Put away the sandwich board, Homer. I’ve got a better idea.
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Picture it: Galilee. First century. A beach. You’re there.
You’re out fishing with your brother, and together, the two of you are just casting your net into the salty sea, with the wind coming off the water, when you hear a voice.
“Follow me,” a man you’ve never seen before, but who has knowing eyes, says. He finishes, “I will make you fish for people.” You drop the net. So does your brother. You follow immediately, and your lives are changed forever.
Oh come ON. You know it had to be much more awkward than that.
We think of this as a romantic story — Jesus at the seashore, calling the disciples, who follow him without question. Really, it probably went more like this:
Picture it: Galilee. First century. A beach. You’re out fishing with your brother, not because it’s a fun way to spend an afternoon, but because it’s your job. The net has already broken once today and you just got done mending it. You’re praying it doesn’t break again. You’re just casting it out onto the sea. You work with your brother. He’s a doofus and has just said something dumb, and you’re irritated with him. Your wife isn’t happy with you, either.
Your country is currently occupied by the most powerful army in the world. This army does not share your faith or your values. Your neighbors are routinely beaten or even killed. You live in fear for yourself and your family and you pay taxes to this foreign power.
With all of this on your mind, you watch as the net flies towards the sea and hits the salty water. Just then, you hear a voice: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
You turn and look at him, ready to say “what the.…”
But before you know it, “what the” becomes just “what?,” you get to know him, and you and your dumb brother are swept up in the origin story of what would become the world’s biggest religion.
Life, as they say, is what happens when we’re doing other things.
Or, as my friend Joe puts it, when you’re caught up in your own nets.
We want some things to be romantic, though. Two things in particular. The first is obvious: romantic love. We all tend to imagine when we’re younger that there’s one person out there for all of us, and that we’ll meet that person, marry them in a storybook wedding, and everything will be perfect from then on out. There will be no tragedy or conflict or grossness. You’ll never get mad, fight, be sad, or pass gas.
Let me know if that’s worked out for any of you.
No, most often happiness comes in romantic love in much messier, much holier ways: in sharing an ordinary breakfast. In asking for their help. In saying, and in hearing, “I’m sorry.”
The other thing we expect to be romantic is our spiritual lives. We expect to hear voices from above, or still, small voices inside our hearts. We expect meaningful experiences that change our lives forever.
In expecting this kind of stuff, we get caught up in our own nets and miss the holiness that is.
Our first reading today was from Jonah. I love Jonah. He’s my favorite prophet by far. Why?
Because when God calls Jonah, it starts to follow the same formula as every other prophet or holy figure, from Abraham to Jesus’ mother, Mary.
Prophetic calls are supposed to be romantic, too. They usually go like this: God announces that God’s got plans for the person. Then the person says “No, no, not me — how can this be, because [insert excuse here].” Then God reassures the person that it’s all going to be fine and God will be there the whole time, the person grudgingly agrees, and the world is changed forever.
But that’s not how it works with Jonah. Jonah stops God at step 1. At the point where Jonah’s supposed to be saying “No, no, I couldn’t possibly be your prophet because x,” Jonah instead just cuts and runs. Cloud of dust. Gone.
I resemble that.
That sets up, of course, Jonah getting swallowed by a big fish as God has a whale of a time just messing with the guy.
None of that appears in today’s reading, though. In today’s reading, Jonah is simply portrayed as an effective prophet and preacher, so effective, in fact, that God changes God’s mind about destroying a whole city. In a Christianity where we often say “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” today in the Bible, God changes God’s mind. But of course, you don’t get that depth just from this one short reading.
Even the lectionary seems to want to keep spiritual things simple and romantic.
I think we wanted that in church when I was growing up, too. As many of you know, I grew up in a deeply conservative, evangelical tradition that valued what we called “witnessing” or what most people call evangelism. The idea was, usually, that evangelism was a time when you created a special moment with a person or people in which to explicitly share the Good News of Jesus and have them convert, preferably in a rush of tears.
For example, when I was in youth group and our van broke down on a mission trip, I remember being hustled by our youth director with another student leader to the guy who was taking a look under the hood of the van. I don’t remember what our youth director told us, but I remember that the effect was that we understood our mission to be to “witness” to the man, or to tell him about Jesus.
This was, of course, assuming that as a rural Louisiana resident, he didn’t already know about Jesus.
I remember feeling awkward. I remember not knowing what to say. I remember looking awkwardly at my friend as both of us tried to figure out how to strike up a conversation about Jesus right on the spot. We’d certainly taken enough classes on it. We could get you saved with Roman Roads and our own handprints, both tricks that we used to remember the path to salvation.
I know you Lutherans just remember the name “Jesus” and that’s enough, but that wasn’t a way of thinking with which I was yet familiar.
In the end, we bailed. We didn’t talk about Jesus. We made small talk. And we felt terrible, like we had missed our moment. As if teenagers don’t have enough to think about, we were feeling guilty for not helping to save someone’s immortal soul. It was hard out there for a Baptist kid.
And so, to make up for my failure in Louisiana, I started a witnessing group at my high school. I had a vision of recruiting people to go and tell everyone at our school about Jesus before the first bell. Over only a few weeks, I racked up a total of one helper and one very confused convert who I suspect really just wanted to take a nap in the computer lab. I was a little obnoxious.
But, I thought, this was urgent! We needed to create as many moments of salvation as possible — as if saving people was our job and not God’s.
You see, we were all about texts in the Bible like our Corinthians text for today. Jesus is coming back SOON, said Paul. That was the expectation of the early church and it’s the expectation of some traditions still today: live like Jesus is coming back in five minutes. It’s the “carpe diem” of Christianity, and it’s not bad advice, provided that you don’t take it absolutely literally. Otherwise, if you’ll go back and re-read that Corinthians text, those of you with wives are going to have a bad time living like you don’t.
Instead, think of it this way: what would you do if you thought you had only a week to live? What would we do if we thought our church was going to close next year?
Urgency, you see, helps us weed through the distractions to find what’s important to us.
Life, as they say, is what happens while we’re distracted by stuff that doesn’t matter. Urgency cuts through all that, which, I guess, is why “follow me” worked as well as anything on the new disciples. Jesus’ urgency untangled them from their own nets.
It wasn’t until years after my fumblings in “witnessing” that I realized that evangelism in the truest sense isn’t coercive or obnoxious and it isn’t usually awkward and it isn’t usually about summoning up the courage to make a moment wherein you share the unassailable and certain truth that God has revealed to you and not the other person.
It’s more about seizing the day, actually, and letting your faith change you and the way you live with other people. It’s more about having this thing that’s impacted your life and not being afraid to talk about it. It does usually take some courage, yeah. But it’s not the crazy scary thing we’ve made it out to be. In fact, it usually happens while you’re caught up in other things.
The very not-romantic moment that changed my spiritual life forever happened in February when I was a freshman in college. My world religions professor in my first Monday-Wednesday class of the day asked if any of us knew what day this particular Wednesday was.
We did not. She chuckled. Of course we didn’t, as residents of Low Church country.
It was Ash Wednesday.
Since this was a college course on religion, she said, any of us who wanted to learn about Ash Wednesday were welcome to come to the Episcopal church in town – her church – that night. She made clear that we were not expected to go and would not get extra credit for going and that she absolutely was not proselytizing.
So the first thing I did was to look up “proselytizing” and to discover that I had taken actual church courses on how to proselytize. Intrigued that this was apparently something Episcopalians wanted to avoid, I decided to go. I brought a friend.
Coming up on fourteen Ash Wednesdays later, I have not missed observing a single one since. The rest, as they say, is history, and it happened mostly while I was busy doing other things.
I didn’t go because she created a moment or carved out time to talk to me about Jesus or the Episocpal Church or liturgy. There were no lights from heaven or music or tears.
I went because she was my favorite professor and seemed like a really cool person. I went because she seemed to care about me and how I was doing. I went because I knew her. I went because I was just going about my day and heard about a cool thing that I could do with first, my evening, and later, the rest of my life. I was caught up in my own net when Jesus found me, just like those four surprised guys by the seashore.
Life, as they say, is what happens when we’re doing other things, when we’re caught up in our own nets, like the disciples.
So after this feast, after this movement that we call liturgy, where we tell the whole story of creation and Jesus and new life in about an hour, after we meet Jesus and each other at this table as we do every week, as recording artist and liturgical Christian Derek Webb once sang, “may the bread on your tongue leave a trail of crumbs to lead the hungry back to the place you are from.” (1)
Get out there and share the Good News.
And, as Francis of Assisi is rumored to have said, if necessary, use words. Amen.
1. Find the song “Take to the World,” an anthem for the kind of evangelism described in this sermon, here.