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Sunday, January 22, 2017 | 8:00 a.m.

Following and Fishing

Judith L. Watt, Associate Pastor
Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 27
Matthew 4:18–23

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flock,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoners,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among brothers and sisters,
to make music in the heart.

Howard Thurman

During all of this past week, I felt as though I was waiting for something. Waiting for Friday. Waiting for the inauguration of a new president. Waiting for what I hoped and prayed would be a peaceful transfer of power. I was waiting for that, because I had some hope that once the inauguration had come and gone we could start a new chapter. I’m not talking about a new political direction or a desire for one president to be gone and a new one to take office. The new chapter I was hoping would begin once the inauguration was behind us was just simply a settling down of the divisiveness and fighting and anxiety and unrest. So my waiting wasn’t focused on one man or another. It was focused on a desire for some relief—for some relief from the political climate that has enveloped us, all of us, regardless of any of our political preferences.

So yesterday morning, the day after the inauguration, I realized nothing really had changed with our political climate. Yes, there have been policy changes already and an entire regime change, but the tenor of our political climate hasn’t changed from what it was during the primaries or the campaign. Yes, there had been a peaceful transfer of power, but I didn’t feel any peace. There I was, early in the morning, checking the newspaper, already embroiled in the ongoing anxiety of the day. I started to imagine us, all of us, standing side-by-side, knee deep in water, with our nets cast into a sea of news, catching so much every single day—fears, anxiety that just won’t quit, animosity between politicians and parties, between us and politicians, news items now infused with new suspicion because of the reality of fake news. Our nets are filled to overflowing. Our catch is huge. But it’s a catch that is not terribly satisfying.

Then I started imagining Jesus, walking along, seeing all of us fishing, all of us hoping for a different kind of catch, and he is saying something. Can you hear him? He’s standing on the shore, saying something to us. “Follow me. Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. Follow me, and I will give you work that is satisfying. Follow me, and I will give you a focus that is satisfying. Follow me.”

What difference would it make to you if you began a new resolve: to follow Jesus first and foremost over and above political party affiliation, in spite of the news of the day? Or what difference would it make to you if your political decision-making and political action came from the fact that you were, first and foremost, a follower of Jesus? I don’t assume that all of you have been caught up in a political swirl, but the question is still appropriate for you, because I imagine Jesus calling to you, too. What difference would it make if you were to throw down your nets of worry or if you were to throw down your nets of ambition or your nets that keep catching nothing but stress? What if you were to throw those nets down because you heard Jesus calling from the shore and you decided you were going to follow him?

I recognize that it’s not so easy to throw down those nets. Following Jesus seems so complicated. For one, we know Jesus-followers who believe absolutely opposite things from what we believe. And we know Jesus-followers who have strict rules about how they live and what we should all believe and how we should read and interpret scripture. So we’re hesitant to completely throw down those nets when we see those others who say they have done so and they seem so sure and so rigid and we don’t choose to be so sure and so rigid.

So if a rigid set of beliefs about Christianity and Jesus is still hanging over your head, and if those beliefs cause you to feel you can’t wholeheartedly be a follower of Jesus, Brian McLaren, author of The Great Spiritual Migration, wrote something that might help. He writes,

For centuries, Christianity has been presented as a system of beliefs. What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs, but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion, that makes mistakes and is dedicated to beloved community for all? Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life? (p. 2)

Barbara Brown Taylor once spoke about having been “brought up with a definition of faith as ‘adherence to a set of beliefs.’” She has since come to define faith as “openness to truth whatever truth turns out to be.” In other words, if faith is a simple set of beliefs, we can define who is in and who is out. Or if faith is a certain set of beliefs, we can decide that we don’t belong and shouldn’t fit in. But, it’s helpful to remember that faith begins not with a set of beliefs to adhere to or a creed to ascribe to but with a voice or something internal in our souls that calls to us and says, “Follow me.” It’s sometimes a whisper and sometimes a nudge. Sometimes it’s an attraction to others who seem so centered and how they live.

I still remember the people who were in the first adult education class I joined in the church where faith became personal and important to me. It was a Bible class, and I must have taken issue with seventy-five percent of what was said in that class. I was wrestling with scripture and belief and what it was all about. And I was open in my wrestling. As I look back on it, I now know that all of that wrestling I was doing was Jesus’ way of calling out to me to follow him, but the invitation wasn’t so clear, and I wasn’t about to just drop everything and go without wrestling. But what I remember so vividly about those others in that class is that they were so kind to me and so gentle and so patient with my questions. I was attracted to them and their way of life. They had already begun following Jesus and living out of a template of love and relationship and compassion. You could call it fishing for people, I suppose. Their kindness caught me. And ultimately I wanted to follow who they were following.

There’s another challenge some of us face, and that is that we doubt we are worthy enough for Jesus to be calling out to us. The invitation is for those holy ones, not for us. It’s for those better people, not us. But those fishermen Jesus called to from the shore were simple, ordinary people. There was nothing special about them.

In a book titled A Geography of God, Michael Lindvall writes, “Jesus’ disciples do not appear to be God-haunted religious searchers. When he found them, not a one of them was at prayer in the synagogue. They were not searching for God: they were at their nets and counting tables” (pp. 10–12).

If you are sitting here in these pews, then there truly has to be something somewhere inside of you that wants to follow Jesus. And if you think Jesus calls to some and not to others, calls to the worthy but not to you, then think again.

Roger Nishioka, a Presbyterian and seminary professor, writes about a story from his childhood. Each Sunday his family ate dinner while watching a particular TV show called Wild Kingdom. His father, a Presbyterian pastor, loved the show, and that’s why the family got to watch TV while eating dinner on that one night of the week.

One episode was about the elephant seals of Argentina. The mother seal, soon after birthing her baby seal pup, would be famished and would abandon the baby seal on the shore so that she could go back into the waters to feed. After feeding, she would return to a different part of the beach and begin to call for her baby.

Other mother seals had done the same, and they all had returned at a similar time. And so Roger, as a little boy, kept thinking they would never find one another—this mother and her pup. But he explains that the camera followed as the mother called to her pup and listened for the response. Eventually, following each other’s voices and scents, the mother and her baby seal were reunited, amidst all of the others on that beach doing the same thing, amidst all of the noise and the crowds. The host of the TV show explained that from the moment of birth, the sound and scent of the pup are imprinted on the mother’s memory and the sound and scent of the mother are imprinted on the baby seal’s memory. It was then, during that particular TV show, that Roger Nishioka’s dad turned to him and said, “You know, that’s how it is with God. We are imprinted with a memory on us, and even if it takes a lifetime, we will find each other” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 1, p. 284).

So many of us feel as though we are standing forlorn in the midst of all kinds of noise. We hear so many voices. And so much calls to us. I hope we keep straining to hear that one voice, the voice of the one who came to show us a way to live—focused on compassion for people, focused on a sense of justice for the world and the earth, focused on a sense of healing and reconciling. I want to hear that voice in the midst of all of the others, because that’s the voice I want to follow. That’s the way of living that will fill my nets to overflowing. Sometimes I have to strain to hear that voice, but I keep trying, and he keeps calling. Thanks be to God. Amen.