January 21, 2024, The Third Sunday After The Epiphany. Sermon preached by Senior Warden, Cliff Ruprecht

Last Sunday, we heard the account in John of the calling of disciples. Today, we hear the synoptic version, as it’s found in Mark.

All four versions have this common core: Jesus calls the first disciples to follow, and they do, immediately, dropping everything.  The stories differ in other details, but they share this in common. The Synoptics all have this additional feature: Jesus tells these disciples he’s going to make them fishers for people.

We might marvel at how the disciples just drop everything and follow Jesus. How can they just give up everything — family, friends, livelihood? How hurt must Zebedee have felt? How can his sons not care? If we, who know that’s Jesus talking, find it hard to fathom, think how hard it must have been for the disciples. They weren’t being asked to drop everything by Jesus as we know him now. They’ve been asked by some carpenter to drop everything and come along on this ministry he’s starting.

If it were me, I’d have some questions.  Like, do you have any references?  And I think we can imagine how that conversation might go. Jesus might say something like, “Oh, you want proof, do you? Someone who can vouch for me? Here, this locust-eating wild man says I’m the One. Happy?”

Nothing is going to get you out of the fundamental requirement: you just have to decide to trust in God, to say Yes to God. There isn’t a worldly calculation that is going to get you there.

We want to be careful here, though. We don’t want to make the task out to be so hard, so far above us, that faith is out of reach. Because it is within our reach. We know from our ordinary life about being asked to do hard things, and we have probably asked it of others. Maybe you remember from your own growing up feeling like parents or teachers or coaches were asking things that were hard, maybe too hard.  Maybe if you’ve been charged with the care of children, you’ve done the same. And we know this. When we ask hard things of people, and do it in love, we are telling them “I believe in you. You can do this.” We are telling them, “You might fail; it is ok to fail because it is good to strive.” And we are telling them “I’m going to be there with you when you struggle, when you succeed, and when you fail. Always.” So it is with Jesus.

No doubt, what our faith calls us to can be hard sometimes. It can be hard to speak the truth as we know it to a broken world, or to those who are indifferent to, or even mock what we believe.  We can take encouragement from these saints who did very hard things, and we can take encouragement from the fact that God asks hard things of us because God believes in us and is never going to abandon us.

And it doesn’t always have to be so hard. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of deciding to saying Yes to God.

In the fall of 2015, I was driving home from work. My phone rang. It was Johanna asking me to join the Vestry. I honestly thought she confused me with someone else. I was still pretty new to St. Paul’s. I didn’t know many people here. I didn’t know much about the parish or even about the Episcopal Church. I wasn’t confirmed. I basically had a million reasons to say No – good, sensible reasons.

At the same time, I recently had been having the thought, “What if you tried, just for a little while, saying Yes to God.” Wherever you might see God posing a question to you, set aside your doubts and reasons to say No – just say Yes. That voice popped back in my head as I was talking to Johanna, and so I said Yes.

I am so very glad I did. My three years on the Vestry, and five as your warden, have been a time of great spiritual growth for me personally. These terms have set limits. It’s right that they do and natural that they end, and we are fortunate to have so many talented, willing parishioners that we can have term limits. So my term will end next Sunday at our Annual Meeting.  It’s been such a privilege to be your warden, and I thank you for letting me.  I’ve been really fortunate to have a front-row seat to see the gifts of grace and the remarkable talents our clergy bring to leading this flock – and through some very tough times in recent years. I’ve gotten to know many of you better. I’ve seen really gifted people on the Vestry. I’ve seen the energy and talent of the people of St. Paul’s carrying out so many varied ministries. And I’ve been blessed by the companionship of three sister wardens – Johanna, Jan and Deborah —  Every one of them gifted with deep wisdom, compassion, grace and a stunning ability to execute far better than mine. All of this has been my great good fortune because I said Yes to God. All because I let go of the many good reasons to say No.

Now I want to talk about this fishing business.

Jesus say “Hey fishermen, I’m going to make you fishers for people.” He doesn’t exactly tell them to give up fishing. He says put down your nets, I want to show you something new about fishing. This seems pretty characteristic of Jesus’s call to follow: Jesus calls us into something new, and we miss it if we look at it only as the loss of something we are asked to give up. Often we’re not being called to give up things like livelihood or family, but instead are being invited to see them in a new light.

Now, in part, I think Jesus refers to fishing for people here precisely because it’sfishermen he’s talking to. He’s meeting people where they are. If he’d been meeting someone else, he might have expressed it very differently: Hey you counselors at law, I’m going to make you counselors of a higher law; Hey you singers of harmonies, I’m going to make you bringers of harmony; Hey you teachers of children, I’m going to make you children of a new teaching.  You get the idea.

So what does Jesus mean by making disciples “fishers for people”? We know he’s talking about the disciples following him in his ministry, and we know what he was preaching at the time: that the Kingdom of God has drawn near and proclaim the Good News. We know he means something like a reign of love that reveals a new truth about the relation of God and humanity, of God and creation. So how is that ministry like fishing?

Well, for one thing, if you’re going to go fishing you have to go fishing. You don’t fish in your living room You need to meet the fish where they are. For another, if you’re going to go fishing, you need to coax the fish, by putting something in the water the fish are interested in. I can’t think of a worse way of fishing than just yelling at the fish, ordering them: Hey jump up into my boat. Even when Jesus commands the disciples to follow, he doesn’t just command. He talks to these disciples in terms they can understand based on their experience as fishermen. He doesn’t just tell them: You have to follow me. He tells them things they want to hear more about, and they follow him.

And finally, if Jesus’s ministry is like fishing for people, then people are somehow like fish. And that means, sometimes, we’re going to be the fish. We’re slippery, we swim away. We need to be coaxed back.

Certainly that was my experience. 

You may have heard me talk before about how I found my way through St. Paul’s doors some years ago.  I had swum away from God, I suppose. I certainly had swum away from any church.  But as you know, God never lets go of us, and eventually, I heard the voice calling me back to church.  And the reason there was any church for me to get called back to, is because of what this congregation does faithfully every Sunday, keeping this table. Of the many ways we follow Jesus, I would never want to underestimate the importance of this one. God is out there in the world right now, calling new strangers home, and God is counting on us to carry on this tradition, to shepherd God’s work of homecoming.

A tradition though is not a static thing. To keep it alive means to carry it forward through change. It is not something we simply inherit from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children, and we hold it as stewards for all those God is calling home. Faithful stewardship of this tradition requires fishing as Jesus teaches. Expressing the good news in ways that speak to people, meeting them where they are. Listening as much as speaking. And having the courage to let go of familiar things, so God can show us new things, new faces, can bring home new strangers.

Do we then just cede our gospel to the fads or whims of the world? Of course not. We recognize our God has chosen human frailty and the tides and changes of human culture and history as the consecrated place of God’s self-revelation. And so we hold ourselves open to new ways that God is posing questions to us and the world, and to how we can help make those questions heard.

Friends, I am so glad I said Yes those many years ago, and I am so grateful you have let me serve these years as your warden. I am never more grateful, though, than I am for you brothers and sisters and to share with you in the one Body. I don’t know what questions God will ask me next. I don’t pretend to know what God might be asking you. The questions are as varied as God’s people and as inexhaustible as God’s loving mercy. But I believe this, and for me it is at the very heart of the Good News. Whatever else God asks, God is always posing us this question: “I love you as my very own. Will you trust me in that?” I know it can be hard. We feel obstacles, maybe things we’ve done we can’t let go of; maybe things done to us or suffered by us that feel like they won’t let us go; maybe our sheer indifference. None of those things, and nothing else you can conjure, is an obstacle to God’s love for you. It is freely given to all. Nothing you do or feel or say can earn it. Nothing you do or feel or say can disinherit you. We do not even have to say Yes to make God love us. We only have to say Yes to behold marvelous things God is trying to show us, and to feel the power to show God’s love to our neighbors. With open minds, hearts, eyes and ears, may we, God’s people, say Yes to God.