“Follow me,” Jesus says. “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Those are some of the most mysterious words in the whole of scripture. How could it be that Simon, Andrew, James and John, tough working-class men plying their trade as fishermen, just drop their nets and follow this wandering rabbi?
It’s a story of faith, commitment, and following Christ. Those are big, bold words. But often those words seem pretty far away from the reality of the church as we know it.
By now there has been a great deal written about how the “mainline” churches, the Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, are becoming the sideline churches as they continue to decline in numbers and influence. They have each lost a third of their members in the last forty years. There was a poll a few years ago in which people in various denominations were asked how much their faith meant to them. As you might guess fundamentalists and Southern Baptists ranked highest, with more than 70% of their people saying their faith was very important to them. After them came the Mormons, much further down, the Catholics, and toward the bottom a cluster including Methodists, Presbyterians, Disciples, and Episcopalians. Only 42% of Episcopalians said their faith was important to them. Deep, passionate commitment seems to come hard for many mainline Christians.
Instead we’ve been hearing a lot about the different kind of spiritual quest Baby Boomers have been on. A sociologist of religion named Wade Clark Roof describes this generation born in the late 1940’s and ‘50’s as spiritually restless. Their quests are often marked by shifting alliances with religious institutions, and the continual search for something else. One writer has described their homelessness as something like the ultimate shopping trip—a lot of window shopping, a lot of dabbling, a little of this, a little of that—something like a “great mall” path to heaven.
The Boomer’s quest, Roof says, is highly individualistic and anti-authoritarian. People hunger for meaning, but don’t want anyone telling them what they should do or believe. They have a consumer orientation: What does this do for me? Everyone seems to be working on their personalized portfolio of ways to find sacred meaning, drawing from various therapies, New Age practices, meditation, and recovery groups.
And by most accounts the generations younger than the Boomers—the Gen-Xers and the Millennials, as some call them—are just as skeptical of authority and church structures, even though they are more interested in traditional forms of worship.
Over the years in talking to people about their faith, and about their unease over the big words like commitment and following Christ, I have often sensed a real pathos. I’ve heard many talk about how empty their experience of the church had been growing up, how little real experience of Christian love they had ever found in the church, and yet how they still hunger to be connected to a larger world of meaning.
And my guess is many of us here today share that pathos. At some level we seek a living God, but in an age of hi-tech, scientific analysis, and the glare of the TV screen, trusting in an unseen Mystery can be hard. My sense is that we are often afraid to open ourselves too much, for fear either that we will find there really is nothing to all this, or that there is more than we ever imagined. It’s safer to be cautious.
But what strikes us in the gospel this morning is the sheer impulsiveness of it all. Jesus walks up and says “Follow.” It’s a call from beyond them. This was not part of their career plan. Something intrusive, a challenge, an invitation interrupts their lives.
And the biggest shock is that they go along with all this. We’re inclined to marvel at their bravery and courage. That’s not like us complex, educated people. We have responsibilities. We wouldn’t have gotten where we are without being careful, dutiful, minimizing the risks. We’re likely to get some professional guidance, a career counselor, a therapist. But something just happens here. Something from beyond them grasps them.
You may have heard of a new book out by Malcolm Gladwell called Blink, about how many of the important decisions we make come in an instant—who you fall in love with, what house you want to buy, what kind of work you want to do. Things have been stirring inside you for a long time, but then all of a sudden something clicks. It happens in the blink of an eye.
And did you notice? There is no talk in this gospel of a faith that comes in a neat package. These fishermen aren’t asked to believe anything at first—no theological doctrines, no philosophical arguments. Jesus doesn’t put in front of them a set of rules and regulations or requirements for admission.
He just says, “Come and follow.” It seems that the only way they are going to know what Jesus is about is by going along with him, sharing his life, listening to him, doing what he does. All that faith in Jesus takes for starters is a willingness to trust a hunch, to decide to try it for ourselves The poet William Butler Yeats said, “Man can embody truth, but he cannot know it.” The truth of life is not a package of ideas that will fit into our categories. It is a way of living, of being, that we discover as we enter into it and grow.
It is natural to want to shrink life into nice, analyzable bits—science seems to have taught us that anything can be understood or mastered, given enough time. But what about joy, or love, or delight, or grief, or despair, or the longings of our souls, or the glimpses we’ve had of a peace we have no name for—we never fully fathom them.
There is an unforgettable moment in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, in which a high society woman comes to the wise spiritual leader Father Zosima, asking him to help her to recover her lost faith. “How can I believe in God again?” she asks. He answers, “You must learn to love. Try to love your neighbors, love them actively and unceasingly. And as you learn to love them more and more, you will be more and more convinced of God and the immortality of your soul.”
What an unexpected twist that is! Not, “First you must have faith,” but rather, “Love, and then faith will come.” Turn loose of yourself, learn what it means to live like Christ—opening yourself to God and to those around you, and you will find that God is real. Follow Christ, he’s saying. Come and live the way human beings were meant to live. Let go of your preoccupations. Link your life to people who need you—at home and around you. Come and be like Christ. And you will begin to find yourself discovering a Purpose and Love you could never have thought your way into.
Over and over the great teachers of our faith have said that we can never know God with our minds. We can know about God, but real knowing requires giving ourselves. That’s the problem with the spiritual marketplace of our time—trying a little Christianity, a little meditation, a little of the other religious traditions. These are all deep wells of truth that will take us down into the Mystery. But we have to give ourselves fully to one of them, and we Christians believe that in Jesus we can go all the way down into the heart of God.
And that means that what we most need to do is enter into the disciplines and practices of Christian faith. We need to learn the practices of real solitude and real community. We need to take time to pray, to be quiet enough to allow our noisy lives to settle down until, in the silence we can speak what our soul needs to say, and know ourselves accepted and embraced. If you need help in learning to pray, ask for it. Ask for it here, or wherever you call home. And then find a real community—people supporting each other, learning and working together as they grow in Christ’s way.
And finally, coming to know Christ for ourselves, calls for serving Christ’s wounded—the hungry and the homeless and the immigrant and the victim of war. Jesus said that if we want to see him, that’s where to look.
I suppose only half-crazy people decide to go out and stake their lives on an unexpected call, or an impulse. But every now and then it happens.
A friend of mine told me recently of hearing about the first time that Wendy Kopp, a young Princeton graduate, came to his campus to recruit for her new program. It was called “Teach for America,” and it aimed at attracting the best and brightest college graduates to teach for two years in some of the poorest schools in the country. There had been a few posters around the campus about this unpromising job opportunity, and my friend, the chaplain there, expected only a handful to show up. Instead there were some three or four hundred.
In a low-key way Wendy Kopp explained to these ambitious, talented college seniors that this really wasn’t much of a job. You’ll be working in some of the worst schools in the country, she said. Many of them won’t have any decent textbooks. A fair number of the kids will be from broken families, and some will be hard to handle. It could be dangerous at times. The hours will be long and the pay will be barely enough to live on. It’ll probably be the hardest thing you’ll ever do.
“So,” she said, “if there are two or three of you here who would like to find out more, why don’t you come on down and you can put your name on a list. Thanks for listening. Good luck with your careers. Have a great day.”
And my friend said that these bright, privileged students, with their whole futures laid out in front of them, started jamming the aisles to come down front to put their names on the list—on an impulse. It seems they heard a call.
“Come and follow me,” Jesus says. At some level you and I are here today because God has been calling us. God has reached out and grabbed us and brought us here to make disciples of us.
“Come and follow me,” he says. That doesn’t mean we all have to drop our nets and leave home. It meant that for those four fishermen. But if this story is about being called into the great flow of God’s life in the world and letting ourselves be caught up in it, then my guess is that that will mean a different story for each of us.
“Come and follow me,” Jesus says. You can follow me in Chevy Chase and Adams Morgan, in Tulsa and in Kenya. Listen for what I’m asking of you. Listen in the stirring of a sleepless night, in the words of a hymn we sing today, in the nagging issues at work that won’t go away, in the yearning in your own heart for a life that matters.
“Come and follow me,” he says. It may mean doing all the same things in your life, only doing them so that Christ’s love shines through how you do them. It may mean raising children and writing briefs and meeting with customers. It may mean writing checks, or going on mission trips, or serving meals, or lobbying at the Capitol on behalf of the poor. It may mean doing less every day, instead of more, so that you can hear God’s voice more clearly.
The possibilities are endless if we just listen. God is calling.
“Follow me,” Jesus said. “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”