“Net-work, Love-mischief, and the Call of God”
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On January 26th, 2014
Isaiah 9:1-4, Matthew 4:12-23
Our first passage is the lectionary’s assigned reading from the book of Isaiah. It’s a passage that is sometimes read on Christmas Eve, and it will be echoed in our Gospel reading for today. The portion of Isaiah I’m about to read was written probably about 700 years before the birth of Jesus, around the time of (or just after) the fall of the northern Kingdom of Israel to the conquering Assyrian armies, and its words speak of a light to come that will go out to those in the Northern Kingdom who had been oppressed and overrun by the conquering Assyrians. Galilee, in the north, would continue to be a hardscrabble, hand-to-mouth, ethnically diverse place in Jesus’ day as well. Listen now for God’s word through Isaiah:
But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
The Gospel reading for today, from Matthew’s gospel, shows us Jesus going back to Galilee where he’d grown up, after John the Baptist is arrested by Herod. And while he’s there, Jesus calls some fishermen to come and follow him. Note how this account of the calling of the first disciples differs from the one we read last week in John’s gospel. In that account, Andrew encounters Jesus because John the Baptist points him out, probably in the Judean desert, and Andrew tells Simon, who gets renamed Peter by Jesus. In this account, Andrew and Simon Peter are in a boat by the shore of the Sea of Galilee when Jesus calls them to come and follow. Listen now for God’s word to us:
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
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.’
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
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 lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 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. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
If you have read the NYT bestseller Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (and a number of us have), you know that Aslan spends a lot of time describing the social, political and economic realities of the little corner of the world in which Jesus grew up. Aslan does a good job, sifting through research, of imagining the anger that surely infused the peasantry of Galilee, as they struggled to make ends meet under high taxes and watched the priestly class collaborate with Roman occupiers. Aslan writes of how new cities like Sepphoris and Tiberias would have impacted their simple “live off the land” existence and fueled hostility among the common people.
And the corruption and exploitation that was going on in Temple worship to the south in Jerusalem, which they would have encountered at religious festivals, would have added more fuel to the fire.
Galilee was a place of unrest, sure enough, as was evidenced by the number of violent revolutionaries that hailed from there in Jesus’ day and in the years before his birth and after his death. The people wanted change, and they wanted and expected it now. So when somebody came along and claimed that the Kingdom of God was coming near, the day when the world would be ordered the way God wanted it to be—that there would be justice for the oppressed, and that, ostensibly, Roman occupation would end—well, it’s no surprise that there were people willing to sign up to follow a leader with the kind of authority and charisma that Jesus possessed.
Although I don’t agree with all of Aslan’s conclusions in his book, I think we do well to understand Jesus’ call of the four fishermen in the context of the unrest of their place and time. Because surely Jesus and they were influenced by it.
The call of God, which I see as the summons of Jesus to a life of loving God and neighbor (and thus working to realize God’s kingdom on earth), always comes in a context. And it’s rarely a “one-off” kind of thing.
The Gospel reading from John last week showed us Andrew as a disciple of John the Baptist, following Jesus after John pointed to him, not in Galilee, but out in the Judean desert where Jesus had been baptized. And Andrew ran and told his brother Simon about this man he called the Messiah.
This week we have Matthew’s version of Andrew’s call, based closely on the account Mark’s gospel gives of the same event. This one occurs a three day’s walk north of where John the Baptist had been baptizing. This time he’s in Capernaum, a fishing village in Galilee, sitting in a fishing boat with his brother. And Jesus tells them both that they are going to be fishers of people.
Well, which one is it? John’s version in the desert or Matthew’s version by the sea? Are you a desert person or a lake person?
The story of the call of the four fishermen provokes a lot of responses among those who read it. In fact, when I noticed several weeks ago that it was coming up in the lectionary, I sort of slumped in my chair. I thought, “My goodness, I must have preached about twenty-five sermons on this text, and I’ve only been in ministry for twenty-one years! What is there to say about this passage that hasn’t already been said? What fresh insights can emerge from this text? How can it come to life in a new way?”
One of the ways people react negatively to this story is is to say, “Well, that’s well and good for those guys, but I’ve never had a dramatic experience of God calling me like that. In fact, I’ve never had an experience of God calling me at all. And if following Jesus means that I have to leave behind everything that I’m doing, count me out.”
To that, I always want to say that maybe the call of God doesn’t have to be quite so dramatic. And surely it’s not one-size-fits-all, or a one-off moment. Some people are desert people. Some people are lake people. Maybe it happens in the desert, maybe it happens by the sea. Maybe the call you receive from God is dramatic. But it could simply be a nudge; a flash of insight; a feeling of solidarity with those who are in pain and need—a sense that they matter, too; a sense that this is what I’m supposed to do, maybe not with my entire life, but perhaps just in the next moment.
Perhaps the call of God comes when you see somebody, when you really see somebody, for the first time.
You’re sitting in worship last Sunday morning and during our time of sharing celebrations and concerns, you hear Dean Silverman share a concern for all of the unseen people in the world, the ones who don’t visit the resorts in the Antilles, but who live around the edges scraping to make ends meet. And you put that together with how Jesus went to Galilee, filled with people who surely felt unseen, and he saw them, he really saw them, and he enlisted them in the project of bringing God’s kingdom. He saw them: poor, uneducated, fishermen. Angry, yes, but ready. Who knows? Perhaps you have felt unseen. And that happens, even here in McLean, in the Washington, D.C. metro area, where so many live high-profile lives in a place where we are more likely to get seen than elsewhere. Maybe you are seen all the time, but you don’t really feel seen. Perhaps if you’ve felt unseen, you might feel like, in this moment, God might be seeing you and your pain, too. Regardless if you feel seen or not, you know -you have to know- that Dean is right, that there are some who are ignored, discarded, and unseen in our society.
You don’t have to go on a vacation to encounter the unseen. There are plenty around here. Like the young women and men who are part of human trafficking, the modern day slavery that goes on right under our noses. Like the man you pass by on foot or in the car nearly every day on the way to work. He’s the one holding the sign that says, “Will Work For Food.” And you pass by, thinking, “Head down, got places to go, don’t make eye contact.” You don’t want to hear the story, because you’re sure he’s playing some kind of game, right? Or how about the Certified Nursing Assistant who takes care of the basic bodily needs of the elderly and gets paid the same amount of money as somebody who flips burgers at McDonald’s? Or the man who picks up your garbage, or the cashier who deals with you in the check-out line? There are people everywhere of whom we can fail to take notice—or to try to understand.
In an effort to try to be better about seeing, and living in the moment, about really being present, I’ve taken in this new year to being more intentional about engaging in a quiet time of meditation and contemplation in the mornings. Sometimes we can act like we’re too busy to do that. Even those of us who are professional Christians, like me. We can think, “I’m too busy. I’ve got things to do. People to see.” But this year I’ve begun to take more to time just to be quiet, to meditate, to commune with and attend to the divine. A prayer has grown out of that time, one that my spiritual director shared with me. It is inspired by something that the Persian Sufi mystic Hafiz wrote in a poem. This year I’m trying to come back to these words again and again. “God, this is Your day with me, and my day with You. Let’s see what kind of love-mischief we can get into today.”
What sort of love mischief can we get into today? And how might that turn the world upside down? How might I begin to see the unseen?
I don’t know, maybe Jesus’ call of the disciples indeed started in a sense of anger and frustration at their Roman overlords and the corrupt religious authorities. Maybe it started with a concern just for the Jewish community and a pure religion. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Because before it was all through, Jesus himself would acknowledge that the kingdom which had drawn near was about love of God and love of neighbor – a love of neighbor that went well beyond just the people who were in his in group. And it involved a way of loving that was marked by love.
Another reason people reject and dislike this text about the call of the four fishermen is that it has been used to prop up a proselytizing approach to people of other faiths and faith traditions.
People who understand themselves as fishers of men and women have approached me and my children as if we were game fish that they had to somehow haul in and bring to their particular church and their particular understanding. It didn’t matter that I told them that I was a Presbyterian minister, or that my daughters said, “Our Mom and Dad, they work at the church.” No, these fishers of men and women were going to bring us in. It can make following Jesus feel like being part of a fishing tournament.
There is a difference between proselytizing and evangelism. Proselytizing is trying to get a notch on a belt, to haul in one more fish. Evangelism is sharing good news of God’s love for the entire world. It is indiscriminate.
The friend who taught me to pray, “God, this is Your day with me and my day with You, let’s see what kind of love mischief we can get into today,” was telling me about flying home from Buffalo through Philadelphia after the holidays. She and her family were delayed in Buffalo. Not a surprise. When they arrived in Philadelphia they were delayed and delayed some more, and flights were canceled. She looked around the gate and there were people everywhere melting down. And she said, “You know, in the past, my family might have been among those who melted down. But not this time. This time, she said, we looked around, and we listened to people’s stories. We told a young woman who desperately needed to get home to her family several hours drive away, “We can rent a car help drive you where you need to go. We can pay to get you on another flight if need be.” They listened to and heard story after story, and met person after person, and seeping out from her and her family were peace and love. People were being drawn into the net: the gospel net, the good news net of the kingdom, a reign of peace and unconditional love where everyone is valued.
When people tell me, “Aaron, you know that call of the four fishermen, that’s fine, but I myself have never had an experience of the call of God.” Here’s what I want to tell them, “Stop lying to yourself. “
God is calling – always – calling you and me to care, and to love, and to catch people in the net. In Jesus’ name. Amen.