Sermon: Third Sunday after Epiphany

January 26, 2014

It was a teenager’s dream, really. Four young men–Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John–were going about the drudgery of their daily lives as fishermen. Their work was smelly, physically demanding, and required their attention from sun up to sun down. And then one day, a radical, idealist rabbi wanders by and invites them to go on a great, world-changing adventure with him. He was a radical, the man that all the religious leaders in town considered scandalous, and that the government considered dangerous. What more could anyone stuck in the same dead-end job that his parents and grandparents held before him want? How exciting it must have been for these young men, eager to make a difference in the world beyond providing a nice striped bass for the town market. Here was something new! Something extreme! Something huge!

It reminds me a little bit of the Iowa caucuses year that Howard Dean was a candidate. I was a pastor in Des Moines at the time, so I saw the swarms of young Dean volunteers from all over the US populate our state practically overnight. We called them Deanie Babies, because they tended to be very young, idealistic, and eager to serve. They came full of hope that they could DO something, be part of a movement that would better the world. Well, we all know how that turned out. And I’m not suggesting Howard Dean was Jesus, but I do find myself wondering if there’s something of a parallel in their followers? Is there something about eager young people embracing a new voice that is timeless?

Beyond this initial attraction, I wonder if, with the benefit of hindsight, we could recognize any similarities in the ways the young people responded when their hero went down in flames? It would be interesting to me to talk to some of those Deanie Babies now, over a decade later. I wonder what they would say about their experience, whether or not they found that period of their lives worth all the effort and time they’d spent? At the time, they were crushed.

It makes me wonder about the four young fishermen Jesus encounters in today’s Gospel reading. How did they feel after Jesus’ arrest and conviction and execution? Did they wonder why they’d invested so much of themselves in this man after all? Did they, like the Deanie Babies, return home after the excitement died down and wonder why they’d gotten so hooked to begin with? Was it all just a youthful adventure? Richard Russo, in his novel Empire Falls, speculates that the disciples must have experienced some ambivalence about Jesus’ demise: “They never wanted him crucified of course, but what a relief it must have been when the stone was rolled across the entrance of the tomb, sealing everything shut so they could go back to being fisherman which they knew how to do rather than fishers of men which they didn’t.”

Perhaps this is why when Jesus called out to James and John and their father, the boys immediately left their nets and went with him, but their father, Zebedee, did not. I don’t think it’s that Jesus didn’t invite him. It looks to me as if Jesus called the whole boatful—and if we know anything about Jesus, it’s that he always invites everyone to come with him. But maybe Zebedee, as a young whippersnapper, had followed an idealistic rabbi or two himself. Perhaps he’d gotten caught up in trying to reform the religious institutions or the political systems of his time. Perhaps he’d discovered in the process that he wasn’t a very good reformer. Or maybe he’d become disillusioned with promises broken and issues left unaddressed, even by those he admired. Perhaps he’d come to discover that no one really wants change—maybe not even he himself.

Novelist James Baldwin once wrote, “Any real change implies the breaking up of the world as one has always known it…the end of safety.” Maybe Zebedee was just too tired to take on such a scary prospect. What if the people who sit in darkness actually DO see the great light, but they opt to stay in the dark because going out there is just too risky? After all, the dark place where they are may be miserable, but at least it’s familiar. The light might be better, but how can we be sure? Why not stick with what we know? Could this be why, when his boys took off, Zebedee just shook his head at Jesus and said, “No thanks. This time I think I’ll just stay here and fish”?

I wonder if Zebedee and his wife sat up late and night, asking themselves, “Did the boys do the right thing, following Jesus? Are they safe? Is it smart? Won’t it just break their hearts when they figure out that nothing is going to change, no matter what they say or do?” Can we blame Mr. and Mrs. Zebedee if they worried?

Consider this past week. Have you, a child of God, found that living in the light is an ongoing festival of joy? Or have there been mundane moments of being stuck in traffic, or bouncing a check, or shoveling snow? Maybe you’ve even had some genuinely awful moments, times when you felt ultimately alone, wounded, confused, scared, angry. Is following Jesus all that it’s cracked up to be? Does calling ourselves Christians, followers of Jesus, mean that we never encounter the darkness again?

Jesus’ disciples were the first, but certainly not the last, people to discover that following Jesus is not all sunshine and pep rallies. They had moments of doubt and frustration even with Jesus right there next to them, so how can we expect our experience to be any different? Maybe we can find some consolation in examining their lives after they forsake all that is familiar and embark on Jesus’ tour. Maybe these four young people can teach us something about what it’s like to answer Jesus’ call to follow him.

I actually find it quite comforting that they didn’t turn out to be model “fishers of people” after all. At his hour of need, Peter denied even knowing Jesus and is famous for later carrying on a nasty inter-church struggle with the followers of Paul. (Doesn’t it help to know that we are not unique in our struggles over how to be faithful?). James and John are remembered (at least in part) for bickering over who would have the better seat in heaven.

No, it is not now, nor has it ever been safe, to follow Jesus. Eventually, if sources are correct, nearly all of Jesus’ 12 disciples were publicly executed, just as he had been. And who could number how many of his later followers were treated equally violently? So, was it worth it for these boys to leave behind their family and the family industry, to be part of a great idealistic faith movement? Was it worth chasing the Light when everyone ends up bitterly disappointing and disappointed—especially if they can’t see any lasting difference made in the world? In the final analysis, what’s darker than a tomb?

Here’s the thing I’d want to share with Zebedee if I could: when the cross came down and the stone was rolled over the door to Jesus’ tomb—and for that matter, over the tombs of his sons—that was not the end of the adventure. Nor did those dark moments cancel out all the powerful events the adventure had offered.

While they were together, Jesus and his disciples brought hope and light, challenge and encouragement, to all who would receive them. Jesus was Light to people who lived in darkness. And the big surprise that followed Jesus’ death is God’s reminder to us that nothing can put out the Light that God shines into the world. Nothing! No darkness, no cynicism, not even death, can squelch the promises of God’s presence with us at all times and in all places. Resurrection is one more invitation to a new adventure, one more calling to a new life, a new way of seeing, a new way of being. It may look like death has the last word, but even there, Jesus extends his hand and begs us to follow.

I like to imagine that after today’s dramatic call story, Jesus dropped by Zebedee’s boat from time to time, just to talk about the guys, about fishing, about the weather, and about his vision for the world. I wonder if Zebedee listened and learned, or if he continued to say no thanks. I wonder if he thought to himself, “I’ll follow Jesus, but from right here. After all, one little step at a time. No use risking everything, in case it turns out to be a bust, like the last dreamer and the one before that.” I like to hope that eventually he discovered what his sons had already figured out (age doesn’t always equal wisdom, you know): You CAN’T be where Jesus is if you stay in the boat.

Eventually you have to get out. Eventually you have to take a chance on following in order to end up where Jesus is. I imagine Zebedee, one ordinary evening, while cleaning out his boat, simply surrendering. Throwing up his hands and saying, “What’s the worst that could happen? Maybe I’ll end up having wasted my time. On the other hand, at least I will die knowing I gave myself passionately and unreservedly to trying to do something good and true and important. And if nothing changes, well, at least I tried. I can always come back to the boat.” And maybe he went home, got his wife and some sandwiches and took off after Jesus.

Of course we know that Zebedee never really could go back. Somehow, we can never return to the way things were before we encountered Jesus. We may do some of the same things we used to do, but we are different people, new creations. Once we encounter Jesus, and feel his promises take root in our hearts, once we start seeing people and animals and places through his eyes, the world is changed forever. Following Jesus, it gets harder to distinguish between the people we used to consider enemies and those we like to call friends. The boundaries between “us” and “them,” between the parts of creation that matter and the parts that don’t, evaporate. Suddenly the whole world starts to look significant. The people who follow Jesus hang onto God’s grace instead of their own self-sufficiency, and so can never return to a place without hope.

It’s dangerous to get out of the boat, to leave the safety of the darkness, the security of the familiar. But the light is shining all around us, inviting us to take a chance. Jesus calls us to risk interacting with–fishing for–people: listening to them, talking to them, sharing with them, eating with them. Jesus invites us to join him in his ministry of bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming liberty to those who feel like they are captives, bringing sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free. Jesus invites us, over and over, to come out of our isolated boats and follow him. Experience the healing, the feeding, the teaching, the forgiving, the growing. Jesus, despite the risk of rejection, never stops inviting us to dance with him in the light. Thanks be to God!

~Pastor Sue

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