There is a thread that runs through our readings today – thirst for connection with God and the quenching gift of grace. These readings invite us to find the character we relate to most and join the story to experience it from the inside – so I commend them for your ongoing meditation as we journey toward Easter.
I want to hone in on the Gospel Lesson from John about the woman of Samaria with Jesus at Jacob’s well. As with all the narratives in the Gospel of John, this story has many layers and is rich with meaning on several levels. For instance some commentators view this story not as a story of an individual Samarian woman meeting and individual Jew at Jacob’s well. Rather these commentators view the woman and Jesus as representative of the whole Samaritan nation and Jewish nation respectively. There is literary support for this in the Greek it was originally written in, where the woman and Jesus address each other in the plural that translates as “you people” rather than in Greek terms that would indicated a conversation between two individuals. This would have been a significant layer of meaning for the first hearers of John’s Gospel – who were of Jewish descent- because the Jews and the Samaritans were long-time rivals.
The Samaritans were actually an off shoot of the Jewish people. When Assyria conquered Israel around the year 300 BC, some of the Jews who were deported intermarried with the Assyrians and people of other neighboring nations, and abandoned Jewish purity and worship laws. They were resettled in the region of Samaria, thus becoming known as Samaritans. The biggest bone of contention between Jews and Samaritans was the question of where it was proper to worship. This conflict comes out in this Gospel passage in the woman’s statement to Jesus about worship: “Our Fathers worshiped on this mountain; but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Seeing the passage in this way, with the woman representing all of Samaria, one commentator wrote:
“…whom might the five former husbands then be? Could Jesus be alluding not to her personal life, but to Samaria’s past in which five nations have colonized and intermarried with the Samaritans? And could ‘the one you have now who is not your husband’ in fact be Rome, a colonial power with whom the Samaritans lived (more intimately than with Judeans) but did not intermarry as much with as with the previous five? (Jim Douglass in Living the Word, p.18)
This historical layer of this story is one we would likely miss without the help of scholars and commentators. But that layer of meaning certainly does not preclude reading the story at the important level of the individual interchange between this woman and Jesus.
What strikes me so strongly in reading their interchange is how profoundly this woman is affected by the experience of being deeply seen and known by Jesus. It should be noted here that many traditional biblical commentaries on this passage view Jesus’ words to the woman about her 5 husbands, as a way to unmask the sin of this woman’s life and many preachers have used this to call the woman’s character into question. But if we really look at the passage and listen closely we will see that this is a misinterpretation. On this point Episcopal Bishop, Mary Glasspool, notes that there is really nothing in the text to suggest that this woman has sinned with regard to her marriage history. She writes:
“Most obvious, in the text Jesus does not judge her – any moral judgements are imported into the text by the interpreters. There are many possible reasons for her marital history other than moral laxity. She may, for example, be involved in the custom of levirate marriage- the custom that demands that the next available male in a family take the place of a brother who has died, by marrying his widow. And the last male in the family line could have refused to marry her. Significantly, the reasons for the woman’s marital history have intrigued many commentators- but do not seem to concern Jesus in the least. This part of the conversation between the woman and Jesus about her life’s situation is a moment of confrontation with truth. Jesus reveals himself as someone who sees deeply into the very essence, the heart, of people. And the woman recognizing this truth, declared Jesus to be a prophet.”
Again the scholars come through, and with this deeper understanding of the cultural context of this passage we can move from assuming the worst about this woman’s character, to marveling at Jesus’ ability to encounter people and know them deeply.
But Jesus does not stop there. He goes deeper still. He speaks to her about the future when the animosity between their two peoples – Jews and Samaritans – will be overcome and they will worship God together in spirit and truth. Hearing this, the faith that lives deep within this woman comes to the surface and bubbles out of her like living water – “I know the Messiah is coming. When he comes he will proclaim all things to us.” To which Jesus responds “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” And so, this woman, notably becomes the first person in John’s Gospel to whom Jesus reveals his full identity as the Christ.
This back and forth between Jesus and this woman at the well is such a dance. It begins with a request for water and ends in Jesus speaking out loud for the first time to another person his identity as the Messiah. And I am captivated by the idea that as with Nicodemus before her, this woman has played a part in Jesus process of claiming his full identity within the human family. And this affirms the humanity of Jesus for me. It says to me that just like the rest of us, Jesus, our human brother, knows himself most fully in his relationships with other people.
For her part, the woman is transformed. The disciples reappear and the conversation between her and Jesus ends, and she leaves her jar – symbolic of the fact that she is no longer thirsty because living water has bubbled up within her in her interaction with Jesus– and she heads back to her city where she immediately begins telling people about what happened to her at the well. She makes no grand speech; rather she simply tells others about the experience of being known deeply by Jesus – “: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He could not be the Messiah, could he?” And if we read carefully we will realize that this is the subtle punch line of the story – for while the disciples of Jesus, who have been walking the road with him for a while now are concerning themselves with giving their rabbi enough to eat, the Samaritan woman has run off to do the work of bringing others to Jesus so that they may experience being deeply known and spiritually quenched by him. And this work she is doing is the very work he points to as he says to the disciples, “Do you not say, `Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. Metaphoric words for look around and see who you could be bringing into the circle of discipleship.
The passage closes as a crowd follows the woman back to the well, and soon Jews and Samaritans are mingling over the waters of the well of their common ancestor, where they drink deeply together of the living water flowing from Jesus.
For me, the take away of this passage is that being deeply known by God in Jesus is a transforming experience that we are not meant to keep to ourselves. This Gospel illustrates that to be an evangelist all one has to do is offer an invitation to others that is based in the truth of how your own life has been transformed by knowing Jesus. It does not take fancy words, but rather authentic words. A simple “come and see” can be powerfully attractive when there is fire in the eyes of the one that utters that invitation. And the funny thing about this faith of ours – which is at the heart about knowing God, and being known by God – this faith of ours only grows stronger when we give it away to others. “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” We have come to see my friends, and if he has touched us in transformative ways our work now is to bring others.
In memory of Her and in Christ’s name. Amen+
This Lent you will notice that we are doing something different with our Gospel readings. We are reading them in parts. There is a long standing tradition of reading the passion Gospel on Palm Sunday in parts each year, which came into practice as a way to invite the faithful to step inside that gripping narrative, and to participate in an active way. It is a long Gospel and so this sort of participation through reading parts also serves the function of keeping us focused on the flow of the story.
In this first year of the three year cycle of our lectionary, our Gospels in this season are long passages from John’s Gospel – with the exception of last week’s reading which was a long reading from Matthew. They are stories of conversations between Jesus and several different individuals and groups which naturally lend themselves to being read in parts. Coincidentally, our Deacon, Jay, is having some issues with her vision at the moment – not to worry it is part of the process of some correction to her vision that she is undergoing – but she will not easily read at arm’s length from the Gospel book until after Easter. So in the meantime, each week she will process the Gospel book and proclaim the opening words, and we will pick up from there with the Gospel text, and she will then close the Gospel for us. Our hope is that this experience of greater participation in the proclamation of the Gospel will help us each more deeply enter into the story.
Last week we enacted the account of Jesus temptations in the wilderness from Matthew’s Gospel, today we entered into the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness. Next week we will play out Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, and the following we will offer up the story of man born blind, his parents and his community. On the fifth Sunday we will climb into the story of Jesus meeting Martha and Mary and their community at Lazarus’ grave, and on Palm Sunday we will re-enact the Passion Gospel according to Matthew. All six of these Gospel passages t revolve around the themes of Baptism and Discipleship. Listen for the connections between them as you help proclaim them, and listen for the connections to your own life.
A bit about this morning’s passage. Nicodemus was a well-respected member of the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. He was a Pharisee and while a good number of his fellow Pharisees were highly suspicious of the young rabbi named Jesus, Nicodemus felt differently. For him the young rabbi held an inexplicable attraction. True, Jesus broke with traditions Pharisees sought to protect – for instance Jesus spoke of God in the most intimate terms and Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath day – but still, Nicodemus sensed something deeply authentic in Jesus and could not get him out of his mind.
So Nicodemus, under the cover of darkness, goes alone to see Jesus. There is an interesting progression to their conversation. At first they seem to be talking past each other. Nicodemus opens with some words to show he is not there as an enemy – “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” I almost sense that in the next breath Nicodemus was going to say “But…” and then ask Jesus something about why he had to act in ways that were so provocative and pushed the Pharisaical boundaries so hard. But Jesus cuts him off and heads the conversation in a completely different direction, speaking about how it is not possible to see the kingdom of heaven without being born from above.
This makes me think about the fact that Jesus has experienced this birth from above both in his literal birth into the world as God’s very self in human form, but also along the way at hinge points in his human life – at his baptism when he begins his ministry and on the mount of the transfiguration when he is being preparing for the final chapter. At both those junctures the spirit descends in dove and shining cloud and his human story is transformed and transfigured.
But Nicodemus does not understand what Jesus is talking about. Jesus tells him, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” And so this experience of being born from above is not just for Jesus, it is for Nicodemus and the rest of us too – or so Jesus’ words seem to suggest.
Think of the wind we have had these last few weeks – some days it just seems to come up out of nowhere. The Spirit is like that Jesus suggests. Like the wind, you can try to predict and control the Spirit through all sorts of religious laws and practices, but the Spirit’s movements are determined by mortals, but from on high. So to be born from above, one must practice being open to the Spirit – being ready to be touched by it by not being too bound to or distracted by the dynamics and concerns of this world.
And so this gospel passage moves us from human perspective to divine perspective. Jesus is described by Nicodemus at the outset as being a teacher from God, but by the end of this passage we see that he is the Son of God, come not to condemn but rather to reconnect us to God. The passage starts out on the plane of story – the story of Nicodemus meeting Jesus, and as we go, Nicodemus fades and Jesus blends into the voice of the Gospel narrator, and by the end it is as if we are watching what is happening from on above. It is a story designed to draw us from thinking in terms of this human world, to thinking on the plane of the Spirit and God’s eternal realm. In that way it is not unlike the story of the mount of the transfiguration where Jesus is also revealed as the Son of God.
But in both stories, at the end, life in the human realm goes on, and what was experienced and learned by being touched by the eternal needs to be incorporated into life in this world. So we might wonder what happened to Nicodemus after that night. From the two other places he is mentioned in John’s Gospel, we see that his encounter with Jesus surely began a change in him. In Chapter 7 of John’s Gospel we meet Nicodemus again but this time it is in broad daylight. The Pharisees are questioning the Temple Guard about why they have not arrested Jesus for stirring up the people with his teachings. Nicodemus stand in the midst of this discussion and asks, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” It is a bold move. He would have been much safer to keep quiet. He is not exactly taking Jesus side, but he is speaking openly against those who would seek to silence Jesus.
And then we meet Nicodemus for the third and last time in John chapter 19. At this point Jesus has been crucified and his body is hanging lifeless on the cross. Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, asks for permission to take his body down for burial. But he does not do this alone. We are told:
“Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial customs of the Jews.” (John 19: 39-40)
That loving, daring and compassionate act is the last we hear of Nicodemus. How he lived out his discipleship from then on we do not know. And perhaps that leaves us right where we need to be, putting the focus back on us and asking, “Having been touched by the power of the Spirit and given new life in Christ, how am I going to live out my discipleship this week?” May we each pray for the gusts of the Spirit to move us in the right direction as we seek to answer that question, going forth… In Christ’s name. Amen+
This is a snippet of a conversation I once overheard between a mother and a small child. See if it sounds at all familiar to you:
Mother: Get your coat and boots on honey, we have to go shopping now.
Child: OK mommy – can we get me a toy?
Mother: I thought you were saving your money for something special.
Child: No. I really want a toy today.
Mother: Boots on now honey.
Child: OK and then we get me a toy right?
Mother: We will see.
Child: Oh, thank you mommy.
Mother: I said, we will see.
Child: I know thank you mommy!
Mother: OK let’s go.
Child: Yes, let’s go get me a toy.
Mother: We have to go to the grocery store.
Child: Then we go get me a toy.
Mother: we will see.
Child: And we will get me a toy…
Then they were out of earshot, but from experience I know that was not the end of it! I bring this up because it is a rather disarming way into considering the temptations and fixations that go on with all of us. We have no way of knowing why that little child wanted a new toy – maybe it was boredom with all their other toys – but once the child got it into their head that a new toy would make them in some way feel good or happy the child pursued that end with passion! Perhaps we can identify with that dynamic? And it goes back a long way.
Consider the conversation between the woman and the serpent in the Garden of Eden. To this point in the story the woman and man have not thought of the possibility of breaking the unity they share with each other and with God. But the serpent gets the woman alone and is able to skillfully interject doubt and a convincing case that the fruit is something she both desires and needs, so that she becomes internally compelled to take the fruit.
This story is true. That is not to say that it is factual – it was not written based on factual characters. Rather it is true because it was written based on you and me and every other human being from the dawn of humanity. We know the dynamic all too well. We humans easily become convinced that something outside of ourselves will bring us ultimate happiness, and we reach for it even when our better self says otherwise. And as the child in the locker room illustrates, we do this from a very young age.
In fact it may be that the dynamic is inescapable. We come from God and we are born into a material world, where we must first depend on others and then later on ourselves to take things into ourselves in order to survive. First it’s on a physical level – we need to take in milk then later solid food to thrive physically in this world. Then in our childhood we begin to interact with and test out the things and the people in our environment. This is how we learn both intellectual and social skills. Later still we learn grow into independence and as we separate from our parents, we take on the responsibility to care for ourselves and we begin to exercise personal power. Of course it is all a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the basic trajectory of it.
So maybe it is no coincidence that we find the same trajectory in the temptations the devil puts before Jesus in our Gospel passage. The first temptation has to do with food “change these stones into bread,” the devil invites. Then it’s a test of how things are going to work. The devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the dome of the Jerusalem temple and says – “throw yourself down”, and let’s just see what happens. And lastly it is the test of what Jesus is going to do with his independent power – how is he going to live as a responsible individual? The devil offers him great personal power in the world if he will defect from God and “will fall down and worship me.”
So there it is, the long established trajectory of our human development. Each phase is shown to be fraught with temptations to impulsively break connection with God, the essence and ground of our being. And this Gospel affirms for us that Jesus knows all about it – from inside our skin. Of course his greatest temptation was yet to come – in another garden – where he will face the temptation of flee his commitment to trust is God, and instead to save his own, individual physical life.
It makes me wonder, what it was that he tapped into in those earlier three temptations and as that final one faced him that steadied Jesus and kept him on the course of his life purpose. And it makes me wonder what that might teach us about facing our own temptations?
In his book The Power of Now, Eckhardt Tolle, writes, “You are here to enable the divine purpose of the universe to unfold. That is how important you are.” Is that what Jesus knew and kept close to his center of being? Being one with the divine heart, Jesus held that truth about his purpose – and the purpose of every human life – at the center of his living. And he did this in ways no other human before him had, because his connection to the divine heart was never broken. From reading the Gospels it seems clear there wasn’t a moment when Jesus was unplugged from God’s eternal presence – a presence that we cannot see, but which undergirds all that is. And I think Jesus was seeking to show us a way to remain connected to that realm too in order to do battle with the temptations that would pull us off course and away from our purpose. And the way he showed us to do that was him – his very self. He said, ”I am the way… “ Connection with him does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
I want to invite you now into a little experiment to put us more keenly in touch with this ground of all being that is forever underneath all that exists. I invite you to get comfortable in your seat and close your eyes. Now let yourself become aware of your breathing. Take in a few deep breaths and as you do, see your breath internally filling your body.// See your breath, filling your lungs, expanding your rib cage, flowing down into your belly, right down your legs right into your feet. //After a few of these deep breathes let your breathing become gentler and find your still quiet center// Now see if you can hear your heartbeat, as a sort of faint background noise in your ears. //If you can’t hear that, you can put your fingers up to the right side of your neck and feel your pulse in your artery. // Now keeping your mind as quiet as possible, keep breathing gently and just listen to that or feel that for a few moments.// Now see if you can hear the space inside that inner background noise- the space between your heart beats. And in that space listen for the snippets of a kind of sweet silence bubbling up from underneath. // Now just try to stay with that for a few moments without thinking about anything else. And connect with that silence from underneath.// OK now, I want you to take a couple of deeper breaths, and slowly come back to the fuller experience of the space around you// and as you become ready, open your eyes.
How was that? Did you touch that silence or did it touch you? If so, did you find it refreshing? Don’t worry if you didn’t connect with it. Many of us don’t our first few times, and it usually becomes easier to access with practice. And because we are as unique and as individual as snowflakes, this method may not work for you at all. But if it did not, do you already know of a way you can connect with that divine undercurrent?
However we reach it, connection with that divine undercurrent is just a taste of what I think Jesus was in touch with constantly – constant connection with God at the same time as he was living and moving in this world. One way to name the experience is to speak of living in the eternal now. Another is to speak of existing in God’s Kingdom or God’s realm. Finding ways for ourselves to access and be here in the eternal now is one way to face the temptations that confront us. As we practice such spiritual discipline, we begin to recognize that things from outside us will never satisfy our hunger for that eternal presence – the same presence that came into this world wearing the face of Jesus, and is still our way to the divine heart through the risen Christ.
It is up to each of us to find our way in – to find our own portal to the eternal now. If we keep cultivating that, we will find that when temptation comes knocking we can walk through that portal and, alongside Jesus, find that devilish temptations will depart from us and God’s angels will minister to our needs.
In the power of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Amen+
This Ash Wednesday I am again struck by the richness of this liturgy in word and symbol. There are layers, and counterpoints, thematic switchbacks and outright paradoxes in what we are saying and doing here together. I want to reflect on a few I picked up as I was preparing to worship with you today.
In our passages from Isaiah and Matthew, we hear the counterpoint between the human and divine approaches to sacrificial fasting and other forms of piety. Now someone who practices piety – a pious person – is said to be “Earnestly compliant in the observance of religion”. Yet piety is not enough says the voice of God speaking through the Prophet Isaiah, and through the Word of God finding voice in Jesus. Outward acts and observances are not worth the time and effort they take if they are hypocritical. If we only do pious deeds to receive accolades, and we remain blind to many of our other behaviors are way out of line with God’s purposes – what good is piety to us or anyone els?
Both the passage from Isaiah and the passage from Matthew, juxtapos hypocritical human attempts at piety with a vision of what God is longing for. In both Isaiah and Matthew, God’s hopes pour forth and we find that what God wants most for us is connection – compassionate and just connections with our neighbors, and loving and life giving connection with God. From Isaiah we hear:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke and let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
And in Matthew Jesus repeats the refrain time and again about being pious in secret “so that your Father who sees in secret with reward you”, not with accolades, but with treasure beyond anything we can find in this realm.
These two passages given to us here at the outset of Lent are a gift in that they have the power to rouse us out of any tendency we might have to approach this season by doing the things we have always done, because we think those are the things we should do. These passages are here to rattle us a bit, to give us the opportunity to wonder what God may be longing to draw us into in the next 40 days. What divine designs might just be waiting for our participation? And my dear friends I say this as much for my own benefit as I do for yours. If we have been around the church for any length of time it is likely that our piety needs a bit of rattling, as we can settle all too easily into the comfort of what we know. This came full force to me in a very tangible way this past Sunday as I walked through the now empty spaces downstairs where our tenant Harborside Adult Day Health resided for the past 25 years. In those emptied out spaces I stood still and wondered what God has in mind for those spaces now, and asked God to make us ready to receive that vision as it unfolds. So both as individuals and as a faith community, Lent gives us another opportunity to hit the reset button. And hitting that button is the first step in letting go so that God can lead us into what God knows we each most need.
Though our hard wired human reaction is often to try to take control in times of change and make things happen, this day and this liturgy call us to stop, to relax into the present moment, and to pray for the grace to discern what God is calling us to next. And that is the movement that makes all the difference. The movement of prayer in which we surrender our plans and designs to a larger plan, and each day refocus our hearts and minds on discerning what God would have us do to be in compassionate connection with our neighbors and loving connection with God.
It is our scripture passage from Second Corinthians that gives evidence to what awaits us each time we do this letting go to God. It turns out that God’s redeeming love- on full display for us in Christ Jesus- has the power to turn the experience we have of even the most difficult events in our lives inside out. Here the counterpoint passes over the margin into paradox, for we are told that reconciliation to God in Christ means that:
We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see– we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
A paradox is “a statement that seems to contradict itself but may nonetheless be true” and if you listen closely throughout this service you will find paradox all over the place. The last paradox of our worship that I want to mention is a symbolic one that we could easily missed. It is the sign of the cross in ashes on our forehead that we will momentarily share. As the ash makes contact with our foreheads the liturgy reminds us “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return”. The paradox here is that our foreheads remember this motion, not just from previous Ash Wednesdays, but from way back at the time of our baptism when we were smudged with the holy oil of chrism in the sign of a cross in that same spot. But the words were different then. Then the priest called us by name and proclaimed, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever”
This symbol and many other words and symbols we share this day point to the foundational paradox of our faith: That the deadly power of human sinful self-reliance when surrendered gives way to the even stronger force of divine longing to bestow upon the whole world abundant and everlasting life. May we be awash in that hopeful paradox in this day and throughout this season of Lent. In Christ’s name. Amen+
Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills, O God, that we may serve you today and always – Amen.
I come from a long line of what are called watersmen on my father’s side of my family who have worked the Chesapeake Bay and made their living as commercial fishermen there for many generations. In fact, I’m among the first generation in my family to not make my living from the Bay, to leave working the water — but I still well remember one key lesson I learned early on when helping my Uncles prepare one of the boats and equipment for the next day…… that you don’t stop, you can’t stop, till the work is done. You don’t just put down your nets easily – for anything, especially for someone you hardly know walking along the water’s edge.
I tell you this story because as most of you know, I just returned from the Holy Land Friday evening and it was just last week that I stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee where, according to scholars, Jesus had stood when he called his first disciples as we heard in today’s Gospel. As I stood there on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, I thought about how Jesus had stood there, looking at the same vista, largely unchanged, that I was looking at, when he began his ministry by calling his first disciples, telling them to put down their nets — and I remembered that lesson we had lived by when I worked with my watersmen family – that you don’t put down your nets until the work is done — and I wondered with amazement at the fact that the first disciples did. They put down their nets.
Now, in today’s reading, we’re off with the events surrounding the call of those first disciples. A lot has happened in Jesus’ life since his baptism by his cousin John that we’ve been hearing about in the last few week’s Gospels. Among many other events, John the Baptist, his cousin has been arrested and will soon be killed.
While the story of Jesus’s call to the first disciples is told in different ways in the different Gospels, in today’s we hear that Jesus goes to the Sea of Galilee, sees Simon and Simon’s brother Andrew, both commercial fishermen – doing what commercial fishermen of their day did – throwing their fishing nets into the water. And Jesus says to them, “Come on — put down those nets, I’ll show you how to really fish…..And they do!! They put them down! And then a little bit farther along the beach he sees two more brothers, James and John, and he calls to them – “Come on” – and they do!! They stop repairing the nets that they were working on, and they get up and leave their father, who they were working with, and go off with Jesus. Isn’t that amazing?!!
Now many people interpret this Gospel very literally, as meaning that Jesus is telling us we should be ready to give up everything we own and go spread the Good News. I don’t know about you, but that is one of those Gospel lesson’s interpretation that can make me feel a bit inadequate, cause me to be embarrassed. I mean, what would you do, how would you respond, if someone, stranger or friend, came up to you and said, “Hey, the Kingdom of God is here, repent, stop all of that stuff you are doing to make a living for you and your family and come with me to spread the news.” I checked with a number of people who said they too felt uncomfortable when contemplating this Gospel. It can evoke feelings of guilt when we acknowledge how hard it would be to just up and leave – to leave everything behind. ……. It can be pretty hard to put down our actual or metaphorical, nets – especially with little or no warning, no preparation.
There are some very reputable historians who think maybe Jesus knew some, or all, of these fishermen very well before we meet them in Matthew. Jesus had lived in the small town of Nazareth –only 200 people. Capernaum a much bigger, exciting city, was only a day and a half’s walk South along a beautiful road that till exits — not an unusual distance to walk in those days. He could have easily gotten to know other men there around his own age over the years. In fact, from the last few week’s Gospels we know that Jesus had at least met some of them. So maybe Simon and Andrew and John and James didn’t just put their nets down quite so suddenly, as it seems in Matthew’s Gospel. Maybe it didn’t happen quite that abruptly — maybe the group of men had talked earlier about there coming a time when they joined Jesus of Nazareth to go off and build God’s Kingdom. After all, many were looking for a Messiah to come and free them from the bondage of Roman rule….they were expecting a Messiah. Maybe John the Baptist, who had a huge following of his own, maybe his arrest by those in power just brought it all to a head.
Still, even if they had known one another– pretty hard to put down all you have, leave all your family and loved ones and follow someone, stranger or friend. Risky business that – getting up and following Jesus – with or without everything your nets represented.
And following him where, to do what? What does it mean to be a fisher of men? Again, this part of the Gospel can make us feel a bit uncomfortable, right? Many folks think it means we should go off and become evangelists. I think I’ve mentioned to some of you that I was in a conversation once with a colleague who tried to convince me that on Sunday mornings I should stand out on the sidewalk in front of the church to stop people walking by — not to greet them and not as a Steward of the Word as I do in the summer, but to strongly encourage them to come in for services. To be honest the thought of doing that made me very uncomfortable.
But I was somewhat relieved after hearing something Bishop Bud, one of our retired Bishops said. He said that to be a fisher of men did not mean being a catcher of men. To me that meant it was OK to not stop people on the sidewalk and pull them into church. Evangelism could look different from that. The word evangelist derives from a Greek work that means good tidings or good news – and I think that is what Jesus was saying. I think it’s also important to remember the rest of what Jesus said to the four he called that day. He said “believe the Good News”. Evangelists are people who proclaim the Good News and who through their lives invite not trap or browbeat, others to join them — and that way of looking at it makes more sense to me.
I believe that Jesus has continued to call fishers of people ever since he called out to Andrew and Simon. So how do we grow into that life, to proclaim the Good News through our words and our actions as Jesus calls us to do when we read the story of putting down our nets? What is it to hear that call from Jesus — to put down our nets in today’s world — to become real Disciples of Christ in the 21st century??? How do we put down our nets — however we define what constitutes our nets — and let go all of those things that get in our way or block us from following Jesus? We do it through love.
When asked which was the greatest commandment, Jesus replied with these words that are now familiar to us: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
How do we put down our nets? The concrete and the metaphysical? We do it through love. We are gentle with each other, we care for one another, we work for peace and justice. We look for ways to help heal this broken world by seeing the face of Christ in each other and seeking the divine spark of God in each other, respecting the dignity of every human being.
That is hard to accomplish. I can’t always do it – not with those with whom I have a personal conflict or those with whom I vigorously and profoundly disagree politically. However, we are called to continue to try.
But make no mistake, our efforts to avoid disputes and unpleasantness with our neighbors, and our Christian desire for reconciliation is not always how we show our love, not always how we are called to put down our nets. To show love does not free us from resisting evil – in fact, I believe resisting evil in all its forms of unjustness, including the structural and systematic forms, shows God’s love. During this, the weekend of the inauguration, we see whole groups of people who are in strife and in conflict. To quote from one of the prayers we used during our election prayer vigil, “Faithful people will, of course, honestly disagree with each other regarding the proper scope and methods for the political process. Loving God and our neighbors does not mean giving our unthinking assent to platforms, simply to avoid conflict. Loving God and our neighbors does, however, entail working diligently and unceasingly to show God’s love to a broken world.” And I would add that the church’s relevance in showing that love is needed now more than it has been for a long time.
They will know us by our love and they will want to follow us, follow Christ, when we live as beloved children of God, when we manifest that love in the relationships we have with others — that, my friends, is how we put down our nets today. That is how we can become fishers of men today.
God calls ordinary people to be fishers of men. The four brothers called by Jesus in today’s Gospel were ordinary men of their day. May he send us – ordinary people — guidance through the Holy Spirit and with her help may we become God’s fisher-folk of today. May we hear God’s call and may we put down our nets and follow Jesus Christ our Lord, preaching his Gospel and being a reflection of his light – even, maybe especially, when it is hard.
So let me end by going back to the first sentence in this morning collect…Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation!