A Call to Drop Our Nets

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Sermon January 22, 2023

                                      A Call to Drop Our Nets

          This morning, we listen again to one of the early passages from Matthew’s Gospel where he speaks of Jesus going to the lakeshore to call out to some of the men working there, inviting them to follow him.  This is an important story in Jesus’ adult life as it follows his baptism by John, his immersion into the real work of his life to go out and teach and to preach, to heal and to comfort.  But he will not do this alone; he understood that he would need a community of friends, a group of followers, with him on the journey.  In the lovely passage by the prophet Isaiah, we hear these words

“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;

    I have taken you by the hand and kept you;

I have given you as a covenant to the people,[a]

    a light to the nations…

which later echo in Jesus’ call to his followers and in his life as one bringing light to those seeking a new Way to be together as a community of love and righteousness.  Let us be together in prayer,  O God of hope, open our hearts this day to your Word.  Help us to hear your call in our daily lives, inviting us to continue to follow the way of love taught by your Son.  Amen.

          As we listen again to the story of these fishermen hearing a call from Jesus and dropping everything, we might reflect upon times in our life when we too have heard a call from God, when we have listened to something deep within which was inviting us to a deeper purpose for our lives.  Often, these are not easy decisions to make.  When we feel we hear the voice of God in our lives or feel inspired to do something important because of our faith and our values, the path isn’t always easy.  As much as this simple story implies that the men just dropped everything, I have to believe it was not as easy as it seems…not for them, not for their families.  We don’t know. 

          Before Christmas, there was a lovely story of a woman in Chicago who works as a crossing guard in one of the poorer neighborhoods.  Several years ago, one of the mothers tearfully confided to her that she just didn’t have the money to get her children any gifts for Christmas and she was sick about it.  This crossing guard heard the call in that moment.  She didn’t send this woman to a local agency; she took it upon herself to go out and buy some gifts for this family out of her own money and to help them enjoy Christmas.  That was the beginning of a larger undertaking that she has continued for years. With friends and family, she puts together a list for local families and together, they purchase, wrap and deliver these gifts.  She heard the call from a mother’s heart and she responded with love.  I imagine that’s what the first disciples heard from Jesus, a call to their hearts, a call to journey with him, a call to a new way of being in community. 

what it means to sense a “calling” or life purpose.

The first reading from Isaiah is from an oracle for a king’s coronation, which celebrates the beginning of the monarch’s rule and the people’s restoration from oppression (“walked in darkness”) to a new day of liberation (“have seen a great light”) (Isa 9:2). The passage comes from a time when Assyria’s military campaigns were being waged against Israel and Judah in the 8th century BCE and seems to be speaking about King Hezekiah, the Judean king who succeeded against the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem. When Matthew includes this passage from Isaiah, he is demonstrating the important connection to Jesus and that God is again at work in a similar way, with Jesus as the new “sovereign” and his ministry as the inauguration of a new, emancipatory reign — the “reign of heaven,” as Jesus puts it (Mt 4:17). As one commentary says, “It’s as if Matthew says: Look! Just as in the days of old, a new reign is beginning, a new liberation from oppression!”

The scripture scholar Barbara Brown Taylor has called this story a “miracle on the beach,” because as far as we know, these fishermen have never met Jesus, and yet after hearing just two words from him, they “immediately” leave everything behind — nets, family, friends, livelihood — and follow him. Read this way, it’s a story about the transformative power of God’s call, its capacity to turn us around in unexpected, sometimes surprising ways. Yet, another way to read this passage is to say, Wait a minute: no-one “drops their nets” and walks away from everything they know without being good and ready to do so, without some kind of deep, pre-existing dissatisfaction, some longing for a different kind of life.  This story invites us to wonder about those fishermen, about what it was that made them so ready and willing to hear Jesus’ invitation, drop everything, and go. Another scholar, Chad Meyers has written that the fishermen on the Sea of Galilee in Jesus’ day were caught in an elaborate, oppressive system, and that’s why they were certainly ready to move on. Fishing, Myers explains, was considered the lowest of the low professions, and so Jesus’ invitation was to leave that system behind and join him in ushering in a whole new way of living, economically, socially, and otherwise. Myers points out that in the story, the verb translated “they left their nets” is used elsewhere in the Gospels in the context of leaving behind debt, sin, and bondage. It’s as if he says: Leave the reign of Rome behind, and come, follow me — for the Kind’om of heaven, the Great Jubilee, has come near!

The reality is that the efforts to create God’s “reign of heaven,” whether in the time of Jesus or in our day, is never easy.  It involves work to bring about liberation and justice for the community; it requires hard work to refashion the systems that allow for inequity, injustice, and oppression.  To “fish for people” is to enter into a struggle, a struggle with the dehumanizing, death-dealing powers that be, both in our hearts (like shame, resentment, or contempt) and in our communities (like injustice, unkindness, or violence).

As we reflect upon this reading today, we might ask, are there nets that God is calling us to drop today, ways of life we may be ready to “immediately” leave behind? Has the decisive moment arrived? Do we hear an invitation from Jesus to strike out in a new direction towards justice, kindness, and God’s Jubilee?

We understand that Jesus’ call to discipleship is a call to participate in the struggle for justice, kindness, and humility, inspired and encouraged by those who’ve come before us. How do we discern and follow God’s call? A “calling” isn’t once-and-done; it’s ongoing, daily work. Follow me, Jesus said, as he extended his invitation, his call…a call for those fishermen, and a call to companionship, to closeness, to living together as we walk toward heaven’s reign.

We know that God’s call may be heard in many ways, and we have our own ways of responding which often include courage, sometimes reluctance, and inspiration, but usually there’s at least one golden thread running through it all: God’s calling is frequently surprising and unpredictable, spilling over the edges of conventional wisdom in ways that are more than a little bit wild. Who is called? As we see from Matthew’s Gospel today, it was not those from the social elite, but those among the supposedly lowest on the social ladder (Simon, Andrew, James, and John). And for what were they called; for what are we called…? For the sake of justice, kindness, and humility in our lives and our communities. For the sake of a world which might one day embrace the vision of God’s Kin’dom, In Jesus’ own words… “on earth as it is in heaven.”  And ultimately, these men were called to be part of something bigger than themselves, serving as companions and friends to Jesus.  Following him would indeed change their lives as they became part of his mission and ministry.  Listening to God’s call can change our lives too in the big ways…as well as for the the sake of the following itself, the companionship itself, the love and togetherness of walking humbly with God along the Way. Follow me.

Isaiah  6 “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;

    I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people,[a]  a light to the nations,  to open the eyes that are blind,  to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,from the prison those who sit in darkness.”

Matthew 4:12-23  4:12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.

4:13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,

4:14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

4:15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles

4:16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

4:17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

4:18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen.

4:19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

4:20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

4:21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.

4:22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.