Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany.
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.
I was eighteen when I was called into ministry.
Some of you have heard that story, and the details aren’t all important here; but one thing that has stayed with me vividly is how, when that thought—you could be a pastor—when that thought first clicked into place in my brain, the first thing I did was stand up and go to look in the mirror in my dorm room.
I’m not exactly sure what I expected. I didn’t look taller, or holier, or more confident. I certainly didn’t have a halo. I looked like I had just a few minutes before—like a ratty college freshman, with a pimple on my chin and raggedy bangs I had stress cut during exams two months before. The moment felt pretty transforming on the inside, but on the outside—I looked the same.
I don’t think many of us look in a mirror, and say, “well, there’s a mighty fine looking disciple of the Lord.” Most of us, when it comes down to it, have a little trouble believing that God would really choose us. Most of us carry around some worry, some insecurity, some hangup, some secret doubt that we should bear the name disciple.
I expect that Jesus’ first quartet of disciples, the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew, and the brothers James and John, felt much the same way. You see a disciple is just a student, and a rabbi is a teacher—and if you are working a commercial fishing boat, even in just a small family business, you have left the official world of students and teachers far behind you.
First-century Judaism, just like today, had a path of education—at least, religious education. Most young children, between five and ten, would study the Torah with their local, community rabbi—not learning to read, but learning to memorize it. The whole Torah—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. For the vast majority of Galilean children, that was the end of formal education—after age 10, they would begin to go into the trades that supported their families. Fishing, for example.
But a few—a very few, the ones with brains, and, realistically, enough family money to afford to spare them—might go on to higher education, learning how to interpret the Torah, and memorizing an additional twenty-nine holy books.
And then from that crew, the very top students, the crème de la crème, the Rhodes scholars, those elite would seek out a more famous, more revered rabbi to study under. They’d beg to go under his tutelage, to carry on his legacy; sometimes they got were accepted, and sometimes they found themselves with a second choice, or even back on the family farm.
Rabbis did not seek out students. Students sought out rabbis.
And yet Jesus, rather than wait for eager young scholars, sons of wealth, to come knocking on his door, goes out and fishes for disciples. One, two, three, four, he catches them. He doesn’t try to persuade them he’s worth their time; he doesn’t try to persuade them they are worth his. He simply says, ‘follow me,’ as if to say ‘what we’re doing is too important to stand here posturing, in pride or in humility, to each other.’
We don’t know much about Simon, Andrew, James and John—whether they were fourteen or forty-four, whether they were married, what all they risked in following Jesus. But we can guess that, as fishermen, they would never have dreamed of being anybody’s disciple. That was a world far above and beyond them. It’s as if Jesus came to earth today and walked straight for the nearest meat-packing plant, or cleaning service, or bus depot. Simon, Andrew, James, and John had known for a long time that they did not make the cut—that they were not brainy enough, wealthy enough, or perhaps even faithful enough—to study under a rabbi. And yet Jesus calls.
Both sets of disciples that Jesus called that day leave their boats immediately when Jesus calls. The preacher Barbara Brown Taylor calls this a miracle story—only God’s intervention could pull down the human walls of suspicion, doubt, and indecision so fast. But I wonder if they accepted their call much more quickly than they understood it. If, later on, they found themselves looking in mirrors and wondering if Jesus had called the right people—if he shouldn’t have looked a little harder, found scholars, scribes, priests, even soldiers.
I hope, in those anxious, mirror-gazing moments, they remember Jesus specifically called them to be fishermen of people. That he was not ashamed of their trade, or who they were; that he was not calling them to something too different from what God had already called them to.
I will admit I haven’t always loved the metaphor of fishing for people—if you follow it too far, it doesn’t turn out so well for the fish—but I think that is because this is not how Jesus’ would call me. This is how he called the fishermen—using language they understood, honoring the identity they had already built up, urging them to see a disciple in their own reflection.
Theologian Debbie Thomas writes,
Jesus’s call in this story is specific and particular, rooted in the language, culture, and vocation his hearers know best. What metaphor would make more sense to four fishermen than the metaphor of fishing for people? Simon and Andrew would have understood the nuances of that metaphor in ways I never will. James and John knew from years of hard won experience what depths of patience, resilience, intuition, and artistry professional fishing require. These men knew the tools of the trade, the limitations of their bodies and the potential dangers those limitations posed, and the life-and-death importance of timing, humility, and discretion. Most of all, they knew the water. They knew how to respect it, how to listen to it, and how to bring forth its best in due time. When Jesus called these tried-and-true fishermen to follow him, they understood the call not a directive to leave their experience and intelligence behind, but to bring the best of their core selves forward — to become even more fully and freely themselves.
In other words,” she continues, “we don’t follow Jesus in the abstract. We don’t heed his call “in general,” as if Christianity comes down to nothing more than attending church or being a nice person. If we’re going to follow him at all, we’ll have to do it in the highly specific particulars of the lives, communities, cultures, families, and vocations we find ourselves in. We’ll have to trust that God prizes our intellects, our muscle memories, our backgrounds, our educations, our skills, and that he will multiply, shape, and bring to fruition everything we offer up to him in faith from the daily stuff of our lives.
Follow me, Jesus says to the fishermen, and I will make you fishermen of people. Still you, still sharing all the experiences that have made and shaped you, just working with me now.
How would you fill in that blank? If Jesus is calling you, you, the person you already are, into deeper ministry with him, what words would he use? Follow me, engineer, and build my kingdom. Follow me, scientist, and delight in the world I made. Follow me, parent, and nurture my children. Follow me, nurse, and soothe the hurting. Follow me, chatterbox, and tell my story. Follow me, and find yourself in me.
It is easy to look in the mirror and think, there’s no way God would choose me. Call me. Want me. I’m not smart enough to teach, not brave enough to evangelize, not wealthy enough to be generous, not put together enough to lead. Voices fill our head like chattering seagulls, telling us that we don’t make the cut, that surely there’s somebody else who would do God’s work better.
But that mirror lies. Jesus looks at us and says, ‘you. You, exactly the way you are, follow me.’
In your bulletin there’s a time and talents sheet, specifically to help cover the things I’m called to do here, while I’m on sabbatical, following a different call to rest and take Sabbath. Now I don’t want to say that Jesus’ call to preach the good news, heal the sick, and proclaim release to the prisoner is exactly the same thing as our call for people who can type up bulletins—but then again, Jesus has this funny habit of calling us to tasks that seem small, but end up being a piece of the kingdom. As you skim down it, you may start to hear those voices in your head—I’m not savvy enough, not trained enough, not bold enough. I’m not the person for this. Surely God could call someone better.
But I want you to take that sheet home and pray. Really pray. Tell those voices to pipe down and listen for God’s voice. Because you may just find that some boring thing you do every day—like cold-calling strangers on the phone, or giving presentations at work, or even playing around on the internet—may be where your call begins. I’ll be praying too, that God is still in the miracle business, wrestling a yes out of all our self-anxious nos and buts and why mes.
I accepted God’s call on my life much more quickly than I understood it. For weeks—months—years—perhaps, somedays, still—I looked into mirrors and wondered why on earth God would call me, a nerdy introvert with few friends and a definite fear of sticking out in a crowd. Pastors were supposed to be engaging, charismatic, inspirational—all the things I wasn’t.
Maybe God will change me, I thought. You know that old saw about how God doesn’t call the equipped, but equips the called? I looked in that mirror and thought, God’s got a lot of equipping to do.
I held onto that thought, through college, even into seminary. Any day now, I’d think. Any day now, I’m going to wake up and look in that mirror and see a pastor.
And eventually I did—but it wasn’t really me God changed. It was my perspective. I finally stopped looking in mirrors. And started looking at myself in the eyes of God.
God knows I’m not perfect. God knows I don’t always make the grade.
And God? doesn’t seem to care. “Follow me,” I hear, and off I go.
Off we go.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way, p 40.