A Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

By: David H. May, Rector


One of the things I remember pretty clearly from when I was a kid was how we picked teams to play kickball or dodgeball or some other game. It was a pretty regular occurrence either at recess at school or in my neighborhood. You might remember something like this. Two of the kids out of the pack of kids were the captains of their team. I don’t really remember how that got figured out. It just did. And then one by one, they would pick someone for their team. I usually got picked in the middle of the pack, which was aok with me. I was never one of the first to get picked. So, I didn’t really expect it. But occasionally – depending on who was there – I did end up being one of the last ones picked. And in the slightly ‘dog eat dog’ world of childhood, that could make for kind of a tough day.

I guess, in some way, we were learning a lesson about how things work. It’s a competitive world so you might as well start getting used to that. We were learning the ropes. Life can be tough, so it pays to toughen up some too. So if you don’t like getting picked last, well then maybe you could try to do something about that.

But if you’re not careful, you could see what happens in today’s gospel through the same lense. Of course, Jesus picked Peter and his brother Andrew and then James and John first. It was like Jesus had a great eye for talent and saw Ted Williams when he was a kid swinging the bat and an 18-year-old Willie Mayes gliding in the outfield and signed them up on the spot. Of course, that’s how it happened. They were special. Jesus saw that.

After all, just look at Peter today depicted in stained-glass windows all over the world serenely walking on water like it was nothing or adorned as a bishop with a halo glowing around his head. Of course, he picked Peter – the rock of the Church. Pope’s still wear what is called ‘the fisherman’s ring’ to this day in his honor maybe hoping that a little of Peter’s star power will rub off on them.

Why wouldn’t we see what happened that day on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in just that way? We need natural leaders, don’t we? We need the best and the brightest in operating rooms and in boardrooms making the big decisions for all the rest of us. Cream rises to the top for a reason, right?

And all of that’s true, I suppose. But, I wonder, is that what was happening as Jesus was walking along the shore and first saw those two sets of brothers? One of the dangers of seeing it that way, of seeing Peter and Andrew and James and John as future hall-of-famers, is thinking that sure they heard him say, ‘follow me’, and did, but that’s the kind of thing that happens to other people – special people – not me.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the years trying to explain how Peter and Andrew and James and John heard Jesus say, ‘follow me’, and did. Immediately. And left behind their nets, their boats, and for James and John, their father. They left behind their lives and started walking. But where were they going? I bet they didn’t know, and I bet they couldn’t really have told you why they were doing it.

The nearest thing I can think to liken it to is that funny thing that happens to people when, there you are, going about your life, doing the things that are in front of you to do, and then, you turn a corner and there is a face out of all of the others that makes you stop breathing and you feel like your falling and can’t catch yourself and before you know it, you’re lost, because love or something like love has pierced you, and now you can’t get back to where you were before even if you wanted to. We call it ‘falling in love’. But I’m not sure those words can ever say what has really happened.

And immediately the life you had is left behind and you start following this love that has loved you.

I think the experiences of faith are like that, so much so that I think you could call it ‘falling in faith’. Somehow, past all our words, the Lord of Life, the heartbeat of God that is at the heart of all life calls out to you – not because you’re a future spiritual hall-of-famer, but because it is the nature and desire of God to draw his children near. Frederick Buechner (as usual!) has something beautiful to say about how we find ourselves hearing ‘follow me’ and – miracle of miracles! – we do! Buechner had made his decision to go to seminary to become a minister. Shortly after his decision, he found himself at a dinner party and a woman at the dinner said to him “I hear you’re entering the ministry.” She said, “Was it your own idea or were you poorly advised?” Buechner writes: “And the answer that she could not have heard even if I had given it was that it was not an idea at all, neither my own nor anyone else’s. It was a lump in the throat. It was an itching in the feet. It was a stirring in the blood at the sound of rain. It was a sickening of the heart at the sight of misery. It was a clamoring of ghosts. It was a name which, when I wrote it out in a dream, I knew was a name worth dying for even if I was not brave enough to do the dying myself and could not even name the name for sure. Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you a high and driving peace. I will condemn you to death.” Just like the old you was put to death when you turned that corner and saw that face.

If we have to talk about how Peter and Andrew and James and John or any of the rest of us for that matter come to follow Jesus, it’s probably best to remember Jesus own words. He said, “for you did not choose me, but I chose you”. We should love the love the loves us and not worry about rest. After all that love recruits us not as cream rising to the top, but to be citizens of the kingdom of God with him. And in the thousand ways we do that and follow him, not knowing quite what that will mean or what exactly we’re supposed to do. But we do, thank God, like showing up here with each other; like giving what you have for someone who needs it; like kneeling and hoping it’s all true when the bread is placed into your empty hands; like knowing that whether you’re the first one picked or the last, that that lump in your throat is holy love loving you and the Lord is calling you to ‘follow him’.

And so, it begins: around the next corner, in the face across the room, with the smell of food cooking, in some sorrow shared, in the palm of your hand stretched out, reaching for him. Because you’ve heard him say, ‘follow me’ too. Amen.