Sermon delivered on January 26, 2014 (Video version here)
Text: Matthew 24:12-23
Exactly six years ago, when I was a sophomore at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, I was in my final week of a J-term internship at a church down in Florida. As the culmination of my work there over the month of January, I got to preach the sermon that Sunday. It was my very first time ever preaching. The text assigned to that week in the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year cycle of texts that many churches use to determine each week’s readings, was the story of the call of the disciples from Matthew 4. At the time, I preached something about following God’s call even when you don’t know where it will lead. I figured that my experience as a pastor’s kid, moving every 3 to 5 years growing up, gave me a pretty good idea of what this “following” business looked like.
But that was only the beginning. Here I am, six years later—almost to the day—and I’m preaching on that same exact text from Matthew. The lectionary cycle just happened to line up that way for me, and I’ll take that as a sign that my own story has something to do with this passage.
In this text, Jesus approaches two sets of brothers along the Sea of Galilee. First, he comes to Simon and Andrew, who are busily casting their fishing nets into the sea. Both of them are fishermen, so this is something they’ve done for long hours each day, day after day, for years. They cast their nets, wait for fish, pull in the nets, collect the fish, mend the nets when they rip, and repeat. And repeat. And repeat. They could do this half-asleep—and for all we know, they do sometimes. Simon and Andrew have no idea that this ordinary day with its ordinary work is about to get turned upside-down.
Along comes Jesus. As we read earlier in the text, he’s new to the area. When he heard about John the Baptist’s recent arrest, he left his home in Nazareth and has just settled in Capernaum, a city on the Sea of Galilee. Therefore, it is unlikely that Simon and Andrew, who live in Capernaum, have ever met or seen him before this moment. In spite of this, though, Jesus approaches them and—out of nowhere—calls out to them. “Come, follow me,” he says, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people” (v. 19).
I don’t know about you, but if someone I didn’t know came up to me with such an odd proposition, I would most likely turn the other way and pretend I hadn’t heard. Fish for people? Why? What does that even mean? Also, who are you and why are you talking to me?
But that’s not what happens. At all. Instead of politely declining (or rudely declining) the offer, and instead of asking some clarifying questions before getting off the boat, Simon and Andrew drop everything and follow Jesus. Immediately. No questions asked! It’s truly miraculous. One could argue that this is Jesus’ very first miracle, at least in Matthew’s gospel.
But I, for one, still have questions. Why did they follow so quickly? Was it something Jesus said? Or was it something about Jesus himself that was so irresistible? Or was it something else?
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about these questions, and here’s what I think. I think that they followed because they felt something in that moment that they had never felt before. In the version of this story that appears in John, Jesus gives Simon a new name, Peter, the instant he meets him (John 1:42). Even though this renaming does not appear explicitly in Matthew’s version of the event, I think it helps to explain what is happening. At the beginning of the story, Simon and Andrew know who they are: they’re Simon and Andrew, two fishermen. It is a fine identity, and they are relatively content in their routines and labor. But Jesus’ brief invitation to them changes everything. He offers them the chance to be something other than fishermen—the chance to be fishers for people, the chance to be his disciples! For Simon, this also involved a new name—Peter—but even for Andrew, this moment was the beginning of his own new identity.
I believe that this invitation, this call, was transformative. These few brief words opened Simon and Andrew’s eyes to see a whole new life, a life in which they were no longer fisherman, but something more. It’s not that being a fisherman was a bad thing or that they didn’t like it, but this new call offered them an identity that fit them better than they could have ever imagined. It pulled together their life experiences in a way that spoke to them in their inmost being. Deep inside, they knew—immediately—that this was right. This was who they were. And there was no use in resisting it, because it was exactly what they were meant to be.
I can’t say that I’ve had a call experience quite this dramatic, although I know that some people have. But I have felt that pull inside of me that told me who I was, so powerfully that I just knew it was right. I’ve had this experience twice, actually.
The first time was the summer after I graduated from college. My husband and I were out to dinner with his parents one night at a Mexican restaurant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We were both already enrolled at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and would be starting there in September. During dinner that night, I was talking about how I’ve always loved teaching but could never decide on what kind of a teacher I wanted to be. I have always loved school and basically always wanted to teach whatever grade I was in at the time—up to and including college. So that’s a lot of options—and that doesn’t even include deciding on which subject I wanted to teach. Up to that point, I’d kind of assumed I would eventually fall into some kind of teaching position, but no one type of teaching in particular had ever quite felt like the right fit.
That night, though, one offhand comment from my mother-in-law opened my eyes to a whole new vision of my life. As a music teacher, my mother-in-law has an insider view of the school system, and she mentioned that because of the growing immigrant population, there is a high demand for English as a Second Language teachers. As soon as she said this, something clicked inside of me. I had never considered teaching ESL before, probably because it wasn’t a type of class I ever had to take in my own schooling. But now that the idea was in front of me, I knew it was where I needed to go. Everything about it fit—my enjoyment of grammar, my preference for small-group teaching, my own experiences learning other languages, and the sense that I would be making a huge difference in my students’ lives. As a bonus, an ESL teaching license in Minnesota is K through 12, so I don’t have to restrict myself to just one age group!
There was just one problem: I didn’t have a teaching degree. And, in fact, I was about to embark on a three-year seminary education that would also not get me a teaching degree. Not that I wasn’t also excited about seminary, but an outsider looking at my intended career and current degree program would think I was crazy. But something about seminary was too enticing for me to change my plans. Even besides the logistics of what it would look like to withdraw from one program and apply for another, I could feel myself being drawn to seminary by the promise of growing closer to God and learning more about my faith. Which, by the way, is a perfectly good reason to attend seminary. In my experience, it was more than worth it!
So, I went on to seminary, trusting God that my time spent there would be worth it in terms of personal growth even though it had nothing to do with my intended career. But then, as I was nearing the end of my first year there, I began to feel that deep pull inside me again. People around me kept telling me that my call to teaching sounded like a deacon’s work. I would brush off these comments, not really knowing what a deacon was and not wanting the pressure of anything to do with ordination. During college, I had begun the candidacy process as an inquirer but had dropped out when it became clear to me that I did not have the passions or skill set to be an elder, that is, a pastor. Ever since that time, I had been very adamant in my belief that I was going to remain a layperson, even if I was a seminary-educated layperson.
But the comments kept coming. From multiple people…including Dr. Margaret Ann Crain, who is basically the expert on the United Methodist order of deacon. It got harder and harder to ignore this feeling that maybe they were right, and I was wrong. And the more I learned about deacons, the more my gut would tell me that this who I am. A deacon. I’m still not ordained, or even commissioned yet, but my own identity has already changed. I now see myself as living out the call of deacon—someone who is called to bridge the church and the world. Someone who is called to preach and teach God’s Word, and who works to lead and equip other Christians to use their own gifts to love and serve those around them. And someone who has a special eye out for where the compassion of the church can be at work bringing God’s justice to the world. My own particular call to deacon is through teaching ESL and being a bridge between the immigrant community and the church community.
As I was learning about the ministry of deacons, this identity of “deacon” branded itself onto me, and onto what I had previously seen as my calling to be an ESL teacher. Now, these two identities, deacon and ESL teacher, have come together inside of me so powerfully that I can no longer see myself any differently—even though I haven’t technically become either of those yet. Now that I’m done with seminary, I am taking the final step necessary to live out my call. I am currently working on my ESL teaching license through the University here in Mankato. By 2015, I should be both receiving my teaching license and getting commissioned as a deacon in the United Methodist Church. Thanks be to God.
This change in my self-awareness and identity also changed how the world around me looked. With this call, I have direction. With this call, I see more clearly how my life relates to the lives of others. With this call, my whole life is grounded in a relationship with God, my Creator. My own experiences of feeling God call me and, essentially, rename me—first as “ESL teacher” and then as “deacon ESL teacher”—were incredibly transformative.
I believe that Peter and Andrew felt this, too. Their brief interaction with Jesus alongside the Sea of Galilee radically changed how they saw the world. Before, the only part of the world that concerned them was their own city of Capernaum and specifically the area along the lakeshore. But now, Jesus invites them to see the world as God sees it—large, diverse, and full of potential. Jesus calls them to leave the lakeshore behind and journey with him into the unknown. The unknown is always a little bit scary, or at least uncomfortable. But Peter and Andrew follow willingly. Why? Because what they don’t know—the details of where they’ll be going or what they’ll be doing—is vastly outweighed by what they do know. And what they do know is this: that, miraculously, this man Jesus knows them better than they know themselves and is offering to lead them forward into the life they were really meant to live. Jesus is offering them a new life grounded in the transformational power of a relationship with him.
We can also see this reflected in the core of Jesus’ message that he has begun to preach: “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (v. 17). This is not a passive message. Jesus is preaching a message of transformation. Not only is our world being transformed—with God’s kingdom breaking in here on earth as it is in heaven—but we, too, can be transformed, through our relationship with God. God is offering us that same transformative call that Jesus gave to the disciples by the lakeshore. “Come, follow me. Come with me and I will show you who you are truly meant to be.”
Last week, Fred talked about what it’s like to hear God’s voice. When God speaks to us, it is weighty. God speaks with authority. Like Fred said, God is the author of our life, so God’s voice is like none other. This weightiness, this authority, is what I was feeling inside me those times when I felt God’s call showing me who I am. Jesus spoke with that same authority when he called Peter and Andrew away from their boat, leading them forward into a life of ministry together with him. Whether they heard it in his words or his voice, or whether they—like me—felt it in their gut, they could tell that this Jesus was speaking with the authority of more than just a human voice; he was speaking with the voice of God. And when you can hear that it is God’s voice that is calling you, it’s not a call you can resist.
Oh, but we try to resist. I think that Peter and Andrew’s story still sounds a little too neat-and-tidy for most of us, with our messy and complicated lives. After all, they did have Jesus Christ, in the flesh, standing in front of them. For the rest of us, though, even when we hear the voice of God calling us, we try to resist. As I mentioned in my own story, for a long time I adamantly refused to believe that I might be called to the order of deacon. It was not the future I had planned or the future I wanted, so I did my best to push it aside. I met lots of people at seminary who had felt called to ministry years and years earlier but kept pushing God aside and taking their lives in other directions. But, try as we might, we could not resist forever. I gave in after a few months, while some of my friends waited decades. But God’s call did not stop nor weaken in that time. It only grew stronger. Because God knows us better than we know ourselves. God knows us from our days in the womb, God knows us throughout our lives, and God knows our thoughts and feelings before we even sense them ourselves. So when God speaks to you, whether it’s inside your heart or through the mouth of someone else, it’s to YOU. With all your quirks, all your skills, all your questions, and all your experiences already taken into account. And the name that God calls you, or the call God invites you into, will fit you better than you could have ever chosen on your own.
In some cases, your call will be to a particular job or career path, but that is not always true. Just like God is too big to ever be fully described in human language, God’s call on our lives is too personal and too nuanced to fit into human categories of vocation. Each person’s call is uniquely different, tailored specifically to that person’s passions, skills, and experiences. I’ve already told you about my call to become a deacon ESL teacher. Peter and Andrew were called to be Jesus’ disciples, spreading the message of the coming kingdom of God. Your call is as personal as you are. Some are called to parenting, some to other forms of caregiving and friendship, some to community leadership, some to artistic expression, and some to research and discovery. The list goes on and on, with all our different calls coming together to create an infinitely complex and wonderfully beautiful tapestry. It is through the interweaving of all of these amazing calls that the kingdom of God comes to life here on earth. The reason our calls are so irresistible, when we hear them, is that they offer us an opportunity like none other. Not only do they show us who we are meant to be, but they give us the chance to ourselves be a part of God’s work in the world. No work could be more meaningful than actually getting to participate in the coming of the kingdom of God. Talk about making a difference that will last! But not only can we participate in this amazing work and experience God’s power firsthand; we each get to participate in our very own special way, as if we’re each a puzzle piece that no other piece can replace.
This is the good news of this passage from Matthew. Jesus is calling every one of us into a new life that is more meaningful and more amazing than we can imagine! It’s not a cookie-cutter life; it will look different for every one of us. But what we all have in common is that Jesus is the one calling, and that God will be with us every step of the way.
If you already know you’ve heard Jesus’ call in your life, I’m so glad. You may already be on that journey with Jesus into new life. Or you may be hesitant, not yet ready to take the leap out of what you’re used to and into the unknown. That reaction is natural and understandable. However, playing it “safe” limits our possibilities. We won’t get to experience the fullness of what the Holy Spirit can work in and through us until we take that step of faith. Others of you may never have felt this call or may not know what kind of calling God has for you. But this passage has some more good news: it’s not up to us! The call is from God. We don’t have to try to create it ourselves. In the story, Jesus is the initiator. In fact, the disciples don’t say anything at all. Jesus says to them, “Come, follow me,” and they come. And it is the same for each of us. Jesus is calling us into new and amazing lives of transformation. His call is continuous and patient, waiting until we hear it and respond. Often, we don’t realize our own calls without help from others. While God sometimes speaks directly to our hearts, many times we hear the voice of God through the observations of those who are close to us. Through prayer, study, and Christian community, we can come closer to understanding who God has called us to be.
Whether you have heard the call, aren’t sure if you’ve heard it, or know you haven’t heard it yet, take heart. Just like the calls themselves are each totally unique, so is the timing. We can’t predict when or how Jesus will come to us with this call, but we can trust that we are called. This is the promise we receive in baptism, as we are initiated into God’s family and marked with a seal: All Christians are called to the work of bringing forth the kingdom of God that Jesus preached—to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are all called to bring good news to the poor, justice to the oppressed, sight to the blind, and food to the hungry. This is what the kingdom of God looks like. If you’re not yet sure what your own specific call is, rest assured that if this is your path, you are already following Jesus. You may not have heard the entirety of Jesus’ call, but God’s transformation in your life has already begun.
And when you do hear the call, it may not make for a radical change in what your daily life looks like—although it may. When Jesus calls us, it opens up the possibility for a deeper relationship with God, which in turn lets us see the world around us with new eyes. Our previous life is not tossed aside in the change, but it is transformed. We begin to see how every step we’ve taken up to this point has formed us into who we are. Into this unique person whom Jesus is calling with our own special name.
Six years ago, when I was preaching on this same text, I had absolutely no idea that I would be doing it again today. By that point in my internship, I had discerned that I probably was not meant to be a pastor. And yet, as I stand here today, that part of my journey was invaluable. That internship and the many other experiences I have had leading up to now have all formed me into a person who does know her calling. It was not at all what I expected, but that feeling in my gut comes back to me every time I stop to think about what I’m doing. This is right. And the peace and joy that come with that feeling are indescribable. So while it’s true that I did know something about the business of following Jesus back when I preached my first sermon, there was so much more waiting for me that I could not have imagined. And, I think I’ve learned enough about God in the process to know that I can’t predict what the next stage of my call will look like, either. But I do know this: it will be right.
So let us all listen anew for God’s voice as we await and rejoice in God’s call on our lives. Thanks be to God.