Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23
Whenever I was a child and we would learn about this passage in Sunday School, it always seemed to be taught the same way. We would hear the story of Jesus on the beach, him calling out to these people who were fishing, and them dropping their nets and everything to follow him to become fishers of people, which apparently would not require the nets that they had dropped. After hearing the story the teachers would ask the same question every single time, “If Jesus walked in the classroom right this second and said follow me, would you drop your glue sticks and follow him?” This was a crazy test to ask 8 year olds, but yes was clearly the answer that was expected. I was savvy enough to realize that and probably said yes, but even then I felt like it was ridiculous and that I didn’t mean it. I had major questions. How would I know it was Jesus? Did the guys fishing know anything about him? Cause teacher, if your question is, “if some bearded stranger walked in the back of the room and said follow me, would I?” of course not! I have good parents. They’ve taught me stranger danger. Also, I’m only 8. Don’t I need some sort of permission slip signed by a guardian to leave with this man in this hypothetical ultimatum?
Even in youth as I learned more about the context of the story growing up, it never quite sat right with me. I learned that Rabbis had a very high status of respect in this culture. Usually one had to prove that they had great potential to be a disciple, but Jesus went out and asked these regular guys just like you and me to follow him, the only requirement for this apprentice relationship was their willingness to lay down everything else. Because they were teaching youth and trying to be relevant these teachers would say, “Rabbis were like the Rock stars of society. Like imagine if Steven Tyler was a rabbi and say hey bro, come on the road with us. Would you blow of your chemistry homework and go?” What can I say, Aerosmith was really big. Armageddon had just come out, none of us wanted to miss a thing. But even with the scarves and sweet guitar solos, the premise of the question still seemed ridiculous to me. I never understood why these fishermen would drop their nets and go.
It really wasn’t until I grew to know Jesus and his character, understand his love for me, and to have a glimpse at what he came to do – that any of this made any sense at all. Prior to that it was exactly as that last verse of the Corinthians passage says, foolishness to me. Once the message of the cross became real in my life, that power of God became irresistible and I started dropping nets of my own as I felt called to follow.
Emily has told us before that the most important word in the Bible is with. Not whatever other Sunday school answer words you can come up with. Not grace. Not righteousness. With. This is the beauty of the incarnation, that God is with us. We celebrate the birth of Christ – God coming into the darkness our world in the human being of Jesus to bring light. Last week we celebrated his baptism and the presence of the Holy Spirit. And now in the story it is time to get to work. John the Baptizer has been arrested presumably for speaking the truth a little too loudly to the wrong people (side note: no one likes being called a brood of vipers) and the time is now. Jesus’ public ministry begins.
Geography in scripture is often something that shouldn’t be just passed over. Understanding the places mentioned can actually tell us a lot, and that is certainly true here. Matthew tells us that after Jesus hears about John being arrested he leaves Nazareth and moves to “Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.” Jesus didn’t move here to fulfill prophecy. It wasn’t an item on his “How to be the messiah” checklist. This is an area that has been in great darkness for long time.
In the time of Isaiah, it was violently taken over by the Assyrians. And since then there have been a rolling series of other empires and regimes who have continued to oppress and sometimes exile the people of this region century after century. Now at the time of Jesus those oppressors are the Romans, and a trade route that runs right along the Northern border of the area makes Capernaum quite the cross section of Israelites, Gentiles, and Roman soldiers and tax collectors. And so this is where the light of the world has come to dwell. To bring the light to a people who know what it is to sit in the dark and to build relational bridges to groups of people no other rabbi would dare associate with. He picks up where John the Baptist left off, inviting people to repentance and proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven has come near. He starts healing people in masse. And he starts to invite people to come alongside him in his ministry.
He’s not inviting the best and the brightest. Not the most connected or financially able to support his agenda. He’s inviting those who are willing, and he starts with fisherman. Those ready to drop their nets, to give up everything, to follow. To be a part of something bigger and greater than themselves.
Each of the gospels tell the story of the calling of the first disciples a bit differently. Matthew’s account includes mostly the bare essentials. Jesus summons these fishermen with authority, and they respond with obedience. The first two brothers were actively fishing and leave their nets to follow. The second set of brothers are mending nets in a boat with their dad, and leave all of those things at Jesus’ invitation. Their response seems radical, but I don’t think the expectation is really any different for us even though we would like to think so. We are ALL called (and though that may be lived out differently for each of us), it is only through our willingness to totally surrender ourselves – to drop our own nets – can we truly know the joy of this discipleship.
Jim Foster, the man who was my pastor and boss for about 8 years, prayed the exact same prayer every morning for last two years before he died. It wasn’t profound or verbose, but it was brave. He prayed, “Lord, whatever you want.” I know that he was only able to do it because he believed that God is good and that where the spirit led is where he wanted to be. Because the Holy Spirit can be feisty, stirring things up and messing with your plans. Doing whatever God calls you to do could get you into hot water. It did him. He had been clergy for more than 40 years, and at his last annual conference before he died he stood in front of all of his peers, spoke for the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the church, and repented for all of the times he had voted against it in the past. He felt called to do this, but to do it he had to lay down some long held beliefs, his ego and reputation, and some relationships.
Jim had encouraged me to also pray daily, “God whatever you want,” but at the time I didn’t have the guts. I would have done it gladly at 23 and did, but now I was over 30 and there seemed to be much more at stake. What if Christ said follow me and the net I had to lay down was my ministry job that I loved? Or my church? Or my friends? Or my house? Or my family? I had been living into the vocation Christ had called me to for years, but I had such a grip on those nets that my hands were bleeding, and I don’t know how well I was following Jesus. It wasn’t until I started to acknowledge that and loosen my grip on what I was holding onto that I could hear God calling me to lay down this world I was fortifying around myself because he had something different for me. My call was broadening and changing and bringing me here to St. Marks and sending me back to school, but not without leaving behind some of those things behind that I was so scared to lose. Not all of them, but some. Parts of that were hard, but to be invited to share in the work that God is doing here has been the greatest most fulfilling joy of my life.
Sometimes following Jesus might not result in such a change in life circumstances. A couple of years ago my dad’s life outwardly didn’t change at all, but he laid down his nets of cynicism and God reached inside and kind of shifted his center of gravity giving him a different view of the world. My dad is a flight attendant, and after years of close contact with the general public while they traveled, he had gotten to be quite a curmudgeon about humanity. His irritation was coming home with him and bleeding into other areas of his life. One day he was sitting in some terminal somewhere reading Bob Goff’s, “Love Does” and called my mom super excited. “I figured it out!” he said. “I can be a flight attendant for Jesus!” My dad’s job is to be a flight attendant. He teaches Sunday school and puts great time and thought into everyone of his lessons. It wasn’t until this day that he realized that Jesus called him to be a disciple in his Sunday school class AND on the plane. That he could show God’s love in the way he served travelers, AND in how he taught the Bible. He laid down his nets of cynicism and God shifted his center of gravity to be less self revolving and more anchored in the kingdom of God.
It can be hard to figure out what it is that Christ is calling us to. I’m sure the disciples were confused about how one went about fishing for people. It can be especially complicated when there are lots of voices calling our names. Sometimes it is hard to make out the voice of Jesus over the voice of our bosses, and our families, and our inner demons, and society’s ideas for what we should be doing. When its foggy and unclear, listening for the voice that is consistent with the Jesus revealed in scripture is a good call. This is the Jesus who sets the captives free, eats with sinners, and brings sight to the blind. This is the Jesus that welcomes outsiders and children and washes the feet of those who follow him. He invites you and me to follow him, and to join him in the ministry of bringing light to the people who have sat in darkness.
I think figuring out what Christ might be calling us to can be intimidating. What if I don’t know how? What if I’m not good enough? I’m probably more like Moses with a hundred questions laced with self doubt than Noah who just started building when he was told to. Here’s a piece of good news though. God made you for the things he calls you to. And though dropping nets can be terrifying, doing the things you were made to is invigorating. It is life giving and brings joy to follow where Jesus calls you. You didn’t hear me say easy – God calls people to hard things and things can go wrong as often as they go right, but the good news is that we aren’t alone. Jesus is with us. Christ is at work in the world and invites us to come work with him.
Not only are we not alone because Jesus is with us, we are not alone because we are together in the body of the Christ that is the church. We are called individually, but we are called collectively as well. I hope that we are brave enough to pray the prayer, Lord what are you calling me to – whatever you want, but I hope that we are faithful enough to pray the same thing as a church. We have talked so much this year about how our country feels so divided, and the last two days have continued that. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians shows us that this is not a new theme. It shows us partisanship and quarrelling and loyalty to particular leaders that feels pretty familiar. But Paul’s plea is for unity. Not for uniformity of opinion, but for this diverse people to come together and not let division undermine the body of Christ. To be united in one mind and purpose through their common commitment that to the confession that Christ is Lord. And to understand that Christ is not just another leader, not just another cause to be passionate about, not just another net to hold onto. Jesus is the one who moved to Capernaum, a crossroads of diverse society not unlike where God has placed St. Marks in the city of Houston. He came to bring light to the people who had been sitting in darkness, to break the rod of the oppressor, to bring healing and wholeness and restoration, and he invites us to be a part of that work he is doing in the world. What does that look like for us. God is calling us. What an awesome invitation. Are we willing to follow?
Jesus is calling you. Are you willing to hear it? Are you willing to lay down your nets? They will tangle you up as long as you let them. They will use up all of your energy keeping them mended. But Jesus is calling you to be a part of something greater. A revolution of love and light. To join him on a great adventure. To be fishers of people. I pray we will be brave enough to listen.