Jan. 22: “What’s Your Net?”

Matthew 4:12-23 ; John 1: 35-42

You might think that my title, “What’s Your Net?”, means we are going to be talking about net income. Well, you’ll hear at our annual meeting later about our current financial challenges. But this is no fund-raising sermon; I’m not asking how much you can afford to pass on to the church. No, my title refers to the nets that the first disciples left, when they began to follow Jesus. Well, we are trying to find our story in the story of Jesus and his disciples; so I want to talk about our nets—what we are carrying around, those things that define us and mark our daily existence, and whether we also are so willing to leave them behind when Jesus calls us.

Christians have always talked about being called. But finding our own call in the stories of the disciples takes imagination and flexibility. There is no one-size-fits-all call story. A call can be sudden and dramatic, like a voice telling you to do a 180, or it can be gentle voice that you have always known and that persists within you. But Christians have always talked about being called by God. I think all that means is that God, particularly through Jesus and the gospel message, makes a claim on us, personally. In uniting with Jesus, God embraces all humanity—this was our Christmas message; but beyond that we also feel personally chosen by God, in some mysterious way. We are personally made the recipients of God’s promises, and personally take on the yoke and responsibility of discipleship. Don’t expect your call to look exactly like Andrew or Peter’s, for not all were called to be apostles. We all are called to follow Jesus, but in a variety of ways. So at least something of their call should resonate with us; it should illuminate and perhaps challenge us.

But there’s no formula for what a call looks like. The Bible doesn’t even present us with a unified story about how the disciples were called. We heard today two different accounts of how Andrew and his brother Peter became followers of Jesus. But even though we are left scratching our heads over the question, “what really happened?,” both of these stories can be instructive, if we just try each of them on and see how they fit.

In John’s account, Andrew begins as a disciple of John the Baptist. That says a lot right there. John was leading a movement of repentance, but also religious reform and change. If you not only left Jerusalem or your small town and went toward the wilderness to be baptized by John, as we talked about last week, but also became his disciple, you were kind of a radical. You had already left behind the traditional Jewish way of life and were preparing for a radically revitalized spiritual community. We have seen that John didn’t know what exactly God had in mind for Israel, and who was going to take the lead, but he knew it would be something dramatically different. The coming Kingdom of God would involve more than a slight adjustment in course. It would require repentance: leaving off the path or rut you’ve been stuck in and going a new direction; doing a 180 as we say today. John is baptizing into repentance, pulling people off the false path they were on or in. But he doesn’t yet know the new path forward. Perhaps that is why, in our passage today, he is standing, not moving. But now he recognizes Jesus as the one sent by God, the Lamb of God, the Son of God. And when Jesus walks by, John declares to his disciples, in curious language, “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” John does what he was sent to do: witness. He stands and points. And he gladly releases his disciples into Jesus’ care. I hope the people we are following and listening to are like John, willing to point us in the right direction, and give us up to Jesus.

So Andrew was one of these disciples that asked where Jesus is staying, and Jesus invites him by saying, “Come and see.” And then Andrew goes to tell Peter, his brother. Now, it’s not clear whether Peter was also a disciple of John; but if not, then at least he was, like Andrew, looking for a Messiah and is easily persuaded to come see Jesus for himself. The lesson here for us is that Andrew and Peter were already seeking something extraordinary; they had already left the comforts of home and tradition. All they need to become followers is to be pointed in the right direction, and to receive a call in the form of a simple invitation: “Come and see.” /

But Matthew tells a very different story about how Andrew and Peter were called to follow Jesus. Matthew, borrowing from Mark’s Gospel, shows Andrew and Peter as simple fishermen, not disciples of John. They are casting a large net into the sea, which was the simplest way to fish. James and John were also fishing, but with a boat, which I guess is a step up. Then Jesus sees them, and simply says, “Follow me.” And for fun, he adds, “And I’ll make you people-fishers.” (“Fishers of men” sounds nice, but the Greek word here is people, not men.) And we are told: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” And same for James and John: “Immediately they left their boat and their father, and followed him.”

Can you imagine? It’s such a strange story. It’s almost creepy. They sound like a bad Zombie cliche: “We hear, and we obey.” We have come to distrust the idea of blind and thoughtless following, in the wake of fascism and religious cults. We want to know what led these disciples to follow. We today would write this gospel story very differently. We would add a long prologue about Peter and the others, about their great hopes and dreams, and how all of that had been stymied by small town fishing life. We are really into how people make momentous break-throughs. We love to read biographies about celebrities and leaders who did this. “How did you become…you!”, our talk show hosts like to ask. Imagine Peter on the Late Night Whatever Show, as the host asks, “Peter, you’re the rock! The most famous disciple! What was going through your mind when you first followed Jesus?” And says Peter, probably in a countrified accent: “I was just a fisherman in Galilee. My brother and I couldn’t afford a fancy boat like those Zebedee brothers, la di da. And then Jesus showed up and we left it all behind and followed him.” Ok, let’s go to a commercial. We’ll be back with Lindsay Lohan.

We are into life-changing decisions and how to make them. There was a lot of talk at the forum last month about how we are free to decide where to worship in this country. And I get that; I’m very glad not to live in a religiously oppressive culture; although Christianity has often been at its most authentic when it has faced oppression. But we’re Americans; we make a big deal out of our decisions, our freedoms to do this and that. Matthew’s Gospel does not. This story, very clearly, is not about Peter and Andrew and James and John’s decision. This was Jesus’, and by extension, God’s decision. That’s why we talk about calling, and we talk about grace. These words express that this very dear part of who we are, our faith, was not up to us; it was up to God. Not that we are Zombies. We do have very complicated personal stories, in and through which God works. And it’s generally not the case with us that God dramatically intervenes in our lives, zapping us with some supernatural calling, as Jesus intervened in the very ordinary life of the disciples. God often works quietly for most of us—through our own personalities, through our families and other influential folk, through the church and the Bible—don’t forget. But why would you want to proclaim, at the heart of your story, some independent personal triumph for yourself: “And when everyone else abandoned me, I made the decision to follow Jesus.” Why would you want your story to be about you, instead of God? There’s a place for personal stories; they can be powerful testimony. Paul does some of that, when he needs to. But don’t you want your life to be about more than you? I want my story to be about God and Jesus, God united with all of us in this one; and that story can at once be our story, open to everyone—not just mine.

We also note in this story of the disciples, that Jesus does carefully vet his disciples before he calls them. He choice of these four fishermen seems completely random. But if we look more carefully, we can gather some lessons about what kind of people are most likely to drop everything and follow immediately. Consider the kind of people Jesus did not call. Jesus didn’t go straight to Jerusalem and pick the most elite and erudite among Jewish leaders. He picked ordinary, undistinguished people. The fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were Jews of good but not distinguished standing, with a reliable, steady trade. But they certainly didn’t have too much to leave behind, when they followed him. All we are told is that they left their nets.

So let’s think about nets. They are good for catching the fish you need, and leaving the water and small stuff behind. Nets don’t carry a lot of extra baggage. They are light, and porous; just a little rope or twine holding together a lot of space and air.  The fishermen of Galilee were not all tricked out like today’s sports fishermen. Their life style had just this one accoutrement, which was a small investment. It wasn’t hard for them to just drop it and go.

What about you? What’s your net? What is at the center of your lifestyle? Or maybe we should ask, how many things are cluttering that center? I’m not really talking about material objects; I’m more interested in what ideas and affiliations you might carry that would make Jesus pass you by? I can tell you about mine. My net is the thick tangle of words and ideas that I was trained to employ with great finesse and cleverness, so I can distinguish myself. I spent 12 years in grad school and eight years as a professor doing it. That shaped me. Sure, I learned a lot, a lot of good knowledge. But the institutions shaped me in other ways, and even more, the friendships I enjoyed—my net-work—shaped me. My friends are a distinct breed. They would think you are missing something if you have never eaten Indian food, or Lebanese, or Ethiopian. My friends don’t go see action movies, but they might love a low-budget, subtitled French film that is mostly just people having conversations in a very French way. My friends don’t own guns. They’ve never served in the military. They see themselves as citizens of the world as much as Americans. My friends are real liberals, let me tell you. They are good people, and many are deeply spiritual; I love my friends and deeply respect them, and aspire to be like them in many ways. You would like them too. But my friends and I were all formed in the same kinds of environments—higher education, grad school in the humanities; multicultural urban centers. Those environments brought us amazing gifts and benefits, but it also helped cut us off from, well, places like Granby. There is much you could learn from my friends, who are very smart—much that you ought to learn from my friends; but O sometimes I wish I had just been a fisherman. So much of what has formed me, and what I have pretty greedily taken to, has taken me away from ordinary folks, the people among whom I think Jesus would today come a-calling. I fear that Jesus would take one look at my bookshelves and my multi-ethnic stocked kitchen and my liquor cabinet and say, You know, casting a net would have been all the training you need to be my disciple. A lot of this stuff is just entangling you in a way of being a people that is not my whole people.

That’s me. What about you? Are you a simple fisherman, with no baggage, with no commitments and agendas that get in the way of immediately following Jesus? Is there anything you carry, more entangling than a net, that Jesus would take one look at and say, “This one is going to have to let go of a lot before she becomes my disciple.” I can’t answer that for you; only the Holy Spirit working in you can reveal the answer. Is your net an attachment to traditions just because that is how they have been done, and you’re not quite ready to cling only to what God tells you to cling to? Is your net your own limited experience of the world, a small town upbringing that you clutch to even though you know it is not all things to all people? Is it your own professional know-how, which makes you feel like you are pretty savvy about things in general and have a lot of respect coming your way. Is it your race? Are you white—and we’re pretty much all white here—in a way that cuts you off from people of color? This isn’t about whether you are a bigot. Would a young black man feel like he could completely be himself with you? Or a middle-aged Latina woman? Race can be a subtle net—it’s not just skin color, but our culture and the things we talk about and the way we are—and how we cling to these things.

Or is your net a membership in a club, organization, or activity that defines you so exclusively that you easily forget that you are part of God’s human family? That can include any political party. Is it your guns, and maybe an excessive pride in and attachment to gun culture? Is it your belief, which we can be sure you didn’t get from the Bible, that America is God’s favorite nation and so being American and a Christian are basically the same thing?

What’s your net? It can be any part of your identity that daily defines who you are, in such a way as to cut you off from the whole human family whom God has called in Jesus Christ. “Go and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus will tell his disciples at the end of Matthew’s gospel. He didn’t say, Go make disciples in your own home town, or Go make America Christian again, or Go and stay among your own kind, or Go like me on Facebook to all your friends!

I’m not saying you have to leave all these things. I haven’t given up so much of what has made me Bill the non-apostle. I’m saying that Jesus chose for his apostles people who could leave their nets, people who didn’t have very heavy and tangled nets to leave behind. Could you leave your net immediately, cast it aside, if you had to, to follow Jesus? Or is your net entangling you? Or going back to John’s Gospel: Have you heeded the voices crying out in the wilderness, the Baptizers, so that all you need to do is follow the Lamb of God when someone points him out to you? Or are you still sitting pretty in Jerusalem?

Jesus has called us. He has called all humanity to himself. And if you keep coming to this church, if I have any say in the matter, he is going to keep on calling you. I don’t know what he will call you to, and what he will expect you to leave behind. But what I know is that to hear his voice is the greatest joy; and if you are ready to leave what you must, then that simple call, “Come and See,” or “Follow me,” is irresistible.

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2 thoughts on “Jan. 22: “What’s Your Net?”

  1. what is a modern day net a real person carries, a real person by name. The nets left behind were light but weren’t they the means? physically light but culturally heavy, full of meaning, a means to productivity?
    Are we called to be disciples? Perhaps the net was not all things, but only that which entangled us… what is it that entangles us, and what can we leave behind to move on… but then to be disciples of Christ? was there anything but that, forsaking everything else?
    We have families, obligations, communities that we provide for, with our nets…
    This doesn’t translate readily into an action plan I could take…

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    • A fair and important point, if I understand correctly, that I only just noticed. Preachers sometimes toss off something to the effect that we should be ready to leave everything to follow Jesus. None of us does this, so far as I can see. So to say that is not really being honest. Jesus was unique to give up his very life for the salvation of all humanity–at least, that is the mystery to which much of Christian tradition has attested. The disciples and the martyrs were not at all required to do so, but some had this destiny thrust upon them. Because of their union with Christ, theirs was not a simple loss but a participation in the self-giving of Jesus. But those of us who are not martyrs hover between Christ suffering in our place, so that we may humbly enjoy the goods of our created life in peace, and the super-human participation in Jesus’ self-giving, by which our created goods must be to some extent given up out of love for others. God wants everyone to enjoy the goodness of creation without sacrifice (compare Adam and Eve), but the accumulation of wrongs and injustice calls forth a way of redemption by which we share in the suffering and injustice of others voluntarily, even when we could perhaps lie low and just try to enjoy ourselves and those we are naturally attached to. That’s where my thinking is for now; I hope it makes some sense.

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