Saturday, January 22, 2011

Into the Bright Unknown (Tomorrow's Sermon)

As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—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.”

So that is how it’s done.  That’s how we follow Jesus.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?  He comes to us in our everyday lives and invites us to follow him, and we do.  How hard can it be?

Let’s explore this story a bit more closely this morning. Let’s take a look at these two parallel vignettes of call:
Twice, two times in a row, Jesus calls two brothers.  And both times they leave what they are doing, where they are doing it, and with whom they are doing it  -- and follow him.  Immediately.

Does it still sound so easy?  To leave all that’s familiar?  To leave without hesitation?

These men are all fisherman and so, what are they up to?  Peter and Andrew are casting a net into the sea.  James and John are mending their nets. 

They’ve probably been engaged in these activities every day for years and years.  This was a world in which boys followed their father into whatever trade in which he made his living. There weren’t a lot of choices in the Galilean world; a young person did not face years of formal education before going to work in the field of his or her choice.  We see that reality even here, in this short narrative, in that James and John are working with their father Zebedee. 

Peter and Andrew, James and John—they had been mending and casting nets, plying their oars across the water, collecting and separating and disbursing fish, for as long as they could remember.  They were probably good at all of those tasks; they could probably have done them with their eyes closed.  Their rhythms of their work were familiar; they eased into them every morning and brought them to a finish every evening with the comfortable knowledge that the next day they would do it all over again.

Except – not tomorrow.  Tomorrow when they get up, it will be to do something else, because Jesus has called them to leave their casting and mending of nets and to follow him. Jesus has invited them into a new, a completely unexpected, adventure

What is it that you might not be doing tomorrow?  If Jesus is calling you to follow him, what might you be doing instead?  Or differently?  What work might he be calling you to abandon?  What work might he be inviting you to take on?  What new adventure is he calling you to?

And – it’s not as if that’s all there is to it.

When Jesus invites these four disciples to follow him, he means – away.  To new places.  It’s clear – James and John  leave their boat.  That nice, familiar boat. Now I don’t know how comfortable that boat is, but it’s theirs.  It’s the boat they’ve cleaned and sanded and repaired – they may have even built that boat.  They know just how it behaves in the water and the wind; they know its boat personality.  They have their favorite places to sit and stand.  The sides of the boat are worn smooth from the nets they've hauled in, heavy with fish.  That boat is filled with as many memories as it has been filled with fish.  They have a lifetime of hopes and plans invested in that boat.

Except – no more.  Jesus has called them and they are leaving their boat behind, on the beach.  Their familiar, known place.  The environment in which they’ve spent their lives and made their livings.  The adventure is becoming more complicated.

Where might you be tomorrow, if you follow Jesus’call?  What place might you have to leave?   Where might you be going?  What boat do you occupy that you may need to step out of?  To what new surroundings might Jesus be calling you?

And even that’s not quite the end of it.  These disciples – they don’t merely take on new work.  They don’t leave behind only their space and their equipment.  They leave familiar relationships behind as well.  James and John leave their father

In a world in which kinship is everything, a world in which who they are, who their wives and children are, where they live and what work they do, is all determined by the role and person of the male head of the family – they leave him. 

Imagine the life of  insecurity and uncertainty they have just accepted!  At home, they are the sons of Zebedee.  Their friends and neighbors know what that means, know who they are.  They have a status guaranteed them by their father.  When they speak on matters of business and fishing, people listen. 

And, let’s not lose sight of the most important aspect of their relationship with their father: the love between a father and his sons.  A love that has been nurtured and has grown out of the regular sharing of both family life and work life.  A love which has been shared with them in the teaching of skills and the sharing of stories.  A loving relationship that is a part of the fabric of everday life.

Except – no longer, at least no longer as they have known it. No longer will they and their father be on daily, even hourly, speaking terms.  No longer will he be sharing his lifetime of experience with them; no longer will they be assured of an income, a place in the family and in their community.  Jesus has called them and they have walked away from all that has nurtured them. They are going to follow a different leader, in a new community of disciples. 

And you?  Is it possible that Jesus is calling you to accept changes in precious relationships and to form new ones?  Could he mean for you to be building new friendships, to be working with people you’ve never laid eyes on? 

This sounds really difficult, doesn’t it?  And I don’t want to discount the difficulty.  Some of you know that I’m recent seminary graduate, and that means that I have a little bit of experience with this kind of call.  When I applied to seminary, I had a perfectly good job.  I wasn’t out fishing, but I was teaching in a school in which I’d worked for several years.  I was comfortable there. I loved studying and teaching history and literature, and I would have been content to do it for many more years.  I was in charge of all the standardized testing for the school, and I liked being in charge of something.  And instead, I was off to study Greek!  And Hebrew!  And I wasn’t in charge of anything anymore – I was a lowly first year student, on the unnoticed bottom rung of the seminary ladder.  I was doing things which I had never imagined doing.

And I was doing them in Pittsburgh!  Steelers Country!  I had to leave my boat, my nice, comfortable, familiar Cleveland Heights house.  Now, I didn’t have to leave it completely. For three years, I spent three or four days a week in Pittsburgh, and then I came home.  But it was still a shock to the system, to have to learn my way around a new neighborhood after 25 years in the one in which I live up the hill.

Part of that shock was, of course, the new relationships demanded by my new life.  I was secure in my world here.  I have a close-knit group of friends and we’ve all been spending time together for two decades.  I’ll never forget looking around the dining room during lunch the first day at seminary and thinking, Wow!  I have to make an entirely new group of friends! I don’t know a single person on this campus. Not so easy for someone well into middle age who’s lived in the same place for almost her entire adulthood.

So no, I don’t underestimate the challenge of Jesus’ call.  Truthfully, my version was pretty tame at first, compared to the four disciples we’re watching today. I was still spending my days reading and writing and talking, and I was coming home every week-end, and Pittsburgh is really not all that different from Cleveland.  It wasn’t as if God had asked me to become a nuclear physicist in Russia.  And I didn’t do it immediately.   

You notice that word immediately in there?  In both cases?  Peter and Andrew immediately left their nets and followed him.  James and John immediately left their boat and their father and followed him.

That’s a big word in there, immediately.  We think of it in terms of time: right now, instantaneously. Or as having a sense of urgency. But is also means, in English: nothing in between.  No mediation, no middle ground, no bridge from one thing to another.  Im, or in – mediate.  No mediating step.  Just do it.

Today we would probably think of these disciples as impulsive.  Immoderate.  And certainly many of us have wondered about what’s not mentioned in this story.   What happens to Zebedee’s fishing business when his sons suddenly depart?  What happens to wives and children left behind?  We don’t know, and that word immediate is pretty frightening when we imagine some of those consequences.  We think that a mature person should make big decision cautiously, after a period of discernment, of consultation and weighing of pros and cons. That’s certainly what I did where seminary was concerned, and it’s certainly what I  recommend.

But I think that we can understand the world immediately to mean wholeheartedly.  Not necessarily speedily, and not without deliberation – but with the fullness and wholeness of who we are.  With a sense that nothing lies between us and that – or the one – to whom we have committed ourselves.  Our entire selves.   Not holding anything back, but making a full commitment to what lies ahead.    A recognition that this adventure does have a sense of urgency about it. that we cannot be distracted by other things.

To what adventure are you called? What might Jesus be calling you to do  that you’ve never done before?  This church has a beautiful building and a great history, and it sits in the middle of a city filled with need.  To which of those needs are you going to respond? 

Where are you going to go, what places are you going to see, where are you going to share yourselves, as you follow Jesus?  Where are you going to take your gifts, nurtured in this community inmusic and prayer and word, and spread them around?  We live in a world, in a culture, in which many people never venture into a church.  What are you going to take from this church and give to the rest of the world?  How are you going to be God’s people in places outside of this building, away from the familiar and the comfortable?

And to whom are you going?  You don’t have to go alone – you’ve noticed, I’m sure, that in today’s story, Jesus calls two sets of brothers.  He calls people who are already in relationship, already in community with one another.  To whom are you going, in the company of your brothers and sisters?  Who are you going to serve as you follow Jesus?

What lies ahead?  What adventure? I don’t know the specifics.  I don’t know the specifics for me and I don’t know them for you, but I know the reality, the truth that lies ahead:  Light.  Those who walked in darkness have seen a great light, said the prophet Isaiah.  Those who lived in darkness – on them light has shined.  What happens when you respond wholeheartedly to the call of Jesus, when you see the urgency of leaving the old ways behind and respond by wholeheartedly doing something new in new places with new people? 

Light is what happens.  A light that the darkness does not overcome. 

There are a lot of people in this city in dark places.  People who are hungry.  People who are homeless.  People enslaved to drugs and alcohol.  People without adequate health care, without an adequate education, without jobs.   How does light shine into the dark places in which people suffer? How do they see a great light?  It shines and they see it because there are people called by Jesus who are willing to leave their well-worn nets and their well-tried boats behind and follow him wherever he leads them. 

Are we among those called? Are we being invited to leave our nets and our boats to participate in a new adventure with Jesus Christ?  Are we called to engage God’s world in ways we’ve never imagined?

The light shines, in the darkness, across the well-known sea, and down a new and unexplored path.  Thanks be to God.


  1. from light to darkness to light again...a path, a journey...wondering where it all leads.

    Good sermon Robin, may it speak deeply into these hearts.

  2. This call is what resonates throught the scriptures for me. The call to do Christ's work. To see those in need and try to help. To work for social justice.

    Specifically, it has called me to teach students many of whom live in difficult situations in a school with few supplies, tools, or materials. I know I make a difference - my students call, text, e-mail, give me hugs, small drawings, other trinkets; these are juniors and seniors in high school. I tell them that they are all my favorite but each in his or her own unique way.

    This reading was especially powerful today at my church. My youngest is starting the confirmation process and it was the inscription ceremony for him and his cohort. What will be Christ's call to them?

    It's a beautiful sermon. You beautifully expressed the family turmoil and changes unspoken in the gospel. I am glad you were called to seminary and more impressed that under difficult circumstances, you finished. The congregation and people to whom you will end up ministering will be fortunate indeed!

  3. great sermon! wish I could hear it!

  4. oh yes, and your sermon reminds me of one of my favorite prayers.

  5. Thanks for sharing this great sermon! What a blessing to so many that you followed when called.

  6. sorry for the delay, but here's the prayer:

    O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untroddne, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

  7. Powerful, Robin...and I can hear, if I am correct, the resonance not just from your gradual and well discerned life change but the immediate, drastic and devastating one that is profoundly shaped the results of the first. An example of what we were discussing a little ways back, perhaps--your personal experience informing your reading of the Gospel implicitly as well as explicitly.

    Thank you also for sharing more memories of your beloved son--I am so glad that you have so many good ones of a childhood that does sound, as you described it, like one of the best ever.

  8. This is beautiful Robin. Powerful and gentle at the same time. Thank you so much.


  9. Fantastic message. God has His ways of moving us, doesn't He. I love that he called brothers, for the sake of companionship and comfort, on what can be, a difficult journey of faith and obedience. I loved hearing the facts of your journey again--the call to ministry and seminary. How very brave and faithful of you. And God knowing all along that there would be tragedy and crisis in the midst of that journey, and it would change the way you see everything. And your message--the depth and the faith in your words. I LOVE that you speak out of your own experience. It gives me hope.
    Blessings, dear Robin, and thanks for giving us all encouragement to follow when He calls.