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!
The poet William Wordsworth once wrote:
“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come,
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy.”
I find resonance with that poem every time a hold an infant – there is a freshness, a vital new energy they bring that is, to me, irresistible. As others have put it, they have the dew of heaven fresh on their brow. Usually on this feast of our Lord’s baptism, we baptize such little ones, and we have several little ones in the parish, but in order to include family and God parents from far away, we will baptize them on several occasions in the coming months.
Nonetheless, this feast gives us the opportunity to consider again our own baptism and its meaning in our lives. That Wordsworth poem that I began with, continues on this way:
“Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy.
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.”
What this poem captures for me is the sense that though we come into this world trailing clouds of glory, life in this world can gradually turn us and fade the memory of the God from whom we come. What happened to Jesus at his baptism, and what happens to us at ours is that the clouds of life in this world which may obscure our vision of the light from which we descended, are cracked open and the mystical reality of our connection to a loving God is remembered and reaffirmed, and we are touched by the Holy Spirit. Now if we are tiny babies when we are baptized the remembering and reaffirming happens in those who surround us on that day – our parents, our God-parent, our siblings, grand-parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and our family of faith in the congregation. And the Holy Spirit comes upon us and, I like to think, plants the seeds of spiritual gifts that with time and nurturing can bloom into talents and facets of our personalities that God will use for good in our world.
And it is plain – is it not – that the world needs people to be connected well to God? We simply have to look around to see that all sorts of evil and suffering spring up when people are not walking humbly with God. Now those of us who are go getters, who are people of action might get all fired up by this sort of talk. But we would do well to pause on this feast and to remember that when it comes to baptism – both Jesus’s baptism, and our own – baptism is not about what we are going to do to make the situation right again in the world – and indeed in our own lives- rather it is an acknowledgement that only God, working in us can make the situation right again. Baptism can make us fearless in accepting the fact that our world is severely bent by human sin, because baptism offers us a covenant with God who- unlike us – is stronger than that sin.
And that covenant is free gift to us. We don’t have to do anything but reach out and accept it. There are no prerequisites or entrance exams. All we need do is open our hearts to God’s grace who comes to us in Christ so we can be swept into God’s loving embrace. We don’t even need to understand the mystery of God’s incarnation in Christ – as if that would ever be fully possible – all we have to do is see that God loves the world and all people so much that God would want to come among us in human form. As a friend of mine says – even just the willingness to have willingness to believe works. In our first lesson the prophet Isaiah said the one who is coming among us in God’s name, or as God’s word, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” It is not our strength that God needs, but rather our willingness to put our trust in God’s promise to lead and guide us in the Spirit. And when we cannot muster up even a little willingness to believe, we can run here, and borrow some from the person in the next pew.
There is a wonderful story that Tom Long, a renowned preaching professor, tells about how faith is shared in community this way:
“Late one spring a former student came by Tom’s office for a cup of coffee. They chatted about this and that and then she said, “I have a secret to tell you.”
“What is it,” Tom Said.
“I’m pregnant, she said.
He was overjoyed. She and her husband had a seven-year-old daughter, and they had been trying since their daughter had been born to have another child, but had been unsuccessful and had finally given up. Now she was pregnant.
“That’s wonderful news,” Tom said
“We just got the test results and we know two things about our child. Our child will be a boy, and will have Down’s syndrome.”
Tom said that he knew she must be bruised reed and a dimly burning wick.
“I don’t know how we are going to handle it,” she said, “but we are trusting in God to help us.”
At Christmas that year a card and letter arrived in Tom’s mailbox from this former student, who wrote, “After nine long months of unmitigated discomfort, at four in the morning on August 18, I knew the magic moment had come. At last at 10:55 am, Timothy Andrew took his first breath and let out a hearty yell, he was whisked off to neo-natal intensive care where he spent the next three days before coming home. He’s strong, alert, beautiful. He has the sweetest disposition. He shatters daily our images of handicapped and special needs. He may need special help, but already he is no slouch in giving special love. We are blessed. Kate (that’s their 8 year old) is Tim’s champion. Hearing our concerns about how well Tim might be accepted by other kids, Kate informed the kids on our block, ‘My brother has Down’s syndrome and everybody’s going to play with him or else!’ One evening we overheard her talking to Tim: ‘I’m so glad you’re here, Timothy, I will always love you, I’ll never leave you, and I’ll always be nearby.’”
Don’t you just hear the echo of God’s words to Jesus at his baptism in the words of this little girl to her brother? These are words of love and hope and appreciation. God never stops loving us, hoping in us and appreciating us, even when our wicks burn low, or our bruised reed parts show. And when we lend and borrow that faith in community the mystical body of Christ, of which we are a part through our baptism, is built up.
Today we celebrate that God has given us the gift of a covenant in our baptism that can shape our lives for good, if we are willing daily to stay close to God, listen for guidance, and generously share our faith with those who need it. May it be so among us!
I want to end with some words from the 13th century mystic, Mechtild of Magdeburg. In one of her visions, God spoke to her about the covenant relationship between us and God. Mechtild wrote this:
“God said, ‘I am like a great magnet and you are like a needle, and I will draw you to myself’ That this God, no matter what mess we make of our lives, no matter how much we feel we have failed, nor will never make it, or God is far away – this Great Magnet – because we are made of the same essence of this Great Magnet – This Great Magnet, this Great God, will have us home.”
In the name of the Word alive among us, Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen+