Today we have two stories about the call of the fishermen disciples.
In the story from Luke, we see that Jesus initiates the call by asking for a favor: “Jesus boarded one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon and then asked him to row out a little distance from the shore.” After preaching to the crowds, he makes another request, “Row out farther, into the deep water, and drop your nets for a catch.” Jesus initiates, and it is possible at any point that Simon Peter could have said no. He does resist in response to that second request, “Well, we’ve already worked hard all night and caught nothing!” There’s no guarantee that he will answer the request, the call, the initiation from Jesus with a “yes”. That is the risk that God takes when approaching us, as God always does. The risk on God’s part is that we will say “no”. But Simon Peter, though grumbling, does not say “no”. He answers with “well, I don’t think will work, but because you are asking me, I’ll do it.”
The result of his saying “yes” to Jesus then is a catch that far exceeds expectations, that is far beyond even any hopes that he might have had. The catch is so big that it is, literally, overwhelming their boats and threatening to sink them.
And then Jesus calls them to follow. And again, despite what they have just seen, the abundance they have just witnessed, the overflowing-beyond-expectation catch they have just made, they still have the option to say “no” once more. And Simon Peter again has his doubts, his fears. “Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinner” he declares. But in the end, remembering all that has come to pass, he again says “yes” expecting that their catch, this time of people, will continue to be huge.
There is so much in this story. Their fears, their hesitations, their responses are reminiscent of the prophets, almost all of whom have similar beginning stories. The stories of Isaiah, Jonah, Jeremiah, etc. all begin with God’s call: a relationship and an invitation into a calling that is initiated by God. All of these prophets, too, respond with doubt, with hesitation. But in spite of their doubt, in spite of their hesitation, in spite of everything they, too, ultimately say “yes” to this call from God. As a result, with all of them, the catch is huge, the expectations that they had are far exceeded. The unexplored areas of potential beyond their ideas of what is possible, of the limits of resources, knowledge and energy are far beyond their vision.
And so, the question is brought back to us: in what ways do we limit ourselves, see walls that maybe aren’t really there, see limitations or declare, as Simon Peter did, “We already tried that and it didn’t work!”? In what ways, when new ideas or possibilities are presented to us, do we roll our eyes and squash those visions, those opportunities and invitations before they have been given space? How do we fail to remember that past times are not this time, and situations that maybe made things fail before may be different now? That specific calls are for a time, for a season, and while a new vision may sound like the old one, if God calls us to try again, it’s just possible that God’s ideas are in fact for now, and that they might be new, stemming from new visions, and new hopes for what might be done now, in this time and in this place, even when they sound similar. In what ways, then, have we limited where and how we will find God?
In my lectionary group, one of our pastors shared that at his church they have a food pantry. And one week when one of the men came to pick up his food, he asked if he could use the kitchen to cook a specific meal. The man was without house, and he did not have the ability to make himself the food he wanted. Using the kitchen at the church, though, was off limits. It had “never been done before” and at another church where the pastor had served it “had been tried once and had failed” so the invitation to open that door again was unappealing and, frankly, against that church’s rules. But my friend decided to make an exception this one time. The man invited my friend to stay with him while he used the kitchen, while he cooked his meal, and they began to talk. The man was cooking a wondrous meal with his hands, but his words, my friend discovered, were also a rich feast in which he was creating real visions based on understanding and insight. They ended up discussing scripture, talking through that week’s sermon and this homeless man gave my friend new insights and new examples to use. And as my friend listened to this man, he heard God’s words in new and different and empowering ways. This simple decision on the part of my friend to allow this seemingly uneducated, dirty, lost man access to the kitchen led into new understandings from a man who was extremely intelligent, but more, very wise and who had gifts to give in terms of vision, ideas and insights. My friend was given a glimpse of God, simply because he said “yes” to an unusual request.
Just as the catch that the would-be disciples drew was big enough not just for the fisherfolk, but big enough to feed the community in its abundance, the gifts given to my friend were for his whole church community as well.
I want to point out something else here: fishing for people, calling the disciples, offering call to us, is never coercive or domineering. Jesus did not insist that they do what he asked. He did not insist that they follow. He initiated, engaged, but in the end, the choice was theirs. Call from God as we see in this story is personal, relational work. The result of following is healing and abundance. So when one starts to say yes, the results are impossible to ignore: the catch is so big and so clear that, while we still always have choice, the reality of the call is made abundant. I think about the times when I have heard God urging me to do something. Even with something as simple as donating money, I have often found that when I have answered a call to give, when I have felt that tugging at my heart to be generous, that whatever I have given has been returned to me in abundance. Just like with the disciples, that doesn’t make the next time I am asked to do something necessarily easy. It is hard, even with proofs offered again and again of the abundant response of God, it is still hard to trust that when we are asked again to do something, to give something, to follow something, that God’s abundance will still carry us. That’s what faith is: trusting that when we answer yes, that God will be with us and will be there to carry us even when there is risk, danger and potential injury. God will be with us. And the promise is that no matter what struggles we face, that following with God is better than saying no and going the journey alone.
At the same time, I also want to be clear here that there is a cost to saying “yes”. While the abundance of God abounds, there is also a cost. In this story, the men had worked all night. They were tired, probably exhausted, frankly, and they were being asked to set out in their boats once more, to a deeper area, to go out again. Then after they have worked hard again to bring in the fish, Jesus calls them to follow him in all that he does: not to rest, not to go back to their families, but to leave everything and follow him. They did leave everything, staring with and including the huge fish catch that they had just had, to go with Jesus. Eventually many of them follow Jesus to the cross and end by losing their very lives. While the catch is huge, the abundance of God is beyond compare, there is also a price to be paid in this world for following on the way of Jesus, and that cost is sometimes everything that we are and have. And still, God’s promise remains that this choice is better than to say “no”. But that is something we can only learn for certain through the doing, through the experiencing of it.
I want to note here that the son’s of Zebedee who fished with their family boat and supported their family left that family to follow. As we heard at the end of the story in Mark, “At that very moment he called them. They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers.” What is interesting here is that the name “Zebedee” means “gift giver” and when we discussed this this week at my lectionary group, one of my colleagues pointed out that all names in the Bible have meaning. “What gift did Zebedee give in this situation?” he asked, to which I quickly responded, “what he gave was his sons! He released them to go with Jesus, to follow their calls, despite the great loss to himself.” Sometimes, perhaps often, our children have calls, have a sense of a passionate calling from God that takes them away from us, that takes them into areas that frighten us or that we don’t understand. But part of our call, and our gift to God and to the world in which they live, is in letting them go: letting them take the paths that God has for them. Our gift, as was Zebedee’s gift, is our children to the world, and to God’s kingdom, even when we don’t recognize or understand it. That too, comes with a great price: the call to launch our children and allow them to follow their own call. I think about the movie Billy Elliot in which the father did not understand the call of his son to be a dancer. I think about Bend it like Beckham, in which the girls’ parents similarly did not understand their daughter’s call to play soccer. It is the hardest part of a parent’s call, to allow our children to follow their own paths, their own calling. But that is a call that we as parents are often given: we are called to send them with love, to support them in their dreams even when we don’t understand, to look for God’s presence and God’s actions within their choices and to let them go. Not easy, but it too is part of following God, trusting God to lead them in their own path, their own calls.
I also want to point out that while the translations of both say “I will make you fish for people” the actual words in the Greek should be translated more accurately, “I will make you become fishers of people”. This is not just about actions, this is about one’s very identity. In following Christ, in following our call, it is not just simply that what we do, how we work, our jobs, actions or behaviors might change. Our very identity changes. We become something else, something new.
The journey of call and response is a journey of relationship. As I said, Jesus initiated with the disciples as God initiates with us. And while it was a one-time event of saying “yes” to Jesus, it was also a life-time process. Just as Jesus’ coming was both the kingdom is here and the kingdom is coming; just as our relationship with Christ is both now and a journey forward, our call is a choice we make now but also a continued choice. Also, call changes as we change and grow and as times change and grow. The needs of the world change, we change, and our call changes with it. That means we don’t and won’t always get it right. It also means that it is very important that we continue to deepen in our study, in our commitment to learning and growing in our faith. Too many churches emphasize the one time joining and forget the process then of deepening, studying, growing in our faith. But both are important, for all Christians.
Remember that the Simon Peter who said yes to Jesus’ call was also the Peter who was deeply and mistakenly confused at the transfiguration and who denied Jesus at the end. Jesus ministry was affected by those he was with; those who needed him in specific ways, who thwarted him in specific ways, who were human with him in their own individual, unique ways. The path of call is two way: our decisions to say “yes or no” end up affecting the path that Jesus walks too. And for that reason, our choices to say yes or no are extremely important and should not be taken lightly.
Finally, I want to point out once more that Jesus final words of invitation to the disciples in the Luke story begin with the words, once more, “be not afraid”. We are always called to step forward in faith, to leave fear behind and risk saying “yes” when a call presents itself to us. Listen for God’s call for you today. It will be filled with abundance, but it will also require risk, and possible sacrifice. Be not afraid and step into your call with faith, with hope, and with love. Amen.