St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church
3rd Sunday of Epiphany
Isaiah 9: 1-4
Psalm 27: 1, 5-13
1 Corinthians 1: 10-18
Matthew 4: 12-23
My life is filled with books. They line the walls of my office here at the church, in my home study, in my living room, kitchen and bedroom. In fact, I don’t think there is a single place where I move and have my being that is without books. There are text books, cook books, books about gardening, about dogs and how to live with them. There are historical novels and countless theological books, bibles and commentaries and how to books covering every need to know from candle making to leadership and management. For all these, there is only one book on all my shelves that includes the subject of “following,” and that is the Holy Bible. There are over sixty references to “following” in the Bible, most sprinkled among the four Gospels. Just for curiosity’s sake, I checked Amazon, and found a few books that use the word “follow” in their titles….some having to do with what it means to be a Christian. But these books have more to do with the “why” or “what” of following, rather than the “how to.” And we are not given a “how to” from Jesus, as he speaks to some fishermen working with their nets, as Matthew tells it in his Gospel.
As Matthew describes it, Jesus is walking along the banks of the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps he is contemplating the future of his ministry as he is just starting out on his own personal quest of following God’s call. Walking along, he sees four fishermen, and he calls to them to follow him. According to Matthew, they simply dropped their nets and did just that. No questions asked. And this always brings us up short. How could they do that? How could they leave a perfectly good living, as successful fishermen with homes, probably wives, girlfriends, children, fishing boats….. leaving people, who came to buy their fish every day, empty handed? How does one justify dropping everything on the spot and just leaving to follow someone one barely knows?
The idea is compelling and for many of us, strangely attractive in an adventurous sort of way. When one hears a call to move forward in a completely different direction, into a completely different kind of thinking, into a completely different way of being or acting in the world, one wants to respond to it, even when afraid of its discomfort. And….sometimes we sense the need to respond quickly, lest the opportunity passes us by. How many time have we felt a push to respond to a call and lived to regret not taking the road less travelled?
In his book written many, many years ago, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell interprets the beginning of something as a Call to Adventure. I love that concept, because we see it as Jesus calls to his disciples and things begin to happen. Change begins. The story shifts from individual decisions, needs and desires to the broader stage of a much larger context.
We can probably think about times in our own lives that we began to understand that the broader context, while disruptive to our lives or challenging to our comfort levels, shifted its emphasis from our own story to a story of something bigger and beyond ourselves or our normal day-to-day expectations.
Has there been a time in your life, when you were compelled to drop your nets to follow a particular person or promise… when you stepped far beyond your own normal boundaries to enter into a Call to Adventure of your own? What promises came true and met your expectations or what were the costs which turned your life in yet another direction?
Who or what has whispered the words “Follow me” to you? When did you say “Yes” and when did you hang on to your nets with clenched hands in order to stay where you were?
Sometimes, we know in our hearts when it is time to respond to a compelling call. To be called is to be compelled to follow. In his first book of Confessions, St. Augustine opens with the words, “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” The words imply that the hearts of the fishermen were restless, waiting for just this moment when they would hear the call they prayed would eventually come. Even, though they were happy in their work and in the way of their lives, their hearts knew there was another higher call that would eventually come from God and when finally heard and recognized as that call for which they had been waiting, they had no choice but to respond to it immediately, dropping everything they knew and loved in order to do so. Perhaps they had heard a little about this new rabbi, who was very charismatic and drawing crowds. Maybe the still small voice within each of their hearts had already begun to speak to them….telling them that this was the one for whom the world had been waiting.
In a way, theirs was an example of perfect discernment. With hearts which had been searching for a lifetime, waiting to hear the true voice of God, they were prepared to pay heed to it and follow wherever God would lead, when the call was finally revealed to them. It must have seemed an easy decision for them. Yet it doesn’t seem that easy for us to understand how we could make such a decision in the circumstances of our lives and times.
Perhaps the first lesson in discernment is to understand when we are hearing the voice of God and when we are not and to prepare ourselves in order to know the difference.
We are beset by a thousand voices calling to us from every direction, attempting to persuade us to go here or there, do this or that, buy something, sell something, be in the know, be on the inside, be more important or made to feel that way. Most of the calls we hear are bent on filling a need that we sense must be filled, yet are unsure how to fill…and are often left unsatisfied. We too often ignore what the ultimate desired outcome is for those who are calling. What’s in it for me? What’s in it for them?
In the last verse of Matthew’s Gospel, we hear of Jesus going throughout Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom and curing people from every kind of disease and sickness…..physical, emotional and mental. It wouldn’t have taken the disciples very long to determine whether Jesus really was who they discerned him to be. If he had simply stayed in one place, with no forward agenda, they would have quickly discerned that this was not the one for whom they were waiting and gone back to their fishing nets.
So we, too, have a responsibility, just as did the early disciples, to not only be sure to discern the voice and guidance of God, when God reaches out to speak to us, but to respond to the voice when it calls us to follow.
When we do hear God’s voice, it is our responsibility to understand not only the way God is directing us to go or be, it is to understand that by the very act of doing so, we are contributing to the reign of God in this world, “on earth, as it is in heaven,” to become, as did the disciples, evangelists for God. We do not take God’s direction lightly. We do not hear it and respond to it later, at a more convenient time….when we’ve graduated from college, when we move to another place, when we have a new job, when we retire, when we have more time. That would be very convenient for our timing, but our call to follow comes in God’s time and we are to respond to God’s call in the moment.
Last week Jesus beckoned to us and said “Come and see,” but now we are faced with the same imperative from Jesus heard by the disciples, “Follow me.”
Our first reaction is to say, well, our lives are so much more complex, more bound up by expectations and rules then were the lives of simple fishermen in Galilee. And yet, when we consider all the people of our times who have heard a call to step out of their comfort zone, our argument falls short.
Like the disciples, if we have restless hearts, if we have been waiting to hear God’s call, waiting to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, doing the work he taught us to do, we need not worry. We will know his voice and we will be prepared to drop our nets and follow.
Years ago, my husband and I visited his class reunion at Asbury Seminary, in Wilmore, Kentucky, his Alma Mater. One of the most moving events took place in old Hughes Hall, the gathering place for worship and major meetings. One by one, missionaries from around the world, came before the congregation to give testimony to their call to mission. Leaving family and home, they had heard and responded to the call to go to the farthest parts of the earth to spread the good news of Christ. Some had spent 20 or 30 years in one part of the world, only to return when called again, or to another part of the world when called to go. Their testimonies were formative for me, teaching me to put God first in all that I undertook, so help me God.
Jesus said follow me, and they did. There are others who have done the same, and you can probably think of them…people of Martin Luther King, and others who left hearth and home for the sake of civil rights and many others who heard God’s call to follow his steps into causes that seemed beyond the reach of so many to do anything about and yet they did.
We may tell ourselves that we cannot be missionaries in the fullest meaning of that lifestyle, or capable of moving mountains in the way of a Martin Luther King. And yet, we must also ask ourselves the question, “Why not?” No matter how small or grand the stage is to which we are called, a call to serve is a call to serve. Where it leads is not ours to ponder. What we know to be a call to which we must respond, expects our courage to answer, whether on an international or national stage, in our local community, or in this church. No matter the scope of one’s call, you will recognize your need to consider it when it demands you leave behind something of your comfortable world.
When Jesus comes near, the fishermen are hard at work, doing what they love doing and do well, something useful, something meaningful and necessary, and they do not seem to looking for a way out, an escape, a better way. The call they hear from Jesus does not seem to be filling an emptiness of which they are aware in their way of making a living. Indeed, it seems almost intrusive or disruptive, interrupting their work and their home lives. And yet, their hearts were restless for answers to questions they probably weren’t even sure how to ask or indeed, what the questions might be in the first place. They knew, however, that the call from Jesus, this Call to Adventure, this direction to “Follow me” was so very right because they were prepared to recognize God’s voice calling them to follow and their response was immediate. This wasn’t something they decided amongst themselves, to better themselves, gain status or power or to prove anything.
David Brooks, in a NY Times article, “Putting Grit in Its Place” reflects that we are all oriented around some set of goals. He states the case that we all worship something: money, power, popularity, art…and more. In other words, everyone’s life is organized around a kind of longing. When we find something to hold on to, when our net becomes more valuable than anything else, our longing can only continue unfulfilled. It is only when we find a direction that leads beyond our need to hang on, that we find fulfillment.
To quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Discipleship is not an offer man makes to Christ. It is only the call which creates the situation.”
The disciples’ decision haunts us with questions. What is the makeup of our nets and what nets are we willing to simply drop…. Those from which we can simply walk away? Who or what are we following….now…..today? What would we be giving up if we dropped our nets to follow Jesus and what burdens would we need to carry in order to do so?
What do your nets feel like as you hold on to them? What does it feel like to keep throwing the nets out to see what you can catch? And what do you hope to see in your nets when you pull them to you?
Who is calling you to come away from them? Whose voice are you hearing? Where is it calling you from and where is it calling you to go? What do you see yourself becoming if you answer the call and what do you see yourself becoming if you refuse to hear it?
And we might ask ourselves in the weeks and months to come, what we, as a community, understand as new beginnings, or as times to drop our nets. What is it that Jesus is calling us toward…what spiritual opportunity to pull our heads out of the sand, so that we can see what we might well be missing.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of great darkness – on them light has shined.”
How can we see the light, if we refuse the call to emerge from the darkness that is known but leads us nowhere?
Are there calls among us that this community may need to embrace and support in order to move this church into the light of a new future? Is there light shining in the darkness of our uncertainty and fear for that future?
Are there efforts to spread the good news in new and different ways, in ways that work for the world we live in and the community we live within sight of this church?
What might God know that you are still trying to discern, remembering that we are not always called to greatness, but like the disciples, more often to the humility of letting go of all we cling fiercely on to, just to preserve a sense of our own power.
The fishermen were called by Jesus not just to be admiring hangers-on, but to be disciples, to learn the meaning of the Kingdom of God, to watch Jesus in his healing ministry, his teaching and preaching and to learn how to become fishers of people. They knew how to fish for fish, but now the concept has expanded far beyond their narrow boundaries into the vastness of the world as they found it….longing for its own answers.
What is your own inner voice….your own longing, your own dream, your own painful understanding of yourself….calling you to change, to begin, to answer….to drop what you are doing and follow another way of being so that you can follow Jesus and learn from him.
The fishermen learned what they had to do and how they had to do it in order to follow Jesus and become what Jesus wanted them to be…evangelists for the Kingdom of God. In our Bible study group yesterday, we talked about how we can be evangelists in the skeptical world of today just as the disciples were called to be evangelists in the skeptical world of yesterday. We are called now to join them in the spreading of the Good News and there are ways to do it. We have to watch, to listen and to learn. That is why you must avail yourself of opportunities to learn from Jesus…to listen carefully to his words, regard his actions and notice the outcomes. To attend opportunities to expand your knowledge of God, through educational opportunities, reading, learning, interacting with other who take their Christian formation seriously, then will you be prepared to hear God’s voice and to do the work he is sending you to do.
To follow Christ is to drop not just one net, but all of them. To heed his call is to let go of the way things have been in order to embrace all that could be….to embrace the Call to Adventure. And it is ultimately your choice.
“As water given sugar sweetens, given salt grows salty, we become our choices,” from poet Jane Hirschfield.
How are you becoming your choices? No matter the status of your working life or home life, no matter your circumstances, how is what you choose to do with your time, defining how you are living?
You can collect all the books to help you learn how to live a happier life, how to be healthier and how to chase after dreams. But there are no books which can tell you how you will hear or when you will hear the voice of God calling to you to drop your nets and follow. Only you can listen to your heart and hear what it hears….and look deeply into it to see what truth waits to be revealed.
What about in this very moment, if Jesus were to speak to you and say “Follow me.” What would your answer be?
Written to the Glory of God
- J. R. Culver+
January 22, 2017
 Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949, reprint, Princeton, NH: Princeton University Press, 1968), 58.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: Macmillan, 1959) 68.
 Jane Hirschfield, Given Sugar, Given Salt, from “Rebus.”