Sermon: Follow

27 January 2008

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
January 27, 2008

Third Sunday of Epiphany


Matthew 4:12-23

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

I always loved to think of Jesus as “the good shepherd” and we humans as obedient little sheep, but that was before I accepted my call to be a pastor and actually tried to LEAD God’s people in the United Church of Christ!  As I think of the real people I’ve met in Congregational churches, where we all take so much pride in thinking for ourselves, I think this image of Jesus “the good fisherman” is a better role for him.  When Jesus calls US to follow, most of us do not respond like these first four disciples in today’s text.  We do not just drop everything and go on the road with our Lord.  No.  We ARE a lot like fish, aren’t we – kind of slippery about making commitments, dashing this way and that, schooling frantically with others of our kind and trying our very best not to get caught … (whispered) or to get volunteered for something?  We think we’re living a great life of freedom, going all around on our own, but really we’re missing out.  We’re missing the opportunity to repent – to turn back to God and live a full and rewarding spiritual life in the Kingdom of Heaven.  We’re missing the chance to turn around and let God catch us and use us for holy purposes beyond our own limited, individual lives.  We’re missing the chance to be in a close relationship with Jesus and to not only learn a better way from him, but to be filled and healed and restored in ways only he can know are best for us.

The small study in our new house, where I write most of my sermons, seemed the best place to put Lela’s small fish tank when we moved.  Now Lela’s fish keep me company, as I pray and research and write my sermon each week.  At first, I had no interest in them at all.  I’d never had fish before, so I just saw them as little colored objects I’d see flashing around out of the corner of my eye.  But over the last year, I’ve gotten to know their personalities, and they’ve gotten to be my friends – not just in spite of their kind of dim-witted quirks but almost because of them.  They have such a limited perspective, since they’re trapped in a 10-gallon universe, so it’s hard not to feel a bit sorry for them.  I’ve come to wonder if sometimes God must not feel kind of like that about us, observing us in our sometimes short-sighted and undirected lives.

Our United Church of Christ Statement of Faith says Jesus came to save us from “aimlessness and sin,” and I’m here to tell you, if you want to see aimlessness, just watch a tank full of fish.  Alfred the Butler is the bottom-dweller. We got him to clean up after the rest, but really he’s a big old bully – pushing over the castle and uprooting the plants and scaring the rest of them half to death.  For him, life is all about power, and enlarging his territory.  Molly is black and round and pleasingly plump – really she’s just an eating machine plowing through the water chomping down every available scrap.  For her, life is all about pleasure, about getting as much as possible for herself.  Pineapple is the most colorful and goofy.  He devotes his days to watching the sides of the tank – he can’t seem to keep his eyes off his own golden reflection in the glass.  For him, life is all about admiring the great and amazing beauty … of himself.  Finally, white and pink Cotton Candy flits this way and that, seemingly living in constant stress and never quite finding a comfortable place for herself in her world.  For her, life is all about busy-ness.  In other words, they’re all exactly just like us, when we try to live our lives according to what the principalities and powers of THIS world would like us to believe is true.

The remarkable thing about Jesus using fish as a metaphor for the people he was calling to repentance and new life in his Kingdom is that nowhere else in the Bible could this “fish for people” image be construed as positive.  Fishing for men [in Greek, halieis anthropon] is phrase unique to Jesus; elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, to be “fished” or caught on fishhooks is always a negative thing. When it occurs, it always has a hostile sense of capturing or killing terrible sinners.  For instance, the prophet Ezekiel uses the image as a threat from God.  In Ezekiel, chapter 29, the Lord says, “I will put hooks in your jaws, and…I will draw you up …I will fling you into the wilderness, you and all the fish of your channels; you shall fall in the open field, and not be gathered and buried.  To the animals of the earth and to the birds of the air I have given you as food.”  Those are definitely not fish we would want to be!  Why would Jesus think we would want to be (much less invite others) to be fished?

I think the way to understand is to remember what else he said – that “Those who would save their lives would lose them, and those who would lose their lives would find them.”  The way of the cross is different.  God’s amazing grace shown to us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ changes everything, doesn’t it?  That radical change of perspective might make us WANT to be scooped up and out of our old ways by our Savior.  Jesus loves us, even when we behave like foolish and wayward fish, and offers us forgiveness and inclusion in the wide net of his mercy.  For anyone who feels like their old life is just going around in pointless circles, getting nowhere, like Lela’s fish – new life in Christ perhaps does look like a much better option.  That’s why some Christians talk about this experience not as being caught, or being killed or tortured, but “being saved.”

“New life” in Christ is a completely different from life lived in what the apostle Paul would call “this world,” the one that we used to hear a lot being called “the rat race,” but which could just as easily be called “the fish tank.”  What a blessing it is to be able to find our true purpose and best vocation in the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims.  We grow and flourish into “fullness of life” when we find how we can best be used by God for sacred and important reasons that take us far beyond ourselves.  And, the great thing about this church and other healthy and growing churches like us – once a new disciple gets cast in the right role for Christian service, he or she can be guided by wonderful and gifted leaders who help members develop skills and complete ministry projects that provide true joy and a sense of accomplishment.

Many of us experience that in our work with the Yankee Fair – pulling together for a common goal, learning from the past and always trying to do something just a little better.  Many of us experience that in our choirs – reaching to learn and improve a new piece for a special Sunday – and pulling it off in a dazzling way that lets all our spirits soar.  Many of us experience that as church school teachers or youth leaders – meeting a new class with a little healthy uncertainty and then seeing the kids grow and change in amazing and rewarding ways.  Many of us experience that in our work for mission beyond our own doors – like our many dedicated and faithful volunteers right now helping Nafie, Suhair, and Mutaz get resettled in their new life in the United States. 

Others get to experience that satisfaction in less visible ways, but which are equally important to the strength of this body of Christ – such as working on our rainbow of church committees.  Some support the spiritual health and growth of our members, some work to make much-needed repairs and property improvements, and others serve food and provide hospitality to members and visitors.  Still others make important personnel and financial decisions for us.

The point is, we are a church where people are alive and active; we are following Jesus.  But those of us who know what a joy it is to give and serve like this need to listen very carefully to Jesus’s call in today’s scripture reading.  “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” he says.  It’s not enough to keep on fishing, my fellow disciples; we need to reach out to others and teach them to fish as well, sharing our enthusiasm for the calling we have to call others into this new life we have together in the Body of Christ.  It’s too exciting and fulfilling, and too important, to keep it to ourselves. 

Usually we think of this scripture as calling us to evangelism, and that is true.  I love the way so many of you have been inviting your friends to church and showing them your excitement about the way the Holy Spirit is moving in this place.  But we can do still more – we need to help our less active members and friends find their place more toward the center of church life.   This isn’t to bother them, or to make them do their duty or give their fair share.  It’s to offer them something valuable that we have.  Our call to full and committed lives of discipleship is not an obligation, it’s a privilege.

Just think: Imagine you were just going about your ordinary, daily life – helping your father run a fishing business, for instance – when Jesus comes and asks you to follow him and be his disciple.  You’re not seriously going to say “no,” right?  It would be as if you were at your everyday job when out of the blue the Academy Award-winning director of your favorite movie shows up and invites you to join the cast of his latest and most important production.   You didn’t even have to audition!  Or, for those of you who are interested in this… what is it? … little football game that’s coming up: What if you were just out working in your driveway when the coach of the Giants or the Patriots drove up to invite you to join the NFL and play in the Super Bowl?  You didn’t even try out, but instead you were sought out for gifts and skills you didn’t even know you had.  You wouldn’t say “no, I couldn’t,” or “it would be too hard.”  What an amazing honor:  You have been cast into “the greatest story ever told.”  True discipleship is such a joy because we get to be a part of something bigger than ourselves; our lives and our resources can be put to their very best use, under the direction of the very best coach ever. 

So… I have a word of advice, if you want to improve your spiritual health in the coming year – if you want to find new direction, following the guidance of Christ.  Take time to go to today’s Opportunity Fair and learn more about each committee doing the various ministries of the church.  See where your greatest longing might meet the world’s deepest need – that’s probably where your Christian vocation lies.  Think about giving something new a try this year.  Nominating Committee has such an important role as they match people’s gifts for service with the work of Christ’s church.  And when the match is right, it’s like a good day of fishing – not so much work as sheer pleasure.

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.


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