Following and Fishing

Sermon for January 22, 2012
Epiphany 3B
Mark 1:14-20
The Rev. Margot D Critchfield

Follow me and I will make you fish for people,”(or “fishers of men” as the King James Version has it). Either way, it’s one thing to read about Jesus saying this to the first disciples; it’s quite another to hear him saying it to us.  But of course, that’s precisely why we read the scriptures every Sunday, and refer to them as “The Living Word”:  Because the scriptures are meant to speak to each of us today. It’s like the UCC church proclaims on its billboards, “God is still speaking,” and one way God is still speaking, one way God is always speaking, is through scripture.  It defies explanation, but God still speaks across the centuries to His people, in extraordinarily different cultures, and vastly different contexts. Today, through this particular scripture, God is speaking a word of call to us —in our own time, and culture, and context. “Follow me,” we are meant to hear Jesus say to each of us personally, “and I will make you fish for people.”

Two things need to be said here right away: One is that Jesus doesn’t call everyone to follow him in the same way, and that our calls are rarely as clear and dramatic as the ones in this story.  Nevertheless, we are called just the same. Jesus has called (and is calling) each of us to follow him, just as surely as he called Peter and Andrew and James and John. Our calls are no less valid simply because they are less overt or explicit than those of the first disciples.  We don’t get off the hook that easily.

The other thing we need to clarify right upfront is that the way in which each of us responds to our call is rarely as spontaneous or impulsive as the response of those first disciples.  But their dramatic “jump-down-turn-around drop- everything-and-go” responses don’t get us off the hook either:  Intentionally or not, each of us has responded to our call.  If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here this morning. We’d be home reading the paper, watching the Sunday news shows, or maybe worshipping in that cozy little spot we affectionately call “The Church of the Holy Comforter.”

But we’re not home snuggled up under the covers, we’re here—in a church.  So presumably, for one reason or another, we have chosen to identify ourselves with a bunch of people known as “Christians”—a somewhat daunting label in this age of extremism, but one that nonetheless applies to those of us who choose to pursue our relationship with God as followers of Jesus.  We may not all agree on who Jesus is or what he did or why he did it—odds are we don’t even agree on who God is or what He did or why He did it—but we do share this in common:  We have each chosen to self-identify as followers of Jesus, as Christians, and in this sense—if in no other—we have responded to his call to follow.

So other than coming to church on Sunday, what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?  And what about this terribly un-Episcopalian business of fishing for people? 

For the first disciples in this morning’s gospel, being a follower of Jesus meant dropping what they were doing and instantly running off with Jesus into the unknown. If we visualize what that might have looked like, we can imagine them turning away, rather dramatically, from one thing—their nets—in order to turn toward Jesus, to follow him.  Now hold that image for a minute: turning away from one thing and towards another.

Mark is an artful storyteller: It’s no coincidence that if we back up just a few verses to the beginning of this reading, it opens with Jesus proclaiming to all who will listen, “Repent, and believe the good news!”  To “repent” is to turn or re-turn towards God and away from whatever is keeping one from Him, just as the disciples turned away from their nets and towards Jesus.  To repent is to change the focus of one’s energy and attention toward God, and away from whatever has taken God’s place in our lives.

So one “wondering” question this passage invites us to ask ourselves is what we might need to turn away from, in order to turn towards God to follow Jesus more faithfully. 

One of the gifts of our spiritual journeys is that unlike Mark’s telling of the disciples’ call story, ours is not a one-time thing. Jesus calls us anew every day, so we get to ask ourselves every morning, every evening, and as often as we like, what “net” Jesus might be calling us to let go of right now, so we can follow him more faithfully.  What resentment, unhealthy attachment, or mean-spiritedness am I being called to let go of?  What have I allowed to take priority in my life over my relationship with God? What do I need turn away from, to be a more faithful follower of Jesus today

All the wisdom of the ages tells us that if we bring questions like this to our prayer, the Holy Spirit will provide the answers.  They may not be the answers we want; we may fear we haven’t the resources to respond to them properly. But the really cool thing is that we also get to pray for the grace to follow through, too—we get to pray for the grace to change our attitude or behavior—and by that act of will alone we are already being more faithful followers. It’s a beginning.  And it’s a very good beginning.  The spiritual journey, to borrow a phrase, is a journey of progress, not perfection.  And if there’s one prayer God loves to answer it’s the authentic, heart-felt prayer of Ignatius that we might see Him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly.

Another wondering question this passage invites us to ask ourselves is what it might mean–in our culture, in our context and in our time—to “fish for people.”

For these first disciples, to follow Jesus necessarily included encouraging others to follow him too.  Today, evangelism is nearly a four-letter word.  We equate it with all the worst practices and personalities in Christendom, and use that as an excuse to talk about everything from our dysfunctional families to our bathroom habits before we’ll talk about our religion!  And that’s just not okay.  Nowhere in scripture do we get off the hook on that one!  We like to say that we’re following St. Francis’s injunction to “preach the gospel, use words if necessary,” but the truth is that as followers of Jesus we promise to “proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.”  So what about that “word” part?

We were reflecting on this at our last vestry meeting, and one of our vestry members shared that he had just mustered up the courage at his new job to casually mention that he had to leave on time because he had a meeting at church to get to. Much to his astonishment, instead of looking at him like he had a third eye in the middle of his forehead and running from the room, a number of his colleagues indicated that they, too, went to church!  He wasn’t fishing, yet simply by “name dropping” that he went to church, he got a few nibbles.

Another vestry member told us that for a long time she would tell people she was going to a book group, rather than Bible Study, but that since she finally came out with it, more often than not people are interested enough to ask her follow-up questions.  Again, she isn’t fishing, but she definitely appreciates it when she gets nibbles.  And not surprisingly, her Bible Study has been growing.

I had a gentleman in spiritual direction, who was an accountant at a big firm and wearing a ring with a cross on it to work was a terrifying, but decisive, way of identifying himself as a follower of Jesus.  People noticed it, and if they went for the bait, great—otherwise, he said nothing. 

When colleagues ask you what you did over the weekend, what would it feel like for you to slip in the fact that you went to church, along with all the other activities you packed into 48 hours?  When your friends ask you what you’re up to this coming weekend, why not mention that you’re going to an Old Fashioned Community Supper at your church on Friday night?

Today’s gospel reading can be intimidating, no doubt about it.  Jesus calls, and these first four disciples immediately drop everything to follow him.  Rarely is it so for us, or for anyone we know:  We don’t hear Jesus’ call nearly as clearly, nor respond to it nearly as decisively, as did Peter, Andrew, James and John. But we are called, and we respond, every moment of every day of our lives.  Over and over again we get to ask ourselves two fundamental questions: “What do I need to turn away from to be a more faithful follower of Jesus?”  And “How might I interest someone else in following him too?” This is our work as followers of Jesus. We’ve promised to share the Good News in both word and deed. Fortunately, we don’t have to do it all by ourselves:  “Follow me,” Jesus assures us, “and I will make you fish for people.”  And let the people say, “Amen!”

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