Leaving the Nets

A message given January 27, 2008
by Rev. Scott Summerville

Matthew 4:18-23

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.”

A lot of people are talking about the movie, There Will Be Blood, and the performance of Daniel Day Lewis. I have seen the movie. Everything that has been said about his performance is true. It is an amazing thing to watch an artist at work. The actor is a person much like any of us, but on that screen he is transfigured into a character of complex and terrifying passions –– his performance is mesmerizing.

Mary Ellen and I visited the great national museum of Spain in October, the Prado in Madrid. I was so affected by the paintings in that museum that when we walked out the exit two hours after walking in the entrance, I felt that in some sense I was a different person. That’s hard to explain, but so powerful is the effect of the great art –– it has the power to change us.

The master painter takes a piece of wood with puddles of paint of various colors on it, pokes around in the colors with a little brush and applies the colors to a canvas. Then we stand in front of the canvas, and we are dazzled and captivated. Great art changes us when we encounter it.

When we come together for worship –– or when we hear the gospel proclaimed, we are challenged to be open to change –– change in our lives –– and change in the world. Change is scary, but being changed, experiencing new life, that is what the gospel is all about.

Every time I explore a passage of Scripture, I am amazed at how Jesus and the gospel writers take just a few words and create the most vivid and complex scenes and invite us to enter those scenes in ways that can change our lives. Many people find it frustrating to study and interpret the Bible. It is certainly a challenging thing, the Bible, but if you are patient with it and patient with yourself, the Bible can be a place of encounter more powerful than the performance of the great actor on the screen or the artist whose paintings hang in museums.

Do you come to worship in an attitude of openness to change? When you encounter God in prayer or when you hear the Scripture preached are you open to the possibility that your life can be changed? The gospel is all about change, and change is never easy.

Matthew 4:19-22
As Jesus 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. 19] And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20] Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21] 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. 22] Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus calls the four fishermen to be his disciples. With a few simple words a scene has been set –– the words are read –– and your brain paints the scene. Many of us drew this story in Sunday school long ago with crayons or watercolors. Some child may be down the hall drawing it right now: the sea –– the boats –– the nets, James, John, Andrew, Peter –– there is Jesus at the shore speaking. When the kids draw the picture, they draw the fish in the sea –– never mind that you cannot literally see fish when you look at the sea. Children’s minds are not as narrow and limited as adult minds. When a child paints people fishing, the child sees the fish way down deep below the surface. One big problem adults have when they read the Bible: they don’t see beneath the surface of things.

The basics of the story are: four fishermen hearing the call of Jesus and leaving everything behind and following him. Change – powerful, dramatic and disruptive change – the gospel is all about change. The longer we stay with the story –– the longer we live inside in our imagination –– the more facets of the story begin to pop into our awareness. Children would see this as a happy, lively story –– fish and boats and Jesus and his new disciples. But beneath the surface of the story lies a world of deep emotion.

As our minds and imaginations scan the picture a second time, we detect a problem – a problem about an old man on one of the boats, the father of James and John. His name is Zebedee. He is left behind as Jesus moves on, taking the sons with him. The child may miss the grief in this picture, but it is there; there is separation –– anger too, maybe. Has anyone ever left you, abandoned you? Has anyone split just when you needed them and depended on them? You may want to stop and talk with Zebedee.

I was in a church meeting once where the discussion happened to turn to divorce. People checked with each other, and it turned out that more than half of the people in the room had gone through a divorce. Some of the experiences we go through in life are so lousy and so painful that the best we can do is trade stories with other people who went through the same thing. It defies the basic principles of mathematics, but in the human realm two people can come together, each carrying an empty cup, and both can walk away with a drink. Whatever we go through in life, if it can be shared, can be tolerated. Pain that is shared is pain that can be endured. Is this not a central message of the Christian faith? Is this not the message of the cross?

Rev. Andie Raynor –– describing the Lenten evening (February 20) when she will read from her manuscript, says that she is offering – “ The stories… from my time as a chaplain to the morgue at Ground Zero, my hospice work, and the journey through breast cancer. I offer these stories with the hope that they will be helpful to others who may be facing their own personal difficulties and traumas…” How do we take loss and trauma and pain and convert them into spiritual energy for ourselves and others? You may think that I have gotten off track here; we seem to have gotten away from the shores of the Sea of Galilee and those fishermen hearing the voice of Jesus. No, we are not off track. The Gospels invite us into story after story. We enter the story, we feel our way around, we listen, we see what is there at the surface, and beneath the surface, and then we begin to make connections with our lives.

If the Bible is just a warehouse of stock stories and words that mean the same thing whenever they are read, then the Bible is not living Scripture for us today. The Bible becomes a living word when we first listen closely, then accept the invitation to enter the story, explore the story and explore what the story brings up in us –– and finally when we share with others how that living word is connecting to us in this moment.

So it’s alright to wander a bit when we are contemplating the stories in the gospels. It is that wandering around in the gospel that makes it real and personal and challenging to each of our lives. I often think that the most important thing a person can take away from a sermon is not what the preacher said, rather it is the place the listener’s mind wandered to when the preacher was talking. The most important thing in the sermon is what occurred to the listener between the words.
So we wander from the story, but we can come back anytime. Let’s do that right now. We stopped for a moment with the old man Zebedee, abandoned; his grief led us away from the scene to talk about grief, separation, and the blessing of being able to share our stories of pain. But now we are back at the water –– back with the boats. Ah! There is something important here –– so important we might have overlooked it, but the gospel writer keeps coming back to it –– mentions it three times –– it’s those nets –– the nets that Simon and Andrew were casting –––– the nets they left behind –––– and the nets that James and John were mending.

Nets…. nets… something about nets…

Last year we participated in the Nothing but Nets program, partnering with the United Methodist denomination, the NBA, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to raise funds for mosquito netting for those areas of Africa afflicted with malaria. Our New York Annual Conference raised over $90,000 of which more than $700 came from this congregation.

Jesus told the fishermen that he would make them cast their nets for people. Nothing but Nets — what a wonderful concept and effective project this has been, casting nets to save people, literally to save their lives. Who would think that a two thousand year old story about some guys fishing in the Sea of Galilee in the far eastern edge of the Roman Empire would connect up in our own time with people around the world sending nets to Africa?

I hope that I am stimulating your thoughts and your imagination today in at least two directions. I hope that I might stimulate some of you to consider again entering the world of the Scriptures and being open to the possibility of powerful self encounter and encounter with God through the Scriptures. I also wish to stimulate our thinking as a congregation about how and where we are casting our nets.

How many of you have ever been up above the ceiling of an old church? I have been in several. As a matter of fact I have nightmares about being in such places, usually with leaks popping out everywhere. But we will leave my nightmares out of this. I am asking you to think about the ceiling of the church, because whether you realize it or not, it requires an enormous superstructure of beams crisscrossed to provide the support for the roof of a church building such as ours and to provide the support for the visible ceiling that is over our heads. That superstructure of beams resembles the superstructure of beams that were used in the building of ships in the days when large ships were constructed of wood.

Think of the roof of the church as a boat turned upside down. The peak of the roof is the keel of the ship. One of the most ancient symbols of the Christian Church was the image of a wooden boat on the ocean. It is useful for us to think of ourselves as being in a ship, particularly a fishing vessel, rather than thinking of ourselves as being in a castle –– even if our church does look more like a castle than a ship to the casual observer. You now know that the church is in fact an inverted boat, and we are called to cast nets from this boat.

I have seen all too many people in my lifetime who had beautiful homes and devoted great energy and attention to maintaining those homes, and gave diligent attention to the market value of those homes, but who did not pay adequate attention to the true home, which is the relationships between the people who live in the house.

We need to focus our imaginations and our energies on the ways that this old castle of a church can be conceived of as a ship in motion, where people are engaged in ministry and in service, not only to one another but beyond our own needs.

I find it very comforting to be in a place such as this –– a physical place such as this –– old and beautiful things all around us; solid walls holding out the cold. But the gospel story we hear today and week in and week out is a story of people stepping away from their places of comfort and familiarity. How do we be disciples in our own time, sailing along in this ship?

I want to suggest four things that I believe should be part of the basic covenant of discipleship for members of the congregation. We need to give clear and tangible direction to our people about what it means to exercise discipleship in our time. Unless we do that, we’re just drawing with our crayons, making pretty pictures of the old Bible stories. I put these four propositions before you:

First, that every member of this church commit herself or himself to faithful attendance at worship, defined as making worship your primary commitment on the Sabbath day, excusing yourself from that commitment only as necessary.

Second, that every member of the church commit themselves to participating at least some part of every year in small group gatherings that involve sharing of life, mutual concerns, prayer, and listening together to the Scripture.

Third, that every member of the church commit themselves to a tithe of their income or some lesser or greater percentage of their income, according to their circumstances, so that money does not get in the way of ministry and mission, but instead money becomes a thing we joyfully share, because we love to see the works of God bear fruit.

Fourth, that every member of the church participate as their physical health and condition permits in some ministry that reflects compassion of God and the love of Christ for this world and those who suffer in it.

Faithful attendance at worship, participation in one or more small groups for learning and mutual support, proportional giving of our resources, and direct participation in some ministry of the congregation on behalf of the world. The gospel today is a challenge to actually do something. Now let’s go back to the story one more time.

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus 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.

This time there is a single word that pops out, in verse 20; the word is “immediately.” If we could simply edit out that word, immediately, then there would be no urgency to any of this. There are times to rest, but there are times to act, to move, to commit, to decide, and to do. I’m inviting us all in this present moment to hear the invitation to the fullness of Christian life and service in this moment, this extraordinary moment in human history.

There are children somewhere drawing pictures of fish and fishermen, Jesus, the blue sea, boats and nets. The child sees –– better than the adult –– that the world is alive with wonderful possibilities. The child’s world is full of energy and color. The child sees things the adult does not see, unless the adult takes the time to linger in the imagination and allow the story to play upon the soul and heart.

The child does not see and cannot know how hard it is to change –– how challenging and difficult it is to alter our settled habits. The child has no concept of how short life is –– the child’s imagination is timeless. But we know that in this brief life there is not forever to answer this call: “Follow me and fish with me.”

Grace and peace to all of you.

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