Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 23, 2011
And [Jesus] said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. Matthew 4: 19-20
One of my favorite places to dine is the buffet at the Hotel Hershey in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Yes, that’s the home of Hershey’s Chocolate and one place where it is perfectly acceptable to eat dessert first. There’s just one problem with this comestible caper; the buffet is so bounteous and the food so delicious that it becomes all too easy to gorge oneself straight into a food coma. Just one spoon here and another slice there, here a bite, there a bite, everywhere a food delight; ugh, where’s the wheelbarrow to roll me to the car? Too much of a good thing turns out to be an overwhelming misery.
Well, preachers, such is the case with the gospel text appointed for this week. It’s a treasure trove of sermon savories. One could preach this text for years and never be tempted to reduce, reuse or recycle a sermon. Like the Hershey buffet, the problem arises when one tries to fill one’s homiletical plate too full; the result tends to be gospel overload. Sure, with a week to prepare, cogitate, and masticate each verse of the text, the careful preacher can appreciate and digest every finer point. What about the people in the pews? If one thinks of life in terms of a great buffet, then surely a couple of verses from this text are gracious plenty to provide enough Christian calories for an entire week’s worth of reflection and application.
With that thought in mind, I find myself drawn to verses 19 and 20. The call of Simon Peter and Andrew raises some interesting questions for the contemporary Christian. No doubt you have heard all sorts of commentary on this passage. “Oh, they didn’t really just abandon their nets and livelihood. Matthew’s just making a point.” or “Surely they took care of the business details first.” This is my favorite one: “It really doesn’t mean what it says in those verses.” Oh, sure, and Morgan Stanley was handling their investments while they went tromping around after Jesus throughout Galilee and Judea.
All kidding aside, and no matter how one chooses to interpret this verse, I believe we are called to immediately turn, drop whatever distracts us, and be an active part of this alternative community called the church. Sure, we can make a living. There is no prohibition against earning money as long as it doesn’t interfere with putting Christ first. In fact, Paul reminds followers that they must work to earn their keep. Making a living, however, does not mean buying into a consumer lifestyle so fully that the Christian can’t be distinguished from the culture. We are supposed to think, act, speak, and really look different as an alternative, counter-cultural community. The word immediately is in that verse to make a point, not to add to the word count.
The older, quirkier, crankier (and hopefully wiser) I become, the more I think there’s far too much pussyfooting around when it comes to proclamation. It is just too easy to deliver a kinder, gentler, self-esteem-raising, feel-good gospel. After all, folks have it hard, and these are hard times. Do we think the early Christians had it any easier? It’s great to want parishioners to feel hopeful; that is at the heart of the gospel message, but there is commitment and cost involved. Discipleship without cost is like chocolate without calories or love without accountability or parenting without heart and headache. A feel good gospel might look good, taste good and fill the pews, but ultimately it is about as filling and wholesome as marshmallow fluff.
For me, this means looking at verses 19 and 20 squarely and without excuse: a powerful call that demands an equally powerful response. Jesus calls each and every one of us to “fish for people,” and the appropriate model offered for response is not “once the kids are grown and gone” or “once my finances are in shape” or “when this congregation does what I think is right” or any other of the one million excuses our human brains can conjure. No. The response model is IMMEDIATELY, right now and not tomorrow. That means I must ask myself first what is preventing me from living “immediately” in the light of Christ’s call. In acknowledging my own distractions, I can then prayerfully focus and invite others into the immediately that is the response to Jesus’ call to discipleship.
The only moment we are guaranteed is this one, the immediate one now, this second, this breath. We do not know the future, and we cannot change the past. However trite that may sound, it is nonetheless true. Yes, immediately really is a matter of life and death for the Christian because the gospel message makes all the difference. Following Christ immediately brings life not only now but for all eternity. However you choose to work with this text, please make sure to communicate this sense of the immediacy with which we are to respond to Jesus’ call. Blessings on your proclamation!
(Photo byOSU Archives used under Creative Commons License. Thank you!)