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January 24, 2021
Third Sunday after Epiphany
Okay, in a manner of speaking, show of hands: how many of you played the game “Follow the Leader” as kids? I’m guessing nearly all of us did. You remember how it goes: one person is the leader – and the rest of us lined up behind them.
Whoever was leading was at the head of the line and they hopped or skipped or patted their head or whatever; and the followers did the same until a new leader was chosen. Ideally, the rules of how to choose the next leader were decided on before the game started – but that didn’t always happen. Sometimes it worked out okay and sometimes it didn’t.
Whether we were consciously aware of it or not, we were concerned about the rules. On some level, at an early age, we start asking questions about them. Who sets the rules? What counts as fair? How do we respond when people bend or ignore or destroy the rules? Without even realizing it, “the rules” permeate our lives.
That continues into adulthood. Only when we’re adults, the stakes are higher, and the desire to be the one who sets the rules is more powerful. The rules themselves are more entrenched in our lives; so much so we’re often unable to recognize their effect.
And to do or be any different from that seems impossible, even unthinkable. Because creating new or different rules, even rules that might be better for us, means going against what is already in place. And that’s sometimes hard to do.
I’ve mentioned before that Mark’s Gospel takes off like a shot and goes from one thing to the next without any fluff.
We aren’t even a third of the way through chapter 1, but Jesus has already been baptized; a voice has been heard from heaven confirming him as the Son, the Beloved; he has been driven into the wilderness to be tempted; and now, he’s is in Galilee announcing his mission and calling followers.
The words Jesus speaks in today’s reading are in the aftermath of John’s arrest. John was taken into custody for telling the truth; for causing groups of unlikely people to gather together and listen to messages that asked them to break away from the rules set in place by Rome and instead consider the ethics of how they should live.
In most places in the world, that isn’t a big deal by today’s standards, but in those times going against Rome was a criminal act that carried severe consequences. So, when Jesus arrived and said, “The time is now! Follow me.” he didn’t do it lightly.
And there was a sense of urgency because he recognized what the established rules were doing to people’s lives. And it was time for something new. God’s reign had come near, and it was time to believe that good news.
Like a lot of you, when I heard this story while growing up, I was taught that following Jesus and fishing for people meant drop everything and step out in faith. Go and tell people about Jesus, and then bring them to church. It’s one way to interpret this reading.
But when we think about it like that, it can make it seem like Jesus is calling us to forget everything we know, everything we’ve done, the experiences that have made us who we are – and gifts that we possess because of them. And that isn’t the case.
The fishermen in this story know their stuff; they know the tools of the trade, the limitations of their bodies, and the importance of timing, humility, and attentiveness. They know how to respect the water, how to listen to it, and how to bring forth its best for the good of all.
They understand and respect the reciprocity that’s at the heart of their business. They know to not take more than they need. They know to care for the life cycles of the fish. They know to pay attention to the health and sustainability of the marine environment that nourishes them and their families.
In other words, when Jesus calls these experts to follow him, they understand that it isn’t a directive to forget everything they’ve learned, but to bring the best of those gifts forward for the sake of a more beautiful and peaceable world — a world where all are nourished.
When Jesus calls them, he calls them to become even more fully and freely themselves for the sake of God’s reign. To use what they know to participate in bringing God’s reign into being.
That’s both more freeing and more difficult at the same time.
We know that Jesus calls us into a new way of living, too – one that abides by a different set of rules, rules that honor all life, not just human life. We know that Jesus calls us out of ways of living that exploit people and the planet and into ways of living that nurture, foster, cultivate, etc. life across the board.
And that matters because, ultimately, it’s good news for everyone. A way of life that exploits anything isn’t sustainable; it traps and ultimately destroys everything and everyone. It’s a way of death (albeit a slow one) rather than a way of life.
The problem is that we’re stuck in what we know. We stay with the established rules because it’s easier than breaking free and working to create something new – even if that “something new” is following Jesus and life-giving.
Fishing for people, as Jesus puts it here, does mean stepping out in faith. But it doesn’t mean forgetting everything you know and the gifts you possess because of it.
God creates us as people who are able to follow Jesus as we are. God values our intelligence, our memories, our backgrounds, our educations, and our skill – and uses all of it so that can we follow Jesus in our day-to-day lives, communities, cultures, families, and vocations.
And it’s through those experiences that we’re able to follow Jesus and bring God’s reign into being in our world today.
Think about the gifts you possess because of who you are as a parent or grandparent; as an accountant, a small business owner, a mechanic, a nurse, an executive, as a retail or restaurant worker, a software engineer, as a teacher or student – whatever it is you do.
Think of the skills, knowledge, experience, and resilience you’ve developed. Consider the ways you minister to people through those gifts, the ways you teach others about Jesus – who he is, the love he has for people, and the way he calls us to live in our day-to-day lives.
As we live our lives through that lens, the rules begin to shift and change. And over time, a new way of living and being takes shape; one that protects and honors all life. God’s reign comes into being.
God multiplies and brings to fruition everything we offer up in faith from the stuff of our daily lives. God makes the vision of God’s reign come alive in us. We, then, embody God’s vision, reflecting the beauty and possibility of what it brings.
In other words, we live out the vision and God takes care of what comes next.
The fishermen and other disciples Jesus called didn’t live to see the end result of God’s reign. But they still followed and embodied a new way of being, and the rules did begin to change. We many not live to see the end result, either. But as we live, we remember that God creates us as people who are able to follow Jesus as we are and embody a new way of being.
That God uses the gifts we offer up in faith and continues to make the vision of God’s reign come alive in us. And that’s good news for everyone. Thanks be to God! Amen.