“Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Matthew 4:22-23
On Thursday and part of Friday, I was facilitating a retreat for people who are preparing to be pastors and deacons, along with the committee members who accompany them through that process. This time together each year gives us all a chance to connect more deeply, to laugh and pray, and to wrestle with some hard questions about the challenges of ministry. I had persuaded my friend Anthony to do some icebreakers at the beginning of the retreat. He’s really good at those, and pretty soon we were moving around and having fun and learning more about each other.
During one activity he kept having us form groups of different sizes and then answer some questions. At first the questions were easier – What’s something that we have too much of in our homes that we’d be willing to give away a big portion of? (My family will be sorry to hear that I did not say “books”!) But as we kept going, the questions got harder, and Anthony eventually asked this question: “What would you do if you knew that you wouldn’t fail?”
I’ve heard that question before. You probably have too. But for some reason it caught me off-guard this time. It’s like I was realizing for the first time how hard it is to imagine such a thing. I crave certainty. I want to know at the outset of any endeavor that it’s all going to turn out well, and it’s going to go just as I imagine, and I’ll feel successful and satisfied.
But we all know that isn’t how it works. It doesn’t matter what age you are. We don’t head out on the playground with a guarantee that we’ll never skin our knees. We don’t take an algebra quiz with the certainty that we’ll make a 100. We don’t enter a relationship with assurances that it will never be hard – or that it will never end.
I say all this to point to something that I always find fascinating about this gospel. These four fishermen – Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John – drop their nets, leave behind the only life they’ve known, wave goodbye to their families, and follow Jesus. They do this after Jesus does nothing more than call out to them: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Jesus makes no elaborate sales pitch. He does not explain what the life of a disciple will be like or offer any guarantees that it will be easy or successful. There’s no fancy brochure or the promise of a 401k or any details at all. Jesus simply says, “Follow me.” And they do, apparently with no idea what they’re getting into.
You might be thinking: “Well, that’s all well and good for four fishermen. I’ve got many more responsibilities to juggle, and I can’t just drop everything to think about what Jesus wants me to do. There are bills to pay and children to raise and that laundry is not going to do itself.”
True enough. But remember that all of those things – the work we pursue to pay the bills, the caring for children, even the laundry – those are all versions of vocation, different callings – places to which Jesus summons us to use our gifts for the sake of the world. We get a little more of a job description than the first disciples did, and we receive that call in our baptisms: the call to trust God, to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace. Whatever we do each day – the work for which we are paid, the relationships we form, the care we give and receive, the civic engagement we pursue, the help we bring to those in need – all of that is a response to Jesus as he says: “Follow me.”
We are reminded in today’s gospel that Jesus fulfills some ancient promises. Jesus shows up with the light that was promised by the prophet Isaiah – a light that breaks through all pain and suffering and brings hope to the most despairing of places. The disciples will see it all unfold – the teaching, the proclaiming of how God wants the world to be, the healing of the sick. They’ll eventually learn to do those things themselves, not perfectly (not by a long shot) – but even their stumbling, imperfect efforts will share the love of Jesus and will keep bringing people together in Jesus’ name.
Many years after the day that they dropped their nets and followed Jesus, when the early church was first emerging in fits and starts, the disciples could look back. When everything seemed uncertain and overwhelming, when success seemed impossible, they could remember that bleakest of nights, when Jesus hung on a cross, bleeding and dying, and they thought it was the end of the road. It had been a good run, but surely this was the ultimate failure.
Except it wasn’t. Resurrection was around the corner. New life breaking in. A new beginning. And in all the centuries since then – from the first Easter morning until this Sunday morning, resurrection keeps happening. Life keeps breaking through. Hope keeps showing up.
Today we celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Baptism for Collins, and what a joyous day it is! We look at her sweet face and her family gathered here to be with her – and all of us, her extended family now, ready to pray for her and teach her about Jesus and support her as she grows in faith. We can’t help but smile. We’re trying hard not to think about all the things we can’t be certain about. There’s so much about the future that we just can’t know or control. Matt and Amy, I encourage you to talk to the folks here who have had four-year-olds in their family. Or twelve-year-olds. Or sixteen-year-olds. Or thirtysomethings. They’ll all tell you the same thing. I had no idea what would happen. There was so much that felt completely out of my hands. There were times when it seemed like everything was spinning out of control faster than I could fathom.
When that feeling comes, remember this: In these waters of baptism God claims us and holds us forever. God holds us in this unshakeable, life-giving love that not even death itself can change. In a life where so much is uncertain, that promise is the most certain thing that we can name. And some days we have to hold on to that like it’s a life raft.
Follow me, Jesus says. And so we do, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.’” Mark 1: 17-18
I am not an impulsive decision maker. I tend to agonize over decisions. Sometimes it feels like I need a multi-level algorithm just to buy a pair of socks. Black or blue? Solid or stripes? Wool or Cotton? Ankle-length or knee-high? It’s silly, really.
For decisions that are far more important than a pair of socks, like making a career change or moving to New Jersey, I’ll deliberate in several ways. I pray about it. I consult with people I trust. I make a list of pros and cons for the different options. I pray some more. I try to figure out what my gut is telling me. And it seems to work. All of the big leaps of faith in my life have opened the way to new adventures and relationships that have profoundly shaped my life – not without some struggle along the way, but I have no regrets about the big decisions.
Every time I hear this story of how Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James, and John to follow him, it absolutely knocks me over. They follow him immediately. Immediately. They drop their fishing nets and hit the road. We don’t hear anything about packing up their belongings or saying goodbye to loved ones or staring wistfully over their shoulders as they walk off with Jesus into the sunset. Jesus says, “Follow me,” and off they go.
It’s true that most things happen quickly in the gospel of Mark. By my count the word “immediately” appears 28 times throughout Mark, two of them in today’s passage. It seems to underscore the haste with which these four men change their majors from fishing to discipleship.
But come on. Deciding to leave your home, your family, your livelihood in a split second? I can’t imagine it.
That’s the thing about this story. It’s tempting to look at the rapid response to Jesus’ call as a kind of spiritual heroics – to think, “These guys were so faithful, so brave, so committed that they immediately set off on this new path without hesitation.” Maybe they deserve some credit, but we miss something when we make it solely about what those four guys did.
The first thing we miss is the role of Jesus. His voice is powerful. As we keep reading, we learn that Jesus rebukes an unclean spirit and brings it out of a man with just a sentence. He heals Simon’s mother-in-law, cures many other sick people, and chases off more demons. He cleanses a leper. He tells a paralytic to stand up and walk. He does it all with very few words.
When Jesus speaks with a command – “Follow me” – it doesn’t sound optional. So rather than make the disciples into superheroes, we should give credit to the power of the One who summons them. Jesus is where the call originates. He gives them the ability to listen and obey.[i]
Besides, as we know, the disciples were not perfect. There will be times throughout Mark’s gospel when they will be confused, stubborn, and downright difficult. In the end, as Jesus is being led to his death, these guys who seemed so eager to put down their fishing nets and follow him will run into the darkest shadows and hide out. In a crucial moment they will not defend their friend and teacher. They will not even admit that they know him. It’s right there in Chapter 14: “All of them deserted him and fled” (14:50).
To be called to follow Jesus does not mean that we will do so perfectly. That’s important to remember as we consider what Jesus is calling each of us to do and to be in the world. Too often in the church we speak of “being called” too narrowly, limiting it to discussions of those who are called to public ministry in official roles like pastors or deacons.
The language we sometimes use is vocation, from the Latin vocatio, which means “calling” – a special role to which we are summoned and by which we contribute to the world.[ii]
Every person is called. Each and every one of you. And furthermore, each and every one of you is called to multiple vocations – as you work, as you volunteer, as you go to school, as you play on a team. You are called as a family member, a friend, a leader, a colleague. We have so many callings that balancing our vocations can often feel overwhelming. We worry that work is keeping us from being the best parent. Or that being engaged with our families keeps us from volunteering more. Or that working hard on algebra keeps us from improving our hockey game. I find that when I’m feeling the most guilty about juggling vocations, it’s usually because I’m trying to rely on my own energy and motivation rather than leaning on the One who gave me these vocations in the first place – the One who says “Follow me” every day.
The person in today’s gospel who usually gets overlooked is Zebedee. This week I’ve thought a lot about the ways Zebedee was called. He was called to be a fisherman. Maybe he learned how to fish from his own father. Maybe his parents wanted him to be something else entirely, but he felt the call of the sea and loved the idea of hauling in the daily catch and working until his hands were calloused.
Zebedee was also called to be a business owner. We hear that he has hired men, so part of faithfully living out his vocation as an employer would be to treat those workers with dignity, pay them a fair wage, and mentor them in the trade he knew so well.
And Zebedee was called to be a parent. We don’t have any idea what kind of father he was, but I like to imagine that his guidance as he raised his sons prepared them to be people who could set out into the world with Jesus. It would have been much better for Zebedee if his sons had stayed home and continued the family business, but Jesus has other ideas. Zebedee, like every parent, had to let his kids follow their own path.
You may find it strange to think of your daily roles and responsibilities as vocations, but they are. They are holy work, blessed by the one whose voice is calling you to follow him. So follow him. Follow his commitment to doing all things in love. Follow his way of finding the people who need the most help. Follow his path of forgiveness – which includes forgiving yourself when you feel lousy at your vocations.
Writer Debie Thomas observes:
We don’t follow Jesus in the abstract. We don’t heed his call “in general,” as if Christianity comes down to nothing more than attending church or being a nice person. If we’re going to follow him at all, we’ll have to do it in the highly specific particulars of the lives, communities, cultures, families, and vocations we find ourselves in. We’ll have to trust that God prizes our intellects, our muscle memories, our backgrounds, our educations, our skills, and that [God] will multiply, shape, and bring to fruition everything we offer up…in faith from the daily stuff of our lives.[iii]
The daily stuff of our lives, however messy or imperfect it might be. That’s where faith matters most.
Listen. Do you hear it? It’s the voice of our Savior saying “Follow me.” Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] I found this essay by Debie Thomas helpful: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=1623
[iii] From Debie Thomas’ essay cited above.