St Andrew’s Day, November 30 2016
Isaiah 55; Matthew 4.12-20
Rev Kate McDonald Reynolds, Scottish Episcopal Church
As minister of St Andrew’s Church of Scotland in Tiberias, I spend a lot of my time aware of the Sea of Galilee. I see it from the balcony of my house as I hang laundry. From the gardens of the Scots Hotel as I talk to staff. On my walk down to the church for services. On my drives around the lake. After a year here, I find myself getting complacent about the view. It’s hard, after all, when the disco boats are blaring on repeat every version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ or when what I affectionately call the Jesus boats send praise songs echoing off the Golan cliff, to imagine the scene 2000 years ago which we just heard read from Matthew’s gospel.
It’s easier in the quiet moments, especially in the darkness before sunrise, when through the mist, I can almost picture the fishing boats casting off from shore.
Visiting Christians come to this land to walk where Jesus walked. But in Tiberias, looking over to Capernaum, I find myself more often thinking about the journey of the men and women who followed him, the disciples whom he called away from their families and friends, away from their means of sustenance and stability, away from comfort and companionship.
There is something strikingly stark and simple in Matthew’s version of the call of Andrew and Peter: ‘Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people”. Immediately they left their nets and followed him.’
No context. No explanation. No justification of this quite frankly bizarre relinquishing of their former lives at an equally absurd invitation.
Just: ‘Immediately they left their nets and followed him.’
When I was training for ministry, there was a lot of talk about the costs of the ordained life: the loss of privacy in a very visible role, life in houses that would never really feel like home, demands on spouses to change jobs and children to change schools, rejection by friends who were confused by our perceived religiosity and family who didn’t approve of women’s leadership in the church.
The list went on and on as we named the nets we would be setting down … each one a way of joining the disciples on their journey, a sign of our true devotion to God and our vocation. Looking back, I see the conversations were really just feeble efforts at piety while we attempted to quell the panic of our newfound call.
But the nets we all hold when a life of faith comes calling are more expansive than the things we see, the things we can reach out and touch with our hands.
In a wonderful sermon preached on St Andrew’s Day in 1641 (and which I was quite tempted to steal — and in some ways have), the English priest Mark Frank said:
What are all those fine catching ways of eloquence, knowledge, good parts of mind and body, but so many nets and snares to take men with? It may be finely spun, neately woven, curiously knotted, but so full of holes, vanity, and emptiness, that no net is fuller than these things we take so much pride in, so much delight in. Nay, this very body it self is but a net that entangles the soul, and the rational soul it self too we too often make but a net to catch flies, petty buzzing knowledges only, few solid sober thoughts; at the best but a net for fishes of that watry and inconstant element, watry, washy, slimy notions of I know not what, of flitting worldly things; so full of holes too, that all good things slip out of them.
I could bore you, as so many other preachers have done in the past, with all the things we don’t know about Andrew — or all the many myths that have grown up around him.
But one thing we do know, is that when he followed his Lord, he left behind the tangled, broken net of his rational self and took up the net of foolishness, with which he was to fish for people.
John, in his gospel, tells us that when John the Baptist declares Jesus the Lamb of God, Andrew followed without question. Later in John’s gospel, when faced with a hungry crowd of 5000, he didn’t hesitate to bring a small child to Jesus to offer five loaves and two fish (John 6.8-9). When a group of Greeks wanted to meet Jesus, he didn’t stop to consider the social, religious, political or cultural implications of the encounter; he simply fetched his teacher (John 12.20-22).
The line between love and foolishness is fine. For Andrew, there seemed to be no line at all. But answering the call of his Lord came at a great cost.
The English poet UA Fanthorpe writes from Jesus’ perspective in her poem ‘Getting it Across’:
… Pete, with his headband stuffed with fishhooks,
His gift for rushing in where angels wouldn’t,
Tom, for whom metaphor is anathema,
And James and John, who want the room at the top –
These numskulls are my medium. I called them.
I am tattooing God on their makeshift lives.
My Keystone Cops of disciples, always,
Running absurdly away, or lying ineptly,
Cutting off ears and falling into the water,
These Sancho Panzas must tread my Quixote life,
Dying ridiculous and undignified,
Flayed and stoned and crucified upside down.
They are the dear, the human, the dense, for whom
My message is. That might, had I not touched them,
Have died decent respectable upright deaths in bed.
Never letting go of the net of love and foolishness Jesus placed into his hands that day on the Galilean shore, Andrew himself was crucified on a diagonal cross in Greece.
But that was then. This is now. How do the two connect? Still in this land, as diverse and troubled as it was in Andrew’s day?
When faith comes calling our name, what nets are we found holding? It’s easy to look for comfort in our broken old nets which are familiar, which over time have calloused our hands and hearts, which have provided enough sustenance to lure us into complacency, which secure enough of a livelihood to give us the illusion of being in control. These are nets that require no imagination, no revisioning of the world, no risk. Plodding politics. Compulsive consumerism. Institutionalism or imperialism. Arrogance. Apathy. At best, they will not change the world. Or even us. At worst, they will cause harm, damage our common humanity.
Or in Mark Frank’s words again:
broken nets that will bring us up nothing but slime & mud, a few fins and scales, a few sticks and weeds, a few stones and gravel, things only that will dirty us, or delude us, or run into our hands and pierce them, or into our feet, like gravel, and race them; or at the utmost but a few fish, slippery or watry comforts that will either quickly leave us, or but slenderly comfort us whilst they stay.
We are here to celebrate a saint who had the courage to leave those nets. Immediately.
And today I want to celebrate the saints of all faiths and none who walk among us — because there are so many in this land — who do likewise. And who take up the nets they are offered, the ones with which we are to fish.
This church is filled with Andrews. You who, when invited to see where God dwells and finding there those bearing God’s image oppressed and persecuted, name injustice, call out imbalances of power, give voice to the voiceless. You who, when faced with great need, take meagre resources others would scoff at, and with them feed and clothe and heal refugees and prisoners. You who, when approached by strangers asking for an encounter with divine love, without giving in to social, religious, political or cultural pressures, bring together people who are so different in the name of peace.
Friends, may God grant us the grace to follow St Andrew in leaving behind our old broken nets. And may God grant us St Andrew’s courage to have hope where others despair, to see plenty where others find scarcity, and to declare peace where others name conflict. Because, as costly as it is — and it will cost — in that foolishness, only then will we know how widely the nets of love have been cast.
Sing to the Lord a joyful song (CH4 578)
Sing for God’s glory that colours the dawn of creation (CH4 172)
Jesus calls us! O’er the tumult of our life’s restless sea (CH4 509)
Sing of Andrew, John’s disciple (CH4 339)