Over the centuries people have scratched their heads about why Simon, Andrew, James and John would hear Jesus’ call and immediately follow him. Here they are, fishermen, doing what fishermen do. Simon and Andrew were casting their nets; James and John, mending theirs. Most of us presume they are just going about the activities of their ordinary lives. So, why just leave everything behind in a seeming instant?
Recent scholarship has discovered that by the time Jesus started seeking disciples to join in his mission, the fishing industry in Palestine was fully under the control of the Roman Empire. Caesar owned every body of water. Fishermen couldn’t obtain licenses to fish without joining what amounted to a syndicate. Most of what Galilean fisherman caught was exported, leaving local communities impoverished and hungry, deprived of the dietary staple they had depended on for centuries. Worse yet, the Romans collected exorbitant taxes, levies, and tolls each time fish were sold. Like today’s fishermen, life was tough.
We also know that these fishermen were among those who had been following John the Baptist, who had just been arrested by a vindictive tyrant; his fate – death – near certain. John was the dear friend of Jesus and these men. Simon, Andrew, James, and John had to have been feeling crushed by the grief of their friend’s impending death and crushed by a political and economic system that assured their poverty.
It’s at this moment of the worst possible news, that Jesus steps forward proclaiming good news. The juxtaposition must have felt jarring. In stark contrast to what the fishermen are experiencing, Jesus offers another way. He proclaims and embodies the good news that God’s kingdom, not merely Herod’s, is near. You would think it would be hard for them to believe at that moment that something good was happening or could be happening for them in the future. Given all the difficulties these fishermen were going through, Jesus had to be incredibly convincing.
At those moments in life when you have felt trapped, harassed, grief-stricken or in trouble, is your first thought that God is near and at work? When you look at the problems of our world and of your own life- the climate crisis, racial injustice, COVID, addictions, mental and physical health challenges – how automatically do you trust, really trust, that God’s spirit is active? When bad news seems to be all around you, do you actually believe that good news is also present?
I think of those people I know whose perception is that the world is irredeemably rotten to the core. I think of people who are overwhelmed by grief and despair. What would it take someone who experiences life that way to grasp that God’s kingdom is actually near? What difference could a shift in their perspective mean?
It’s fascinating that when Jesus calls his disciples, he calls them two by two. I imagine that one was an optimist and the other a pessimist; and that the optimist took the pessimist by the hand and said, “Let’s go!” The fact is that none of the challenges we face can be solved by individuals. We are designed to come together, to help and support one another. From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus forms community.
One reason I suspect many of us go to church is because we need to hear and see and feel good news, especially when we are facing our own challenges, like during a pandemic. For many of us, at some point in our life journey our faith in God made it possible, like the first disciples, to do what felt like the impossible. It’s often in the midst of some kind of a blow – a disappointment, failure, sadness, or grief – that we become aware of an experience the One who catches us when we fall; who lights a path forward when we are unsure of which way to go; who’s loving presence draws close when we need it the most. We are not here because of some intellectual exercise – as interesting as they can be; we are here because of the One who offers us an enduring love, who beckons us, and reaches out to us, just as we are, drawing us into fullness of life.
Last Wednesday, Nancy Guselli and I had a conversation with Al Fichera, who is going to become a church member a little later in the service. He made the point that in this community, no one is obligated to be here. Some of us grew up in traditions where if you didn’t go to church, you were committing a sin. It was a non-negotiable. But one of the strengths of this community is that you are here because you want to be. You have felt called to be here and said “yes.”
Please close your eyes for just a moment. Remember, if you can, that point in your spiritual journey that you first felt God calling you to draw close and follow. What was happening in your life at the time? What challenges were you facing? How did trying to respond to God’s call in your life make a difference? When did you first decide that you would go to this church not because you had to, but because you wanted to? What were you hoping for? Why do you continue to participate in the life of this church? You certainly have other choices on a Sunday morning. You could be reading the paper, going for a walk, or even attending another church or spiritual community online. And if you participate in our other church activities during the week, what is it about this community that draws you?
Please open your eyes.
Each of us has our own unique journey of faith that has brought us to this moment on a Sunday morning. The reasons we are here are precious and varied. My hope is that we are a community where no matter what’s going on in your life you can experience the good news of what God is doing in your life and have a variety of ways to respond to the call to join in God’s healing mission in our world today.
Albert Schweitzer wrote, “(Jesus) speaks to us the same word (he spoke to the fisherman): “Follow (thou) me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time….And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which (you) shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, (you) shall learn in (your) own experience Who (Jesus) is.”
Roger Gench adds, “Disciples of Jesus are called to live as if the realm of God is a reality taking shape, even now, in our midst — indeed, disciples are empowered to participate in making the way of God present in every age, including our own, until the day it comes in all its fullness.”
We rejoice on this Annual Meeting Sunday that this beloved church community is striving to discern and say “yes” to what is our part of Jesus’ mission in 2021. We are abundantly blessed by the overflowing of our ministries, from the Care Team, to our Outreach initiatives, to our Diversity and Inclusion work, Creation Care, Prayer and worship, offering a variety of paths for each of us to answer God’s call in our own ways. Remember Jesus meets the fishermen where they are and invites them to leave behind what restricts them; to bring forward and nurture what’s best in them and what’s best for them. He does the same for us.
Today Mark proclaims that in the person and ministry of Jesus, the good news of God is real, coexisting in the midst of the heartbreak and injustice of the world. When you and I answer the call we are offered a gateway to a life that matters. By our gathering each Sunday, may we be a people who hear God’s call to us and have the courage to follow. May this beloved community enable us to follow the One who calls us in love, through love, and for love. Amen.