Saturday, January 25, 2014

Do We Have to Leave Our Nets Behind?

Matthew 4:12-23
Ordinary 3
January 26, 2014
William G. Carter

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 

Jesus gets to work. After his baptism, after a series of tests from the Devil, Jesus begins the work God gave him to do. He settles in the town of Capernaum and makes it his base of operations. John the Baptist had been arrested and taken to prison. In all the commotion, John had dropped his sermon in the dust, so Jesus picks it up, brushes it off, and preaches the same exact nine-word sermon: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He preaches the same sermon that John the Baptist preached.

It has the same effect. People flock to him. They come by the hundreds. While they had to find John in the desert sands, they find Jesus in a small village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. John dunked them wet, Jesus dries them out. John shouted the sins of hell out of them; Jesus straightens their spines, heals their headaches, and casts out any lingering demons.

Hundreds of people come for this. Thousands of people find him. He cures every illness -- Matthew says, “Every one!” Every sick person brought to him was cured. God’s regime of healing had come very close. The power at work in Jesus was spilling out all over. Everybody was healed and restored. And the crowds got bigger. Word was spreading: Jesus is the closest thing Galilee has to a spiritual rock star.

And smack dab in the middle of that account, he collects two sets of two brothers: Simon and Andrew, James and John. All four of them are working the water. Simon Peter and Andrew are casting a net into the sea. Jesus calls and they leave it there . . . in the water. James and John are in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending the broken strands of their nets. Jesus calls, and they leave behind their father to keep fixing their nets.

It is a striking contrast. Between the big moments with the crowds, Jesus singles out these four fishermen. “Follow me,” he says. He doesn’t say where. He’s not very clear about what. They drop their nets and follow him wherever it is that he is going.

Years ago, the story was explained to me by Wilma Caswell, our favorite Sunday School teacher. She said, “They left their work as fishermen to go into the ministry.” As a second grader, I thought long and hard about that. I was glad I didn’t like to fish because I was sure that I didn’t want to be a minister. If that’s what the story was about, then it didn’t have anything to do with my mom or my dad or anybody other adult that I knew. Except for the minister of my church – he loved to fish – and he had a motorcycle. My parents hated motorcycles and they said I could never have one, so I was pretty sure I would never ever become a minister. I could breathe easily!

Now I know that is garbled reasoning, especially given my present occupation. But it struck me as a garbled story. It was the call of the first four of the disciples. What did it have to do with the rest of us?  It is a particular story about a particular foursome of men. It’s not about us. In fact, I’ll bet one of the people in the story – old man Zebedee – was a good bit annoyed that Jesus the woodcutter essentially kidnapped his two hardest workers, who may have been unpaid since they worked on their father’s boat. File that under “Zebedee: The Untold Story.” And I wonder why Zebedee himself was not invited to come. Don’t know!

And to be clear: Simon, Andrew, James, and John were not called into the ministry, whatever that is. They were invited to follow Jesus. They didn’t know where he was going. Maybe back to his hut in Capernaum, maybe wandering around the region to preach and heal. He didn’t tell them up front, he just went – and then he invited them to come with him. He didn’t say, “Let me get my clipboard and make assignments. Simon Peter, you take crowd control. Andrew, you go ahead of me as my publicity coordinator. James, you serve as my lead usher when the crowds show up. John, you handle the t-shirt sales in the lobby.” But Jesus never said anything like that, so far as we know.

No, he was inviting them into a relationship, to stay with him, to listen to what he taught, to watch what he did, to come close enough to see for themselves that God is ruling over heaven and earth, that God is coming close enough to heal everybody. That’s what it means to follow Christ – to stay with him, to take on the habits that help us to stick to him. As he invited the first four fishermen to come, they chose to leave their nets behind. That sounds so dramatic . . . but there’s more to the story. .

We know a bit more about Simon, Andrew, James, and John. Jesus goes with them on one boat ride after another. All through the Gospel of Matthew, he insists on going back and forth across the Sea of Galilee. Each day on the sea, they needed something to eat; you may recall Jesus was not one for turning stones into bread.

One day, in fact, a huge crowd showed up. Five thousand people, as far as the eye could see. Jesus said, “How are we going to feed them?” One of them said, “I have a couple of fish.” (Matt. 14:17) Well, of course he did. Just because he once got out of the boat doesn’t mean he didn’t go back into it. Just because he once dropped the net doesn’t mean he didn’t take it up again.  

I have known people like that.
  • I remember the oral surgeon who shut down his office and went to seminary. When he graduated, you know what he did? He went to West Africa to pull out broken teeth.
  • Or the attorney who closed down her practice to study the Bible. When she re-emerged, she took on death row prisoners who were unjustly condemned.
  • Or there I was, a few years ago, in a remote New Mexico monastery. At dinner, I discovered one of the monks had been the director of development for the Santa Fe opera. It’s a big opera company. Now he raises money for the monastery and its mission work among the poor.

All of them dropped their nets, but not for very long. All of them used the skills they had developed for years to bring the Kingdom of God ever closer. That’s what they did. They did the spiritual work of getting closer to Christ – prayer, study, spiritual formation - and then they picked up their fishing nets again. Their lives were not about making money – they were about making a difference. They were giving themselves to a greater purpose, for the purpose of bringing God closer to a world in pain.

They were following Jesus, who was teaching and feeding and curing and preaching and healing every disease. Every single one. Matthew’s favorite description of Jesus is “authority” (the Greek word “exousia”). He has authority over everything that damages us. When we follow him, he has authority over us. When we continue the work that he does, especially out in the world, we see his authority slowly spreading over those we care for.

When we follow Jesus, do we have to leave our nets behind? Maybe or maybe not.

I think of the guy on the street corner, dressed up like a green Statue of Liberty. He’s out there in front of a tax preparer’s office, and he has to be freezing. That job can’t pay very well. People pass by and they don’t treat him very well. They honk and gesture and laugh. Do you think if that man could leave that job behind, maybe he would do it? I think so. A lot of us remember jobs we once had that we would never want to do again.

Or sometimes you run across somebody who thinks they know what’s best for you. Years ago, I was sitting in a restaurant in Princeton, New Jersey, with a man who had my whole career charted out. He wanted to take me on as a project. He was this very important preacher in a major city, and he told me, “You have a very promising career as a minister, but just one thing: you’re going to have to give up your jazz piano to get there.” I looked at him and thought, “How do you know this, when music is one gift that gives me life?” And I was a single parent at the time, and I had these two little girls to raise. I mentioned that and he said, “You could sent them to a private school. The choice is yours.”

I will stop short of saying he had red horns, a tail, and a pitchfork. There are plenty of people who have sacrificed their children so they could get ahead. Some of them live in this community. In the name of Jesus, that should never be an option. Children are gifts from God, not barriers to advancing anybody’s career.

What I’m saying is this. Write it down. When Jesus invites us to follow him, he invites the whole person to follow him. The whole person, the whole package. If God has given you a family, they are as important as any work you do, and probably more so. Caretaking our loved ones is part of our calling. If you have a brain, use it. If you can sing, sing like a bird. If you can tutor a child to read, get on with it. If you have a heart for people in need, give your heart to them. If you have any special skills or abilities or super powers, there’s a very good chance that God gave those abilities to you for some really good reasons. After all, if Jesus wanted to go back and forth across the Sea of Galilee, it was a good idea to befriend some fishermen.

Beneath it all, there can be a difference between the work that we get paid for and the work that we were put on the planet to do. Sometimes they overlap, and that is a blessed gift; sometimes they do not, but life is always more than that. I have known people who had well-paying jobs that they hated, but their daily work made possible the other work that they are really here to accomplish.

And sometimes, we can work and work, putting in long years to labor at something that does not seem so exciting. In fact, it’s a long routine. But all that may be a rehearsal, preparation for the moment when we are invited to save somebody’s life or cure somebody’s pain. And during all that time, perhaps God has been preparing us for that one defining moment. It’s too early to tell.

As Jesus walks by the fishing boats in the town where he lived, he invited two people to follow him. Then he invites two more. The spiritual life is always an invitation. Christ beckons us to draw closer to him. The church is here to help us do just that. We worship, we pray, we serve, because our souls are at stake. We come to listen to the One who invites us away from the things that are killing us and move toward the things that can give life to us and to the world.

Why did Simon, Andrew, James, and John drop everything? Why did they stop what they were doing and draw closer to Christ? Because they were ready.  Whatever was going on in them - or around them – was sufficient to prepare them. When he came and said, “Follow me,” they went. They left their nets, they came back to their nets, and they were never the same. For as they drew near to follow, they saw with their hearts that God has begun a salvage operation in Jesus to save the world. And now their daily work was part of that.

Maybe Mark Twain said it best. "The two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why."

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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