a sermon for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C]
It is hard to tell exactly how long it is from the way the gospel writers share their stories of Jesus, but we know for a while his ministry is a solo affair. Maybe it’s days. Maybe it’s weeks. Maybe it’s months. There’s no way to figure it out, really, but for some period of time after his baptism he is the only one in the area around the Sea of Galilee (or, as it’s sometimes called, the Lake of Gennesaret) announcing the kingdom of God through his preaching and teaching and demonstrating the power of that kingdom through healings and exorcisms.
And then one day he suddenly recruits some helpers. One day he starts choosing people for his team. One day the news about God’s kingdom becomes something that other people are involved in proclaiming.
That may seem to be old news to you and me but it’s a pretty big deal because what that means is that God’s kingdom goes from being something that happens to people—something that heals people or changes them—to something that people actually take part in. God’s reign of mercy and peace and justice goes from being something that Jesus is bringing to the world and giving to people to something that actually enlists people in its spread. It goes from being an idea or the cause of one person to a movement that has followers.
Jesus’ cause becomes a movement down among the ordinary people of Galilee, down along the shore of Lake Gennesaret where the fishermen pull in their boats and are consumed with the tasks of daily life. These are not especially educated or powerful people. These aren’t royal court, well-connected folks. God’s kingdom in Christ first becomes a group endeavor among the day laborers and people who are in the middle of what they’re always in the middle of.
I think that’s why Jesus’ kingdom turns into a movement so quickly. God is holy and righteous and utterly different from humankind but humans are created in the image of God, after all, and so are able to embody the love and mercy of God in their words and deeds. Jesus embraces those unpretentious first followers as equals. He steps right into Simon Peter’s boat without even asking. He just commandeers it in order to continue talking to the crowd about the word of God as if it were his own. Simon’s everyday tools and trade are good enough for Jesus, the Son of God. Are you aware that the divine steps into your life just as you’re going about things, that Jesus can commandeer any dinner table, office workroom, any conversation? God is ultimately other than us, holy and mighty, but he comes into our presence and sees us as partners.
This, of course, can be accompanied by a sense of “I’m not worthy.” It’s like that old routine from Wayne’s World skits and movies: “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” Wayne and Garth are asked by Alice Cooper, their idol, to hang around after a show. They can’t believe it! Likewise, Simon sees this miraculous catch of fish that Jesus helps bring about and he immediately thinks “We’re not worthy!” He’s overwhelmed by a sense of his own inferiority, of his sinfulness, and yet Jesus still chooses him.
In fact, this is a theme when it comes to taking part in God’s work. Isaiah, in our first reading, is ushered into the very presence of the Holy Lord and he, too, is overcome with how out of place he feels. He experiences the rush of angels and the whole temple shaking with God’s glory, and he says, “I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy!” And the apostle Paul, in our second lesson, talks about being “untimely born” and “unfit to be called a disciple”—that he is an unlikely bearer of the news of Jesus’ resurrection because he spent so much time working against the Jesus movement. But Simon will learn what Isaiah and Paul both learn, and that is Simon will be able to carry this message of God’s love in Jesus just as he is and in the middle of things he’s in the middle of.
In addition to accepting his followers as equals, Jesus also does not ask them to download a whole lot of doctrine or information about him before they start. His only words are “Don’t be afraid,” and “from now on you will be catching people.” They leave everything and follow him. By following Jesus—watching him, imitating him, trying and failing and trying again at the same things he does—this is the way the kingdom of God begins to take root in the world.
There is a danger, though, in thinking that following Jesus is going to be one miraculous catch of fishes after another. What I mean by that is that we can get drawn in to this idea that the life of faith is a constant rush, one long drawn-out joy ride. In this age of where we grade everything on how authentic it feels, where the perceived “realness” of our experience is so important, this is hard to stomach. For some people it does sound like the life of faith is constant excitement, a constant “speaking straight from the heart,” but more often than not the work of God’s kingdom and bringing more people along, as Simon Peter and James and John will find out, is a daily slog with lots of duty. The miraculous, blow-your-socks-off experiences come every once in a while, but the overall bulk of their discipleship experience is putting one foot in front of the other, in showing up and trying again. Fishing, after all, is monotonous, chore-like work, especially if you do it to put food on the table. Jesus doesn’t say that part is doing to change. It’s just the focus that shifts.
I am constantly amazed at the ways in which this culture can pressure people and their children to learning a sport or a musical instrument or some other hobby almost to mastery. And yet when it comes to faith and following Jesus we often think it’s just supposed to “happen.” Faith formation comes through practice and prayer, through being graciously open to the work the Spirit wants to do in us, in the daily life of home and work, not just at church. Discipline and disciple. Same root word. Not by accident.
You might hear a lot even in faith circles about the desire to “make a difference” in the world, or the longing to be impactful, to go viral. I always feel great to that something I’ve done or begun has affected a change somewhere. But isn’t that really about me? Jesus never says, “From now on you will be making a difference in the world.” Jesus never says, “Don’t be afraid. From now on you are going to have an impact.” His kingdom will make a difference and will have an impact, for sure, but that’s not your or my main concern. Our main concern is to follow him and embrace people the way he embraces us.
Howard Thurman, the civil rights leader and theologian who served as a mentor for Martin Luther King, Jr., and went on to co-found the first major interracial congregation in the U.S. might have said it best: “Don’t ask what the world needs,” he said. “Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
It is Jesus who has made us come alive. And he does not do this just once, as if our life of faith consists of just trying to recapture the magic we felt of when we first sensed the call or that first time we handed our life over to the Lord’s work. Jesus calls us over and over again. The grace of our baptism greets us each day. In the middle of whatever we’re in the middle of.
My first paid job was working one summer in high school as a telemarketer for a carpet cleaning company. These were the days before robocalls and cell phones and this job was boring with a capital B. We worked at fold-out tables in some back room with shag carpet and faux wood paneling on the walls. There were broken Venetian blinds on the windows that let in light unevenly. Each day our supervisors would literally rip out a page from a cross-reference phone book and hand it to us. Cross-reference phone books were books that listed people in a region by the street they lived on and then in the order of house number. Our task was to pick up our phone, go down that page and call the people at home, one-by-one, and recite a script when they answered.
We were expected to make about three hundred calls a day. As you can imagine, we got hung up on a lot. We also got a whole lot of answering machines. A good day was getting just one person to agree to have their carpet cleaned. There were some experienced ladies who worked there that could get five or six and I never could figure out how they did it. If we got an answering machine, we were supposed to put an asterisk by that name. I remember the first time I finally finished a page. I proudly presented it to my supervisors, thinking I’d get a fresh page ripped out for me. Instead she handed me a used page from someone else and said, “Call the ones with stars beside their names.”
One time I got a sheet that had streets that I knew because they were in my school district. I was going down the list and I saw a family I actually knew. Their son was on the swim team with me. I had driven by their house countless times. I was so embarrassed I had to call them and was worried they might recognize my name. They didn’t, but lo and behold, that was my sale that day! I couldn’t believe it! I remember going to their house afterwards for a swim party and seeing their carpet and feeling this strange sense of pride.
Jesus calls and calls. If he gets our answering machine, if we’re still too focused on ourselves and our own impact, he still calls and bids us to join the movement. He calls and suffers with a strange sense of pride in us, pride in how he’s changed us. He offers bread at the table and says it’s himself, sustenance for when the days get long. He himself seems to get a little disillusioned at one point, pleading that God might change the storyline and remove the cup. And Simon Peter—bless him—the guy who caught all those fish, who rung up hundreds of carpet cleaning sales that one day, well, even he says, “Heck with it” later on and denies he ever knew the guy who stepped into his boat. It’s a strange movement, friends.
And it is still going on, my friends. Right here when we’re in the middle of whatever we’re in the middle of. This movement rises up, even when we think it’s dead and buried, and sweeps more people in.
We are not worthy of it. Not worthy at all—our lips are unclean and we fight against him way too often. But by the grace of God this holy movement rises up and brings us to life. God rips out another sheet of paper, hands it to us and says, “You. I want you on my team.”
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.