A sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A Epiphany 3: Matthew 4:12-23. In our prayers we remembered those killed, injured, and terrorized by another mass shooting overnight, this time during celebrations of the lunar new year in Monterey Park, CA.
Once upon a time a hundred years ago when I was about nine or ten, I embarked upon a fishing trip off the west coast of Scotland. The sea that summer day was white and gray, the spray was cold and constant, and I think that may have been when I found out that I suffer terribly, horribly from sea-sickness.
For all that, I can’t bring myself quite to wish it hadn’t happened, or that I hadn’t gone, because a couple of hours in, at our furthest point from shore, we saw suddenly a pair of pilot whales breaching. It really was the most amazing thing. It was almost like looking into another world, and if I’d stayed safely back on dry land, I would have missed them. Worse still, I might never even have known what I was missing.
All of which is to say that if Jesus comes by and invites me on a fishing trip, I’m going to be torn. I know that there is going to be deep and abiding misery: look at the garden, look at the cross; look at John’s imprisonment and the people who wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff; look at his own words, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Look at the storm, and the disciples’ terror: “Master, do you not care that we are perishing?” There will be sea-sickness.
And yet there will be, too, those glimpses into another world. Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop. Jesus preaching in the synagogue, “Here, today, the words of the prophet are fulfilled.” The healing miracles, the victory over demons and death, and that other scene on the beach, after the cross, after the disciples have come home here once more to Capernaum, to the Sea of Galilee, and to their nets, when they come ashore in the morning light and find Jesus and the fire and the food, and he calls to them to catch one last harvest before sending them back once more to Jerusalem.
How much of this do Andrew and Simon anticipate when Jesus comes to them in the morning as they fish from the shore? This is after John the baptizer has been arrested and imprisoned; Jesus has withdrawn north to Galilee, and so, it seems, have these two, whom we last met down by the Jordan river, when they were disciples of John who turned to follow the stranger whom John called the Lamb of God, whom Andrew already recognized as the Messiah.
After John was arrested, they returned to Galilee and to their nets. They must have lost track of Jesus when he went into the wilderness alone after his baptism, during those long days of fasting and temptation. And here he is, back as if from the dead, and once again, they follow him.
They know that following will not protect them from the world, any more than putting out to sea shelters them from the storms that follow the water. There are still fevers that put fear into a community; Simon Peter’s mother-in-law nearly died of one, before Jesus lifted her up and set her back on her feet – remember that story? Not everyone in town got so lucky.
There are still harsh words from those who don’t understand the lives they lead, the choices they make to leave the traditions of their fathers, to leave father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, to walk away first to follow John, and now this other, this Jesus, this dangerous preacher. “Shake the dust off your feet,” advises Jesus, but it’s not so easy. Mud sticks, and dust gets in your eyes.
There will be worse to come, from the Romans, in due course. Following will not save them from seeing their loved ones die, nor from burying them.
Jesus is not taking them out of the world, but into it. He calls them away from the nets and the open water, and promises to make them fish for people. He is calling them back into community, but a community centred no longer on survival, but on salvation. And they follow.
Julian of Norwich, medieval mystic, in one of the visions granted her at death’s very door, saw herself walking as it were upon the seabed, and she understood from that “showing” that if one were to walk with God, in the plain and certain sight of God, that person would not only be safe in body and spirit from the weight of the ocean and its depths, but they would know greater peace and comfort than anyone still on dry land, safely and ordinarily ignorant of the ever-tending mercies of God.[i]
There have been times, to be sure, in the past few years filled with fevers and violence and more when we have felt at sea, or underwater, or worse. But then there are those moments where we see into another world, the world as it might be, the world as God wants it to be, with all of God’s heart, with all of God’s might, with all of God’s life. The moments when we recognize that here is the Messiah, that God is with us, that God is calling to us, in the midst of the everyday, after the arrest, in the midst of the fever, in the wake of bad news or good; that Christ has come to find us, to feed us, to save us.
That when we are farthest from the shore, glory will still breach the surface.
[i] “One time mine understanding was led down into the sea-ground, and there I saw hills and dales green, seeming as it were moss-be-grown, with wrack and gravel. Then I understood thus: that if a man or woman were under the broad water, if he might have sight of God so as God is with a man continually, he should be safe in body and soul, and take no harm: and overpassing, he should have more solace and comfort than all this world can tell. For He willeth we should believe that we see Him continually though that to us it seemeth but little [of sight]; and in this belief He maketh us evermore to gain grace. For He will be seen and He will be sought: He will be abided and he will be trusted.” The Second Revelation, Chapter X, “God willeth to be seen and to be sought: to be abided and to be trusted.”
Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, edited by Grace Warrack (digireads.com, 2013), via Kindle