Jan. 26, 2020

Matthew 4:12-23


I wonder if today’s gospel passage has a way of working against itself for modern readers, preventing us from really hearing it.  First, there’s this image of fishing and its connection to evangelism (which for some in and of itself is a questionable word.)  Whether you fish or not you can relate to the touch of brutality involved in hooking a worm in order to trick an unexpecting fish into piercing itself and being dragged against its will into a foreign environment where it is incapable of breathing.  To liken that to evangelism will unfortunately strike a cord with people who have been the victims of overzealous proselytes who are just convinced that your soul is on its way to hell because you don’t believe as they believe.  But, even those of us who haven’t been so victimized cringe at the imperialistic image that comes to mind.  It’s hard to claim such absolute confidence in one’s faith that we’re willing to embrace the arrogance of yanking people into salvation.  The truth is, we’re not always sure what we believe ourselves.

Equally challenging in this passage, it occurs to me, is the matter of leaving everything behind in order to be a disciple.  It’s hard not to think that this notion serves nowadays to encourage a dissonance with our faith lives because, let’s be realistic, we aren’t going to leave everything behind.  We have lives, work, children, responsibilities, or whatever else.  We aren’t going to leave them, nor are we really going to think that we should.

But, here we are and Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  Remarkably, these fishermen do.  They drop their nets and off they go…  I think there’s an intent to this passage that we might easily miss.  First, the fishing.  Of course, they didn’t use hooks; they used nets.  And, this wasn’t a hobby; it was their livelihood.  Jesus uses the fishing image because fishing is what these men knew.  One author paraphrases it like this, “Come, follow me and you will do the same thing you’ve been doing for generations: fishing.  Except now you’ll be fishers of people.  He speaks to them in a language they’ll understand and gives them a job they can do.  They know how to fish.”[1]

Just as Jesus comes to these men where they are, as they are, as an expression of God’s way of meeting us all, the dropping of their nets and the immediacy of their following is less about their radical consent (after all, they have no idea what they are getting themselves into) than about the compelling force of Christ’s presence in their encounter of him.

Though I’d always been a bit of a commitment-phobe, part of what compelled me beyond my fears when Angela and I were dating was that I found myself always wanting to be near her.  I think the image is similar here.  The disciples follow because having been met by him, having been approached and invited by him just as they are, they want more of him.

As readers, of course, we know what lies ahead for them.  We know that they do not remain the same.  But, just because Christ comes to us as we are does not mean that he leaves us that way.  And the truth is, we are always changing anyway.  There is nothing to do but change.  What we see though is that Jesus offers a particular kind of change, a change modeled by death and resurrection, a change that offers light from darkness and the promise that the life of discipleship is always and ever a life that is part of something sacred that God is doing.

A modern translation of this calling might be, “So, you are a 6th grade teacher?  Follow me and I’ll make you a teacher of all.  So, you are a mother?  Follow me and you’ll be a parent to God’s people.”  Maybe you can think of other versions.

One of my favorite writers makes the point this way: “If we’re going to follow [Jesus] at all, we’ll have to do it in the unique particulars of the lives, communities, cultures, families, and vocations we find ourselves in.  We’ll have to trust that God prizes our intellects, our memories, our backgrounds, our educations, our skills, and that he will multiply, shape, and bring to fruition everything we offer up to him in faith from the daily stuff of our lives.  “I will make you,” he tells the fishermen.  I will make, cultivate, deepen, magnify, purify, protect, and perfect the people God created you to be.”[2]

So, it’s not a matter of dropping our lives in order to follow.  It’s actually the opposite.  It’s a matter of claiming our lives in order to give to Christ nothing less than our real selves.

Of course, this is an act that is not without its own challenges.  This giving over of ourselves may only be getting more and more difficult to do because we live in what some scholars are calling a secular age – a time of authenticity and self-definition – where the notion of divine intervention may come across as imposition, and divine activity is harder and harder to identify.  It’s hard to give ourselves to God when we don’t know, or can’t see, what it is that God is doing.

One author whose insights I’ve been appreciating quite a bit lately suggests that this age offers us an exciting opportunity for discipleship precisely because of its seeming Godlessness.  He likens it to a jiu jitsu move where we use the momentum of our opponent to our advantage.  Since God is a God who brings freedom from captivity (exodus to the Israelites) and life from death (resurrection to Jesus,) God shows up most powerfully in the moments of Godlessness, impingement, lostness, and need.

Lately I’ve been reminded of how true this seems to be for people.  A colleague was telling me how blowing out his knee in a lacross game was just the darkness he needed to face his aimlessness in life, bring him to church, and begin listening to that voice that was telling him his life was meant for something sacred.  Another friend talked about the devastating loss of a family member that brought her to worship, which introduced her to a community in which her sense of God’s “more” began to grow.  I’m reminded of the darkness I felt when a surgical injury led to chronic pain and the loss of great plans that I had for myself.  I remember how in that pain, though I didn’t get the quick healing that I prayed for, sermon thoughts and inspiration flowed into me in ways I had never experienced before.  I’m not suggesting that God lays hardship upon us or wills our suffering.  I’m saying that very often though, that’s where God shows up, that’s where we find God at work – in the times when initially God seems absent.

What does that mean for discipleship?  That’s not entirely clear, but my author friend has some ideas.  He talks about Nadia Bolz-Weber’s first call as a chaplain in training in the ER.  (Nadia is a pastor who has made a speaking and writing career for herself through a very raw and vulnerable style of presentation.  I’m sure you can find her on Youtube.)  She shares the sense that there in that Emergency Room while doctors and nurses and other medical staff rushed to use every tool at their disposal to save the life before them, she had no tools and no idea what to do.  She writes, “A nurse stepped back to where I was standing, and I leaned over to her. ‘Everyone seems to have a job, but what am I doing here?… [The nurse] looked at my badge and said, ‘Your job is to be aware of God’s presence in the room while we do our jobs.”

“That’s what pastors do,” writes my friend, but I want to change his word to “disciples.”

That’s what disciples do.  “They lean into nothingness and expectantly wait, showing up as an invitation for people to lean into nothingness and expectantly wait, showing up as an invitation for people to lean into the coincidences and uncanny experiences.  [Disciples] hold a space, preparing for a future when God arrives speaking.”[3]

Disciples show up.  They wait.  They hold space for the arriving God.  And, in doing all of that they have quite a job to do; they have the job of leading others into receptivity, leading others into hope.  Nadia shares a little more about her time in the ER.  “In that messy chaos, my job was to just stand there and be aware of God’s presence in the room.  Kind of a weird job description, but there I was, and in those moments, I felt strangely qualified.”

I want to suggest that you too, we too, are strangely qualified.  Just as Christ makes disciples out of fishermen he makes disciples out of us all, whatever our jobs.  We have everything we need: we have love, compassion, our own blessed uniqueness, and faith enough.  The rest is really a matter of showing up to one another, to all God’s children, and learning how to watch for God.

[1] Jennifer Moland-Kovash, The Christian Century, Jan. 15, 2020.  Page 19.

[2] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2507

[3] Andrew Root, Pastor in a Secular Age, page 212.