As we pick up our Gospel for today, life has been fairly eventful for Jesus of late. Fresh off his baptism in the Jordan River by that first century granola-eating prophet, John the Baptist, Jesus is whisked into the desert by the Holy Spirit for a veritable spiritual boot camp.
While there, Jesus spends forty days and forty nights arguing politics with Ol’ Scratch on an empty stomach. That’s right. I said, “arguing politics.” What the temptations amounted to was a plea for Jesus to polish his image, game the system with a few flashy campaign-marketing initiatives, and sell his soul to be a political power broker.
After successfully withstanding the entreaties of the tempter to take the ancient Near East by storm, however, he hears about the partisan shake-up that’s taken place with none other than John the Baptist. We don’t know why John has been tossed in jail, but presumably it has more to do with his subversive message than with being a parking scofflaw.
Upon hearing of John’s arrest, Jesus withdraws to Galilee.
Now, withdrawing to Galilee might at first sound like retreating to a safe place, a kind of refuge, the adult equivalent of home base, where there are no tag-backs. But that’s not what’s going on. In fact, Galilee had the reputation of being something of a hotbed for political resistance to imperial pretensions—in this case, Rome.
But as Matthew reminds us by referring to Galilee’s connection to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali during Assyrian encroachment 700 years prior, this area has historically been heavily mixed up in imperial politics. So, for Matthew to have Jesus to withdraw to Galilee is for Matthew to retain the political tenor of the narrative.
Nevertheless, it’s still Galilee. It’s the rural backcountry. You know, as we say in Appalachia, it’s “out in the county.”
Pope Cawood, a long time funeral director in Middlesboro, in Southeastern Kentucky where I pastored, used to tell the story about going out to a funeral up in yonder past Straight Creek, about 50 years ago.
Now, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Southeastern Kentucky, “up in yonder past Straight Creek” is the sticks for people who live in the sticks. As we also say in Appalachia, “You can’t get there from here.”
There was a funeral at a little Holiness church out past Straight Creek, one time. Now, this was a church that couldn’t afford hymnals, so everybody who had a hymnal had to buy their own and bring it with them.
Well, the funeral started, everybody stood up to sing, and Pope found himself standing next to a woman holding a hymnal; and so he did what any of us enlightened moderns would do: he sang, looking over her shoulder.
He hadn’t gotten through the first verse, though, when he felt a huge blade just above his adams apple. The man with the knife backed him out of the pew, down the aisle, and out the back door of the church. Whereupon he took the point of the knife and held it under Pope’s chin and said, “I don’t know how you’uns do things in the big city, but out here, a man don’t sing off’n another man’s wife’s song book.”
That’s Galilee. Galilee was the sticks for people who lived out in the sticks. But by heading to Galilee Jesus accomplishes a something very important. That is to say, he heads to a spot that is historically associated with imperial aggression against God’s people, thus linking himself to God’s saving work among the rural peasants and the marginalized.
I’m not Sean Spicer, but I’ll venture out onto a limb and say that this isn’t a very auspicious beginning to a political career. If Jesus is going to make a difference, shouldn’t he withdraw to someplace a bit more relevant?
But see, here’s the thing: This bit of Jesus’ travel sets the tone for what Jesus’ ministry is going to be about: He’s going to call into question traditional power arrangements by standing with those forgotten ones out on the margins, the folks those in the seats of power always think they can do without.
Matthew underscores this point by his next move. Jesus walks along the Sea of Galilee, where he encounters two brothers, Peter and Andrew, plying their trade with fishing nets.
Next, come James and John, also fishermen.
That doesn’t sound particularly remarkable, you say. It doesn’t sound like that big a deal, I’ll grant you … until you realize the social status in the Roman Empire of people who fished for a living. Cicero, when he ranks occupations, places first the owners of cultivated land. At the bottom of the list? Yeah, fishermen.
Athenaeus suggests that fishermen and fishmongers are the social equivalents of moneylenders, and are as socially dubious as alt-right bloggers. In other words, Jesus can’t scrape any lower for disciples in the barrel of respectability than the first four guys he calls. Peter, Andrew, James and John—again, not a very auspicious beginning to a relevant political career.
To summarize to this point, then: Jesus has been given political advice by the Prince of Darkness—which he firmly refuses. Next, he goes out of his way to avoid Washington, D.C., and heads right for Straight Creek. When he arrives, he doesn’t go downtown to city hall to start his campaign. Instead he goes to the waterfront, and pushing his way past the longshoremen, Jesus finds some salty fishermen to recruit to the cause.
In my humble opinion, Jesus needs to think seriously about hiring a new chief of staff. He’s a miserable failure as a politician. He’s got no instincts. He has no idea on which side his bread buttered.
But if that weren’t bad enough, listen to his recruitment spiel. Are you ready for this? He said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
That’s it. “Follow me.”
Jesus, clearly, hasn’t been exposed to the wealth of marketing material available to us moderns. I hate to have to be the bearer of bad tidings, but Jesus is never going to make any dent in the political scene with the approach we see in today’s Gospel. You can’t just cold call on somebody, tell them absolutely nothing about what they’re buying, pitch ‘em, and then expect them to purchase shares in your new little venture.
You’ve got to do a little horse trading, don’t you? Promise them the moon. “Oh sure, we’re on solid financial footing. Things couldn’t look any better for us. And if you don’t believe me, just ask the folks down in accounting. They say we’re in terrific shape. Tremendous. Believe me.”
Why, you know as well as I do, that you’ve got to finesse them a little, let them believe that their lives will fail to have meaning if they don’t join up with you. That’s the way you’ve got to do it.
“Look, I’m not going to beat you over the head and tell you you’re an idiot if you don’t buy. That’s not the way I do business. I’m not the kind of person to bring up the fact that all the really classy people are buying. I’m just here to give you a choice. Plain and simple. I wouldn’t stoop so low as to imply that the only people not buying are pigeon-toed mouth-breathers. But, hey, if you want to be left out in the cold with those pointy-headed losers, well I guess that’s you’re choice. But, word to the wise, things are going to be changing around here, and you’d be advised to get on board.”
But not Jesus. Nothing fancy, just, “Follow me.”
That seems like a remarkably ineffective recruitment pitch if you ask me.
But how do the fishermen respond?
Matthew reports their response with an emphatic adverb: Immediately.
Immediately, they left their nets, their boats and followed him.
Jesus’ disciples’ response suggests two things to me. First, if Jesus’ approach appears to be politically inept, it may just be that Jesus has no interest in practicing politics—at least the way the rest of the world practices politics. He seems not the least bit interested in establishing a base and playing to it, in order to gain a political advantage, so that he can impose his will. Instead, Jesus does all the wrong things—he turns down good political opportunities, withdraws to the backwaters to hang out with undesirables.
In so doing, Matthew suggests a vision of the reign of God that includes standing over against the current imperial power arrangements, but not by overwhelming force—either military or political. Whatever Jesus is getting ready to do as he launches his ministry in Matthew, it’s going to appear strange to people who think God’s idea of success and the Republican or Democratic parties’ idea of success are roughly the same thing.
Second, Matthew’s telling of it indicates a kind of urgency that requires an immediate response. Maybe hanging around, weighing the alternatives isn’t an option when Jesus calls. Maybe, in order to change the world, when Jesus calls your name, you’ve got to drop your nets immediately and follow.
In a lesser-known speech about a year before he died, Dr. Martin Luther King addressed an issue that had been increasingly chipping away at his popularity: the Viet Nam War. By 1967 whatever moral ground he’d occupied as a result of his “I have a dream” speech, had pretty much evaporated when he started being “unpatriotic” by questioning the government’s wisdom in committing the country to a quagmire in Southeast Asia.
In the speech he talked about how change needed to be instituted on a structural level, saying that it was the poor in both countries who were being most affected by our war there.
He closed the speech to a group of clergy and laity at the historic Riverside Church in New York by imploring those gathered to see how important it was to respond immediately to the call of justice. He said:
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity.”
All over the world yesterday, people gathered by the thousands, by the hundreds of thousands—ultimately, in the millions—to say together that too many people have too much to lose for us to sit on our hands and do nothing. People across the globe sang out that we need to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who are most vulnerable. And I’m here to tell you that if the church isn’t standing front and center on behalf of those who stand no chance on their own, I don’t think the church is taking Jesus as seriously as many of the people who don’t claim to follow him at all. Procrastination is the thief of time.
Immediately. The fierce urgency of now. When Jesus calls, sometimes the only thing to be done is to drop your nets and follow.
When Jesus challenges the imperial pretensions of the powerful in this world, we’ve got some quick decisions to make if we’re going to go where God is leading.
Clarence Jordan, the founder of Koinonia Community, an interracial farm in Georgia, asked his brother, Robert Jordan, who would later be a state senator, and ultimately, a justice on the Georgia Supreme Court, to represent Koinonia Farms legally. Robert Jordan replied, “Clarence, I can’t do that. You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got.”
“We might lose everything too, Bob.”
“It’s different for you.”
“Why is it different? I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined the church the same Sunday, as boys. I expect when we came forward the preacher asked me about the same question he did you. He asked me, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ What did you say?”
“I follow Jesus, Clarence, up to a point.”
“Could that point by any chance be—the cross?”
“That’s right. I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.”
“Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple. You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer and not a disciple.”
“Well, now, if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn’t have a church, would we?”
“The question,” Clarence said, “is, ‘Do you have a church?’”
I would like to suggest to you that that is the question constantly being put to us: Do you have a church?
When Jesus calls us to follow him to Galilee, to the walk with the socially dubious, do we go? Immediately?
Spending billions to fight wars in foreign countries—that we can do. Finding money to care for those who come back from war—that’s a heavier lift.
Spending money to give a tax break to the wealthiest .01%—easy-peasy. Finding the money and the will to provide people with healthcare, that’s a tougher sell.
Making this “the year of the Bible”—we can find all kinds of faint-hearted folks to throw their chips on the table for that one. But finding the moral strength to support people so that they can marry whomsoever they love or use the bathroom they choose—now that takes an audacity sadly lacking in too many.
Standing up and belittling people, spewing hate about folks who don’t look like us, and who come from different places—why all that takes are some knuckleheads with a megaphone. Finding the wherewithal to offer hospitality to those who come to us from other countries fleeing persecution or without documentation—that’s apparently beyond the moral resources of too many.
Stirring up hatred against Muslims—only takes a social media account, a can of spray paint, and a lack of native wit. But finding the courage to hold hands with our neighbors who are demonized as terrorists coming to destroy our way of life—that requires a humility that is sadly in short supply.
There’s work to be done, my friends. Following Jesus as he heads into the shadows to find those people who are trying to remain invisible for fear of what will happen to them requires a sense of the “fierce urgency of now.”
It’s not easy. Who knows what it might cost you and those you love in the coming days?
But as the activist priest Daniel Berrigan once said, “If you want to follow Jesus you’d better look good on wood.”
Maybe that’s God you hear in your head right now, calling you to drop your nets and do something crazy, to say something bold and prophetic, to take a stand for those who can’t stand any longer.
Or maybe it comes at night, when you can’t sleep and all you feel is that persistent pulling, that nagging feeling that God has something bigger in store for you.
Or maybe it’s coming from your Uncle Earl who keeps pestering you to help organize for better food or cleaner air or a more equitable justice system.
Or maybe it’s one of the grandmotherly types that greets you at the back of the church every Sunday, who implores you to fight for the rights of women and their bodies.
Maybe God’s trying to tell you something.
And maybe not, of course. But it’s always a possibility.
Why not throw down your nets and find out?