a sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany [Lectionary 3B]
A song came out this last year, in 2017, that still gets played on popular radio a good bit. It’s by a British band named Coldplay, and it is co-written by another band called the Chainsmokers. The song is called, “Something Just Like This,” and though the tune is fairly catchy, the message of the song is pretty good too. It’s actually a love song about worrying like you don’t measure up, that in order to have a worthwhile relationship you have to possess some kind of superhuman skill or special status. The opening lines go like this:
“I’ve been reading books of old
The legends and the myths
Achilles and his gold
Hercules and his gifts
And Batman with his fists
And clearly I don’t see myself upon that list”
I don’t believe that Andrew and Simon and James and John would see themselves upon that list either. They’re just fishermen in Galilee, regular everyday people who blend right in to everyone else around them. They don’t really stack up with great warriors like Achilles, who supposedly had a shield made of enchanted gold, or Hercules, who had unbelievable strength. And a movie made about the first disciples would not contain amazing, dazzling visual effects or cool tools and cars and weapons. They would just have boats. And some fish. And scene after scene where they hang out with their father and pull their nets onto shore and fix them.
The first disciples are not myths and legends in any sense. And they’re certainly not made up in the way people invent comic book characters as a way to project their fantasies. They were actual, ordinary people, with nothing special to commend them to any type of world-changing movement…and yet they end up mattering. Jesus chooses them, of all people to begin his kingdom. Here, when the going gets tough—because his cousin John the Baptizer has been arrested down in Jerusalem, and times are dangerous for people taking on the powers-that-be— Jesus goes up into everyday Galilee and finds these fishermen to follow him.
None of the gospels writers give us any kind of backstory to what’s going on here. We know next to nothing about these first four disciples. We don’t know, for example, how good they are at fishing, although some researchers say that the fact that the Zebedee brothers and their father have a dragnet, a boat and a fishing crew means they must have doing fairly well for themselves. However, in terms of what—if anything—else happened which pushed towards this new vocation of following Jesus, the gospels are silent.
For example, did they know of Jesus beforehand and had inwardly developed an interest in being nearer to him, should the opportunity present itself? Were they miserable in their work and looking for something different? Did Jesus just have that kind of hypnotic pull over people so that when he walked up and locked eyes they couldn’t resist? Different scholars and historians have come up with several different ideas about what might have happened and have given us a little peak into the life of a first-century middle eastern fisherman. But ultimately what the gospel writers are concerned about is that Jesus calls them. Jesus enlists them, not the Achilleses and Herculeses of the world.
He finds them right in the middle of what they’re doing, not auditioning for kingdom-building school, not filling out a form for a change in job, but while they are just being themselves and doing what they can do: their gifts for God’s kingdom.
Jesus drives this particular point home by telling Andrew and Simon that he will make them “fish for people.” What they are already able to do will be put to use in a slightly new way in order to bring more people into a relationship with God through Jesus. In fact, Mark tells us that James and John were mending the nets, but a better translation of that word is preparing the nets, meaning that they were in the act of venturing out to work right as Jesus comes by. When they become followers, we can think of their task as people who go into the world and help prepare others to receive God’s grace. They help prepare others not by performing feats of strength or superhuman control, but just using what they already can do. They discover God has already given them exactly what they need to help bring in his kingdom.
The call of Jesus’ disciples becomes the theme for our Consecration Sunday: our gifts for God’s kingdom. As we set aside our own gifts and contemplate how God might be calling us to give of our time and talent through the ministries of Epiphany the disciples remind us we don’t need to be on the list with the myths and legends of old. We don’t need to be on any list of any kind. God calls us all. Everyone has gifts and abilities for God’s kingdom. There’s no such thing as too small or too ordinary when it comes to helping the kingdom of God come near, because Christ can be reflected in all. And, truth be known, the smallest and weakest reflect Christ the best.
When we start talking about gifted-ness, I know that there can be a lot of anxiety around the way school systems identify only certain kids as gifted. As a parent, I know it’s almost a taboo subject to bring up in mixed company because our culture places so much emphasis on certain specific academic abilities. Our children undergo tests, assessments, get tracked into certain curricula. And I’m not intending to criticize any of that because I’m not an educator, but I do know that here, in this place, everyone is identified gifted. And these are gifts that matter. They are not consolation prizes. They are things that come naturally to you, talents you have developed that improve the lives of those around you. And when you pass through these waters you are called to use those gifts for the advancement of Jesus’ kingdom each and every day.
There was one summer when this really dawned on me. I was on staff at Lutheridge and had I decided I would try to work as a counselor for a week or two with the special needs campers. Lutheridge has a long history of offering summer programs for folks with diagnoses like Down Syndrome, autism, and other cognitive or developmental delays. I was nervous about it because I had never worked with those populations before. I realized I had always thought about them mainly in terms of how they were different from me. We were in one of our orientation sessions where we were learning how to care for them and I’ll never forget what the director of the camp programs said to us as he began. I had assumed he was going to begin by telling us basics about what to do around them or what they’re diagnoses meant or how to handle certain situations that might arise that we might not be prepared for. Instead, he looked at us and said, “You need to know these people have gifts.” And then he repeated it, “The Spirit has given these people gifts. You will come to see them.” He didn’t wax schmaltzy or schmoozy. He just stated it as a fact, which it absolutely was.
Now, that was groundbreaking. For a twenty-year-old who was incredibly entitled and self-centered college guy and who, to be honest, thought he had a lot in common with Hercules, that was revolutionary. That was a moment when all kinds things about God and the world and myself shifted radically into place, I’m still trying to make sense of it all, still trying to take that to heart about everyone, but when I hear again and again the call of Andrew and Peter and the Zebedee brothers it enables me to re-hear was Eric Fink said that evening. We have gifts because that’s our God. He has created them in us and they have been redeemed through Jesus and sanctified for his kingdom coming by the Spirit.
Our hope is that today as we celebrate Consecration Sunday—and this year as we focus on a year of our congregation’s service ministry areas—will be a time you can reframe your own self-understanding in terms of how you are gifted. And we also hope that these may be times when you can hear again the call of Jesus to share those gifts. You are on the list.
Speaking of being on the list…in the spring of last year the worship team recruited some new people in the congregation to serve as worship assistants. One member mentioned to me several times how nervous she was to be serving in this capacity and yet how she felt it was God’s call for her to give it a try. She had served in many other leadership capacities in the congregation but never as a lay reader or communion assistant. Some of you may know this person—it’s our outgoing Council Vice President Amy Boyle. About a month before she was to serve as a worship assistant for the first time she spoke to me and felt she needed some encouragement. She was afraid she’s spill wine on someone or that she’d trip in the robe or unknowingly do something around the altar that wasn’t respectful. I told her that she had nothing to worry about. I unknowingly do things that are disrespectful around the altar all the time. She’ll fit right in! She had the gifts and it was, in fact, surprising to me that she wasn’t already serving in this way. Her anxiety still had her worked up but I think I had her convinced that she, Amy, had the gifts for this and that she was ready to give it a whirl.
Then, on the week before she was to serve for the first time the bulletin had incorrectly listed her name, and no one had caught it. We had only messed up one letter, but it was an important letter. She showed it to me and said something like, “If you think I’m qualified for this role, why is my name listed as “Any Boyle”?
We’ve had some good laughs about that. Any Boyle will do! Send any one of them up! And yet, in some ways, that is the message we hear as God calls any fishermen…and then any tax collector…and then any people who initially hate church like Paul…and then any people who intend to go into other fields, like Martin Luther…and then any people like you and me. People who become, when put to work in God’s kingdom and when following Jesus’ footsteps to the foot of the cross and then past the tomb of Easter, even more gifted and more powerful than Hercules.
Been reading books of old
And bulletins of today
Disciples of the past
Everyone who can pray
They look so very plain,
Such ordinary folk
But when God calls them then his kingdom’s underway
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.