“Fit to Follow?” – A Sermon on Matthew 4:12-23

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Matthew 4:12-23

“Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 
     ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
        on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 
     the people who sat in darkness
        have seen a great light,
     and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
        light has dawned.’ 
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 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.”

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Growing up, I was really active in my Presbyterian church back in Waterloo, Iowa.  I can remember very few times when my family and I missed worship on Sunday or when I missed a Sunday school, bible study, or a children’s or youth group event.  And this was not because I had to be involved; it was because I loved to be involved.

I loved learning and talking about faith and exploring how God was present in my life and in the peoples’ lives around me – especially as we experienced both joys and sufferings.  And while I was in middle school and high school, I loved going to church and being part of a youth group where I felt that I belonged and could be myself – especially when I had not always felt that way at school.  And so when I was a junior, I started to feel like I was being called to create a similar space for other youth to find a loving community where they could explore how God is present in the midst of their life chaos and where they could discern how God is calling them to share God’s love with others.  And by the end of that year, I had decided that I wanted to go to seminary after college and to serve in youth ministry.

However, what I lacked in my church upbringing was a strong teaching about the specific Bible stories – especially in the Hebrew Testament – and I never took on the practices of memorizing scripture verses, listening to Christian music, or reading books by popular Christian authors.

So you can just imagine what it was like for me when I first joined a campus ministry my freshman year of college: where the majority of my fellow students involved in the ministry had grown up immersed in this Christian culture that was so foreign to me and could recite long Bible passages from memory and spoke with an extensive “Christianese” lingo that I had never even heard of.

christianeseI started to feel insecure, and in addition to being told by many of my peers and campus ministry leaders that I couldn’t be called into ministry because I was a woman, I also started to doubt that I could even be involved in ministry because of how I began to see myself as inadequate.  And so I convinced myself for several years that I was wrong about feeling called into ministry and that I was actually better suited to work in a different field, like higher education or something like that.

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And yet somehow, after all of that, Jesus did not stop calling me…

And his voice eventually got louder than the voices of my fellow campus ministry friends and the voices of my own insecurities.   And the encouragement I received from my parents, sister, and grandparents helped me to take the terrifying step out of my own comfort zone and take a leap into seminary.  And so, to make a long story short: here I am today, 5 ½ years later.

fishers

Minus the women issue, I can’t help but wonder if this is close to how the fishermen from Galilee in our Gospel text were feeling when Jesus sought them out and called them to follow him.

You see, in first century Judaism – particularly in the region of Galilee – there was a very extensive process a man would have to go through in order to become a disciple – or a follower – of a rabbi.  Boys in many parts of Palestine would have started studying with a community rabbi in most likely the local synagogue or meeting place at the young age of 4-5 years old in what was called beth ha sefer, the first level of public education.  During this time of study, young boys (and possibly in some places young girls) would mostly study the Torah, the first five books of our current Bible today.  By the time these boys and girls finished this level of education (which ended at around age 10), most of the children would have been expected to have memorized the entire Torah.

After children finished beth ha sefer, many of the boys – and most definitely the girls – would stay home and participate in home-keeping or would start learning either the family trade or another trade in the community.  The top students coming out of this level of education would continue onto the next level, which was called beth ha talmud.  Students in this level would start to learn different interpretations of the scriptures and oral traditions, and they would continue to memorize more scripture.

Most children would finish this level by the time they were 14 or 15 years old – having memorized 39 books of the Bible.  Can you imagine that!?  When I was in college, I could barely memorize one or two Bible verses before I got bored!

At this point in a youth’s life, the majority of boys would go onto learning their family trade or another trade if they had not already started to do so.  Yet, the top students among these already top students would go onto studying at the next level, which was called beth ha midrash, meaning “House of Study.”  These basically “Yale students” of the first century would seek out their top rabbi whom they wished to study under and ask him if they could “follow” him.  The rabbi would then decide whether or not this young man was knowledgeable and adequate enough to trust him fully and to take on his “yoke” (or his particular interpretation of scripture) and then eventually pass that yoke onto others when they began their own teaching ministry at around age 30.  In many cases, the students would be turned down by the rabbis they sought out, and they would then have to find another rabbi or find a whole different trade to go into.

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Photo taken at the Sea of Galilee (Emily Heitzman)

Our passage in Matthew does not give us many details about the fishermen who encountered Jesus at the Sea of Galilee.  We are not told how many years they had been fishing or how old they were.  We only know for sure that at least James and John were fishing with their father, Zebedee, and therefore were continuing on their family trade.  And because these two brothers and another set of brothers – Simon (who we know as Peter) and his brother Andrew – were all in the fishing trade, we also know that they would have only finished as far as the second level of education and may have only been through the first level of education.

And so these four fishermen in our text in Matthew had not made the cut.  They were not the top… of the top… of the top of the students of their day.  They did not have an extensive resume – scriptural knowledge, interpretations, or lingo – that would have enabled them to continue climbing the educational ladder.  And so they were definitely not fit to follow a rabbi – a Jewish teacher – become his disciple, take on his “yoke,” learn to imitate him, and eventually be commissioned by him to share his scriptural interpretations as they would become teachers, themselves…  At least, this is what the fishermen would have been told by the more advanced students, their families, and their local rabbis.  And I can’t help but think that this is what these fishermen believed about themselves, as well.

And yet, for some reason, Jesus thinks otherwise.  For some reason, as Jesus begins his own ministry at a little over the age of 30, he seeks out these fishermen – these average, “every-day-Joes” who Jesus just happens to pass as he is walking along the Sea of Galilee.

And for some reason, Jesus sees in them a great potential… to become his disciples and eventually his friends… to learn to imitate him, and to become participants in the ministry of bringing about the kingdom of heaven here on earth by bringing light into the darkness of the world.

The Call of the First Disciples

And so Jesus calls out to them: “Follow me, and you will no longer be in the trade of gathering up just fish; but you will be in the trade of gathering up God’s people and bringing them good news.”

And so we see that the fishermen immediately get up, drop everything they are doing, and follow Jesus as he travels across Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and bringing healing to the sick and the suffering.

Now, I don’t know about you, but whenever I read this text, it amazes me that these fishermen just get up, leave all that they know behind them, and immediately respond to Jesus’ call to follow him.  If it were me, I’m pretty sure I would have done the same thing I did for the many years I doubted my own adequacy during and after college: I would have stayed in that boat… and I would have grabbed and held on as tight as I could to that fishing net and to the side of that boat – to what was comfortable and familiar to me – so as not to go against the expectations that others had of me and that I had of myself… and especially so as to avoid confronting my own fears and insecurities.

And I can’t help but wonder how often this happens to so many others of us in the Church, as well.

I wonder how often we let others’ discouraging voices and expectations of us – or even our own insecurities – hold us back from responding to Jesus’ call to follow him and to spread his good news to those living in the darkness around us.

I wonder how often we let our own fears about our lack of church background and religious lingo, biblical education or faith formation keep us from teaching or even joining a Sunday school class or small group, leading a prayer or reading scripture during worship on a Sunday morning or Wednesday evening, or even just chatting with our fellow Ebenezer Lutheran brothers and sisters after worship at coffee hour or over a beer in Andersonville.

I wonder how often we let the negative voices we hear throughout our society and even within our own selves about what makes a person’s voice worthy of being heard and of bearing good news (like how a person looks or the kind of education or type of job, home, or possessions a person has) dominate the way we view ourselves… And how often do we let these messages hold us back from getting involved in community organizations and our neighborhood schools and committees?

And I wonder how often we allow our own fears of what others will say and think about us if we do follow Jesus’ call to then hold us back from speaking up about and getting involved in advocacy for justice so that all people are cared for and treated equally.

boat-and-fishing-net

I can tell you from a lot of personal experience, it is definitely not easy to immediately drop these negative voices, fears, and insecurities off at the edge of the boat – along with all that is familiar and comfortable to us – and then to step out of that boat and confidently follow Jesus in his ministry of light shining, good news spreading, and kingdom bringing.

And, yet, in times when we wish to hold on tight to our own fishing nets and to the sides of our boat, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a sermon he preached in 1963 as he prepared for the Birmingham Campaign:

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.  The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.”

This may seem like a very difficult call – to get up out of the comfort and convenience of our boats to lift up our shaky voices and join this terrifying movement of following Jesus.  And yet, the good news is that Jesus does not call us to follow him by ourselves.  He calls us in community to follow him in shining His light in the darkness and lifting up our voices together to spread the good news of the kingdom.

…And so when we hear Jesus’ call and we just feel like we cannot let go of that fishing net and the side of that boat, our brothers and sisters can come sit with us inside our boat and help us to take that step in dropping the net, getting out of the boat, and leaving them behind.

… And when we are afraid to open our mouths because we just don’t know how to spread the good news, our brothers and sisters can stand alongside of us and help us to find the words to say.

…And when we feel it is difficult to let our lights shine because of the darkness we – ourselves – are living in, our brothers and sisters can shine their own lights in front of us to help us see and find our way.

…Because when Jesus calls us to follow him: just as he saw the potential of those four every-day-Joe fishermen he called on the Sea of Galilee 2000 years ago and believed in them, so does he see and believe in each one of us – no matter what other voices might be saying.  And so, we can have confidence in knowing that we will eventually be able to find our way to the path that Jesus is walking on.

So, as we hear Jesus calling to us: “follow me,” let us confidently lift up our voices together in response, saying: “Here I am, O Lord.  Teach me your way.  And I will follow you!”

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One response »

  1. Thanks Rev. Emily for a inspirational reflection. You are right “And yet, the good news is that Jesus does not call us to follow him by ourselves. He calls us in community to follow him in shining His light in the darkness and lifting up our voices together to spread the good news of the kingdom.” Our Lord has called as to spread His Good News as a community to the world community. We as clergy do not do this alone but in fellowship and apostleship. Unless we see ourselves in that light, our ministries diminish and become limited.

    Thanks again.

    Rev. Nash Smith

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