(a sermon for January 22, 2017, the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Matthew 4:12-23)
“I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men; I will make you fishers of men if you follow me!”
And just like that, or so the story goes, Peter and his brother Andrew – and very soon thereafter, James and his brother John – left their fishing nets, and everything else, to follow Jesus. It’s the story we’ve all heard from the time we were in Sunday School, and it represents everything we ever need to know about the powerful nature of Jesus’ presence and call, as well as the open hearts and deep faith of those first disciples. And one way or another, the message of that story is always the same, is it not; it’s the stuff of a great many hymns and a whole lot more sermons (!): that if Jesus is calling us, and if we have enough faith, then we also are going to drop everything else in our lives to follow him!
Absolutely! That is, after all, part and parcel of our mission as faithful people in this and every age; to follow Jesus where and wherever he leads us, and in doing so, simply leave all our other worldly concerns behind, after the manner of Peter, Andrew, James and John. Just like that!
Except that, regarding those first four disciples, perhaps it wasn’t quite as simple as we’ve made it out to be!
To begin with, there’s a whole lot going on in our text for this morning beyond that pivotal moment when Jesus calls Peter and Andrew from their nets and promise to make them “fish for people.”
Actually, as Matthew sets up the story it’s all kind of… well, ominous! John the Baptist has been arrested and imprisoned by Herod; Jesus himself has withdrawn from Nazareth to make a home in what might be considered a backwater village of Capernaum in Galilee; and this is to say nothing of the oppression of the Roman occupation that was on full display at the time! Even Matthew makes a point in his gospel of reminding us that this was exactly the time and place to which Isaiah the prophet was referring when he spoke about “the people who sat in darkness” and those “who sat in the region and shadow of death.” In other words, these were rough and turbulent times in Judea; and not by any reckoning an opportune or appropriate time for an itinerant preacher to be traveling the countryside, calling out to the people to “perceive and become a part of God’s in-breaking kingdom!” (David Lose) And it certainly didn’t seem like the best move to choose a random gathering of fishermen to be your helpers in that endeavor!
And while we’re on the subject of those first disciples, let’s just be honest: while they certainly showed forth a great deal of faith, and yes, even courage in immediately leaving everything behind to follow Jesus, I think it’s also safe to say that they didn’t have a clue! The reality is that neither Peter nor Andrew would have had any idea at all what being “fishers of people” even meant, much less to know where they’d be going or what they’d be doing in following Jesus. These days we’d be sorely tempted to dismiss what those fisherman had done – to leave home, family and livelihood behind – as an impulsive act at best, or perhaps even irresponsible. I’m not sure about that, but one thing is for certain: their response to Jesus’ call that day was anything but simple, or easy!
Now, none of what I’ve just said will ever lend itself to an extra verse of “I Will Make You Fishers of Men,” but know that that’s exactly the context in which we come to our reading of this very familiar story of Jesus calling his first disciples. But lest you think I’m simply ripping the narrative apart here, let me just add that this simply emphasizes the good news of it all; for what we have here is this undiminished truth of how during the darkest of times in the worst of all possible worlds, God’s light shone through. Isaiah foretold it; that “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,” that that light comes to the world in the person of Jesus Christ… and that that same Jesus Christ, even now and even here, is calling you and me to follow him; just as he called those four faithful, yet admittedly unassuming fishermen so long ago.
Or, to put it another way, “he will make us fishers of men… if we follow him.”
But, having sung that, what does all that really mean for us in this day and age? Would it be safe to assume here that there would be very few among us who’d be so bold or impulsive as to immediately drop everything to walk with Jesus into the unknown? Oh, there are a few who might be willing to leave the material world behind for a life of contemplation or service, but in all honesty, most of us have so much on our plates what with jobs and bills and families and all the rest of life’s responsibilities it’s not even conceivable, even for the sake of faith, for us to consider leaving our nets and boats behind. But even as we say this, here’s Jesus, still standing on the shoreline of our lives, and still asking us to do just that, to leave everything and follow him wherever he leads us.
What we’re talking about here, friends, is the very essence of a call; no, let me correct that; it’s the call, God’s call to each and every one of us in our lives, and my point is that this call comes to us in ways that are amazing, surprising, unexpected, unsettling, life-changing to be sure, but in its own way, life-giving! Because so often, you see, it’s God’s call, as well as our response to that call that makes us who we are.
But let me add something to this. You’ve often heard me say that as a pastor I have always felt “called” to ministry (and that’s been true for me from the time I was 15 years old!). I’ve always believed that for better or worse God has always had this – this vocation, this work, this purpose – in mind for me; and truly, I can say to you now that answering that call has been the thing that’s helped shape just about everything else in my life! But that said, friends, when I say this I would not ever want to give you the idea that “the call” is something that is exclusively religious in nature. For instance, I sincerely believe that those who are first-responders – firefighters, police officers, EMT’s and others – have a true calling to that work and it’s what gives them the willingness to go into situations the rest of us would run from! Likewise doctors and nurses and so many others who are in the medical profession, those who work in assisted living facilities and those who volunteer at hospice day after day, year after year. I also believe that teachers are called… from nursery school teachers on up; as are people who are caregivers of every stripe; even a few of our elected leaders, I believe, are as much called to their offices as they are elected!
But understand that “the calling” amounts to more than just having or doing the job. It’s more than simply what these people do, you see; it comes down, ultimately, to who they are; it’s the direct connection that exists between how they live and what they believe, and it’s on that basis that everything else follows! One of the more interesting news sidebars I’ve seen this week involved Steve Harvey; he’s the man who has a television talk show, and is also the host of “Family Feud.” Steve Harvey, of all people, was actually invited this week to Trump Tower in New York so that he could meet with now President Trump and Ben Carson to address the need for urban renewal in some of our cities across the country. And Harvey accepted the invitation (even though he was vilified in the media for it) because, he said, he was feeling a calling to contribute something positive to the discussion, even though he’s not at all a politician but rather a game show host! But that didn’t matter at all to Steve Harvey; in fact, here is what he said: “Your career is what you are paid for, and your calling is what you are made for.”
A calling, you see, involves much more than the task that’s before you; it has to do with what you’re made for! And that’s especially true when it comes to God’s call. That’s why it didn’t matter that at that moment on the beach, those disciples didn’t know what was to happen next; what mattered is that “Jesus saw something in them, something of value and worth,” and they responded. Janet Hunt, in an essay about our text for this morning, has written that perhaps those four fishermen had already sensed that they were made for “something beyond the work they were raised in,” and that perhaps that “’something more’ was somehow related to their faith.” If these disciples could just be bold to trust Jesus enough to follow, they would find that “deeper, truer” call on their very lives!
And the thing is, the same can be said for you and me today on our journeys of faith. It has been said, you know, that so much of our faith amounts to call and response: God calls us out and sends us forth; our challenge is to respond. We listen closely and carefully; we seek to discern the meaning of God’s call on our own lives, whatever shape or form that happens to take, and then we decide if we’re going to be bold enough to trust God in following that call wherever it may lead.
Of course, the journey that follows is not always not as murky as it seems; the truth is our God also offers up words and gifts of mercy grace and hope along the way that, as the psalmist has sung, offers “a lamp unto [our] feet, and a light unto [our] path.” (Psalm 119:105) It does however, often happen in mysterious ways! I’m thinking of a classmate of mine from back in my seminary days: his name was Steve, and like so many students at Bangor Seminary, he had experienced a call to ministry relatively late in life, and though he had tentatively decided to explore this possibility by taking some classes in theology, he really had no intention of becoming a church pastor at all! But before long, first as a lark and then as a… well, calling, he’d become a supply preacher and then the regular student pastor of this tiny little congregation out in the backwoods of rural Maine. And though by his own admission he was enjoying that experience, and though his faith was ever deepening because of the relationship he was forging both with God and with the people in this little congregation he was serving, even then Steve is emphatically saying to all of us at school that this arrangement was only going to be temporary… but of course, it wasn’t!
I think Steve is retired now, actually, after having served several congregations throughout New England over the course of many years; but last I heard, he’s still doing supply preaching around whenever he can! I once read an interview with Steve that ran in Down East Magazine some years ago; and they asked him about his call to ministry. And do you know what he said? He said, “Well, yes, God was calling me… and eventually, I just stopped saying ‘no!”
That’s the thing about our God, beloved; he’s relentless! Sometimes the only real question that remains whether we say no…or yes!
I ask you, friends; where do you suppose God is calling you right now? Understand, a true calling does not necessarily have to involve a major career change; who knows, you might be being called to a change in attitude! Maybe it has something to do with the course of your relationships with those around you; or perhaps it involves standing up for what it is you really believe in, and in what is just and right, most especially when you’re likely to get shot down for doing so. Or maybe today you’re only feeling that restlessness and yearning that comes in know, deep down within ourselves, that God has made us for something more… you just don’t know what it is yet!
The bottom line is that you have a purpose, and a true ministry in this world. And even now, Jesus is there, still calling each one of us o’er the tumult and all the competing voices of life, so that finally we might be sent forth to do our part for the sake of his kingdom. God’s call happens in a multitude of ways; it even happens here in the church and in our life together… perhaps even in an annual meeting? Who knows? Wherever… make no mistake, God is calling!
I pray that whatever that call happens to be, you’ll say yes.
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry