Father Nicholas Lang
The Third Sunday After Epiphany
Peanuts cartoon character Lucy is sitting in her “five-cent psychology” booth where Charlie Brown has stopped for some advice about life. “Life is like a deck chair, Charlie,” “On the cruise ship of life, some people place their deck chair at the rear of the ship so they can see where they’ve been. Others place their deck chair at the front of the ship so they can see where they’re going.”
Lucy looks at her puzzled “client” and asks, “Which way is your deck chair facing?” Without hesitating, Charlie replies glumly, “I can’t even get my deck chair unfolded.”
This humorous snippet seemed a good place to begin what I’d like to say today about the theme of the scriptures. What they seem to present to us are two contrasting reactions to a call from God to do something really big. On the one hand, we have the story about the world’s most reluctant prophet, Jonah, whom God has commanded to go preach to the despised Ninevites, a nation hated by the Jews because of the horrible things they had done to the Jewish people. Jonah attempts to escape this charge by boarding a ship going in the opposite direction. He was caught in a horrific storm thrown overboard, swallowed by a great fish, and finally regurgitated, after which Jonah agreed to go preach to the Ninevites who repented of their evildoing after just a short sermon.
It’s kind of a humorous story and the surprise is that if we think God’s love and grace are reserved only for God’s chosen people, better think again. God’s love and grace extends to all those we might exclude by definitions of who is in and who is out. God’s light extends far, far beyond any boundaries we can delineate.
Mark tells quite a different story. Here we find Jesus extending a call to a bunch of fishermen. Unlike Jonah, they buy in without hesitation and drop everything—including their nets—and follow Jesus. Both stories include a call to proclaim an important message from God and both require the messengers to take a huge risk in doing so.
I get the Jonah story. I’m not sure that I would want to go preach to people who may do me great harm; but what about Mark’s story of the call of the first disciples? Frankly, I think there is something very compelling and very bothersome about it. These guys were fishermen who made their livelihood as such and fed their families. Their fathers fished. Their grandfathers fished. As far back as they had memory, fishing had probably been in their DNA. Suddenly, some rabbi, who doesn't even seem to introduce himself, comes up to them and says, "Come after me, and I will make you fishers of people."
The text tells that “immediately they drop their nets and follow him.” Then they happen upon two other fishermen mending a broken net. They too, drop what they're doing and follow. Four skilled anglers just up and turn their backs on everything they have ever known. They drop all their commitments to go with Jesus which could well be a wild goose chase.
Isn’t the difficult thing about this story the fishermen's unflinching, immediate decision to follow him? Where’s the logical thought process of "let’s think this over." Or “Maybe tomorrow—if the fish aren’t biting.” We have no indication that they had counted the cost. We’re not even sure that they stopped long enough to say goodbye to family and friends. They just up and leave everything connected to their life. Period.
Well, it’s a great story, but there is for me something missing. My guess is, and Biblical historians seem to believe, that this was not their first encounter with Jesus. They likely had heard him teach several times, maybe sold him food, perhaps had a meal or two with him. In other words, they had already developed even a superficial relationship with Jesus. Yes, this was still a huge decision and one made at great risk, but they had been compelled by what they heard and saw and they had developed a level of trust in him.
There is another character in the story that should interest us, the one about whom we learn very little but a name. It is Zebedee, the father of James and John. He does not go with them. He sits in the boat somewhat dumbfounded as he watches them leave the family business, the five of them walking off together and leaving him holding the net.
I like to think that we have made the decision to follow Jesus as well, but let’s be honest—no matter how committed we are to doing God’s work in the world, most of us don’t just walk away from our livelihood, our family, our friends, and go off not knowing how we will live or where we are going.
What made Zebedee stay behind? Maybe he just wasn’t ready. Maybe he thought he was too old for such an escapade. Maybe Jesus didn’t call him because he knew someone had to stay back and run the store. In any case, out of all the characters in this story, isn’t he the easiest one with whom we can relate? Because this is really a story about a huge life change and we don’t typically welcome change nor do we necessarily see it as a good thing. Yet there is a sense of urgency in this call to change and it is clearly a change that will take these people on a great journey.
Lucy would no doubt see Jonah and Zebedee placing their deck chairs at the rear of the ship so that they could see where they have been. And I’m sure she would see the Simon, Andrew, James and John putting their chairs at the front of the ship so that they could see where they are going. Maybe our deck chairs would be lined up next to either of these two groups—or maybe we’re just struggling to get the darn thing open.