Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Dropping Our Nets

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 4:12-23:

Today we have a fish story to tell.  I’m sure that all of us have heard at least one fish story in our lives, and most of us have probably even told one or two ourselves, about the one that got away or about how big the fish, which the person hearing the story never saw, really was.  There’s a great scene in the movie Dave, in which Kevin Kline, who is pretending to be the president, has his arms in a machine which replicates his movements using enormous robot arms, and so he stretches his arms out and says “I once caught a fish this big,” and of course his fish story is amplified by the mechanical arms.  I wanted to show that clip this morning, but when I did a search for it on YouTube, I didn’t find it, although I did find out that there are apparently a lot of people named Dave who fish and have posted things on YouTube.

For some reason, fishing tends to bring out these stories, more than most other activities in which we engage.  That most famous of all authors, anonymous, once wrote “An answer to this question, is greatly what I wish; does fishing make men liars, or do only liars fish?”[1]  I’m going to be honest, I don’t like fishing.  No offense to those of you who do, but to me, fishing is about as exciting as watching paint dry.  But the Bible is full of fish stories, and today we have one of the most well known.  Of all of the fish stories we know, today’s is one of the biggest.  In fact, this passage, or at least the line about making the disciples “fishers of men”, is probable one of the most famous.

The passage begins, first with the announcement of John the Baptist’s arrest, which will lead to his execution and serves as an example, which will be played out again, of what discipleship looks like, the arrest leads to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee.  Next we are told that Jesus began to proclaim “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near,” which is at the core of Jesus’ message, then we have the calling of the first disciples, followed by a summary of Jesus’ activities in proclaiming the reign of God which he will follow throughout the remainder of his ministry.

While those parts important, this morning we are going to focus on the calling of the disciples.  Matthew says that Jesus finds the disciples at the Sea of Galilee preparing their nets and fishing.  Because today most people fish only as a hobby, as something we do in order to unwind, we often wrongly put our understanding of fishing on to the stories we hear in the Bible. It’s like the story of the minister who approached the young boy fishing in the pond at a park.  “Do you know any stories from the Bible” the minister asked.  “Yes, sir” the boy quickly replied.  “Which do you like the best?”  The boy looked up and said “The one where everybody loafs and fishes.”  For most of us fishing is something we do on vacation, so we create a rather tranquil pastoral picture of what fishing entails.  But that is nothing of what is going on in this story.

Fishing, especially the way they are fishing on the Sea of Galilee is incredibly hard and backbreaking work.  The Sea of Galilee is a major body of water, about thirteen miles long and eight miles wide.  Because the lake is currently shrinking, they are doing archaeological digs and are discovering things about the activities in and around the lake during Jesus' time that have been unknown for more than 1500 years.  They have currently discovered the pylons for more than 100 commercial fishing piers from the Roman period.  These are not little docks that would only take one boat, but instead large piers that would have been accommodating several very large boats at a time.  Fishing was one of the commercial activities for the area, and it was big business.  This is not the quaint little fishing scene that we so often imagine in our minds, or at least I do.  As Rev. Sarah Breur has remarked “we imagine a kind of idealized, peaceful, pastoral version of these activities.  And then we’re puzzled and disappointed when our walk with Christ doesn’t match up to the tranquility of these scenes we imagined.”[2]

Gil netting, which is what Peter, Andrew, James and John are doing, is very hard work.  They would throw their nets into the water and then move the net around into position order to get as many fish as possible into the net.  They would then lift the hopefully full net into the boat by hand.  As you might imagine when full, these nets would be extremely heavy.  Today we have mechanical lifts in order to remove this backbreaking part of fishing.  The fishing would often be done at night so that the net would not be as visible to the fish.  The days would then be spent recuperating, resting, repairing their nets, occasionally fishing some, but mainly preparing for the next night’s work.  Being a fisherman during this time was no day at the beach.   It was tireless, never ending work, and that is what we find them doing when Jesus appears.

There is no indication that Jesus had any interactions with any of these men before this moment.  Did they know who Jesus was?  Had that heard about someone new who might replace John the Baptist?  The text is strangely silent on this subject.  Instead, all we are told is that Jesus was walking by and called to them, and they immediately stopped what they were doing and followed Jesus.  There is no indication that they hesitated.  We are not told that they said, “Wait until we are finished for the day, and then we will follow.”  We are not told that they asked him any questions about what following him meant.  We are not told that they asked who would take care of their boats and equipment, who would feed their families, or even how they would feed themselves.  Instead, all we know is that is soon as Jesus called to them they dropped what they were doing and went to follow Jesus.  That is how we are first introduced to what it means to be a disciple of Christ.  When we receive the call we are required to drop what we are doing and follow.  That is a pretty high and hard standard to keep.

Personally, I’m more like the another character mentioned in this story, Zebedee the father of James and John.  Zebedee does not follow Jesus.  Zebedee remains in the boat as his sons go off.  He remains to continue his life as it has always been.  Did Zebedee ever catch back up with his sons?  Did he too become a follower of Christ?  Again, the story is silent, but Zebedee looks a lot more like me, and probably more like you, then do the disciples.  I received my calling to the ministry in 1994.  I was not attending church at the time, and hadn’t for awhile.  Even growing up my family were primarily church CEO’s, that is Christmas and Easter only, so I basically ignored it.  It took me four years from the time I first received my calling to the ministry to the time when I did anything about it, and then I didn’t enter seminary until nine years after I was first called.  If I would have been around when Jesus called out to those fishing on the Sea of Galilee, he would have been crucified and resurrected by the time I finally got out of the boat.  I was not willing simply to just drop my nets and follow.  And since Jesus’ ministry only lasted three years, I would have failed in answering Jesus’ call.  Because lets be perfectly honest, just dropping our nets is incredibly hard to do, but over and over in the gospels that is the example we are given.

When the angel appears to the shepherds to announce Jesus’ birth, they leave their flocks and go to Jerusalem.  They leave their flocks at exactly the time when the sheep are most in danger, at night.  And yet they trust God and leave their flocks unattended, they leave their livelihood and quite probably everything they own in order to answer God’s call.  In another story, a would be follower says he will follow Jesus, but first needs to go and bury his father.  Jesus does not offer condolences and tell the man where he can catch up to them, instead Jesus rebukes the man and tells him to let the dead bury the dead.  The stories seems to be about answering the call immediately, anything else simply will not do.  That is the expectation that is laid down by Jesus.  There is no time to hesitate and there can be no excuse because to do anything but to follow says that we are putting other things ahead of God.  This is the challenge of being a disciple of Chris

Now in covering these passages in Bible studies I’ll usually have someone suggest that other examples may diminish this idea of having to leave everything behind and following.  After all, Jesus has crowds following him around, and so maybe you can follow Jesus and still keep your day job.  While I do think there’s something to that, it doesn’t really provide a full answer because while we are called to follow Jesus, we are called to something higher and more important than that as well.  The great commission tells us to go make disciples of Christ, not just followers, and I do think there is a distinction.  Disciples of Christ pick up their crosses, as Jesus commanded, and carry them each day.  Being a disciple requires sacrifices on our part, it requires something more than just being a follower.

But before we all become too discouraged that we are unable to live up to the expectations that seem to be set forth, let’s take another look at this story.   When we first meet Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, we are told they are out casting their nets, and then as if that is not enough, we are then told the reason they are casting their nets into the water is because they are fishermen.  Jesus says to them “Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” and here is the key piece of information in their call.  Jesus does not call them to undertake anything that they are not prepared for or do not have the skills for.  Jesus does not say to those fishing, “Come follow me and I will make you carvers of people,” something Jesus would have known something about as a carpenter.  He does not say, follow me and I will make you a collector of people, as he might have done with Matthew, a tax collector.  Instead, he calls them to be what they already are.  He calls them using language that they readily understand.  He calls them to use the skills they already have in doing God’s work in the world.  He calls them to be fishermen, just in a very different way.  Jesus calls the disciples to use their gifts and graces to do God’s work in the world, but in a way that directly serves God. What we also should notice is who approaches whom.

Commentators on this text point out that it would not have been unusual during this time for young men to go off and study at the feet of a famous rabbi, to become one of the Rabbi’s disciples.  But, in those situations, the men would have sought the rabbi out, not the other way around.  Christ is going to the lake to call out the disciples.  Christ is making the first effort to which an answer becomes necessary.  The disciples go to Jesus because Jesus has made the first effort to go to them.  The invitation is first extended by Christ.  G.K. Chesterson once said “an adventure is, by its nature, something that comes to us.  It is a thing that chooses us, not a thing we choose.”[3]  And so it is with God.  Grace is available to us, not because we seek it out, but because it is already offered to us to find.  Discipleship is not for us to seek out, but for us to answer when we have properly taken the time to listen for Christ to say “come follow me.”

But, in order to truly understand our call to be a disciple, I think we need to broaden our understanding of being called even more than we do.  We talk about the ministry being a calling, but Linda is called to teaching just as much as I am called to the ministry.  Merely because we are serving God in different ways does not make one more important than the other.  It does not make one more significant in the eyes of God.  Each and every one of us are called by God to a specific ministry.  A ministry which God has already given us the graces and skills to accomplish.  Just as Simon, Andrew, James and John were not called to be carpenters, but instead to be fishers of people, so too are each and every one of us called to utilize the skills that God has given us in order to work toward the kingdom of God.  God does not call us to do anything that we are not already gifted to do.

Now does this mean it is easy?  Of course not.  It takes patience and perseverance, it takes work and dedication, it takes overcoming obstacles,  it takes ignoring distractions, and it takes practice.  Simon and Andrew did not become fishermen overnight.  They had to learn the skills, they had to practice the craft, and they had to apply what they had learned in order to be the best fishermen they could be.  Jesus also does not tell them that he is going to do all the work.  He does not say, come follow me and I will throw out a net, and I will pull it back into the boat, and I will sail into port, and I will unload all the fish and you can sit back and take all the credit.  Instead, he says “come, follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”  There is a clear expectation that they will have to do all of the hard work that comes with fishing, they will have to do all the hard work of being a disciple.

If we expect that being is disciple will be easy, that God will do everything for us, that everything will be provided for, and all we need to do is sit back and relax, it is no wonder that we are so often disappointed in our walk with God.  As Dietrich Bonheoffer said, there is no cheap grace, being a disciple is a difficult thing.  Just answering the call can be one of the hardest things we will even do, believe me, I speak from personal experience.  But God does not call us to be or to do anything that God has not already equipped us to do.
As the tremendous success of Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life has shown, people are trying to seek a purpose and meaning in their lives.  While I have many problems with Rick Warren’s theology, as well as his belief that there is only one purpose for us, I do agree that we need to find the gifts and graces that God has given to us and seek ways that we can use those in order to further God’s work here in the world.  Jesus is calling to each and every one of us to come and follow, and each and every one of us gets a different invitation based on who we are and what we can offer to the world.  But, and here is the hard part, we must be willing to listen for the call, and we must be willing to cast down our nets and to follow Christ in order to be a disciple.

The invitation to discipleship comes from God.  The request to be a disciple has already been made.  The summons has already come, and we have all already been given the skills necessary to undertake whatever it is that we are called to do.  Now it is up to us to answer that call, to put down our nets and to become a disciple.  The path is not easy, the trip will not be trouble-free and the job will not be undemanding, but that is what being a disciple of Christ entails.  So let us cast down our nets and follow Christ, for with Christ all things are possible, and we are being called to be fishers of people for the Kingdom of God.  Thanks be to God sisters and brothers.  Amen.

[1] Samra, Cal and Rose.  More Holy Humor.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997.  P. 114.
[2] Sarah Dylan Breur, “Dylan’s lectionary blog: Third Sunday after the Epiphany, year A”
[3] Ralls, Mark “What about Zebedee?”

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