The first time I sensed a call to ordained ministry was in my last year of college. The sense of call was strong and I felt like I could hear God’s word to me as clear as a bell. And so what did I do? I ran the other way…for a long time. I remember thinking, “Oh, no. I can’t do that. How about I choose how I will serve God?” And so off I went to my first my position after college. When that was done, I knew the position was not quite the right fit, so I tried something a little closer to what felt like my call. And of course, within a year or two, that did not quite feel right either. And so I began to try to figure out how else God might be calling me. Around and around I went with this game until finally someone just said straight out, “I think you ought to become an Episcopal priest.” Even with that direct, irrefutable statement from a live person, I still could not say yes. I took another whole year in discernment before I was finally ready to say yes to God.
Needless to say, my response to God’s call was nothing like the response of the disciples in today’s Gospel. Matthew says that Peter and Andrew immediately left their nets and followed Jesus. Immediately they left. The Message translation of this verse says, “They didn’t ask questions, but simply dropped their nets and followed.” I do not know about you, but the idea of following Jesus immediately, and especially following Jesus without asking any questions seems ludicrous to me. That act of leaving immediately is equally shocking in Jesus’ day too. The disciples follow Jesus without qualification or questions. They leave behind their entire profession, which is quite likely a lucrative business at the time. All of this without any assurances that they will be provided for or have the ability to improve their financial standing by following Jesus. Finally, following Jesus immediately means leaving behind families.[i] This last shocker is perhaps the most unsettling because this is all happening in a time when family connections are “a primary source both of identity and honor,” and at a time when caring for one’s parents is “rooted both in cultural custom and in biblical law.”[ii] This call narrative is as shocking then as the narrative is shocking now.
In our Adult Forum series last week, we talked about discerning God’s call in our lives. We opened by reading this text from Isaiah 42, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.”[iii] Our class then reread the Isaiah passage, inserting our names in the passage. So we heard statements like, “Kurt will bring forth justice to the nations,” or “I have put my spirit upon Barbara.” We realized two things once we put our own names into the passage. One, when we hear the words, “called to ministry,” we often think of clergy, missionaries, or people from scripture – not everyday people from Long Island. Second, many of us do not think of ourselves as being called to a ministry. We may volunteer at church or help out others, but we rarely use “call” language to describe what we do with our time, especially if our secular work does not feel particularly tied to our sacred beliefs. But then we read the Catechism in the back of the Prayer Book. The first persons listed as being ministers of the Church are lay persons, and according to the Catechism, the ministry of the laity, “…is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.”[iv] So not only were we grappling with the idea of being ministers, we were grappling with the idea that those call stories are not just for someone else – we have a call story too.
Once we come around to the idea that we are all called by God, the big question then becomes, can we imagine responding to God’s call immediately like the disciples do with Jesus today? Do we hear God’s invitation into ministry or a new vocation and immediately drop our nets, without question or delay? Perhaps a better place to begin is to look back at Matthew’s text and see exactly what Jesus calls those first disciples to do. Jesus says to follow him and he will make them fishers of people. I have always read that invitation and basically translated the invitation as Jesus is going to teach them to be evangelists, converting others to Christ. But as I read this week, I stumbled across a new interpretation of that phrase. One scholar suggests that inviting the disciples to be fishers of people is an invitation to be in relationship – with Jesus, with each other, and with all the various people they will meet over the next few years, or perhaps even over the rest of their lives.
If being fishers of people means being in relationship, what does that actually look like? Exploring Jesus’ relationship with his disciples gives us some clues. Being fishers of people means “bearing each other’s burdens, caring for each other and especially the vulnerable, holding onto each other through thick and thin, always with the hope and promise of God’s abundant grace.”[v] Why would Jesus call people into relationship in this way? Because by calling ordinary people in the midst of their ordinary lives into relationship with the ordinary people all around them, extraordinary things happen.
So what does that look like here at St. Margaret’s? In some ways many of us are already fishers of people. We care for one another in this community, visit one another especially in crisis or illness. But we also are in relationship with our neighbors – the staff at the local high school who connects us with those in need; our interfaith brothers and sisters as we make sandwiches together for the hungry; the people we meet, both at local ministries, but even our AHRC neighbors as we grow vegetables together. And the invitation to be fishers of people keeps finding new manifestations here. Our Outreach Committee is exploring a relationship with a community in Haiti – one facilitated by our relationship with another local parish here in Nassau County. Though I know many of us are hesitant about international service, imagine what our dropping our nets without question and following Jesus might look like in that relationship. Meanwhile, as we consider the possibility of a pilgrimage, we consider the ways that we will forge new relationships – with God, with one another, and certainly with people we have never met before. Even something as simple as our new sponsorship of a Plainview Little League team this year has the potential for being a place to be fishers of people – where we can meet local parents while taking in a game and rooting for our team.
These very real invitations into new relationships are scary or perhaps seem frivolous to us now. But the power of Jesus’ invitation to be fishers of people is transformative. First, accepting the invitation to be fishers of people transforms us. When we enter into relationships with others, those interactions change us forever. They help us see God in new ways, they help us reshape our worldview, and they help us to better understand our calling – that ministry that we all have. Being fishers of people transforms not just us, but also transforms those with whom we are in relationship. For many years, the staff at AHRC saw St. Margaret’s as distant, if not even inhospitable neighbors. But now, the staff knows our names, sees new hope in our relationship, and perhaps even sees the love of Jesus through us. Finally, being fishers of people transforms not just us and those with whom we are in relationship; being fishers of people transforms the kingdom of God here and now. Our relationships have an impact way beyond the relationships themselves. Others see the quality of our relationships and they see something intriguing, something inviting, and something inclusive. Through those relationships, we invite others in, and the kingdom of earth begins to look a lot more like the kingdom of God. You may not be able to drop your nets immediately today to follow Jesus. But if you cannot drop them today, know that Jesus’ invitation to follow him is waiting for you and that God will empower you to say yes when you are ready. Amen.
[i] Troy A. Miller, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A., Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 289.
[iii] Isaiah 42.1-3
[iv] BCP, 855.
[v] David Lose, “Fishers of People,” as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3018 on January 23, 2014.