham?" Her mother answered, "That's how my mother did it, let's ask her." So they called on the grandmother and asked why she cut the ends off the ham, and she responded, "Why, I'm not sure I know. Let's ask my mother why she did it." So off they went to see great-grandmother, and they asked her why she cut the ends off the ham before baking it. The old woman, now in her nineties, thought for a long time and finally said, "I remember now. I cut the ends off the ham because my baking pan was too small."
One day at the beginning of the story Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee. He saw two men casting their nets. Their names were Simon and Andrew. He said to them, "Follow me." And that's what they did. Laid down their nets and followed. He saw two more, James and John, mending their gear with their father sitting in their fishing boat. He said, "Follow me." And that's what they did. We wish there were more to it than that. We wish we knew about them and their lives and what made them so ready to move, so willing to accept the risks and uncertainties and insecurities implied in walking away from their jobs and families and tradition into an unknown future. We wish we knew that they knew him and had reason for confidence in him, knew where he was leading them, but we don't know that. The account startles me every time I read it with its leanness, invitation, command, response. I have concluded that this is what the Bible wants to say. And that this is a word from the Lord to me, to all of us and each of us.
Douglas John Hall, a Canadian theologian, who has thought and written about what it means to live your life faithfully, teaches that it begins with a summons to follow and continues in a life which is moving always more deeply into the life of the world, a journey that can end up at the cross, a pilgrimage characterized by living for others, by loving the world for Christ's sake, by giving one's resources and skills and passion and love and life itself for the cause of Christ. It's not easy. It's not easy to do that, particularly in this time and place.
In the Culture Of Disbelief the book everybody is talking about, the author Yale Professor Steven Carter contends that we are not an atheistic culture so much as an indifferent culture when it comes to religion. We can tolerate a bit of religion, in fact, a little religion is good, a necessary political asset, part of the personal appeal package so long as it's not taken too seriously.
William Buckley said if you mentioned God once at a New York dinner party you are met with stony silence. Mention God twice, and you don't get invited to any more dinner parties. Steven Carter says American culture regards acceptable religion as a kind of personal hobby like stamp collecting or model trains. And so for you and me the call can be a radical summons to be different, to act differently, to march to a different drummer, to travel in a new and different direction, to live for others, to give life away, to put on the line my energy, my time, my resources and love for my neighbors, the children, the future, for my Lord.
Jesus called his disciples to get up from what they were doing and to follow him. He promised them new life. He said that they would actually find their lives when they got up from what they were doing and moved into a new future, characterized by giving life away. That is our secret. The promise is adventure, surprise, challenge, and through it all, life.
Dr. Seuss said, "Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you. And when things start to happen, don't worry, don't stew, just go right along. You'll start happening, too." Oh, the places you will go.
Like Dr. Seuss, the poet W. H. Oden thought about the journey and wrote what I think are among the most beautifully haunting lines. "He is the way. Follow him through the land of unlikeness. You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures. He is the truth. Seek him in the kingdom of anxiety. You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years. He is the life. Love him in the world of the flesh and at your marriage, all its occasions shall dance with joy." Jesus said, "Come. Follow me."
John M. Buchanan Protestant Hour