January 26, 2014: In Awe of the Ordinary

The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Third Sunday after the Epiphany

In John’s Gospel, which we read last Sunday, Jesus doesn’t call disciples, he attracts them. John points out the Messiah, and his disciples follow Jesus and ask, “Where are you staying.” He replies, “Come and see,” so they do. After hanging out with Jesus, they invite others to check him out, too. And so Jesus’ band of disciples begins to form.

In Matthew’s version, Jesus takes the initiative. He goes and gets. Before we go there, however, Matthew drops an interesting quote from Isaiah, where he repeats the names of two areas, Zebulun and Naphtali. You probably don’t know those places.  Jews lived there six-plus centuries before Matthew’s writing. They comprised the Northern Kingdom that disappeared when the Assyrians took these Jews captive. They never returned. Isaiah says they behaved badly towards God and were lost and forgotten because of their misdeeds.  I realize many good, tolerant, “spiritual but not religious” people don’t like times when God seems to be vengeful. Old Testament professor Walter Bruggemann says, “Don’t overthink this. God is more complicated than you think.” Here Matthew is telling us that Messiah first goes where people have gone missing and forgotten for centuries. He makes an interesting observation on Messiah’s start of public ministry – reminding us that, in God, nothing and no one stays lost forever.

Now back to Jesus. He calls four fishermen – two sets of brothers: “Follow me. I’ll teach you to fish for people.” They ask no questions. They go. That’s amazing. I wish I knew how Jesus did that.

You may not realize how unconventional Jesus is. Rabbis and teachers never recruit followers. Disciple wannabes need to impress the rabbi with their fine qualities: “Pick me; pick me.” Fishermen would never ask, let alone, be selected. But Messiah starts in the land of the lost and forgotten, remember – where people may stray or be taken captive – but not forever.

And that’s good news. God won’t leave any of us languishing in the land of lost and bad behaviors–even priests, I hope. In Jesus, God comes for us before we’d ever think about looking for God. It’s called God’s reign. It’s a gift freely given. Our job is to respond and accept the gift. That’s hard for us. People who accept freebies are looked down on these days. We’ve been taught to earn our way – measure up, make a contribution. We come to church to hear four ways to improve ourselves, and how to impress God with our goodness. Grace is hard to accept when common wisdom teaches otherwise. Jesus asks only, “Follow me.”

You are here because at some time, you decided to follow Jesus. We may not be good at it, but we still try. To follow means we go where Jesus goes – love whom he loves, forgive those he forgives. We cast our nets and haul in whatever’s there. That’s our job. God figures out what to do with the catch. That’s good news, too. We don’t get to judge the catch – we just go throw nets.

Fishing with Jesus is called evangelism. I know that word makes Episcopalians squirm and become uneasy. We know how those “evangelist” people can be. We are tolerant of others’ views and we’re nice. Often they’re not. They’re pushy and judgmental. That’s why we run if we see one coming, and why we don’t watch religious TV. But you know what? We’re not doing so hot with fishing ourselves. The church today is shrinking, and many outside the church live lives that may also be empty and shrinking, forgotten, lost to God. I wonder if they’d be interested in the good news we find here?

Once in a discussion about getting more members, you know – growing the church, someone looked at me, “You’re trained to do that evangelism stuff for us. That’s your job. I tried it. It doesn’t work.” Fortunately someone spoke up before I could – “No. That’s not how it works. Our job is to go and bring people here. ” I thought, “Okay, here’s a lay person who gets it. I like that.” And then she said, looking at me, “Your job is to preach sermons that inspire us to feel it’s worthwhile to bring someone in here.” “Oh, yes, yes,” I said – “I’m so glad you raise that point.”

Jesus says, “Follow me. I’ll teach you to fish – for people.” And when we ordinary types do, he’ll do extraordinary things through us. What really inspires and gives us passion for fishing is not a sermon, but love – God’s love – reaching first for us, and then through us for others. Too often we love only those we deem worthy of our love and care. I admit – some of those faithless outsiders can be pretty unlovable, mean, negative people. I’ve never seen them here, but I’m told some slip into churches. Chances are, they never have experienced unconditional love and acceptance. It’s hard to love if you don’t know love. Love is God’s extraordinary work God does through ordinary people, like us. We love others as God first loves us – with no strings attached.  If we have not yet encountered God’s love – well, it’s hard to be inspired to do much for God. I grew up thinking, “I’m not good at this fishing thing, Jesus.” I now believe that fishing with Jesus means casting nets of love – something much harder than reeling people in. Just love!

I heard of a church once where someone had this idea that families with newborns or newly “adopteds” could use some meals brought in when they got home. So they organized and began to do that for their member families. Then some lay person came up with this crazy idea: “What if we did this for people who don’t worship with us – or anywhere?” Someone asked: “You mean we’d feed families who may not care a twit for us, or for Jesus?” “Yeah – that’s exactly who I mean.”

And Jesus still comes for us – ordinary folks: “Follow me. I will teach you how to fish – for people.” And you know what – some people still actually take him up on his offer. They cast nets of God’s love to all – and leave it to God to do what needs doing. Wow – what a concept.


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