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St. Paul’s – Epiphany 3 – 1/22/23

Gospel stories are challenging to grasp even at the best of times, but years of baggage like mine can make the task even harder.  But what strikes me now as I think aboutJesus calling Simon, Andrew, James, and John into lives of discipleship, is how familiar and close-to-home his call actually was.  Jesus did not invite them to abandon who they were; he invited them to become their most authentic, God-ordained selves.  He invited them to live into the fullness of the Imago Dei they were born with.

By which I mean: Jesus’s invitation to his first disciples was specific and particular, rooted in the language, culture, and vocation they knew best.  What metaphor would make more sense to four fishermen than the metaphor of fishing for people?  Simon and Andrew would have understood the nuances of that metaphor in ways I never will.  James and John knew from years of hard won experience what depths of patience, resilience, intuition, and artistry professional fishing require.  These men knew the tools of the trade, the limitations of their bodies, the potential dangers those limitations posed, and the life-and-death importance of timing, humility, and discretion.

Most of all, they knew the water.  They knew how to respect it, how to listen to it, and how to bring forth its best in due time.  When Jesus called these tried-and-true fishermen to follow him, they understood the call was not a directive to leave their experience and intelligence behind, but to bring the best of their core selves forward — to become even more fully and freely themselves.

In other words, I don’t believe anymore that I’m meant to follow Jesus into a self-annihilating abstract.  We’re not supposed to heed his call in general, as if Christianity comes in a number of pre-packaged, cookie-cutter shapes we have to pummel ourselves into.  If we’re going to follow him at all, we’ll have to do it in the unique particulars of the lives, communities, cultures, families, and vocations we find ourselves in.  We’ll have to trust that God prizes our intellects, our memories, our backgrounds, our educations, our skills, and that he will multiply, shape, and bring to fruition everything we offer up to him in faith from the daily stuff of our lives.  I will make you, he tells the fishermen.  I will take, cultivate, deepen, magnify, purify, protect, and perfect the people God created you to be.

Another difficulty lies in the fact that it sounds as if one day Jesus shows up and immediately we walk away from our old life and leave everything behind. That’s how Matthew describes it in today’s gospel. I don’t doubt that’s true. I know that’s how it happened for some of you. That is a legitimate and valid experience. But it’s not the only way. Some of you may describe your spiritual journey as a continuous and steady experience of Jesus. Others would tell a story of struggle and wrestling, give and take, back and forth. Think about Jacob or Jonah. In truth our lives are probably a mixture of all three of those plus others. How does any relationship begin and continue to grow? There is no one way or even a right way. There are probably as many ways of being called, finding Jesus, being found by Jesus, whatever you want to call it, as there are people. It is unique and personal to each one of us.

The point, however, isn’t how it happened but that it did happen and it continues to happen. It’s never a once and for all, finally and forever, kind of thing. Our entire life is a conversion. We are always being converted, shaped and formed, into the likeness of Jesus. Over and over again Jesus comes to us saying, Follow me.

Keep in mind that following Jesus does not happen in the abstract but in the context, circumstances, and relationships of our lives. Our relationship with Jesus is grounded and experienced in the people and events of our lives and world. So it was for Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Matthew throughout his gospel not only describes the life and ministry of Jesus but the ongoing shaping and forming of Peter’s, Andrew’s, James’ and John’s lives. That shaping and forming happened in Jesus’ teaching of the beatitudes, in his healing of the sick, in his telling parables, in his feeding the 5000, in Peter complaining that they had left  everything behind, in James and John arguing with the others and hoping to sit at Jesus’ right and left, in Jesus’ crucifixion, in his resurrection and ascension, and in the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Every one of those moments echo with Jesus’ words, Follow me. Every one of those is as much a turning point in the lives of these four disciples as was the day Jesus first saw them by the Sea of Galilee. Turning points always resound with the invitation to follow Jesus. They are the intersection of our lives and his life. Isn’t that what’s happening in today’s gospel? We hear it in Jesus’ words. He only says two things: Repent, and Follow me. At some level they are two sides of the same coin.

I am convinced these days that God is gentler with us than we are with ourselves.  The spiritual transformations that have had the most traction and power in my life have been the ones that also feel the most organic, the most ordinary, the most close-to-home.  Surrender to Jesus isn’t only about renunciation.  It’s about resurrection.  It’s about abundant and authentic life.  When Jesus promises to make us, it’s a commitment to nurture us, not a threat to sever us from all we love.  It’s a promise rooted in gentleness and respect — not violence and coercion.  It’s a promise that when we dare to let go, the things we relinquish might be returned to us anew, enlivened in ways we couldn’t have imagined on our own.

Most importantly, it is a promise from God to us — not from us to God.  As Barbara Brown Taylor so aptly puts it, the story of this Gospel is a miracle story.  Jesus calls, and the four fishermen immediately follow.  No hesitation, no questions asked.  Is this because they’re men of superhuman courage or prophetic foreknowledge?  Of course not.  These are the same guys who later in the Gospels doubt, deny, and abandon Jesus.  They’re as fallible and as ordinary as the rest of us, and their own volition can’t get them very far.

 This is not a story about us, Taylor writes.  It is a story about God, and about God’s ability not only to call us but also to create us as people who are able to follow — able to follow because we cannot take our eyes off the one who calls us, because he interests us more than  anything else in our lives, because he seems to know what we hunger for and because he seems to be food.

What bothers me about the fishing metaphor is that we so easily misinterpret it to mean that we have the power to hook or to catch others for God.  We don’t.  We are not called to cajole, manipulate, trap, bully, or even persuade others to accept Jesus, or join our the Episcopal church or our religion.  It is God alone who captures the imagination.  God alone who makes the vision of his kingdom come alive in a human soul.  All we can do is embody the vision in the particulars of our lives, reflecting into the water the profound beauty of who Christ is.  The rest is up to God.

In the end, Jesus’s invitation is Gospel, or good news.  If it’s not good news, it’s not God.  If it’s not good news for all — it’s not God Today, there are people who are caught in the nets of exploitation, corruption, poverty, war, exile, homelessness, violence, disease, climate change, racism, sexism, homophobia… the list goes on and on and on. What would count as Good News for them?

The four men immediately left their nets and followed Jesus.  In time, they made the Gospel their own, sharing its radical power through the details of their own lives and stories.  What is the Gospel according to you?  What is your Good News, and how will you share it in the turbulent waters of your particular time and place? In the towns we live, in the country we live, in the world we live

Follow me and I will make you.  Jesus is trustworthy.  He will.

This week, metaphorically, look at your lakes, boats, and nets, look at the circumstances of your life. What is the turning point you face today? What’s happening? What do you see? Somewhere in your life today is a turning point, a place of repentance, a place to recognize  how you will reveal by word and action, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Maybe you know exactly what it is. Maybe you’ve not yet recognized it. Maybe you’ve closed your eyes to it.

Regardless, it is there and so is Jesus, beckoning, calling, longing, desiring. He stands there saying, Follow me. I’ve picked you.