It’s Love, Simon

(sermon 1/26/20)

Kinnereth - Sea of Galilee (Panorama)

The Sea of Galilee – photo by Zachi Evenor    https://www.flickr.com/photos/zachievenor/12325753455/

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 sea, 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 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. 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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It’s a pretty common, and healthy, behavior to want to retreat into a comfortable “safe space” after you’ve been hit with some terrible unsettling experience that’s thrown you off your normal balance. In one way or another, I think we all do it, however we define that safe space for ourselves. At the beginning of today’s gospel text, we see Jesus doing this same thing, after getting word that John the Baptist, his own relative, someone whose life and ministry he knew well, had been arrested and thrown in prison.

Just before this in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had been tempted by Satan in “The Wilderness,” the desolate, barren Judean Desert. We don’t know if the events in today’s text followed that temptation immediately, or if some time had passed, but whatever the case, Jesus was still apparently in Judea or somewhere else far from home when he got the news about John. His response to it was to retreat to familiar territory, in Galilee, for some emotional re-centering. He goes back to his hometown of Nazareth, but he doesn’t stay there long. Matthew doesn’t say why. Maybe Jesus thought that if the authorities had come for John, they’d come for him too, and Nazareth would be an obvious place to look for him. Or maybe the memory of home was better than the reality of home – after all, the gospels tell us that Jesus’ first time teaching in Nazareth upset some of his fellow townsmen so much that they’d tried to kill him. Or maybe he just decided to go from Nazareth to Capernaum, along the Sea of Galilee because it is strikingly beautiful, then and now, and whose spirit isn’t recharged, and who doesn’t see things more clearly, after a trip to the shore?

So here was Jesus, walking along the Sea, absorbing the warm of the sun, the feeling and the fresh smell of the breeze, the sound of the waves lapping the shoreline, the seagulls and albatross flying overhead, the voices of fishermen going about their work. Putting ourselves in that same place, it’s easy to imagine Jesus’ concerns melting away.

And as we heard, on this particular walk Jesus encountered four fishermen in particular, all of whom would become important in his ministry. The first one of them, at least in this telling, was Simon – Simon, this random, average fisherman who was just in the right place at the right time, who would eventually become known as Peter, and whose passion, and wisdom, and courage, and flaws, would all work together to shape our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus even now, 2,000 years later.

I can’t imagine what it was that Jesus said, or how he said it, that made these four fishermen decide to just drop everything and follow him. Some people have suggested it was just the overwhelming power of the Holy Spirit that convicted their hearts and convinced them to immediately drop everything and take a completely different path in their lives. Maybe. In my own experience, though, I can say that when I sensed my own call to the ministry, even when I was absolutely convinced about its authenticity, that it had come from God, it still took a lot of time and convincing to actually do it. Maybe these four just really hated fishing, and they were only doing it because it was the family business. Maybe ever since James and John were little children, their father Zebedee would take them down to the shore, show them his three rickety, leaking fishing boats, and the old, worn nets that constantly needed repairing, and the unreliable employees and the backbreaking labor and low pay and the constant smell of dead fish that clung to his skin long after he’d gotten home from work, and he waved his arms over it all and told them “Boys, some day all this will be yours!” Maybe it wasn’t such a hard decision after all.

However it happened, it did happen – and a critical, especially intriguing part of that was Jesus telling them that if they followed him, they’d fish for people. What exactly did that mean, Simon must have wondered to himself. Maybe later that same evening, after they’d spent the whole day speaking with Jesus and learning from him, and they’d all gone to bed, it dawned on Simon that Jesus had fished for him. How did he do it?

Apparently, he hadn’t tried to scare him to death by hanging the threat of eternal damnation and suffering in hell over their heads; he didn’t yell at them that they were lost if they didn’t follow him. Whatever the details of their conversation were, it’s pretty clear that Jesus must have shown Simon and the others an alternative to life as they’d experienced it up to that point. A better way. A way that, in a split second, offered an answer to every one of the countless times they’d looked around at the world and thought to themselves, “The world isn’t supposed to be like this. This isn’t the way things are supposed to be. There must be a better way than this.” Whatever he’d said to them, Jesus apparently convinced them that there was.

For the next few years, as they followed and lived with Jesus, he showed them what that better, alternative way of understanding things looked like. This understanding of life wasn’t about power, or wealth, or fame. It wasn’t about just looking out for yourself, or getting ahead or gaining privilege for yourself by pushing other people down or out to the margins. And while life could be hard, and there would always be work to be done, God didn’t expect that to be our whole existence. This way of life that God was calling them into valued work, included resting from work, and activities, and all the busyness; and appreciating beauty, considering the lilies of the field. In the old order of things, strict rules made certain people ineligible to be part of the people of God – but as Simon would travel with Jesus, he saw something new happening. In this new way of understanding God and our world, now persistent Syrophoenician women, despised Samaritans, Ethiopian eunuchs, Gentiles of every kind; sinners, tax collectors, political radicals, religious heretics, weren’t just eligible to be considered God’s people, they were welcomed with open arms.

Why?  Because, as Simon, soon to be Peter, would come to realize, at the core of everything Jesus did, at the core of everything he taught, at the core at the core of this new way of understanding God and ourselves, was love. The fisherman who was told he would fish for people would come to realize that love – loving God, and showing love and compassion to one another regardless of circumstances – which was really just the most authentic way to love God – was at the very core of that. To fish for people, you don’t surround them with a net that they can’t get out of, or try to snag them on a baited hook, or try to force them at all; and you especially don’t try to scare them into this new way. Fishing for people wouldn’t require slick techniques or glossy brochures or massive door-knocking campaigns. That was old world thinking. Already, Simon could see that in this new way, Jesus’ way, all that would be needed would be to surround people with love – enabling them to experience the same love that Jesus showed them, and this same new, better way of understanding God and life that Jesus had intrigued him with earlier that same day.

I guess it would be a fisherman’s dream if they didn’t have to throw out a net at all, or work to haul them up into the boat, but if instead, the fish just jumped into the boat of their own accord. Over time, Simon wouldn’t just gain a new name. He’d eventually come to recognize that if we treated one another in the way Jesus had treated them, and taught them – offering them love, and compassion, and peace, and mercy, there wouldn’t need to be any coercion in fishing for people. Love would make them jump into the boat on their own, just as he’d jumped in himself. But for tonight, this first night of his new journey, Simon was satisfied in just knowing that wherever this was all going to go, it was love that was at the center of it all. That was enough for him in that moment. And with that, he drifted off to sleep.

Thanks be to God.

Embracing the Mystery (sermon 4/10/16 – Confirmation Sunday)

campfire on beach

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”  – John 21:1-19

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Sometimes, when you’ve got so much on your mind that you think it’s more than you can handle, the best thing you can do is to just stop – to step away from all of those thoughts and worries and all of that processing, and just take a breather to clear you head.

They took their breather, they cleared their heads, by fishing. By this time, they’d left Jerusalem far behind and made the solid four-day trip back to more familiar surroundings, the villages along the edge of the Sea of Galilee. With birds circling in the thermals overhead, and the waves lapping at the beach covered with smooth black basalt stones, they loaded the boat with their gear, and probably some snacks, and themselves, and as they felt the warmth of the late afternoon sun on their backs, they set out for deeper water not far from the shoreline.

Maybe they’d tried hard to catch some fish and hadn’t had any luck. Maybe they weren’t really trying to catch anything at all, the whole excursion just being an excuse to get away from things and to let the whole sensory experience of being out on the lake bring them some peace and clarity. Either way, after being out all night there weren’t any fish in the boat and the snacks were almost gone and they were going to have to go back in soon, when then, in the fledgling daylight, they saw the man standing on the shore. What? No fish? Try casting you net on the right side of the boat. Since most of them were right-handed, the most natural way for them to cast their nets would have been out off to the left side of the boat. But the stranger told them to try something new, something different and unconventional – and when they did, the results were amazing.

There are people in this world who describe having had encounters with someone, and somehow they just knew there was more going on than the eye could see. There was something more, something deeper, even otherworldly about the encounter. They couldn’t put their finger on it exactly, but still they knew that they weren’t speaking to just another ordinary human being, that there was some inexplicable spiritual thing happening. It’s the same sort of thing that the scriptures refer to as having entertained angels unaware, or maybe not all that unaware. It happened with Abraham and his mysterious three human-but-not-human visitors. It happened with Jacob wrestling the equally mysterious being along the Jabbock River, and in other places in the scriptures, too. And now, this was one of those times, as they looked across the water and somehow they just knew that even though he apparently didn’t look the same, it was Jesus.

And in a rush to meet up with Jesus, Peter does the odd thing, the opposite of what a person might expect – he’s out there, naked on the boat, and he gets dressed in order to jump into the lake – proving that not every new, different, unconventional response is necessarily the smart thing to do, and leaving the others to just scratch their heads and think, Well, that’s Peter for you.

Eventually, they’re all ashore and enjoying the grilled fish together, and it’s an indescribable experience they’re having. They know it’s Jesus, but they don’t want to say that it is, or ask if it is, and they don’t want to start running off at the mouth about how great a time they’re having and that they should set up tents for everyone and they could all just stay there enjoying the moment indefinitely, the way Peter did at the Transfiguration; because they knew that the minute they started talking like that, the mood would be broken and there would be a cloud or a thunderclap or the voice of God telling them to shut up, and they’d look around and find themselves all alone again on the rocky little beach while the birds circled overhead.

So they didn’t say anything like that. They sat there enjoying the fish and the fellowship, savoring the mixture of certainty and mystery, and maybe they thought to themselves that ultimately, that’s the best that anyone could hope for in this life.

Somewhere during all that, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Three time in a row he asked him, which would probably be annoying to anyone, and each time after getting Peter’s answer, the response was the same: Feed my sheep. Take care of my flock. Share my story, share God’s good news brought into this world for all people, with every generation that comes after you. And that’s exactly what he and the others sitting around the fire on that beach did, until the message eventually reached us.

And now it’s our turn. Now, we’re continuing to feed Christ’s sheep, to care for his people by sharing his message with the next generation through our Confirmation process. Teaching these young adults that our faith – their faith – is one where they’ll see Jesus in unexpected places, in ways simultaneously knowable and unknowable. That their faith is a marriage of certainty and uncertainty; that wherever their faith journey takes them, they’ll still have a list of unanswered questions that they’ll carry with them all their lives.

Hopefully, through the Confirmation process, they’ve come to learn like those disciples on the beach, to savor that blend of certainty and uncertainty, and that even in the midst of that, that they are surrounded, completely enfolded, by God’s love – that they are loved, and chosen, and called, by God – and that ultimately, that’s the best that anyone could ever hope for in this life.

Hopefully, Confirmands, you’ve learned that within our particular, Presbyterian tradition, we welcome, and honor that holy tension, the embracing of certainty and mystery, and the lifelong journey of faith that it takes us on.

I have to say that it’s been not just my pleasure, but my honor, to have journeyed along with you in this process, Confirmands. Each one of you is a truly remarkable and exceptional person, and I consider myself blessed to have spent this time together with you. Wherever life takes you, always – always – continue to be open to seeing God in the unexpected. Never – never – avoid wrestling with difficult questions of faith. And know that wherever life takes you, God will always – always – be right there beside you.

Thanks be to God.