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Sunday, January 21, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
The Tragedy of Zebedee
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Turn us, before the day is out, from our will to yours. . . .
Relocate us in your eternal resolve,
that the earth may be fully your realm,
that the world may wreak with your shalom,
that we ourselves may find our true freedom
in your sovereign purpose.
Yours—not ours—is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory . . .
and we are grateful.
When I was a child, we always went fishing for our family vacation. We would travel to a lake not too far away from home, just in case my preacher-father had a pastoral emergency arise. We’d go a couple of times a year, staying a week each time. Although most of the weeks blur together in my memory, I do remember a few early fishing mornings with my father. We would go out on the water before the sun rose and not come in until we had enough large-mouth bass for lunch. They were wonderful early-morning, father-and-daughter fishing experiences.
I imagine, though, my fishing experiences were quite different from the typical fishing experiences of the brothers Andrew and Simon or the brothers James and John and their father, Zebedee. Whereas I did it for a great fish fry, they did it to survive. I had the luxury of getting up early to fish. They had the necessity of getting up early to fish. I got to keep all the fish I caught, but the fish they caught were considered part of the imperial treasury, belonging to the Roman Empire. For me, fishing was an escape, a time to be with my father. For the Galilean fishermen, it was their job, regardless of what family members were present, and it was a job ranked by Cicero, one of the Roman politicians of that time, as the most inferior profession that existed, not to mention economically precarious (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, pp. 120–121).
While I had a great time as I fished, we have no idea if Andrew, Simon, James, John, or Zebedee liked fishing or not. From what we read in Mark, we just know that that was what they did in order to live. Fishing was a family trade: you fished if your father fished, and your sons fished if you fished. Frankly, if you lived under the empire of Rome, you did not have the opportunity to explore other possibilities for your life. You were born into your job and seen only as a unit of production rather than as a person. The fact that these fishermen had probably always known they would be fishermen, just like their fathers, as well as the reality of how difficult Rome made their lives—allowing them to earn just enough money to scrape by but never enough money to even imagine getting ahead—these truths cause me to be even more astounded by their reactions to Jesus: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” What?
In Mark’s Gospel, we are given the impression that before that day none of those five fishermen had even heard of Jesus. According to Mark, the only things Jesus had done in his ministry before this moment was to get baptized and deal with temptation in the wilderness. His name was on no one’s lips, except maybe his mother’s. Before that day, if you had asked Simon or Andrew, James, John, or Zebedee, “Who is Jesus?” they probably would have responded, “Jesus who?”
Yet at that moment, as they all sat in their boats, busily mending their nets, getting ready to go back out, along comes this stranger named Jesus. Mark reports that Jesus sees them, tells them to follow him, and promises that while he will use their natural gifts, he will dramatically change the way they put those gifts to work. Instead of fishing for fish, they will now fish for people.
Now, let’s notice that Jesus does not tell them who he is when he says these odd things. Furthermore, Jesus does not explain at all what he means when he promises they will now fish for people. All Jesus does is give those fishermen a command and a promise. In response, they go—immediately. They drop their nets, get out of their boats, and follow. No questions asked. No hesitation implied.
Can you fathom making such a radical response? Have you ever made such a radical response? There they sat, doing what they had always done, being who they had always been. Then Jesus comes along, and the next thing you know, they are dropping everything and everyone to follow him. Their decisions were not logical! They don’t seem all that well planned. Little strategic thinking was involved. So what on earth gave them the idea that that kind of radical change was even fathomable? What or who gave them that vision for themselves? How did those young Galilean fishermen even know that other possibilities for their lives existed?
Their liberated imaginations remind me of what I learned one summer day here at the church as I stood beside the bus about to take kids from our church youth group, along with kids from the Chicago Lights Tutoring group, on a Justice Journey tour—a route through the South that marked major events in the civil rights movement. As the teenagers piled on to the bus, I stood next to another mother. My daughter, who was involved in the church youth group, was going on the trip, as was her teenage son, who was involved with the Chicago Lights group. I asked if he was excited, and she nodded enthusiastically, telling me that he had never had the opportunity to leave the city of Chicago before. So even though the trip felt risky and they were both nervous, they were also both very excited about all the possible ways his imagination might be expanded—what he might learn from the experience and what the trip could do for him as he considered his future possibilities. He and his mother were living out the teaching of Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. And once you know better, then do better.” I was sending Hannah for similar reasons.
The hope that that mother and I shared for our kids was that the experiences of the travel, of the group building, and of seeing places that marked moments of faithful resistance and risk-taking for justice—those experiences would help them return to their lives here knowing more about what has been and knowing better about what could be, so they might be able to do better, to do more, as they imagine and claim the dream of working towards God’s beloved community for everyone. Another way to put it would be that his mother and I hoped that imagination-expanding experience would give our kids the courage and resilience needed to drop their nets and to follow the moment Jesus calls, no hesitation to be found.
Memories of that summer conversation prompt me again to wonder just how those Galilean fishermen, young men not too unlike our teenagers, knew that other possibilities for who they could be even existed. That teenage boy had his courageous mother, and perhaps others, to help him know. Hannah has all of you. Yet the empire under whose rule the fishermen lived had not given them that imagination. Rome had dictated what they would do, who they would be, and what they were worth. Yet even with that predetermined script for their lives, four of the five saw Jesus, heard his command and promise, dropped everything, and followed.
I am sure you noticed that I said four out of five. Not all of the fishermen who were in the boats that day decided to follow Jesus. Remember Zebedee? Blink and you miss his role in the story. The story really does not tell us much about him, except that (1) he was the father of James and John, and (2) he, like his sons, was also mending the nets when Jesus called. But for some reason, unlike his sons, Zebedee stayed in the boat. James and John left. Zebedee stayed. They sprang to their feet. He hesitated. They dropped their nets. He was not quite ready to let go (Mark Ralls, “Living the Word for 1/23,” Christian Century, 11 January 2005, p. 17). Why is that? Given the reaction of his sons, why wasn’t Zebedee also open to other possibilities about who he was or what he could do in his life?
Was it because he thought he was too old to do something new? Maybe. Maybe he did not go and follow because he thought those days of taking risk had long passed. Or did Zebedee stay in the boat, clutching those nets, because when he saw his sons stand up and get out, all he could think was “But who is going to pay the bills and take care of the family? Someone has to stay and be responsible.” That’s a strong possibility, one I resonate with. Perhaps the reason Zebedee did not drop everything and follow Jesus was because he felt that decision would irrational and unfair for all those he would be leaving behind.
But even if those two understandable reasons for declining Jesus’ invitation did indeed flash in his mind, what if the deep-down soul reason Zebedee stayed in the boat was because he simply could not imagine any other possibility for his life. He had been doing the same thing in the same way for so long that he could not fathom doing anything or being anything different. He had become used to being seen as marginal and inferior. He had learned to just accept that he did not have any choice about what he would do or when he would do it. That was the way it was. That was the way life had always been. That was the way his life would always be. The empire had captured Zebedee’s imagination years before and held it hostage ever since.
Maybe there had once been a day in Zebedee’s life when he had been open to newness, to redefinition, to the adventure of discipleship, but no one had ever pushed him about it or offered the invitation to try. No one ever suggested a different life or a different way to see himself. Not his family, not his friends, not his house of faith, if he had one. Over time, all of those cracks of possibilities simply smoothed over, hardened, and seemed to disappear. He grew numb and passive, choosing to stay in the boat, no matter what or who came calling.
I’ve been wondering how many of us identify with Zebedee these days, much more than we do with his sons. How many of us feel like just staying in the boat, regardless of who comes calling? Last Friday morning some news commentators talked about the cultural numbness many are experiencing these days, and that was before the government partially shut down. But with day after day of tweets, day after day of political and celebrity scandals, day after day of harsh rhetoric from all over the political spectrum, day after day of our choosing to only hear what we want to hear, this ever-increasing self-righteous silo-ing with our kind of people coupled with the constant assault on our national conscience—the effect of it all is like a Novocain shot to our imaginations of what could be or should be for life in God’s world, especially for those of us called disciples, trying to follow Jesus.
I’ve heard that in the 1960s, the counter-cultural position was to turn on, tune in, and drop out. In 2018, I believe our culturally acceptable position is to turn off, tune out, and sit down. Let cynicism and apathy take over one’s imagination of what could be, should be, for life in God’s world. Just stay in the boat and clutch our nets of what is rather than step out and lay claim to something more. Yet the reasons for staying in the boat might be different for each of us. For some, I’ve heard they stay in the boat because of the economy. It’s doing quite well for many of us in here so why change anything. Don’t fix what is not broken; rather reap the rewards and the growth.
For others, they stay in the boat because the cultural Novocain has not yet worn off, and they’d rather just remain numb to the truth that we have increasing numbers of people coming to this church for food, for help, in need of shelter; they’d rather just remain numb to the stories of the Dreamers or those saying #metoo; they’d rather just remain numb to whatever political antics happen next. And I get it. Keeping your head down and just taking care of your own certainly is tempting these days. We cannot really change anything, so why even try anything, right? It’s overwhelming, just too much. For others, they stay in the boat because they feel it’s too risky to let themselves imagine anything different for their world, for their lives. Perhaps they have been so beaten down by the empire for so long that their imaginations, like Zebedee’s, have been taken hostage by fear. Yes, I would not be surprised if many of us identify with Zebedee much more than we do with his sons.
But goodness, just think of all that Zebedee missed. He missed seeing healings and people being liberated from what held them captive. He missed hearing Jesus’ teachings about how much and how deeply we are all loved by God. He missed watching as Jesus transformed people’s lives—telling them to get up and walk, feeding them when they were hungry, praying for them when they could no longer pray for themselves. Zebedee completely missed a fullness of life and an abundance of imagination of what could be in God’s world, what will be in God’s world.
He missed all of it. He experienced none of it, and he probably died with unimaginable regret over what could have been, who he could have been—been for himself, been for his family, been for his community, been for God. So much potential captured by so much fear. And you know what? Other than this one story, we never hear a single thing about Zebedee ever again. Not one word.
Here’s the truth: every single day Jesus calls us to put down our nets for that day and follow. Every single day Jesus comes to us in one way or another, in order to disrupt our lives, to disturb the way things have always been, who we have always been. He does it not to destroy, but to renew; not to harm, but to heal. Honestly, Jesus reminds me of that mother I met by the bus. He disrupts us, disturbs us, calls us so that our imaginations will be set free about who we can be in God’s reign, living under God’s rule, so that we will shake off the cultural Novocain and start trying again. Jesus is constantly on the shore of our lives, calling our names. So let us be determined to learn from all that Zebedee refused to know. May we know better and then do better. Not just for our own sake, but even more importantly, for God’s sake, who is always calling. Amen.