Text: Matthew 4:12-22
Many of you know that I work with kids in local school gardens. This work gets me in all kinds of goofy situations, from carrying around 15 flats of herb seedlings in my Prius to ordering live caterpillars online to be delivered through the US Postal Service to digging for potatoes with 4 year olds, my arms covered in dirt up to my shoulders. This January, we started back to school with some new guests in a preschool classroom: about 1,000 Red Wiggler Worms. To be expected, some children dove right into the box of worms, asking to cuddle the worms and naming them “Fluffy” and wondering about what we should feed them. To see their joy was a wonderful thing! And then, also to be expected, some children hold back and watch, they squeal with anxiety or fear, and some refuse to even be near the worm box altogether. I noticed last week that one child in particular, I’ll call him Miguel, was having a hard time approaching the worm bin, and mostly watched with trepidation from the sidelines as his classmates engaged the Red Wigglers excitedly. This Thursday, however, when I entered the classroom, Miguel made a beeline over to me and proudly announced,
“I don’t have my fear anymore. I left my fear.”
This caught my heart right up into my throat. “I don’t have my fear anymore. I left my fear.” What an amazing, and timely, statement.
We’ve all heard sermons on this passage from the gospel of Matthew. We sometimes throw around the phrase, “fisher of men” or its gender-neutral equivalent, “fisher of people,” as an illustration or metaphor for evangelism, conjuring images of lone fishermen out in the middle of a stream in the Adirondacks, casting a long line in order to “hook” and “reel in” a disciple for Christ. However, if we pay attention to our text, we have these two sets of brothers using large nets—they were not out in order to get simply one fish, they wanted to gather an abundance of fish in order to serve their community.
This desire to deal in abundance for the good of the people of God remains constant as the fishermen’s vocations change according to Jesus’ invitation. Releasing their nets, their established business, their family, Simon and Andrew and James and John immediately comply with Jesus’ request. The call issued in the text to “change hearts and lives” also applied to the fishermen’s skills, as they had to change how they understood their skillset in order to work with Jesus to subvert the dominant culture. Jesus called the fishermen from the place where they were, with the skills they had already—fishing takes patience to wait for the nets to fill, strength and collaboration to work together to pull the nets into the boat. As they traveled with Jesus, they were no longer casting their rope nets into the deep in hopes of an abundant catch of fish, but they learned how to cast rays of hope into the crowds in Galilee, Judea and eventually in Samaria, such that their community might have abundant life and experience healing at the hands of Jesus.
How did these fishermen find such courage to change their hearts and lives in this way? And to follow Jesus in order to encourage others to follow suit?
Listen to my student Miguel: “I don’t have my fear anymore. I left my fear.”
Friends, it has been such a week.
On Monday we observed a day of remembrance for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—a man who was the charismatic leader for multiple intersecting Civil Rights Movements with a broad and diverse base of followers, who was called at one point “the most notorious liar in the country” by the director of the FBI. On Friday, we absorbed the inauguration of the next president of the United States of America—amid a political dialogue that threatens to set back the progress gained in racial, economic, gender and health arenas at least fifty years. This week we remembered with honor the sacrifices and the martyrs taken too young during the Civil Rights movements of the 60s and the leaders of a whole generation of people for the pursuit of justice between those of different races and economic statuses; and also this week, many of us have feared what is to come with the current political rhetoric. We are stuck between calling to each other to re-ignite Martin’s dream and pursue justice through protest and advocacy now, for now is the time, and trying to figure out what exactly we stand to lose, as people always do during transitions of power.
We must leave our fear.
I wonder how Simon and Andrew and James and John felt when they were approached by a strange man on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Maybe they stood there in the boats as the man who was Jesus gestured at them and uttered some nonsense about being a “fisher of people.” Maybe they thought, “I’m not really sure what that means, but somehow, I know I want to be a part of that work.”
Living in Roman-occupied Galilee as poor fishermen, how much do we really believe that Simon and Andrew dropped their nets immediately, asking no questions? That James and John left their father in the boat and never looked back? I often wonder at what really happened—if it were me, or you, wouldn’t you want to know who was this guy that’s asking you follow him? What does “fishing for people” mean? I’d ask questions and want to see a resume and a travel plan and a documentation of hotel stays and wonder who’s driving and have a list of restaurants to visit, and…you get the idea.
Or—did it really happen as the author of Matthew’s gospel writes it? Simon and Andrew and James and John all recognized at least some of what was at stake with Jesus’ offer. Did they know their lives would change? Did they know they’d possibly never return to their families? Did they know they’d maybe never be the same again? They realized that on some level, this was a once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-a-blue-moon invitation they could not refuse.
What made it such an offer?
When I think of receiving invitations that I can’t refuse, I think they fall into the following categories: often these invitations are rare, include people we love working with or we don’t see regularly; they concern issues about which we are passionate and are important to making our world a better place.
Something else comes to mind. Listen to this familiar passage and see what jumps out at you. These words are a benediction that our senior pastors used recently, originally penned by William Sloane Coffin and undergoing several iterations and updates to the language before landing on our ears here today:
“May the Holy One bless you and keep you.
May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
May God give you the grace never to sell yourselves short;
Grace to risk something big for something good;
Grace to remember that the world is now too small for anything but truth, and too dangerous for anything but love.
So may God take your minds and think through them.
May God take your lips and speak through them.
May God take your heart(s) and set them on fire.”
Did you find it? The part that caught my ear?
“Risk something big for something good.”
For the brothers at the Sea of Galilee, it would have been a huge risk to give up what little security they had as blue-collar laborers, a huge risk to leave their nets and their boats and all vestiges of their livelihood and follow Jesus. Why these people, those who have so little to lose that it seems a monstrous amount to risk? And yet, they heed Jesus’ invitation?
It is just this huge risk that makes the story powerful: Jesus does not follow societal lines of class stratification to decide who to call to be his disciples. Perhaps Jesus knew that kings and princes and priests and those of high standing would not give up the promise of their wealth and security and status in order to bring about the kin-dom of God, in order to follow Jesus as he preached “change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kin-dom of heaven!” That would be too much of a risk for them, and surely, they would not give up a predictable and stable life for the “something good” in Coffin’s benediction.
Audrey West on the Working Preacher blog writes, “As Jesus walks beside the water, the soon-to-be-disciples are engaged in their everyday jobs: earning a living for themselves and their families by fishing in the Sea of Galilee. They are probably at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder; their work is dirty and physically challenging, and it demands their attention from sunup to sundown. Jesus does not seem to be bothered by their grimy fingernails, their wet and dirty clothing, not even by their low social status or lack of political power. The One with the kingly pedigree (see Jesus’ birth narrative) does not demand that they shower up before joining his mission, nor does he ask questions about their education, their abilities, nor their availability for an extended time away from home.”
These soon-to-be-disciples consented to changing their hearts and lives. They left their fear, risking big things in order to do the good of accompanying Jesus’ subversive mission on Earth. Today, changing hearts and lives looks like this: when hate and bigotry become mainstream, it is our duty as Christians, as people who attempt to live our lives by walking in the light of Jesus and put off the shadows of darkness, to rise in body or spirit and be active and use our positions as people of faith to subvert the political dominance of violent words, actions and policies. We must be willing to risk security/ generational wealth/ social status/ family connections–things that are oh-so-big–for truth/ love/ compassion/ equity/ justice–things that are oh-so-good–and long-awaited. Let us take on these risks by following the example of the brothers gathered at the seashore—dropping the promise of safety and consenting to follow Jesus to do work that we do not fully understand, with the promise that we are uniquely shaped to be a part of it.
So, friends: If you are a doctor, be a doctor for the kin-dom by serving protesters injured on the streets after challenging the bigotry codified in our legislature. If you are a teacher, be a teacher for the kin-dom by engaging in popular education, pointing people from all walks of life to learn about the Civil Rights Movement history that inhabits this city, and indeed, this very church where we gather now. If you are a preacher, a poet, an artist, a writer, a chef, a construction worker, a gardener, a seamstress, a musician—be those things for the kin-dom by advancing, in your own unique way, the voices of those who are shut out time and time again from positions of power and privilege in our society. God is calling to all of us where we are, at the edge of the unknown, simply asking us to follow the way of Jesus, and use our talents for being the kin-dom. Know, too, that Jesus did not call us to be solitary workers for his mission: were not Simon and Andrew brothers? Were not James and John both sons of Zebedee? Here, we are all united by a purpose to confront the powers of divisiveness in our homes, our city, our state and our country, to work with each other as siblings to do this work for the kin-dom. Jesus did not wait for the fishermen to come to him, no, Jesus went out to where they were. Sometimes bringing folks into the movement means going out and reaching out. And remember what many preachers have noted before in our text today: that the fishermen’s nets did not break even though they were full to bursting. Abundance will not break us—that is the goodness for which we are called to risk great things.
Beloved friends, hear the good news today: God comes to us where we are, in the midst of the smell of fish and brine, at the edge of the sea with rocks bleached by salt and sun. God comes to us where we are, seeing what we have and offering to show us how to use it in a new way. God comes to us where we are, revealing opportunities to use our pre-existing skills for the sake of the kin-dom of God.
When Jesus meets us at the seashore, how will you leave your fear? What will you risk? And what do we stand to gain?
Originally preached January 22, 2017 at Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, TN.
*photo from Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Port Clinton, OH. http://immaculateconceptionpc.com/.