January 23rd, 2011

Close Call

By K Karpen

Church of St Paul and St Andrew

New York City

January 23, 2011

Matthew 4: 12-23

And Jesus called them, and they left their nets and their boat and their father, and followed him. Matthew 4

Just before I learned to drive, the State of New York granted me a license.  I think of it as an act of faith on their part.

A friend and I needed to take a short trip somewhere, and of course we both wanted to drive, so we took two cars.  He knew where we were going.  I didn’t.

He said, That’s ok, just follow me.”  And before I could answer, he took off.

And so I followed.  I followed him as he wove in and out of traffic.  I followed as he made turns without signaling.  I followed him because he assumed I could.  I followed him until he got so far ahead of me I could no longer see him.  And then I followed him because I didn’t know what else to do.

This is similar to my relationship with Jesus.

I often feel ill-prepared for the task of following Jesus.  But I think that God somehow has faith in me. Thinks I’m up to the task.

Also, my decision to follow Jesus isn’t one I analyzed carefully, but rather acted on impulsively, and as though I didn’t really have much choice.

And, I usually don’t have any idea where Jesus and I are going.  But I like to assume that Jesus does.  And, there are many times when it feels like Jesus has left me behind in the dust.  But I follow anyway.  I don’t want to be left behind, and I don’t know what else to do.

There’s one other reason this early experience of driving trauma comes to mind when I think about my life as a follower of Jesus.   As I was driving along that fairly busy road, so clogged with traffic I couldn’t figure out how to speed up to catch up, I saw up ahead my friend’s car, pulled over to the side of the road.  When I got closer, I saw my friend’s head pop anxiously out the window, looking back.  My losing sight of him hadn’t troubled him, as long as he had sight of me.  But when my hesitating car disappeared from view, he stopped and turned his head, and waited for me to catch up.

The short scene of the call of the first disciples takes just two verses in Matthew’s gospel.  Matthew shows us the scene not from the point of view of those who are about to be called by Jesus, but from the point of view of Jesus himself.

Jesus is walking beside the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a largish lake in the north of Israel.  He has made a home in Galilee, Matthew says, and he is beginning his real work, his life’s work, his passion, his calling.  And for that, he needs help.  For that he needs disciples.

Any good rabbi needs disciples.  You can’t be a teacher if you have no students.  And the oldest instance anywhere of the word ‘rabbi’ is in the Gospels, referring to Jesus.

The usual way to go about the task of finding disciples for a first century rabbi, as far as we know, is to sit at home teaching, waiting to see which likely students show up, seeking instruction.  That was certainly true of those greatest of the first century rabbis, Hillel and Shammai.

Jesus isn’t content with that.  He’s not ok with posting the job and waiting around for a flood of resumes.  Partly because he has something different in mind for his disciples.  And he has a different kind of disciple in mind.  He’s not establishing a school of thought.  He’s not only setting up to teach Torah.  He wants to change the way people are living.  And to do that he goes out to where people are living.

The call to discipleship seems to happen in several stages. First comes the invitation.  Peter and Andrew, James and John hear Jesus calling them to something new, something radically different.  Something unfamiliar.

Did they already know Jesus?  Did they recognize him as a local rabbi, a local Torah teacher?  Were they surprised that he was seeking them out to learn from him and follow him?  Do they even know what that means?

In a way, they are pretty unlikely candidates to be disciples, to be students, to be talmidim in Hebrew.  To be taliban in Arabic, that’s what taliban means, students, disciples.  Of course all these words, Taliban, talmidim, disciples, refer to a serious, life-altering way of being students.  Are these four fishermen ready for that?  And what is Jesus thinking?  What makes guys who throw nets at fish for a living the perfect emissaries for this new Kingdom of God Jesus is busy proclaiming?

I don’t know.  But I can guess.  They are ready, willing and able.

First, they’re ready.  They are available.  These guys are probably day laborers.  Fishing is a big industry in Galilee.  Fish are the main source of protein for people in these places Jesus is starting to do his preaching and healing:  Capernaum and Tiberius and Bethsaida.  Bethsaida means house of fish, in the same way land-locked Bethlehem means house of bread.  Fishing is huge.  But fishing is tough work, and it’s kind of at the bottom rung of the social ladder.  No wonder discipling seems like a good alternative.  Of course if they only knew…

Second, they are willing.  They are open.  How many people does Jesus walk by that week, saying come, follow me, and they just look at him and say, Ahhh… really?”  Matthew doesn’t tell us about the ones who don’t respond, the ones who pay no attention, the ones who don’t even hear the call or notice the caller.  Or the ones who’d need to have  caller ID before they’d answer a call like that.

Third, they are able.  If all there is to following is walking behind, trying to keep up, that they can do.  And that’s as much of a job description as Jesus gives them!

So Simon Peter, his brother Andrew, James and his brother John have not much more going for them then that they are ready, willing and able.  But that’s a lot.  For Jesus, that’s a lot.

How many of us are ready, willing and able to drop everything now and follow this fast-moving Jesus?

Because Jesus doesn’t wait around for their answer.  He doesn’t wait around for them to tie up their affairs and say goodbye at home.  He expects a response, and he’s still walking.  Sure, he may be keeping them in the rearview mirror, sure he might pull over in a bit to make sure they’re following, that they didn’t get lost, but they don’t know that.

They need to respond.  Like us, these four fishermen need to respond.  And so they take what comes to be called a leap of faith.

A leap of faith is never a leap of thought.  A leap of faith is never something we come to after considering all the alternatives.  A leap of faith is always a leap of action.

A leap of faith requires you to set the net down in the sand.  It requires you to step away from the boat, or whatever other secure object or secure place is at hand.

We think of faith as something we think.  But faith is always something we do.  And the first thing to do is:  leap.

People sometimes think of faith as anti-intellectual.  That is far from true.  Faith gives direction and motion to our thought, but it doesn’t replace our thought.  Faith is anti-clever, surely, as Paul points out in the reading from I Corinthians.  Faith is anti-clever, but never anti-intellectual.

Faith is commitment.

Socrates famously said, The unexamined life is not worth living.”  But isn’t it really the uncommitted life that’s not worth living?

Don’t we crave commitment?  Hard as we resist commitment, isn’t commitment—caring about something or someone so much we give our life to that thing, that person—isn’t  that what we long for, whether or not we ever find it?

So what do the four fishermen do?  Before they do anything, they follow Jesus.  Before they decide what to do, they’re already following Jesus.  They don’t want to lose sight of him!  And he’s moving. He’s weaving through the traffic.

I’m starting to teach on Tuesday at Drew University at the Theological School.  I’m teaching ‘Introduction to Christian Ethics’.  My hiring consisted of a chance conversation late last spring, followed by a short phone call.  I thought that was it.

Then on Wednesday I went out there to meet the dean and my teaching assistant, and to see the classroom, check in at the bookstore.  I’m about to leave and the dean says, so you did all the paperwork?  I said… paperwork?

I was sent to the human resources department.  I was handed five different forms to fill out, from the university, from the seminary, from the State of New Jersey, from the IRS, from the EEO compliance people.  I was there for 45 minutes filling everything out.

All set?” I asked as I handed over the five filled out forms.  The woman said, Give me a few days to input everything into the computer, then you can go to the administration building next door and they’ll tell you what to do next…”

As enjoyable as all that was, I’m glad the kingdom of God doesn’t work like that.  I’m glad that faith doesn’t work like that.  I’m glad that discipleship doesn’t work like that.

Jesus walks by us, barely slowing down, gives us that wide smile, and invites us to follow.  And we do.  Or we don’t.  It’s a leap of action.  Or it’s not.

Jesus is heading somewhere very different than where we might go on our own.  Jesus is following a different road.   It’s fundamentally a road that connects us with other people. It’s fundamentally a road that connects us with the source of our own lives.  And we’re invited to follow, to try to keep up.     To live a different kind of life.   A life where selfishness takes a back seat.  And it’s up to us whether we do or we don’t.

I’ve grown more and more convinced that God has something in mind for each of us.  It may be hard to see.  And it may be difficult to respond.  And still, it’s there.

I’ve grown more and more convinced that God is looking for each of us.  Hard though it sometimes is to notice.  And it’s only when we look for God we see what’s really going on: that it is really God who is seeking us. As Augustine says in the Confessions, I could not seek you if you had not already found me.”

Jesus passes near us, inviting us to come.  Inviting us to follow, on a difficult road. Inviting us to learn who he really is, despite the strange things said about him, and done in his name.  Inviting us to a different way of living our lives, valuing other people ahead of ourselves and God beyond all.  Inviting us to follow as he pours on the gas and weaves in and out of traffic.

Out of sight.  Knowing that we are never out of his sight.

The invitation is up to him. But the response?

That is up to us.