Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Called to Love

“As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea — 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.” Matthew 4:18-21

A photo of your Chaplain in Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee (March 2014)

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
Epiphany 3A – January 22, 2017

            I want to begin my reflection this evening with a note of thanksgiving. As some of you know, this past week our dear friend and Kellogg Fellow, Olivia Hamilton, received her Holy Orders from our bishop, Alan Gates, and she is now on her way toward ordination to the priesthood. Those of us who have come to know and love Olivia as a preacher, teacher, pastor and friend are hardly surprised by this news. We are, however, delighted to learn that the Church shares our view about Olivia’s gifts.
            This momentous occasion in Olivia’s life is not only an opportunity for our community to rejoice in her good news, but it is, fortuitously enough, a perfect illustration of the “call and response” theme that is at the heart of today’s gospel.  As I’m sure Olivia will tell you, discerning a call is a complex activity, requiring prayer, reflection, conversation, attentiveness, patience, support from loved ones and the community, hard work, and most especially, grace. What you may not appreciate, however, is that this activity of discerning a call is by no means restricted to those of us called to ordained life; every baptized person – everyone one of us gathered here this evening – is being called by Christ into new and healthier ways of living.  And discerning the ways in which you are being called is every bit as important a matter as the call to ordination.
            So let’s see what we can learn from our text about the nature of ‘call’:  The scene of our story is Capernaum, the little town by the Sea of Galilee that is the home of two pairs of brothers: Peter and Andrew, on the one hand, and James and John, on the other.  It is in a sense the birthplace of Christian community because it is here, as we just heard, that these first four disciples were called to follow Jesus; and, as we learn later in Matthew’s gospel, it is in and around Capernaum that the Matthew too will eventually be called as a disciple.
            One thing intriguing about these ‘call’ stories in the gospels is just how spare they are in their detail.  I find myself wanting to know so much more.  Do these first disciples follow Jesus because they have previously heard about him and have been drawn in by Jesus’ teaching and personal charism, or is this their very first encounter with him?  The text is ambiguous on the point. Matthew describes the scene as if there is no struggle or hesitation in the brothers’ decision to follow, yet surely there must have been some conversation between and among them before making such a momentous decision.
            The traditional take on the scene is that their immediate decision to follow Jesus’ invitation is a model of faithful and obedient discipleship. But we should probably take care not to sentimentalize the story.  The one thing their subsequent conduct teaches us is that, just like you and me, these brothers are confused and broken people, who often have little clue as to what Jesus is up to and often act out of very mixed motives.
            The truth is that we really don’t know what was running through their minds at this pivotal moment. For all we know, the brothers may have seized this chance to follow Jesus not because they then knew him to be the Son of God, but because they were dying to escape the monotonous life of fishing everyday or of living in a small and dreary town.  I mean who wouldn’t?  I doubt that their future in this tiny village held much promise.
            Honestly, the character in this story that plays on my sympathies most is poor Zebedee, James’ and John’s father.  He is the one who doesn’t follow.  The text is ambiguous here too, as to whether Jesus’ invitation to follow is extended just to the sons, James and John, or whether it was intended to include Zebedee the dad as well.  But surely, if there is one thing we know about Jesus, it is that he always errs on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion.  So, I somehow suspect that Jesus would have welcomed Zebedee as a disciple as well.
            Yet, Matthew tells us that Zebedee stays behind.  This I understand.  Maybe it is because I’m a father myself, I don’t know.  But I can much more easily put myself in Zebedee’s shoes than any of the other characters in the story.  Zebedee no doubt had worked long and hard to build his little fishing business, to buy or build his own boat, to raise his two boys with his wife, Salome.  And like most fathers, he probably dreamed that his boys would someday take over his fishing business, and he probably also hoped that they would stick around and take care of Zebedee and Salome, and maybe give them grandkids.
            And so, Zebedee should be forgiven, I think, if he may have been a little angry under these circumstances, being abandoned by his boys so that they might follow this upstart rabbi on God knows what kind of adventure.  It all must have seemed a little reckless to him.  Like a good and responsible father, Zebedee was probably more worried about who was going to put bread on the table.
            So, why does Jesus do this?  Why does he ask Peter and Andrew and James and John to follow him when he can see that this means breaking a family apart, leaving a mother and father stranded, disrupting a family’s business?
            As Olivia reminded us at our retreat yesterday, when we were studying this same text, an important clue can be found in the simple words of Jesus’ invitation:  “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.  Jesus’ very first utterance about discipleship is not about becoming a teacher of the gospel, or an activist for the kingdom; but he speaks of becoming fishers of people. More than just a clever play on words, Jesus is telling us something important about what it means to follow him.  He is calling these first disciples not into work but into relationship.  He is telling us to put down what we are doing – to put down our nets, and to set aside our boats – and to focus instead on the people around us. 
            Jesus is calling the disciples not so much away from their work and their family as he is calling them toward a form of relationship that is even more primary and fundamental than family bonds. Just as the Godhead itself is a perfectly loving relationship of three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – so too are we called into newer and deeper relationships with each other anchored in this divine reality.
            Jesus invites us to be in genuine and real relationships, and to be in those relationships the same way Jesus was in relationship with his disciples: 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. Sometimes that call -- to be in Christ-shaped relationship with others -- will take us far from home and sometimes it will take shape in and among the persons right around us. But it will always involve persons -- not simply a mission or a ministry or a movement, but actual, flesh-and-blood persons.  Yes, we are called by God into our work; but perhaps even more fundamentally, we are called into relationships that are generative, supportive, and life-giving.

            So, my invitation to you as we begin another term together is this: listen prayerfully to the myriad ways in which Christ is calling you into new and healthier relationships.  What stranger does Christ want you to befriend? What friend does Christ want you to support? Whose pain can you relieve? Whose need can you fill?  With whom can you find a holy and life-giving intimacy?  And by all means don’t forget about your relationship with yourself, which for many of us is often the most problematic of all – for Christ wants you to love yourself in the very same unconditional way he loves you.  All of these relationships – with others, with ourselves, and with God – require a Christ-like attention because they are foundational to our identities as followers of Jesus.  None of this is to say, I hasten to add, that Christ is not also calling us into certain forms of Kingdom-building work, and certain forms of Kingdom-building activism.  But it is to say that none of that is possible unless and until we first answer the call to love.

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