Date: January 22, 2017
Bible Text: Psalm 77–78; Matthew 4:12–25 | Reverend Dr. William A. Evertsberg
“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.'” — Matthew 4:18–19
From birth, my father taught me the three central loyalties every young man should honor: God, Mom, and the Detroit Tigers. Ten years ago—2006—was a good year for Tiger fans: The Tigers were American League Champions that year. We were living in Metro New York. Everybody in my congregation was a Yankee fan. The Tigers beat the Yankees in the American League Division Series in four games.
One night I was watching an ALDS Yankees-Tigers game and called to my wife: “Kathy, come here. Pudge is up.” She said, “Pudge. Who’s Pudge?” I said, “Detroit catcher Ivan Rodriguez.” She said, “Why do they call him ‘Pudge’?” I said, “Because he’s 5’9″, 205.” Ever since, Pudge has been Kathy’s favorite baseball player, even when he played for the Yankees, because of that nickname.
How did Pudge become a catcher, you ask? Pudge grew up in a rural town in Puerto Rico. He started playing baseball with his father shortly after he learned to walk. He had a great arm, so he loved to pitch and play third base.
At the age of eight, his father said, “You’ve got the great arm of a catcher. You’re going to be a catcher.” “I don’t want to be a catcher,” says Pudge. “I want to play third base.” “You’re going to be a catcher.” Pudge says he cried for 15 minutes. But then he became a catcher.
When he was 16, he was playing in San Juan, and a scout for the Texas Rangers was there looking at some other catchers, but the scout saw Pudge playing catch in the outfield, and he goes over to Ivan and says “Come with me.” And he puts Pudge behind the plate and tells him to make some throws down to second base. After the first throw, the scout says “Stop. That’s enough.” He offered Pudge a contract right then and there and 16-year-old Pudge signs the contract on the hood of a car.
When he turns 19, the Rangers call him up to the majors the day before he is supposed to get married at a minor-league ball park in Florida. The Rangers are playing in Chicago, so Pudge flies to Chicago and beats the White Sox with his first major league hit, a two-run single in the top of the ninth. He didn’t get married till a year later.
Last week they voted Pudge into the Hall of Fame, the second catcher ever to get in on his first ballot; Johnny Bench is the other one. AL MVP; 14 All-Star games; 13 Gold Gloves; 311 home runs; 2,844 hits, the most by a catcher; 2,543 games, most for a catcher. Pudge: 5’9″, 205. Pudge will go into the hall as a Ranger, but he is also the first Tiger to get into the Hall since Al Kaline. I tell you this story because I’m interested in how we find out who we are and what we’re supposed to be doing.
The story I just read from Matthew is about Jesus’ first public act of ministry. This is his coming out. It is his first day in office, so it’s hard to resist the parallels with events in Washington on Friday.
Jesus’ first public pronouncement—his inaugural address, if you will—is one line long: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repent, says Jesus. The Greek word means, quite literally, “Change your mind!”
The Hebrew behind it means literally “to turn around.” Your life needs a U-turn.
A while back I was watching a high school football game where a linebacker picked up a fumble and after emerging from a mad scrim he must have been disoriented because he started running toward the wrong end zone. His own players were trying to tackle him and the coaches on the sideline are jumping up and down and throwing their headsets to the ground in disgust and the opposing team is just standing there enjoying this very much and everybody is yelling “Turn around; you’re running toward the wrong goal line; you’re scoring points for the wrong team. Run the other way.” That’s what the word ‘Repent’ means in Hebrew.
Our common adage is “Life is short and then you die.” Jesus brightens up that grim motto by giving it a pleasant spin: “Life is short and then the Kingdom comes.” God’s Reign, God’s Dominion, God’s Realm, God’s Reich, God’s Way, God’s World. It’s right around the corner. That’s Jesus First Inaugural Address, and his only.
And then of course he must appoint a Cabinet. And lo and behold, just as in the District this month, his roster of appointees just comes out of nowhere. No one could have predicted this precise collection of expertise and experience and personality.
They come from different arenas of life from that to which they have just been appointed. They have never played this game before. To the outside world, they appear under-qualified, or at least differently qualified.
One day Jesus is strolling down the beach on the Sea of Galilee and sees two brothers, Andrew and Simon, busy at their craft. They’re tossing their disc-shaped, lead-weighted nets onto the surface of the water, watching it sink into the deep, and then drawing it back up again, full of fish, or so they hope.
Jesus strolls a little further down the beach and finds two more brothers also busy at their craft, mending their fragile, disc-shaped, sinker-weighted nets in the prow of their beached boat, and to both sets of brothers, Jesus says, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” And Matthew tells us that “Immediately, they dropped their nets and followed Jesus.”
We have no idea why. We don’t know if they’d never laid eyes on Jesus before, or if they’d been lifelong friends. Maybe this is their first conversation with Jesus or maybe this vignette is the culmination of a long discussion about future possibilities, but in any case, Jesus comes along and says, “Follow me and I will teach you to do something you’re not qualified for. Follow me and I will help turn you into something you never dreamed of becoming. Follow me and I will help you to turn the Roman Empire into God’s Empire. Follow me and I will help you change the world.” And that is just what they did.
They were just fishermen, for Christ’s sake. They were not rich. They were not poor. They were middle class. They were small businessmen. They probably owned a small fleet of boats and had a small corps of employees working for them. They hailed from the hick town of Capernaum, a village of a thousand farmers, fishermen, housewives, and shopkeeps.
So how is this simple little story God’s word for you today? Well, I don’t know. That’s for you to decide, but try this on for size. This is a story about how Jesus re-purposes common folk to uncommon achievement. This about your call from God. This is about your vocation.
Isn’t that a wonderful word—vocation? We don’t use it often, but isn’t it beautiful? You know where the word ‘vocation’ comes from, right? It’s from the Latin verb vocare— ‘to call.’ The word ‘vocation’ shares a common source with words like ‘voice’, or ‘vocal’, or ‘vocabulary’, or sotto voce.
Do you ever hear voices? I mean in a good way. Who do you think you are? Who tells you who you are? To your father, you will always be Billy or Bobby or Jimmy. To your kids, you will always be Mom. To your golfing buddies, you’re Scratch. To your older brother, you’ll be Knucklehead till the end of your days. At work, you are The Rainmaker or The Terminator. To Verizon, you are 847-386-7959. What does God call you? What is God calling you to be and to do? Do you hear voices?
“Life is short,” we commonly say. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” says Jesus. And since the Kingdom is right around the corner, get ready for it. Sanctify your hours and days. Baptize your energies. Consecrate your skills to vast and holy purpose. I love the way the poet Mary Oliver puts the question: “So tell me, what is it you intend to do with your one wild and precious life.” Yes? What is it you intend to do with your one wild and precious life?
How does God speak to us? A hundred times, a hundred ways, in our childhood, our youth, even sometimes, like Andrew and Simon, in the middle of a flourishing if routine career; through wild dreams and patient mentors and snappy teachers and compelling experiences and adoring parents and towering heroes and mesmerizing books.
Sometimes God speaks to us through native enthusiasms, or endemic talents. I heard of one high school kid who was just fascinated by the dissection unit in her science class. I don’t even know what year they teach biology or anatomy and I don’t know what she was experimenting with—a grasshopper, a frog, a rat—but she came home every day electric with enthusiasm because she was having fun and she felt as if she had a knack for it, and she’d gush to her mother about it, and her mother said, “Well, honey, maybe you should become a surgeon one day, and the girl said “Oh, no, I don’t want to be a surgeon. I want to be a coroner.” “A coroner,” says her Mom, “Why a coroner?” And she says, “Well, I want to operate on people, but I don’t want their lives to depend on it.” That young woman was hearing voices, but the voices were whispering.
“The Kingdom of heaven is at hand,” says Jesus. “Follow me, and I will show you how to share the Good News of God’s Glad Grace, how to extinguish dark ignorance’s, and how to make lame beggars walk and blind men see.” Jesus re-purposes common folk for uncommon tasks. What do you bring to the table?
Matt Fitzgerald is the Senior Minister at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Chicago. Matt says one day a while back he was in the home of one of his families an hour after the husband and father had died. The wife was in the bedroom saying goodbye to her husband’s body. Matt was sitting at the kitchen table with the teenage daughter and a church friend. They’d run out of things to say to each other. It was getting awkward.
The doorbell rings; it’s the plumber. Why a plumber? Well, the hospice nurse had followed protocol and flushed all the leftover medicines down the toilet. This broke the toilet. The plumber did not know the scene he was crashing. So, there he is, in the middle of all this raw grief—a heartbroken widow, a weeping teenager, a speechless pastor.
He could have run straight to the bathroom. But he stopped and told widow and daughter what a wonderful man their husband and father was. And Matt says that as he made his rounds, something turned in that house. “The pain broke and became something else,” says Matt, “or at least the pain was met by a power that promised it would not last forever. Grace comes in the most unlikely disguises—like a plumber at a deathbed.” “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand,” says Jesus. Follow me, and I will teach you to speak a word of precious hope into the slough of despond, to light a lamp against the smothering darkness of unknowing, to cast out the Dementors.”
Do you know what they called ‘computers before they were ‘computers?’ They were called Turing Machines, after Alan Turing, the father of computer science. Alan Turing built his proto-computers to break codes; he was the one who broke the Nazi’s Enigma Code, by which they transmitted all their top-secret battlefield information, especially the location of U-Boats in the North Atlantic.
Amazon is giving away for free that film about Alan Turing’s life, The Imitation Game, with Benedict Cumberbatch, so I watched it the other night. The film says it is ‘based on a true story, so I don’t know how historically exacting it is, but the way the film tells the story, Alan Turing was socially awkward. For him, the nuances of human communication were as cryptic as computer code is to most of the rest of us. He didn’t get body language, facial gestures, jokes, sarcasm, or common courtesies. If he were alive today, we would say that he was ‘on the spectrum.’
He had more than one male lover, and in 1952 was convicted of gross indecency for having an affair with another man. He was a unique personality, brutally aware of how different he was from most people and deeply resentful that he is not ‘normal’, as he puts it.
Near the end of the film when his life is in shambles, his old friend Joan Clark, who’d worked with him on the Enigma Code, comes to cheer him up, and in the film at least, she says the loveliest thing. She says,
Do you know, this morning I was on a train that went through a city that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for you. I bought a ticket from a man who would likely be dead if it wasn’t for you. I read up on my work, a whole field of scientific inquiry that only exists because of you. Now, if you wish you could have been normal… I can promise you I do not. The world is an infinitely better place precisely because you weren’t normal…
And then she goes on:
Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of that go on to do things that no one can imagine.
Historians guess that, by himself, Alan Turing shortened the war by two years and saved 14 million lives.
Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of that go on to do things that no one can imagine. No one imagined much of Simon and Andrew and James and John. No one ever would have picked these two sets of Galilean fisherman brothers to transform the Roman Empire. No one but Jesus, that is. He specializes in re-purposing ordinary people to extraordinary accomplishment. People like you and me.
Ivan Rodriquez, “The Story of My Life,” The Players’ Tribune, January 16, 2017, http://www.theplayerstribune.com/ivan-rodriguez-story-of-my-life/
Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992).
Slightly adapted from Sheila Cominsky, Reader’s Digest, November, 1997.
Matt Fitzgerald and Christian Wiman, “Embrace and Abandonment: A Pastor and a Poet Talk About God,” The Christian Century, June 12, 2013, p. 26.