Sunday, January 24, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday after Epiphany
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 12:03; sermon starts around 17:34)
Our gospel reading for today tells one of those old familiar stories that we know so well that we’ve kind of stopped noticing what an odd little story it actually is. Jesus is walking by the Sea of Galilee, where he comes across some people fishing – “for they were fishermen,” as Mark helpfully tells us. Jesus stops, looks at them, and simply says, “Hey, follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
Now, you or I would probably have some follow up questions to an invitation like that – questions like: “Uhh, who are you?” and “What do you mean, ‘fish for people’?? Pretty sure I don’t have the right kind of bait for that,” and also “Where exactly are we going?”
But neither Simon and Andrew nor James and John ask any such questions. Mark writes: “Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” And there is no further conversation about it; they just go. Granted, part of this suddenness may just be due to the style of Mark’s gospel – Mark’s in a hurry to get the story out and doesn’t always worry a whole lot about going into detail. But even in the other gospel accounts of Jesus calling the first disciples, there’s still not much more of a back and forth than this. Jesus calls, and Simon, Andrew, James, and John leave everything behind – their boats, their nets, their livelihood, even James and John’s father Zebedee! They decide on the spot to become disciples of this guy who just came walking along and issued that simple invitation: Follow me.
It’s hard to imagine this story happening now, in the 21st century. I mean, what sort of person would ever accept such an invitation?? You’re minding your business, just going about your daily life, when one day a stranger turns up and says, “Follow me” – so you set down whatever you’re working on, leave everything behind, and follow? In any century, who does something like that??
But the more I spent time reflecting on this story this week, the more it occurred to me: well… me. I would do something like that. And I say that because, well, I kind of already did. When I answered the call to pursue a vocation in the church, I hadn’t even been back in the church very long, and I had only just met the pastor who suggested that I think about seminary. But a few months later, there I was, turning in my paperwork for candidacy. I quit my jobs, left behind my friends and my life in Lincoln, and moved to Chicago and then New Mexico and then here, all following that same invitation: Follow me.
As odd as this story of Jesus calling the disciples is, there is something about it that I find really compelling. There’s this sense of adventure that draws me in. I imagine those fishermen there by the sea, just going about their ordinary lives, when this wise rabbi comes along and draws them into this incredible adventure, leading them on a mission to fight demons and heal the sick and spread the good news of the coming kingdom!
If I’m honest, there’s some deep part of me that has always longed for something like that to happen to me. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always had this kind of “Alice in Wonderland complex,” as I think of it; I dreamed of tumbling down a rabbit hole or stepping through a magic wardrobe and finding myself drawn into some great, exciting adventure – of becoming part of a grand story much larger and more important than the ordinary life I knew.
Heh, I realize that admitting this might make me sound like a bit of a weirdo (lol, guilty as charged). But considering some of the stories that have become popular in pop culture, I get the sense that maybe I’m not the only one who feels this way. Because it’s not just Alice in Wonderland; there are so many more stories – stories like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, or A Wrinkle in Time, or the entire Harry Potter universe. There’s even popular sci-fi stories like the Matrix: an ordinary person learns that there is so much more to the world than he ever imagined, and he is called out of his ordinary life in order to play an important role in setting things right. Whether it’s Morpheus or Aslan the Lion, Professor Dumbledore, or Gandalf the Grey inviting us into adventure, their invitation is usually just as mysterious and enticing as the one Jesus makes in our gospel reading: Follow me.
I suspect that there is some deep longing in this that we all share – the longing to be part of a story greater than our own everyday stories, greater than the daily stresses and struggles of this life. Some part of us longs for the chance to be courageous and bold, to fight the good fight on behalf of truth and justice. We long to really make a difference, to do things that matter.
As I have grown up, I’ve gradually stopped checking closets for portals to Narnia (well, mostly stopped), and I’ve become more interested in the great stories of this world, stories of people living out their callings right here on earth. These are the great stories of faith and scripture, of course, but also the great stories of history. I find myself inspired by the great and heroic things that everyday people did in times of trouble. People like Harriet Tubman and the other organizers of the Underground Railroad – both Black and White – they courageously helped countless people escape from slavery into freedom; and abolitionists of the time resisted enormous economic and social pressure as they fought for an end end to the institution of slavery. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who vocally opposed the Nazis; he and other leaders of the resistance were eventually imprisoned and killed for having the courage to stand up against the horrors of Hitler’s regime. Civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, Fannie Lou Hamer, and many others bravely fought for this nation’s highest ideals of equality and justice in the face of prejudice and persecution.
I often find myself imagining what it must have been like to live during those turbulent times – kind of like I imagine falling through the rabbit hole like Alice or being charged with taking the one ring to Mordor like Frodo and Sam; or like I might imagine being a first century fisherman by the Sea of Galilee. I wonder to myself what it was like to live during slavery and a civil war, or under a brutal fascist regime, or during the era of “separate but equal.” And along with this, I inevitably end up wondering: what would I have done? If I had lived then, if I had been part of those stories, would I have had the courage to speak out, to fight for justice, to stand on the right side of history? Would I have answered that age old call of “Follow me”?
It’s impossible for me to know what might have been. But I do know that we continue to live in times of turbulence and trouble. There is still prejudice and civil strife and injustice. Even Nazis have made a comeback, for Pete’s sake. And now the crisis of a global pandemic has deepened our divisions and added to our world’s already staggering inequality. And so instead of just wondering about the past, I now find myself wondering how these times will be remembered in the future. To me, these seem like the kind of times that the great stories are made of – and so I wonder what stories future generations will tell about the actions and choices that we make today.
Because the truth is that we are still being called, like the disciples who came before us. And that deep longing that we feel to answer that call is our longing to take our place in the great Story that God is telling. God calls us to be bold and courageous, to look beyond the everyday ordinariness of our lives by lifting our hearts to the hope and promise of something greater. God invites us to lay aside our nets – whatever that may look like – and to accept the call of the one who still extends that same, simple invitation: Follow me.