“Leaving Our Nets” Colchester Federated Church, January 26, 2020, (Matthew 4:12-23)

Last week we saw Jesus call the first disciples in the Gospel according to John with the simple phrase “come and see” and their lives would never be the same.  Today we see Jesus call the first disciples in the Gospel according to Matthew.  It’s a more familiar story.  Jesus announces throughout Galilee, “Change your hearts and lives!  Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”[1]  Jesus walks along the Sea of Galilee and sees two brothers—Peter and Andrew—throwing fishing nets into the sea.  Why?  Because they’re fishermen of course, so they are going about their daily labor.  Jesus calls out to them, “Come follow me, and I’ll show you how to fish for people.”[2]  Matthew tells us that they leave their nets right away and follow Jesus.  The same goes with another set of brothers—James and John—the sons of Zebedee.  Though they’re in a boat with their father repairing fishing nets.  Jesus calls them and right away they leave their boat and their dad and come follow Jesus.

In the ancient world, fisherfolk were peasants.  Though Matthew’s account of the call stories of Peter, Andrew, James, and John show that even among those who made their living by fishing in the Sea of Galilee there were distinctions.  Peter and Andrew appear to have only nets.  They stand on the shore and throw their nets into the sea to catch fish.  Whereas James and John (alongside their father Zebedee) appear to be part of a family business with a boat and everything.  It may be that generationally they were able to make a more profitable business out of fishing.  James and John had more to leave behind monetarily to follow Jesus.  But make no mistake, everybody is leaving something behind in order to answer Jesus’ insistent call to follow him because he will show them how to fish for people.  Whether you had a lot of possessions to leave behind (a boat and fishing nets) or a little to leave behind (just some fishing nets)—there’s a call to leave their way of live, even their families and their hometowns behind.  The positive response from the disciples appears to be immediate in our story of Jesus calling the first disciples.

And so they leave their nets and their boat and their families and their homes and follow Jesus.  Jesus travels throughout Galilee and Matthew tells us that he gets to work right away—teaching in the synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.  Jesus gets to work teaching, preaching, and healing.  That one verse (Matthew 4:23) just about sums up Jesus’ entire ministry.  Though it’s fascinating that Jesus doesn’t begin teaching, preaching, and healing until he has Peter, Andrew, James, and John beside him on the journey.  Because maybe he knew that he couldn’t go about this work alone.

There are two lessons that we can take from today’s story about Jesus calling the first disciples in Matthew’s Gospel.  The first lesson is that in order to follow Jesus, the disciples had to leave stuff behind.  We’re told that they left their fishing nets and James and John left their boat and fishing nets.  Though we also know that they left their families behind, this happens rather dramatically when Zebedee is left in the boat as James and John come to shore to follow Jesus.  Really, they left their way of life behind.  But what if we consider that they left some baggage behind?

There are times when we have to let go of something in order to grasp onto something new.  Because we can’t start the next chapter of our lives if we just keep re-reading the last chapter, right?  There’s a moment where an invitation is extended.  It’s not always going to be so dramatic as Jesus standing on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and telling us to come and follow him because he will show us how to fish for people.  But maybe there’s that still small voice of God that makes us realize that something new is on the horizon.  And in order to follow where God is leading, we must leave the familiar behind and go.

United Methodist Minister Steve Garnaas-Holmes wrote a beautiful poem called “A new birth” and he reflects, “God called Abram to leave the familiar and go, go on a road he would make by going, to a place he would know by finding.  Jesus led Nicodemus to the threshold of a birth, a newness he could only know by going through it.  Only what’s behind us, not ahead, keeps us from going on, from entering the impossible womb of starting new.  The stones of disappointment in your pockets, the grave marker of the old life, they can’t come with you.  The path is not a test. It’s our freedom.  Many a prisoner has looked into the tunnel, the Beloved waiting in the light, and said no.  Where is the Spirit calling you, the wind blowing?”[3]

There are times in the Bible that God calls people to leave the familiar and go—go on a road that people make by going to a place they know by finding.  Sometimes the poets have a way of telling us the truth we already know deep in our hearts.  It is what’s behind us that so often keeps us anchored and unable to go on.  Those stones of disappointments that make our pockets heavy.  Those grave markers of our old lives.  They are debilitating enough that when we see possibilities before us, we say no.  Because it’s too hard to leave what is familiar even if we know that something better may be on the horizon.  It’s difficult to imagine being in the sandals of those first disciples, leaving our nets behind (our very way of life) in order to follow Jesus as he invites us to come and follow him and he’ll teach us how to fish for people.  Because we often have a hard enough time leaving the familiar even when we know that we must.

So we know that the disciples had to leave stuff behind in order to follow Jesus.  And we contemplate the second lesson from our story—that Jesus did not go about his work alone and we can’t go about life alone either.  The order of these events as Matthew tells them matters.  Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist and everyone hears, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”[4]  Then the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for 40 days and 40 nights.  Jesus faces the temptations and angels come and take care of him in the end.  When Jesus leaves the wilderness he settles in Capernaum, right on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  Once there, he calls his first disciples to join him in announcing, “Change your hearts and lives!  Here comes the kingdom of God!”  It’s after the first disciples are called and beside him that Jesus gets to work among the people—preaching, teaching, and healing.  All of these events can be found in the Gospel according to Matthew Chapters 3 and 4.  Though because we break up our scripture readings during worship it’s easy to forget that this is all a progression.

Jesus didn’t begin his ministry among the people before calling those first four disciples to be beside him because the wilderness taught him that having companions on the journey matters.  He had already had the experience of facing almost unbearable temptations alone.  Sure, God was beside him.  But other people weren’t there to cheer him on or lend any moral support for those 40 days and 40 nights.  Who knows, maybe it was that wilderness experience that taught Jesus the importance of having folks who will walk beside you when the going gets rough.  We have our own moments of wandering in the wilderness, lost and alone.  We have our own moments of feeling disconnected from God, from one another, and even from ourselves.  Those wilderness wanderings help us understand that we need each other.  We need our people.

Sometimes people will say that organized religion is a waste of time.  We know that there are churches that are selling buildings and closing and that the statistics show that Christianity is changing.  Some folks will say that the Christian Church is dying.  Maybe the old way of doing things is dying so that something new can be born.  We are a people who believe in that Easter message of Resurrection and new life after all.  Christianity as a religion won’t die, though the Church of the future will look different.

Moreover, people will lament organized religion by saying that if they want to worship God they can go on a hike or go to the ocean.  They can pray and sing at home on their own.  All of those ways of worshiping God are perfectly valid and good and necessary.  Though the point of church is the worship of God in community.  When people get sick or are dying—it’s the faith community that comes together for support.  Churches know how to honor peoples’ lives from birth to death because we’ve done it before.  We know how to help people make meaning in their lives.

UCC Minister Lillian Daniel wrote about these ideas in the UCC’s Still Speaking Devotional.  She wrote that quite frankly she gets tired of people who say they’re spiritual but not religious.  Daniel writes, “Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me.  There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself.  What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you.  Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”[5]

Jesus was onto something when he began his movement by calling those first disciples.  After coming out of the waters of baptism and the temptations in the wilderness, the first thing Jesus did was create a community.  Worshiping God in community is the point of church, and that idea goes all the way back to Jesus himself.  And so we remember today that the disciples had to leave some stuff behind in order to follow Jesus and that Jesus needed people beside him to leave the familiar and go.  May we always be inspired and encouraged by those first disciples saying yes to God’s call in their lives.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 4:17, Common English Bible.
[2] Matthew 4:19.
[3] Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “A new birth” https://www.unfoldinglight.net/reflections/2331
[4] Matthew 3:17.
[5] Lillian Daniel, “Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me,” UCC Daily Devotional, August 30, 2011, https://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit_daily-devotional_spiritual-but-not-religious

Photo by Rev. Lauren Lorincz.