January 21, 2024 Cobleskill United Methodist Church, Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
3rd Sunday after Epiphany
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
I love snow. You probably know that about me at this point. I love the way it coats everything with quiet. I love the way it makes you feel cozy inside your coat or by your fire. And I’m not going to lie, as an introvert, I love the way it can cancel things. On Tuesday, however, my love for snow was put to the test. A text came from my brother in Philadelphia proclaiming they had a snow day with 2 inches of snow and not only did we not have a snow day, I had to drive to a conference gathering in Corning, NY that was very much not canceled. The interstates were covered with snow the whole way! Folks, where I’m from, that would cancel everything for at least a week.
The ironic thing was the event I risked my life going to was a 3-day retreat focused on … clergy wellness. Despite the trip being stressful and borderline dangerous, I drove carefully and I did make it. And all irony aside, it turns out to have been worth the trip. Our new Bishop, Bishop Hector has made clergy wellness a priority. I respect that. And while we did talk about a lot of things, the main focus of this clergy wellness retreat was on helping clergy reconnect with each other and rebuild relationships.
It’s tempting, I think, when you feel called to something to think it’s okay to just go it alone. This happens to clergy, but is certainly not limited to us. It’s like the calling somehow gives you superpowers to put your head down and just do it by yourself.
So last week we had the very dramatic and exciting interpretation of Jesus’ baptism. Thanks to Natasha and Brian for helping that to feel so …. real. What we didn’t read last week is that Jesus then goes into the wilderness where he had some time to re-energize for the next stage. Maybe he was an introvert, too. It’s good he’s had some rest, though, because immediately after these 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus gets some hard news. John, his cousin, who just baptized him, has been arrested for preaching about the Kingdom of God. Two things happen next.
1. Jesus knows there’s no time to waste. It’s his time to step out.
2. He knows he needs support for the journey ahead. He needs relationships. He shouldn’t do this alone.
But here’s the thing. Jesus wasn’t just interested in just generic relationships: people who would blindly follow him and leave themselves behind. He called specific people who had specific gifts. He found two fishermen by the sea, but he didn’t say “hey! stop being fishermen and follow me instead.” He said, “follow me and I’ll help you to fish differently.” In other words, he didn’t want them to change who they were at their core, he wanted them to be themselves, but to use their core identity as an asset to God’s work. See the difference?
I’ll be honest and say I’ve always struggled with this passage. I want to know what Jesus means when he calls us to follow him, but I also feel weird about what “fishing for people” really means outside of an evangelical context of “hooking” people for Christ that implies manipulation or trapping or bullying.
So I read another perspective this week from a commentator named Debie Thomas, who pulled together some research on 1st century fishing in Palestine. And not only did she help me see how this passage is about Jesus calling his followers to bring their core identity with them (fishermen), but that “fishing for people” would have been understood much more differently at the time Jesus said it.
You see, by the time Jesus was recruiting his support network, the fishing economy in Galilee had been completely taken over by the Roman Empire. Caesar owned every body of water and required people like Simon and Andrew, and James and John, to be part of regulated fishing syndicates. Groups of people given permission to fish on behalf of the Empire. Every fish caught was taxed and far too many were exported for profits the locals never saw. The end result is that the people of Galilee were impoverished and exploited.
And so when Jesus says to these fishermen who were caught in this unjust system, “drop your nets and fish with me instead and together we’ll fish not in that system, but in a new order where we’ll fish instead for people,” Jesus is “hearkening back to the Hebrew scriptures, in which ‘the hooking of fish’ is a euphemism for judgment upon the rich (Amos 4:2) and the powerful (Ezekiel 29:4).” Jesus is not talking about altar calls and filling pews. Jesus is seeking another way entirely. He wants to overturn the existing social order that favors the rich at the expense of the poor… that lifts up privilege, exploitation and domination as ordinary people are suffering. Jesus wants to usher in God’s Kingdom which reverses all of this. And Jesus wants these fishermen to help.
Context is everything, right?
Jesus called fishermen first because he knew they possessed gifts in patience and timing, he knew they were victims themselves of the social systems and hungry for something better.
The temptation of this story is to look at it too generally… That Jesus calls just anyone and whoever he calls we drop everything about who we are and blindly follow for the goal of netting some souls. But the underlying truth of the text is that Jesus sees a world overcome with injustice and he knows he’s going to need support to walk down the path of fighting it. So he sees fishermen and he understands that they bring particular gifts that are unique and needed in the work ahead. He asks them to bring those gifts and travel with him as they seek another way. A way where life can be abundant again, not just for the powerful and elite, but for all people.
We don’t follow Jesus in the abstract as if being a Christian is just about being a nice person. Jesus calls us, too, in particular. It’s the specific and particular aspects that make us who we are that Jesus asks us to bring to the journey. Last week when we heard God claim us as God’s beloved, it was not because we are generic and abstract. It’s because each of us is a unique person, with our own individual intellect, background, education, skills, and core identity. When Jesus calls to us now, it’s because he sees us bringing all of what we have to bear on the mission.
Maybe to the fishermen Jesus says, let’s fish together for people. But, as Debie Thomas poetically imagines, “to the engineer, maybe Jesus says, ‘Follow me and build my people.’ To the visual artist, ‘Follow me and paint the colors of the kingdom.’ To the stay-at-home parent, ‘Follow me and nurture my children.’ To the dancer: ‘Follow me and dance the Spirit.’ To the physician, ‘Follow me and heal broken souls.’ To all of us: ‘Follow me and I will make you…’” A promise to cultivate us for the work ahead. Together, in relationship, side-by-side, it will take all of us working together toward a world where all people can live abundantly.
2000 years have passed but the struggles are different now. But the Kingdom of God is still a work in progress. The world is still wrestling with the powers of greed and oppression, privilege and apathy. Jesus’ call is still echoing through the centuries. How will you bring your full self into this work? It’s a call to follow and it’s a call to also not leave yourself behind. It’s a call to collaborate, and join the movement; Jesus needs our company and our gifts. Some paths aren’t meant to be walked alone.
Grace and Peace,