John Mellencamp came to Indiana University one day to speak at the graduation ceremony. Someone on the faculty had thought he would be an intriguing change from the usual list of graduation speakers – business leaders, politicians, social activists. Plus, Mellencamp had given the university huge donations from the wealth he had amassed as a rock-and-roll star, which is a quality universities always admire.
It was a warm spring day at IU’s Memorial Stadium. The sun beat down on the graduates and their families in the stands. Down on the field, the stage had been erected. All the university officials were there in their stately black robes.
When Mellencamp was introduced, he strode to the podium. His stately black robe was unbutton down the front, so the audience could plainly see his T-shirt and blue jeans beneath. He took his place behind the podium, but then stepped around and in front of it. He leaned slightly forward and spat a wad of gum out of his mouth and onto the green grass of the football stadium.
I was sitting in the parents’ and family section of the audience that day because Lisa was getting her master’s diploma.
When Mellencamp’s gum hit the stadium turf, there were audible gasps from parents. The president of the university looked nervous. But Mellencamp took his place behind the podium as if nothing strange at all had happened and began his talk with the new graduates.
The rock star told the young men and women that they would feel pressure to run out and get good jobs now. People would say it was time to get serious.
In the parents’ section, jaws clinched. They could see where he was going.
Mellencamp said the students should not buckle under to that pressure. Don’t rush out into a career. Figure out who you are and what you want first.
And a father who had spent thousands of dollars getting his child to this day could be heard cursing Mellencamp through gritted teeth.
Whatever that father was thinking that day, I bet Zebedee understood that feeling.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not equating Jesus with John Mellencamp. For many, many reasons that is a bad comparison. But I bet those two fathers – the one at IU and the one on the shore of Galilee felt similar emotions.
Zebedee was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee. He was one of 200 or so men who set out on the waters with nets to catch the fish that fed his family and supplied their needs. It was unrelenting and hard work. A man was fortunate if he had sons who could help him tend the heavy nets.
James and John were Zebedee’s sons. Like their friends Simon and Andrew, they knew what the future held. As long as there were fish in the fresh waters of Galilee, sons of Israel would be there to catch them.
Then Jesus came along.
This man comes, this wandering rabbi, and he calls to these young men – these boys – “Follow me.” And they drop their nets and run off. They abandon their families. Even worse, they give up a promise of a hard but reliable way of life.
Outrageous. Irresponsible. Insane. And I imagine Zebedee had even harder words than that to say.
And so would we, wouldn’t we? Even those of us too Christian to utter a curse would raise an eyebrow and cluck knowingly if we saw that happen.
“Did you hear what happened to Zebedee?”
“Oh yes, poor man. Thank the Lord my boys have more sense than that.”
Especially these days, yes?
At my other job at the Kelley School of Business at IU, we were told this week that the number of companies coming to IU to recruit and hire our graduates is down 50% from last year.
All over the country, there is news of layoffs and closings. People are losing jobs or losing money. This week on the TV, my wife and I heard a new word – “Econo-side.” This is the word for people who commit suicide because they have lost so much money in the economic collapse.
Surely, in times such as these, what we need is good sense – not fuzzy headed idealism or chasing off after Jesus.
Well, this is where it is important to distinguish between Mellencamp and the Messiah.
In our culture, we are told there are only two options. Either we grow up and get serious and start living in accord with the hard truth of the market and “the real world,” or we run off and “do our own thing.” You hear this contrast all the time.
But Jesus takes sides with neither of these views.
He does not say, “do your own thing.” He says, “follow me.” When we are baptized – when we join the church – we sign up to be a part of a movement that is based on the idea that there is something much more interesting in the world than ourselves.
And the hard-headed, common-sense, living-in-the-real-world people agree. They say the way to make it in the world is to do what it takes to get ahead and get by. Sometimes that means swallowing hard and doing things you might not want to do. We face facts.
And one fact we have to face is that all this nice Jesus-talk that goes on in places like this on Sunday morning might be good for helping us sleep at night, but it does not put food on the table. In the words of Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, religion is not a very efficient use of time.
Of course, such men say, it is okay to be religious. It is even a good thing. Just don’t go mixing up your faith with the problems of “the real world.” Your faith is a private thing. Keep it to yourself. And show up for work on time.
Some pretty rich men believe such things. One famous executive named Ken Lay gave an interview in 2001 about his childhood growing up the son of a Baptist preacher. His father had spent his life preaching in small, country churches just like this one. Ken Lay said faith had guided him throughout his life, and he was pretty sure God had helped him through some of his major life decisions. He was now the CEO of one of the largest, fastest-growing, and most respected companies in the United States. The company was called Enron.
It wasn’t but a few months after he gave that interview that Ken Lay – whose private faith apparently had little to do with his life in business – watched as his company collapsed. It had been built on fake deals and clever accounting tricks. The entire company was nothing but an illusion. Like an over-filled balloon, it finally popped, taking the jobs and savings of thousands of rank-and-file employees with it. Ken Lay died a few months before being sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison for his lies.
Against the advice of artists like Mellencamp and businessmen like Bill Gates and Ken Lay, Jesus offers a different message.
“Follow me,” he says.
In the face of voices that tell us we are not being true to ourselves if we do not run off and “do our own thing,” Jesus says, “Follow me.”
In response to the hard-headed realist who says you sometimes have to look the other way when you are in the real world, Jesus says, “Follow me.”
In the midst of economic collapse and moral confusion, Jesus says, “Follow me.”
We are Christians. That is what we do. We follow Jesus.
But it is hard to do, we say.
Whoever told us being a Christian would be easy? Have we read the Sermon on the Mount? Do we know about Good Friday?
But the disciples, they had Jesus with them. If they got hungry, he could make bread and fish. If they got sick, he could heal them. Of course they could follow him in all things. He was right there.
Yes. Exactly. Here is the hardest part of all.
During his life on Earth, the disciples had Jesus. After his death and resurrection, he called together the church. What are those words we use? We are “the body of Christ.” The church is the gathered body of Christ. The church is supposed to help us do those things that Jesus was there to help the disciples do.
Not that the church in recent decades has been very good at that. The church has been long on wagging a moralistic finger at people and telling them they were bad. It has been not so good at loaves and fishes and healing and clothing and caring for people.
Imagine a member of our church tomorrow faced a problem at work or with a business partner. His choice was to do something he knew to be wrong – something that Jesus would not want him to do – or lose a lot of money, maybe even his ability to provide for his family.
What choice would he make?
Well, there are some rare individuals who would do the right thing no matter what, even if it meant a child going hungry. But many of us might struggle in that spot.
We might struggle because we are ashamed to admit we need help. We might struggle because we fear we could not get help. We might struggle because we would feel awkward standing up to someone who wants us to do wrong.
That is why Jesus calls together the church.
The church is the body of Christ in the world. It is the place where we find the strength to follow Jesus. It is the place where we find the support we need when the fishing nets come up empty. It is the place where God turns average folks into his hands and feet and voice on the Earth.
What would it take for us to be that kind of church?
What would it take for the United Methodist Church to be that kind of church?
What would it take for Christians everywhere to act like and be the kind of people who show the world that when Jesus comes along and asks you to follow him, it is not some crazy idea. What would it take for the world to see in us a people who make them want to hear that voice and ready to follow it?
What would it take for us to be the people who Jesus calls us to be?
I do not fully know he answer to these questions.
But I know how the answer starts.
It starts with a single step. One foot and then the other. Let us follow. Jesus has called us all.