Sitting in the wrong seat

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Third Sunday in Epiphany, January 21, 2018

Jonah 3.1-5,10; Psalm 62.5-12; 1 Cor. 7.29-31; Mark 1.14-20

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson


Grace and peace to you from the One who calls us to follow him, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

How many of you have seen the bumper sticker: “Jesus is my co-pilot”?

This message communicates Jesus coming alongside a person for the ride that is their life. Now you might be thinking, “I like the thought of Jesus riding shotgun with me. We can go places and do stuff together.” It’s nice. The first time I saw this bumper sticker while in college I thought, “Wherever I go or whatever I do, Jesus is with me. Great.”

I really liked thinking of Jesus as my co-pilot until I saw a bumper sticker that said this: “If Jesus is your co-pilot, then you’re sitting in the wrong seat.” Ahhhh … whoops.

This message is much closer to the truth of what it means to be in relationship with Jesus. If Simon, Andrew, James, and John were in a car instead of a boat when Jesus first called them along the Sea of Galilee, I think what Jesus would have said instead of “Follow me,” is: “Move over, I’m driving.”

Jesus’ invitation to follow him invites us to have him lead us, to point us where to go, and maybe even bring us to where we would have never gone. If I’m in the drivers seat, it’s about me. If Jesus is in the driver’s seat, then it’s not about me. It’s about other people, and good news, and the Kingdom of God.

Throughout this next year as we read the Gospel of Mark, we will discover, with Simon, Andrew, James, and John what following Jesus means. Jesus is constantly taking his disciples to “the other side,” to places they would have never gone, and didn’t even want to go. When they dropped their nets and left their father, to answer Jesus’ call to follow him, they gave up being in the driver’s seat.

Some of us bristle at letting someone else take the wheel, even if it’s God, because we want to be in control. I have this cozy pajama shirt that says one word: “Surrender.” The first time I wore it my husband Jon said, “I don’t think that’s a very fitting shirt for you. Surrender … pa, to who?!”

A bit offended, I said, “To God!”

“Yeah … alright,” he replied.

“I try,” I insisted … “most days.”

It can be hard to surrender control and to follow because that means that we might not always know where we are headed. But let’s be honest, how often do we really know what’s ahead? How often do we have our own plan for our lives and something happens and we discover that the plan God has for us is a much better one anyway?

The illusion of being in the driver’s seat and having control is all well and good … until it isn’t.

Let me give you an example to explain what I mean by this. This is also a story about trust and following, and about companionship and risk.

A couple weeks ago I was at text study with a group of pastors and Pastor Lisa Alhness told us about a time she almost died (Thank you to Lisa for sharing her written story with me).

She studied in Germany for one year while she was in seminary. That summer she traveled with four seminary friends through Hungary, what was then Czechoslovakia, into Rumania. On their trek they went hiking in the mountains called the Transylvanian Alps. They are called that because they are very high and rocky.

The hiking was physically very challenging. They depended on the mountain huts along their way for shelter and rest. These huts were generally just a little metal hut, but a fire could be built inside for warmth. Each hut was about 8-9 hours apart by hiking.

One day the weather changed for the worst just as they came above the treeline. It became very windy and started to rain and then snow. They picked their way over a terribly treacherous, narrow, rocky ridge at the very peaks of this range, all while carrying 50 lb backpacks.

Lisa said: “Imagine about a foot wide, nothing to hold on to, sheer drops down the mountain on either side. I am a prairie person. It was simply terrifying!”

They were, of course, quite chilled, and needing to make it to shelter. They were all getting hypothermic, but Ulf and Lisa were the sickest. As they made it off the ridge there was a rocky plain, very high, covered with small and large rocks. She told us it looked exactly like how she would imagine the surface of the moon.

Then suddenly fog rolled in so dense they couldn’t see a thing. She was bringing up the rear with Ulf, and they were horrified when they realized they couldn’t see any of the others anymore. They were surrounded by fog, very high up, needing to find shelter, shaking and ill with hypothermia. They were afraid.

Suddenly, their friend, Michael, was ahead of them. Though they couldn’t hear him speak through the elements and the fog, they dimly saw him point. Right next to him they saw a small pile of rocks. In the mountains, these small piles of rocks are called Karins. They help you to know you are going in the right direction.

Michael stood next to the karin and pointed, then vanished into the fog. Ulf and Lisa reached the small pile of rocks and looked in the direction Michael had pointed. Almost out of sight in the fog but where they could just make them out…. Another pile of rocks. When they arrived at that one…. Another.

It was all they could see, but those piles of rock guided them over the rocky plain to a primitive shelter. Ulf and Lisa were barely able to put one foot in front of the other. They would not have survived without reaching the shelter, and they never would have found the shelter without following their friend, Michael, and the simple little piles of rocks pointing the way.

This story is a good example of how there are times in our lives when we recognize that we need to follow someone who knows the right way for us. We need this all the time, but when we are vulnerable, or at the end of our rope, or scared, we look for that pile of rocks or the person who points the way. We don’t always know where we are going, but we know Jesus, the One who calls us to discipleship and leads us to where we need to go.

I think it’s true that the disciples would have had a perfectly good life staying on the Sea of Galilee. They would have fished, and had families, and fed people. These are all very fine things.

But, that was not in the cards for them. Jesus called them to follow and to continue to fish, but to fish for people instead. In Jesus’ day, fishing was done with nets, not poles. Fishermen would drop their nets in the water and gather up the fish in the nets. So Jesus invited those he called to gather people into God’s wide embrace.

This week Jon said to me, “Don’t you think the disciples woke up some mornings thinking ‘What am I doing following this guy? I should go back to fishing for fish.’”

But they didn’t and they couldn’t because by following Jesus, they were transformed. Their life was changed. The disciples’ lives were full of times of incredible confessions of faith and also denial; of great joy and great fear, of healing and witnessing miracles and at the same time, death. But we know the end of the story, and the end of the story is life.

We can expect all of this when we follow Jesus, when we sit shotgun and hold on for the ride. A life of faith can be treacherous, like the risk and scariness of Pastor Lisa’s experience in the mountains. A life of faith can be spontaneous and gracious, like the disciples dropping their nets and being compelled by the one in whom they live, and move, and have their being.

Jesus calls each of us here to follow him. We let go of the wheel, we drop the nets, and say, “Lord, lead me.”

In following we discover a life and purpose that is greater than our own. We are drawn together with others along the way who are stumbling along the rocks, sometimes in the fog, trying their best to follow. Just look around this chapel. We get to follow the Great Shepherd together.

And what does it mean to follow Jesus today in our time? I think it may look slightly different for each of us, but a good guide for us together is the five baptismal promises in our rite of confirmation. As followers of Jesus we are:

To strive for justice and peace throughout the earth.

To serve all people following the example of Jesus.

To live among God’s faithful people.

To hear the Word of God and share in the Lord’s supper.

To proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed.

No big deal, right? Perhaps our prayer each morning should be: “I don’t always know how to follow, but Jesus, you know me, and you know the way. Please lead me.”