Matthew 4:12-23

“Immediately they left their nets and followed Jesus.”

It’s a jarring, almost fanciful moment – how quickly Andrew and Simon, then James and John – set down their nets. Because it’s not just the nets that drop, it’s a way of being and a whole set of motions rehearsed over time.

Neuroscientists tell us that when a movement or a motor skill is repeated regularly, a long-term procedural memory – or “muscle memory” – is created for that task. Riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard, texting on a phone, playing a melody or phrase on a musical instrument, and yes, casting a net. When first learning a physical skill, movement is often slow, stiff and easily disrupted if you break your concentration, but then, with practice, the task becomes smooth, effortless, unconscious. So well-rehearsed is the motion that it can be returned to after an absence, like when the disciples return to their nets in those moments between crucifixion and resurrection. When they wonder if Jesus is coming back to them, they go back to what is engrained in them and pick up their nets again.

Many of you know that this week my family has celebrated the life of my grandfather, Charles Proctor, who among other things, taught me how to cast a net. It was a favorite boyhood pastime on summer nights when we’d visit my grandparents’ river home – catching shrimp off my grandfather’s dock – and finally getting old and strong enough to cast the net myself. Looping the rope around my wrist, holding the sliding ring and lifting the net, then placing the lead weight between my teeth and gathering the rest in my right arm before one smooth, quick motion extending my arm, twisting my body, unfurling the net and releasing it into the water… and hopefully remembering to let go with my teeth.

Then we’d pull the net in and open it to see what was caught, and if the catch was small or undesirable, Papa would say, “Look at that little wompus cat.” It’s one of many a witticism my grandfather would drop into conversation. We never knew where they came from, but it wasn’t hard to figure out what they meant.

For instance, when my social butterfly grandmother would take him to a church social or Sunday School party you’d ask him if he was looking forward to it and he’d say, “Well, I’d rather be shovelin’.”

Or there was his most memorable line, when he was hospitalized and frustrated with a young nurse who couldn’t find a vein, he motioned at the young man and said, “You put that boy’s brain in a bluejay, he’d fly backwards.”

I wonder if that’s how Zebedee feels about his sons in our passage today. After all the time he spent teaching James and John on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, they are willing to leave it all, swept off “immediately,” Matthew tells us, just as Simon and Andrew before them. All of them release the familiar grasp, setting down the nets, leaving the boat, and in the process leaving behind a whole network of motions and an entire way of being.

That’s backwards. It’s confounding, nonsensical and fantastic. Why would they do it?

"Blessing the Nets" by Jan Richardson

“Blessing the Nets” by Jan Richardson

Fishing wasn’t a glamorous living, but it’s what the young men in Capernaum did. Casting their nets, loading their boats, finding what to keep and what to toss, bringing it to shore and cleaning it before selling to support the household. This is what it meant to grow up in Capernaum by the Sea.

That’s where we find Jesus. It’s right after John was arrested, and Jesus goes back to Galilee, but instead of his hometown of Nazareth, he settles in Capernaum. It would seem a shrewd move for someone at the outset of a movement. Capernaum was on the via marris – the way of the sea – the principle trade route between Asia and Africa. It was a perfect strategic location.

But Matthew doesn’t understand this as strategy, but as the fulfillment of prophecy – citing Isaiah, who spoke about Galilee and the Gentiles, the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, where the people who have walked in darkness might see a great light.

The hardworking fishermen and others in their community of Capernaum had known this darkness intimately, as had so many throughout the region. While Jesus’ own cousin and baptizer rots in a jail cell, others also knew hopelessness and fear. Jewish aspirations for freedom confronted the grim reality of Roman imperial exploitation. Families lost their land. Children scattered in search of work and opportunity, often finding themselves enslaved by poverty. Traditional family and village structures crumbled under enormous cultural and economic stress. A very few people amassed incredible levels of wealth in Jesus’ day, while countless others found themselves destitute.

These were the waters they fished in. These were the realities that confronted them as they mended their nets. This is the darkness in which they walked.

And it’s on them – in that place – that light now shines. It’s the light of Jesus, who arrives on the scene and begins to proclaim a message of repentance, for the kingdom of heaven is coming near.

“The kingdom of heaven is near to you,” he says in their ports and in their squares. It’s near to you in Capernaum, where everyone grows up to fish. You don’t have to go someplace else to find God.  You don’t have to clean up your life for God to dwell with you.  God is among you.  Right here where you are, God is with you. It’s a backwards message, nonsensical to many, but good news to those in Capernaum.

And it’s good news for us, especially for those of you here today who happen to feel like, for whatever reason, life is lived out on the edges.  Perhaps someone has told you, or you have come to believe that you matter less, and that whatever God is doing in this world that is true and meaningful, you’re not a part of it, you’re not in the middle of it.  You’re somewhere out on the edges.  The good news – maybe the best news – of the gospel this day is that in the kingdom of God is near to you.

One by one all those people who had known darkness start to see the light. People out on the edges start to feel that God is near to them. We can imagine that they repent, they turn, until Jesus knows he needs some help, and down to the lakeshore he goes.

That’s where Peter and Andrew are washing out their nets, mending the holes for the next day’s work, resting from all the bending, extending, casting, only to hear a simple, direct call: “Come follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

And confounding as it is, they drop the nets, leave the boats. They follow.

Is he just so compelling? Provocative? Is the light just so blinding from the shore? Luke’s gospel tells a little story that explains why the disciples find Jesus compelling. After a night of unsuccessful fishing, Simon, James, and John allow Jesus to use their boat as a podium. Jesus tells the men to put out and fish again. Simon grumbles, but an overwhelming catch of fish that convinces him that Jesus is the real deal (Luke 5:1-11). No wonder Simon and his colleagues leave everything to follow Jesus!

That’s one explanation. But Matthew gives no such detail. I think it’s because this is as much a story about the disciples and their belief as it is about Jesus and his allure.

Before they follow, they first have to believe. Believe in the good news. That is they believe what God-in-Christ believes of all of us: That we can do and be things we have yet to imagine. That despite all we’ve learned and rehearsed over the years, we are the ones Jesus is calling. That we might see the kingdom come near in our time, and even through the work of Christ in our very lives.

The theologian and Emory University professor, Dr. Gregory Ellison, tells the story of when he was a little boy, and he was sitting on his grandmother’s porch, where all the best memories are made, and he asked his Aunt Dottie: “Aunt Dottie, what can I do to change the world?” And she said, “Baby, I don’t know how to change the world, but I can change the three feet around me.”

It sparked Dr. Ellison in his life and ministry to issue what he calls the “three foot challenge,” that is: How many people cross within your three feet? How many places can you go to, within three feet of those who might need to hear that the kingdom of heaven is near to them, that they are made in the image of God, that their lives have value? (1)

Three feet. About the radius of a cast. So to those who have fished the sea, Jesus says, learn another set of motions. All those motions you’ve learned and memorized, your bending and extending and casting and releasing, well now I will make you fish for people.

I will teach you how to extend your arms to bless others.

I will show you how to bend your back to stoop down and serve the most vulnerable in this world.

Instead of the same waters and the same boats, I will show you how to cast yourself widely out on the world.

I will show you how you can gather people up and help them to know me.

Come and be with me, follow me, and rehearse new motions and skills. Sure they will be stiff – and we who read will see throughout the gospel just how stiff and clumsy it can be to learn something new – but follow me.

It presents them with a call, but also with a crisis. Where are we going, Jesus? How long will we be gone? What are the benefits? The retirement? And this boat passed down to me, whose will it be? The father that taught me, what will he do? The people I love, who will care for them?

We all crave the security of the Lord. This is what we hear in the Psalmist this morning, in the 27th Psalm we read earlier: “The Lord is the stronghold of my life.” The Psalmist wants to live in the house of the Lord, to be comforted by God’s beauty, hidden in God’s shelter, concealed in God’s tent, out of reach of enemies, placed on a rock away from risk. We all want such safety, with fear that dissipates amidst the overwhelming love of God.

But the gospel of Matthew doesn’t let us play it safe. It is a story of sacrifice, departure from what is known to follow into what is uncertain.

This evening we will gather for the ordination of Lesley-Ann Hix Tommey – daughter of Monica and Phil, sister of Reid – whom many of you knew as a teenager and college student. Lesley-Ann studied at McAfee School of Theology, and we affirm that she has been called by God into a life of ministry and service.

We gathered for her ordination council a couple weeks back – the sixth such council we’ve experienced in the last 3 years – and among the questions, we began to talk about vocation, hoping to uncover some sense of what God was calling forth in her. I remembered a couple years ago, when Lesley-Ann had the opportunity to serve a ministry in Charlotte, called “The Family Tree.” Located in an impoverished neighborhood in Charlotte, the Family Tree invites people to live in intentional community as they serve the beloved of God who live within their radius of influence. Lesley-Ann had other options. Some with better benefits and more upward mobility, but she always was drawn back to this opportunity in Charlotte, sharing a bedroom, living amongst those who were poor, sharing life together. In her ordination council, I asked her, “Why did you have to do that? How did you know God was calling you there?” To which she replied, immediately: “It was scary.”

Here we sit, mending our nets again, tired from all the bending, extending, the familiar motions repeated over time, the muscle memory effortless and unconscious. The shores we’ve always known, the boats that have been passed down to us, the waters we’ve navigated again and again.

That’s where Jesus finds us, just as he found them. And we listen for that call that will find us so inspired and trembling that we have to drop our nets just to catch our balance and move forward in following him.

I never encounter this story without thinking of the theologian Albert Schweitzer, in part because of his memorable prose about this moment of call, “He comes to us as one unknown, by the lakeshore, as of old he came to those who knew him not, and he issues the same call: Follow Thou Me.” But in addition to his beautiful writing, I think of him because Schweitzer heard the call of Jesus in his life.

An organist and celebrated theologian, at the age of 30, Schweitzer saw the call for medical missionaries in Gabon, in Africa, and amidst great protests from family and friends, he went back to school to become a doctor to serve out his ministry as a medical missionary.

Noted preacher and storyteller Fred Craddock was twenty when he read Albert Schweitzer’s seminal work, The Quest for the Historical Jesus. He says he found Schweitzer’s depiction of Jesus Christ lacking – it upset and frustrated him – so he marked in the book, wrote in the margins, and raised questions of all kinds.

One day, he read in the Knoxville News-Sentinel that Albert Schweitzer was going to be in Cleveland, Ohio, to play the dedicatory concert for an organ in a big church, and according to the article, Schweitzer would remain afterward in the fellowship hall for conversation and refreshment.

So Craddock bought a Greyhound bus ticket and went to Cleveland.  All the way up there he worked in his Quest for the Historical Jesus. He laid out his questions on a separate sheet of paper, making reference to the page numbers: “You said this on p. 32, but what about what the Bible says here?”

So he went there, heard the concert; rushed into fellowship hall, got a seat in the front row, and waited with his lap full of questions. After a while, says Craddock, Schweitzer came in, shaggy hair, big white mustache, stooped, and seventy-five years old.  A master organist, he had played a marvelous concert. He came in with a cup of tea and some refreshments and stood in front of the group.

Dr. Schweitzer thanked everybody: “You’ve been very warm, hospitable to me.  I thank you for it.” He continued, “I wish I could stay longer among you, but I must go back to Africa. I must go back to Africa because my people are poor and diseased and hungry and dying, and I have to go.  We have a medical station in Lambarene.  If there’s anyone here in this room who has the love of Jesus, and hears the call of Jesus, would you be prompted to go with me?”

Says Craddock, “I looked down at my questions; they were so absolutely stupid.  And I learned, again, what it means to be a Christian and I had hopes that I could be that too someday.” (2)

The voice still echoes, as of old, across the waters of our lives. And as it does, there will always be some Zebedee or another to whom it doesn’t make sense; it’s a way that is inexplicable, fantastic, regressive. It’s backwards.

But for those of us who hear it, we know that when things look backwards, well, that might mean that the kingdom of God is drawing near.


  2. Craddock Stories, pp. 125 – 126