The Third Sunday after the Epiphany – January 25, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine G. Flexer, Rector, St. Michael’s Church
They cast their nets in Galilee, just off the hills of brown;
such happy, simple fisherfolk, before the Lord came down.
Contented, peaceful fishermen, before they ever knew
the peace of God that filled their hearts brimful, and broke them too.
It starts off so gently, that hymn. Happy people fishing in a simple rustic place. Just a whiff of foreshadowing at the end of that first verse…and then even more in the next verse, with those broken hearts.
When I think about those fisherfolk that Jesus called in today’s gospel, Simon and Andrew, James and John, I have to wonder. They jumped right up and followed him, never looking back – or did they? Didn’t they sometimes think to themselves, Everything was fine before you came around, Jesus. It was all so clear. We followed the course charted for us. Growing up in a fishing family in the 1st century, you didn’t have a lot of options. You didn’t have the leisure to consider your vocation, to agonize over different careers and places to live. You simply did what your father did, helping out in the family business. It’s simple and straightforward, but let’s not romanticize it. Were they ‘happy simple fisherfolk’? Maybe – but maybe they were hopeless and despairing fisherfolk too. Maybe they thought things would never change, it was no use wishing they would. Or maybe they were simply doing the day-to-day things to survive, without stopping to ask whether they were happy or not. And then Jesus came along and called them. Follow me and I’ll make you fish for people. Whatever could they have made of that, I don’t know – but they got up and followed him anyway.
Maybe it was something like that for you, choosing to come to church. Maybe you came to church because that’s what your family always did and of course you do it too, it’s just what you do. Maybe you came because you don’t feel like you’ve got anywhere else to go, things being as bad as they are. Or maybe you came because something abruptly stirred you to make a change. Maybe it’s a little of all of those. And now here you are, here we all are. And to us contented and discontented fisherfolk, Jesus is saying, follow me – I’ve got something for you to do.
It’s a funny juxtaposition today, this story of Jesus calling his disciples with the first story we heard of Jonah. Jonah who also was called and given a task, hearing God’s voice saying get up and go fish for the people of Nineveh – they need to hear my word, so you go give it to them. First Jonah ran in the opposite direction, towards Tarshish. Then he was swallowed by a fish – God fishing him instead of him fishing for others. And then God called him again, with the same message and task, and this time he went. But not willingly. As soon as he finished his preaching, he left Nineveh and sat down to watch God rain down fire on it from heaven. It didn’t happen, and he was disappointed, and God got pretty mad at him for that. None of all that was in the reading today, but go read the book of Jonah if you want the whole story – it’s a short and very funny read.
Jonah didn’t want to do the job God had for him, because he hated those people of Nineveh. The last thing he had on his bucket list was to visit that city and save them all from perdition. They deserved the worst they got, as far as he was concerned. He couldn’t have preached God’s word with much conviction there – and yet somehow the people heard God’s word anyway in his half-hearted proclamation and turned their hearts. God fulfilled God’s desires through him. God wanted those people, and they must have been ready to be wanted – whatever Jonah thought. God has ways of making things turn out differently than we expect when we answer the call.
I wonder what John and James and Simon and Andrew thought they’d be doing, fishing for people – which people they thought that might mean. Did they imagine that they’d have to go hang out with Pharisees and tax collectors and other people they despised? Did they see where following a Messiah could lead? I’m sure they didn’t fully understand where it would all end up:
As that nice hymn we sang goes on:
Young John who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless, in Patmos died.
Peter, who hauled the teeming net, head-down was crucified.
It is easy for us to forget that following Jesus is that kind of choice. Surrounded by a culture that pretends to be sorta Christian (in the most watered-down sense possible), we don’t really face a life-or-death struggle to come to church. Some friends or family might raise an eyebrow, there may be some neighbors we’re embarrassed to share this with, but by and large, it’s not that big a deal. We have to look to other countries and cultures to remember the danger of being Christian – the stories we hear from Iraq, or Israel, or India, about persecution and violence toward Christian groups, are a reminder that it isn’t easy everywhere to be a Jesus follower.
But in a different sense, it’s not that easy for us either. When I talk with families about baptizing their children, I sometimes do an exercise where we write up all the values of the culture around us in one column, and all the values we hear in the gospels in another column. After brainstorming together, the cultural values column usually lists things like success, wealth, good reputation, get there first, the one with the most toys wins. The gospel values column lists things like turn the other cheek, love your enemies, give up your possessions, the last shall be first. With that it’s much clearer: baptism isn’t just a cultural act, meaningless except for traditions’ sake. Baptism is a countercultural act. Being Christian means bucking the system.
But that’s when we really follow Jesus, when we hear God’s voice calling and pick up and go, however slowly and hesitatingly that might be. It seems easier to stay in the boat and pretend we didn’t hear; it seems easier to run off in the opposite direction. Following Jesus, fishing for people, that takes some work.
Our annual meeting is today, St Michael’s fisherfolk, when we come together and say thank you for what has been and take account of where we are. For those of you who like hard data with your spirituality, this day is for you. The annual meeting is a numbers and cents way of taking stock of our life together. But there’s different ways of looking at the data, of course. If we were still in the boat doing what we’d always done, we’d be checking our nets and mending the holes so we could keep on using them like we always had. We’d be caulking up the seams on the boat to be sure it was sound and arguing with each other about who had to work the night shift. But if we’re deciding to step out and follow Jesus, instead of the boat we’ll be checking our shoes for holes as we walk, instead of worrying over the nets we’ll be counting up the provisions for our journey. It’s easy for the one to look like the other. But the purpose is different. The first way has us safe and unchanging, keeping the status quo going as long as we can. The second way has us taking more risks. Because it’s risky, following Jesus and doing his work. God only knows just where we’re going and who we’ll be with. God only knows how much more will be asked of us than we’ve already given.
Then again, how much easier is it to stay in the same old same old? To stay in the hopelessness and the place where we don’t expect anything to be better than it is, to stay in the routine and claim to be contented with our rut. How much easier is it to run in the opposite direction, too, rebelling ostentatiously against what we know in our hearts is the right place for us? How much easier is it to deny the deepest desires of our hearts for love?
But it’s risky, yes – so we’d better stick together, it seems. We’d better all leave the boat at once and launch out. The purpose of church community is to change and grow, not to stay the same. You at St Michael’s have all already seen that and know it to be true, as children have grown up and new children have been born, as loved ones have died and leaders have aged and new people have stepped into their shoes. Ministries have been born and come to an end, and new ministries have taken their place. And people who once came to this church just because of their kids or because they liked the music have been startled to hear the voice of God very close to their ear saying, come, and follow me – I’ve got something for you to do. St Michael’s isn’t a place for the status quo.
So we step out and follow. Come, and I’ll make you fish for people, Jesus says. God has people for us to bring love and healing to; God has a word to speak through us to our neighborhood and our city and our world. God has a purpose for us beyond what we’ve always done and beyond what we now understand, maybe even beyond our comfort zone. God has work for us that will grow us and deepen us and make us more and more into what God desires for us. With God’s grace, we’ll say yes – we’ll take the holy risk.
The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.
Yet let us pray for but one thing – the marvelous peace of God.