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!