A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Church Bantam Connecticut on January 23, 2011, by Christopher L. Webber.

Simon and Andrew, James and John, were called to follow and they left their nets and they followed Jesus. It’s a wonderful picture for a cold winter morning, isn’t it? There they are, standing on the shore of the lake and Simon Peter and Andrew, are throwing their net out from the shore, throwing it out and pulling it in, collecting the fish in their baskets. Nearby are James and John with their boat pulled up on the shore and a warm breeze blowing across the lake and they are in the boat repairing their nets, weaving new fibers in where they’ve been broken by constant wear and tear, rubbing against the side of the boat, catching a snag on the lake bottom. But all of them are hard at work, and here comes Jesus, walking along the shore, and he calls out to them, “Come with me, and you can fish for people.”

Notice that it’s not an order: “Come here this minute.” It’s an invitation; there’s a lightness to it, a sense of humor: “So you know how to fish? Come with me and I’ll show you some real fishing.” It’s an invitation that doesn’t twist their arms or deny their freedom and it’s an invitation that doesn’t deny or destroy who they are but takes it as a gift, as a given, and proposes to build on it.  Of course, there’s change involved too, but I think we can make too much of it. That wonderful hymn, “Jesus calls us” always seems to me to make it a bit too stark: “turned from home and toil and kindred, leaving all for his dear sake.”

Well, yes and no. For three years at least, they weren’t far from home and the gospel tells us about times when they still went fishing, and they didn’t leave kindred either; they were still with their brothers and good friends. So let’s not over-state the case; let’s not imagine that every time Jesus calls us we have to drop everything and head for Mozambique. Maybe. But maybe not.

And then perhaps we ought to think a bit about the way calls come. We just had the celebration of Martin Luther King’s Jr.’s birthday and what was it that got him involved in the civil rights movement? Did he get called to drop everything one day and take it on? Not exactly. A black woman on a bus was asked to move to the back one day and refused and people rallied to her support and King found himself gradually emerging into a leadership position, and yet not so much a leader in a real sense as a follower: a man who sensed where people were going and went with them, offering his skills as a speaker and organizer, doing what he had always done but doing it in a somewhat different cause, a somewhat different direction.

Leading and following, I think, are just two sides of the same coin. Simon and Andrew and James and were called to be followers so they could be trained to be leaders.  Following Jesus meant leading others; leading others required that they be followers of Jesus.  St. Paul often exhorted people to “be followers of me as I am of Christ.” The leader who forgets who he’s following – and it happens all too often – should not be followed. In a democracy, I think, that’s very clear. Our leaders are always intended to be followers: people who can really represent our interests and our will, follow our leadership. Sometimes, of course, they have to vote their consciences and take the consequences and we sometimes, later on, honor those who do that, as we honor the senator who destroyed his career and knew he was doing it when he voted against the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.  Representatives need to know what the polls say, but not necessarily shape their entire agenda by polls. They need to follow intelligently and creatively and conscientiously.

Clergy are somewhat like that.  They are not paid, I think, to tell people always what they want to hear. We don’t always want to hear about sin and judgment, but it’s part of the gospel and needs to be included. But good leaders are also good followers. But following and leading are very much alike in many ways and they can come on us unexpectedly and they are seldom if ever unrelated to who we are already and what we have skills to do.

When Jesus called Peter and Andrew and James and John he knew more about them already than today’s gospel lets on. He knew they were potential leaders.  We often overdue that “simple fishermen” bit.  No, they owned property and had hired servants and they had taken the time and trouble to go down to the Jordan to hear John the Baptist.  They had the skills and the interest and they could pick up the rest as they went along. So it seems to me that this business of following normally involves a certain appropriate background and may not involve Jesus coming down the road with a specific invitation.

Now, what’s all this got to do with us? Well, why do you suppose we are asked to read about the call of the first apostles every year in Epiphany? I can think of several reasons: it’s a part of the story we ought to know, of course; it’s important to understand where the apostles came from and what they were asked to do, but none of that impacts us directly and I have the idea that the lessons we read each Sunday are intended to speak to us, you and me, directly, to make us consider the lives we lead and ask ourselves some questions about them.

I think today’s readings call on us to ask ourselves simply, “Am I called?” That might produce an obvious answer if we think simply in terms of apostolic ministry.  We could ask, “Should I sell my home here in Litchfield County and leave “home and toil and kindred”? There are days when I imagine we might like to do that. Maybe we’ve been serving as an usher or reader or vestry member.  It’s what we have an ability to do or we wouldn’t be doing it. But maybe it sounds more exciting to get called to be an apostle and take the gospel to Afghanistan. Maybe.  On the other hand, if you wake up in the middle of the night with the feeling that you maybe should be a missionary in the Congo you would probably tell yourself very quickly that, hey, I like it better here; I know the language and I know what’s expected and sure there are bad patches to get through but not so bad as having to try to convert the members of the Taliban. No, most of us are where God wants us to be. God put us where we are and we have the skills to do it.

The part that makes the difference is the part the gospel deals with: we can’t very well follow someone we haven’t met or see only occasionally. Jesus called the apostles to use skills they had, but to spend an intensive three year period of time to hear him, to watch him, to be with him, so that when they went off to do the new fishing they were called to they could do it with a deep sense of how he would want them to act because they would be changed by the time they spent with him.

I think that’s the message for us. We too are called to be followers of Jesus Christ – here, where we are, now- but to know him better by having spent time with him so we can serve more effectively. And that begins, of course right here in basic training. The call wasn’t to spend one hour a week, max. There aren’t many jobs that can be carried out after an hour a week of training for a few weeks or even a few years. There aren’t many acquaintances that can be built on that either.  Try getting married on the basis of an hour a week for a short while!  How could you follow someone an hour a week and have a clue where they were going? Daily. That’s the difference. Daily prayer, Daily Bible reading. Daily quiet time. Daily meditation. We can’t be followers without knowing the leader and we can’t get to know the leader by Christmas and Easter visits, by occasional Sunday visits, or even a regular hour a week.

We read the news and we watch the television and we despair; we ask, “Where is God at work in this world of ours?” Maybe that’s God asking us to ask ourselves, “Am I making a difference?” And the question we need to ask ourselves then is this: have I come to know .Jesus as my Lord well enough to make a real difference, to make the kind of difference the world around us needs?

“Jesus calls us, by thy mercies,
Savior, make us hear thy call;
Give our hearts to thine obedience,
Serve and love thee best of all.”

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