Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sermon: Recalculating

Texts: Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Cor. 1:10-18; Matt. 4:12-23

When I was getting ready to move up here from Atlanta, one of the things I got for myself was a GPS unit. I found a good deal on a nice Garmin and thought it might come in handy for not only getting to know the area, but getting me around to other churches in the presbytery for meetings and such. I call it my magic box, since it seems as if by magic that it knows where I am and how to get me where I’m going.

I knew I was getting brave the day I decided to go a way home that was not what my box suggested. It doesn’t matter really, as it will figure out quickly where I am and design a new route from there. Whenever I take a turn that it has not laid out for me, a voice, a nice alto female, comes over the speaker and tells me, “recalculating.” It may be my imagination, but sometimes she sounds a bit testy that I’m not following her directions and she has to figure out a new way home.

When I first was learning the roads, since none around here are straight, I sort of had to go on faith that my magic box knew where I was going, since I generally had no idea. There were, in fact, a couple of times that it was wrong. See, you can type in street addresses, but it also has a database of gazillions of retail locations. You can tell it you want to find a fast food place and then narrow it down by type of food and further by specific chain. So I only have to push a couple of buttons to find the nearest Chic-fil-A or Starbucks. And it has lots of other types of stores in its memory, though like most people, it apparently isn’t a faultless one.

I had used the location by name finder, typing in ‘Borders’ and it told me where I could find the nearest one. I followed the directions laid out for me by my magic box, peering around intently when it told me “approaching destination” only to find there was not a Borders in sight. It seemed to think that the Borders-owned Waldenbooks inside the mall was an appropriate substitute, which was not at all what I had had in mind. So even with satellite-guided electronics there are still sometimes I just have to go on faith that it’s going to take me where I need to be.

That’s pretty much what the fishermen who went with Jesus had to do too. They had to go on faith that he was the Messiah, they only had John’s word at that point, and that he would indeed take them where they needed to go to be fishers of people. Remember, they hadn’t seen any miracles or heard him preach yet. All they’ve heard is Jesus calling out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Pretty strong words for a guy who is still pretty much unknown at this point. Jesus is just beginning his ministry now. He has not, that we are told, performed any miracles yet or even angered any Pharisees. At this point his words sound like most of the other prophets that the Israelites had heard over the centuries. Even rather like his cousin John the Baptist. Unlike John though, Jesus isn’t telling the people about their awful sins and the need for confession and forgiveness. “Repent,” though it has some of those connotations, is a pretty interesting word. When most modern Christians hear it, they do think of asking for forgiveness for their sins. Repent, say you’re sorry. But that’s not really what it means, at least not entirely. The Hebrew root of the word means to turn round, to go a different way. It’s not just a change of heart, it’s a change of life. “Repentance here means more of a change of direction, the gaining of a new set of values, the readiness for life under the reign of God.”[i] Jesus’ isn’t issuing just a blanket call for repentance. It’s a call to repent because the kingdom of God has come near. “It is so radical and powerful, its presence calls men and women from their safety and routine to a life of unheard-of newness.”[ii]

Jesus is really telling these fishermen, “Recalculate, figure out a new way to go. And the way to go is to follow me.” It entails a good deal of trust and allegiance to just drop everything and take a new direction. We have to be willing to let Jesus take the lead, and to follow him, trusting that he knows the way to the kingdom.

It’s difficult for some of us to take directions from others. We like to strike out on our own. It’s often easy to recognize those people. They’re the ones who drive around in circles, or have pieces left over from an IKEA project. They’re people who have a difficult time trusting in someone other than themselves, I think. Not that they can’t, just that it’s hard for them. We might call them self-reliant or independent. And those aren’t bad traits, but they do get a bit in the way when Jesus is asking us to drop our nets and follow him. We want to ask “But why, Jesus, why should I follow you?” But Matthew tells us that the disciples did it “immediately,” with no hesitation, with no backwards glance. And we might ask why, why did they drop everything to follow?

Our family used to go on “get lost rides” when I was a kid. It was our way of adding some adventure, a get away, on an otherwise ordinary day. We’d all pile into the car and head out into the country, sometimes wooded, sometimes fields, depending on where we were living at the time. My sister and I would get to pick the direction we took when we came to an intersection. We’d go places I’d never seen before, my sister and I (and probably Mom, too) thoroughly lost, but always trusting that Dad knew the way home no matter where we were. And you know, he always did.

The disciples remind me of that. They themselves not really knowing where they would be going with Jesus, but somehow trusting that he knew the way to go, so they just left everything and followed. All Jesus says is “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And like that, (snap), they dropped the nets they were casting and followed him. We aren’t told anything beyond that. Matthew doesn’t elaborate. The difficult thing about this story for me is the fishermen's unflinching, immediate decision to follow this man. Where’s the rational "let’s think this over," or "I’ll get back to you?" We have no indication that they had counted the cost. We’re not even sure that they stopped long enough to say goodbye to family and friends. They just up and leave everything connected to their life. Immediately and with no looking back. To get back to the question of why they did it, the answer is simple. Almost too simple. Because it was Jesus. It was Jesus who told them to follow.

Yesterday at the presbytery meeting, we heard a woman preach on this same Scripture passage. While her sermon went a different direction than mine, I did come away with this thought. When the disciples put down their nets to follow Jesus, the nets they put down, cast aside, were not just fishing nets. They were also safety nets. They represented what was safe and familiar to these men. They were a source of income and stability, a link to their family and their homes. No, they were not just nets to catch fish. But once they were put down the disciples had empty hands. Now they could use those hands to catch people, to heal them, to feed them, to hold them. We have to come with our safety nets put down, cast aside, so that we have empty hands to offer to Christ so he can fill them again with the tools we need to help others.

“Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Notice though that he doesn’t tell these fishermen, “Follow me and you can be shepherds for my sheep,” or “Follow me and you can be a soldier in God’s army.” No, he meets them where they are, who they are. These fishermen will now fish-for-men. It is right here that we get a glimpse of the way Jesus works in the world. He doesn’t start a conversation with them about farming or shepherding, even though those will be metaphors he later uses. No, because he is speaking with fishermen, he speaks to them in their own terms, not what he knows best, but what they know best.

A professor of mine at Columbia Seminary played around with some of the other calls Jesus might have extended. She offers these.

Follow me, you miners, and I will make you mine for people!

Follow me, you bankers and tellers, and I will make you bank human life!

Follow me, you builders, and I will make you builders of God’s house!

Follow me, you shopkeepers, and I will make you keepers of God’s shop!

Follow me, you clowns and fools, and I will make you fools for God!

Follow me, you landscape workers, and I will make you landscapers of life!

Follow me, you cooks and chefs and butchers and bakers, and I will make you season and leaven and serve and preserve more than food!

Follow me, you instrumentalists, and I will make you instrumental to others!

Follow me, you friends, you parents, you children, you siblings, you neighbors, you strangers, you hosts and guests, and I will make you all these things—to every other human being!

It’s not as hard as you might think. Christ always starts where we already are.

Take a deep breath, put down your nets…and follow, simply because it is Christ who is asking us to do so.

[i] Brueggemann, Cousar, Gaventa, Newsome. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year A. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 1995.

[ii] ibid.

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