As we move into the heart of the NFL playoffs, people can’t stop talking about Tim Tebow. Even though the Denver Broncos lost last week, the Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Florida has become one of those figures that draws unbelievable media attention. Some of this has to do with his play – his unorthodox throwing motion, his running in a passing league. But even more of it has to do with his personality. He is ridiculously positive, focused and intense, and unapologetic about his faith. Some of it gets a little silly, I think, the kneeling and praying and pointing to the sky when he makes a good play, the John 3:16 written in the eyeblack he wears each week. But whatever else you want to say, he lives it. One of you sent me an article this week that talks about one of his weekly rituals. Every week, as ESPN’s Rick Reilly writes, Tebow picks out someone who is suffering, or who is dying, or who is injured. He flies these people and their families to the Broncos game, rents them a car, puts them up in a nice hotel, buys them dinner, gets them and their families pregame passes, visits with them just before kickoff, gets them 30-yard-line tickets down low, visits with them after the game, has them walk him to his car, and sends them off with a basket of gifts. Home or road, win or lose, hero or goat. Two weeks ago he beat the Steelers in overtime, and after the game he is sitting in the locker room with 16-year-old Bailey Knaub, whose chronic illnesses have led to 73 surgeries and only one lung. Same with Jacob Rainey, a 17 year-old who just had his leg amputated; 9 year old Zac Taylor who lives in constant pain; or 55 year-old Tom Driscoll, who is dying of brain cancer. "Most NFL players hardly talk to teammates before a game," Reilly writes, "much less visit with the sick and dying."1 In a world where so many aspire to be athletes with multi-million dollar contracts, and so many of them end up being so rich and self-consumed, it is an odd thing to see someone who is doing it differently, who is walking a different path.
But walking a different path is an incredibly difficult thing. This week I have been thinking a lot about Zebedee, standing there, as his sons walked away. We know almost nothing about him. All we know is that one morning he was in the boat with his boys and some hired men. Tradition holds that he was a relatively well-off man, but the only reason anyone thinks that is the mention of these hired men. He could have been quite wealthy; he could have been running a small business with a couple of employees.2 Zebedee’s name only comes up a couple of other times, and it is always to identify his sons. James and John, sons of Zebedee, all 4 gospels note.3
I doubt he had even heard much about Jesus. Mark has just introduced John the Baptist who promptly baptizes Him, dove descending, with the voice from heaven calling Him beloved. After forty days in the wilderness, it begins. While His ministry was concentrated in a pretty small area, and people talk how people talk, Zebedee couldn’t have known much. "The time is fulfilled," Mark has Jesus preaching, "and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
Which is a funny thing. When Zebedee was talking about time, most of the time he meant how little he had of it. There was too much to do, places to go, tasks that needed to be checked off the list. Time was a possession, something he owned, something he had control over. But Jesus wasn’t talking about chronos, the time by which we mark our days, but about kairos, about the seasons of creation and of life, some would say God’s time. And that time was here, Jesus said. Something about history was moving into this moment, into this space in which God was both already and about to do something very different. He had heard this before, from other leaders and politicians, others claiming to be that messiah. It was easy to talk about how THIS was the time, THIS was the moment. It had never been so urgent, the leaders said. But folks like Zebedee got where they were by being careful, by thinking through their options, taking their time.
And then it got more complicated. Repent, Jesus said, believe in the good news. He wasn’t quite sure what this good news was, but if it was good news, he didn’t think he’d have much problem believing in it. But this word ‘repent,’ turn around, turn away, clued him in that this was something different. That there would be something he would have to leave behind. Here was the challenge. I don’t know if Zebedee saw this scene unfolding in front of him. I don’t know if he saw Jesus, a little down the shoreline walk up to Simon and Andrew. They were up, foot on the edge of the boat, bracing themselves as they hurled the net overboard. Jesus looked at them and called them to follow. I will make you fish for people. A better translation is ‘I will make you to become fishers for people.’ He was not calling them to a task – something they could schedule, like being at church every week, like serving on a committee, giving a generous gift, as great as those things are. Jesus wasn’t calling them to a new set of tasks. He was calling them to a new way of being, offering them a new identity, that gets at the heart of who we are, in the very depths of our souls.4 Not for fish, for people. Come and be transformed. And immediately, Mark says, immediately, without thinking things through, without a list of likely pretty good excuses, they dropped their nets and followed.
Because as much as it is about walking with this One, it’s about leaving some things behind. In those nets need to stay a lot of the things we value, parts of us we have to question. Where we went to school, what we do for a living, the status and trappings that come with money and connections and neighborhood. Those things we think make us who we are. The ways we want people to think well of us, and say nice things about us even if we aren’t saying nice things about them. Our dreams of who we want to be, of what we hope to do for the world. The excuses we make for settling mediocrity, the excuses we make because we are so busy, we need those things, NEED that money, need the new kitchen. Next time you hear yourself say you NEED something, stop and think if you really do. We need to leave behind our anxieties and fears that we work so hard to keep hidden, because all of us are broken. What might you need to leave behind, what parts of your ego and your pride and your stuff, as Christ calls you to follow?
Because this new life involves things that need to be cleared away, old divisions and strained relationships. Our tendency to put things into black and white, right and wrong, for me or against me, because we know we are right. So we might live into the new possibilities Christ offers, as we create safe spaces for our children and youth to be honored, as we begin to walk on this path that we know leads to a cross, that calls us to suffer, to risk, to act courageously in speaking for justice and advocating for those whom the world leaves behind, as we seek to build a new community that values ALL people. That we might be the kind of church that offers not token but authentic community, that engages scripture with passion, that goes out beyond this place to our fishing boats and our offices and our homes and our classrooms and meets every single person with kindness and compassion and hope, risking something significant to hang out with the sick and the dying. As we, each one of us, wonder if we could do what those disciples did and respond, immediately, in trust and in faith.
I wondered how all of these things gripped his heart as Zebedee saw this Jesus walk up to his own sons. They were at the other end of the boat; he couldn’t hear everything that was said. But Jesus called them. And he saw them get up, brush themselves off. And they turned and looked at their father with such love. And he knew they had to go. He didn’t understand it, tears welling up in his eyes as he saw them walking down the shoreline. And while he surely grieved that day, I wonder if there was another part of him that, quietly, asked a different question. I wonder if his soul whispered – to him and to us – "Could you believe like that?"
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. "Believing in Tim Tebow," by Rick Reilly http://espn.go.com/espn/story/_/id/7455943/believing-tim-tebow Thanks to Debbie Hertzog for sending this article to me.
2. There is a vigorous debate about what we can know about these men, albeit a bit tedious. You can read KC Hanson’s, "The Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition." http://www.kchanson.com/articles/fishing.html I am grateful to the Rev. Dr. Anna Pinkney Straight, who serves the University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, NC, for this reference in her paper on this text at the 2011 gathering of The Well in Austin, Texas.
3. Matthew 4:21; 10:2; 20:20; 26:37; 27:56. Mark 1:19-20; 3:17; 10:35. Luke 5:10. John 21:2.
4. This note comes from Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008), year B, Volume 1, p 289, Homiletical Perspective.