Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul – January 25, 2015
Awakening to last Sunday’s ice event, I attempted to exit my driveway shortly before 8 am and slid half way down France Street, fortunate enough to be able to bank into the curb and not an oncoming vehicle. I cautiously and very slowly made it to the parking lot on the corner of North and France and thought I’d just walk up the hill to church. No way.
So there I sat for about 40 minutes during which time I was able to be in contact with three members of the staff and a warden. Within a few minutes, a Constant Contact arrived to advise the parish that the 9 am service was cancelled and an update about the 11 am service would follow—and all this was accomplished by Anne Watkins who was in New Hampshire. One of our members received the notices while in Sweden. I wondered if this is what Jesus meant when he told us “You will do even greater things than this.”
Today’s Gospel describes the call of four individuals by Jesus to follow him in his mission to preach the Good News of the Coming of God’s Kingdom. They made their livelihood as fishermen. Their fathers fished. Their grandfathers fished. That’s probably all they knew. Then some passerby, who doesn’t even introduce himself, comes up to them and says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
Immediately they drop their nets and followed him until they happen upon two other fishermen who carefully mending a broken net. Immediately, they also drop what they’re doing and follow. Four skilled anglers just up and turn their backs the life they have known and follow this stranger. Incredible! Astonishing! One might even say “insane!”
Where’s the logical “let me think this over.” Or “Maybe tomorrow—if the fish aren’t biting.” We’re not even sure if they stopped to say goodbye to family and friends. They just up and leave everything—period—compelled by something they perceived in this man Jesus.
And the group increased. Four were fishermen; one was a tax collector. There was not a priest or Rabbi or Temple official in their ranks. We don’t really know if all twelve could read or write. Peter was an impulsive hot head. Thomas was a cynical realist. James and John were jealous of each other. Judas was a loner who ultimately lost all faith. There were no shining stars in this batch. Their Jewish peers probably thought they were all mashugana.
Today we honor Paul who followed years after. We heard the account about his life transforming experience in the first reading. Paul was another miracle of transformation. Once he persecuted and killed Christians with a passion until he encountered Jesus and becomes the Apostle to the Gentiles with a passion for their inclusion in the church.
There is an interesting character in this Gospel: Zebedee. He does not follow—at least according to Mark. He just sits stunned watching them leave the family business, walking single around the shore of Galilee. I like to think that we have made the decision to follow Jesus as well, but let’s be honest, most of us don’t just walk away from our livelihood, our family, our friends, and go off not knowing how we will live or where we are going.
What made Zebedee stay behind? Common sense? Age? Family loyalty? Isn’t he the one with whom we can relate? Don’t we sometimes feel more comfortable sitting back in the boat and mulling life over?
We may not fish for a living but we know about casting and mending nets. Days that all seem the same; one just like the next; routine, lived on autopilot. We don’t expect much to happen.
We cast the nets. We mend the nets. We try to make a decent living, feed our family, and pay the bills. We acquire things we want: a house, a car, gadgets, clothes, a vacation. We work hard to gain security and get to retirement. We strive to earn a reputation, gain approval, and make it through times of loneliness, sadness, or illness.
“Follow me” is the invitation to a new life and the place where we are changed and the ordinary becomes the extraordinary. When Jesus says, “I will make you fish for people,” he is describing the transformation of their lives, not simply a job catching followers. His invitation says to us, “Follow me, and you will build the kingdom of heaven. Follow me, and you will grow God’s people. Follow me, and you will heal the brokenness of the world. Follow me, and you will open minds and hearts to the presence of God. “Follow me” is the call to participate with God in God’s own reconciling and saving work, the work of change and growth.
I’m afraid that if Mark were writing about me – when he gets to the part when Jesus says, “Follow me” – he’d write “and immediately the questions followed.” “Where are we going? What will we do? How long will we be gone? What do I need to take? Where will we stay? What will we eat?”
Ultimately, “following” is about letting go of our own little life so that we can receive God’s life—like the college kid in this story:
William Willimon, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, dewscribes the night a fraternity invited him to give the required talk on “Character and College.” He thought, “I can’t believe that they are dumb enough to invite an old guy like me to talk to them about “character.” He went to the frat house, knocked on the door which was answered by a young boy of about nine or ten. “What is a kid doing over here at this time of the night?” he thought.
“They’re waiting for you the They’re waiting for you in the common room,” the boy said. “Follow me, I’ll take you there. The guys were gathered, glumly waiting for his presentation. As he began his remarks, Willimon noted that the little boy climbed onto the lap of one of the brothers and fell asleep with his head on this college kid’s shoulder. For thirty minutes, he hammered these guys for the moral failures of their generation.
When he finished, he asked When he finished, he asked if they had any questions. Dead silence. He thanked them for the honor, and making his way out, heard the college kid say to the little boy, “You go on and get ready for bed. I’ll be in to tuck you in and read you a story.” When we stood just outside the door, the frat boy lit a cigarette, took a drag on it, and thanked Willimon for coming out. “Let me ask you,” Willimon said, “Who was the kid there tonight?” “Oh, that’s Darrell,” he said. “The fraternity is part of the Durham Big Brother program. We met Darrell that way. His mom’s on crack and having a tough time. So we told Darrell to call us up when he needs us. We go over, pick him up, and he stays with us until it’s okay to go home. We take him to school, buy him his clothes, books, and stuff.”
“That’s amazing,” Willimon said. “I take back all that I said about you people being irresponsible.” “I tell you what’s amazing,” the frat kid said, “what’s amazing is that God would pick a guy like me to do something this good for somebody else.”
“Follow me” is both the invitation to and the promise of new life. It is about the freedom to be fully human and in doing so discovering God’s divinity within us.
So what are the nets we feel obligated to stay and mend or the nets that entangle us? What are the boats that confine us—inhibit us from stepping up to the Gospel call to work for justice and peace?
What do we need to let go of and leave behind so that we might follow when Jesus shows up at work, at school, at home; while we are paying the bills, running errands, fixing dinner, supporting relationships, and trying to do the right thing—all times and places when he may call us into a new way of being.
Jesus didn’t call folks to follow him while they were in the temple at prayer or during some moment of spiritual ecstasy. He called them while they were fishing, mending nets, traveling on the highway. None of the people he chose—Peter, Andrew, James, John, or Paul—were in any sense of the word “amazing.” Maybe what’s amazing is that God would pick folks like them—folks like you and me to do truly amazing things—God’s own reconciling and saving work in the world. That’s the good news we’re asked to believe and live into today.