Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 26th, 2020

Text: Matthew 4:12-25 (RSV)

12 Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee; 13 and leaving Nazareth he went and dwelt in Caper′na-um by the sea, in the territory of Zeb′ulun and Naph′tali, 14 that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

15 “The land of Zeb′ulun and the land of Naph′tali,
toward the sea, across the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”

17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

18 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. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zeb′edee and John his brother, in the boat with Zeb′edee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23 And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people.

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen

Professor David Lose sums this passage up brilliantly: “My theme in a nutshell: Jesus called ordinary people right in the middle of their ordinary lives to do extraordinary things … and he still does.[1]

Whenever we read this lesson or hear sermons on it, it is almost invariably the case that the focus is on Jesus telling the disciples how he will make them “fishers of people.” And it is a dramatic story, one we like to hear, and one with impact and definite implications for us.

In other words, as Professor Lose goes on to say, this passage is about vocation.

Another word for “vocation” is “call.” “Vocation” comes from the Latin word “vocare” which means “to call.” We hear that word fairly frequently, sometimes as part of phrase like “she’s found her calling,” or “he missed his calling.” Professional people – like doctors and teachers, for example – are often described as people who are following their vocation, their call, to medicine or teaching. In fact, the words “profession” and “vocation” are sometimes used interchangeably to describe the great and valuable service such people provide. The word “profession,” by the way, comes to us from the Middle Ages, when those who attended those monastery schools which developed into the institutions we now know as “universities” were there because they had “professed” their intention to enter holy orders and thus fulfill their call. And to this very day, that sense of a person being set aside to pursue a higher calling is still in the background of our sense of profession, and the trappings of every graduation service reflect that ancient set of traditions. A vocation, a call, is a very holy and wondrous thing.

Not surprisingly, we use that word a lot in church circles. For example, I was called to the ministry. Being called by God to the ministry might strike people today as outmoded, even a little hokey. But I can tell you from personal experience that it is very real.

Another example: You called me to be your pastor. I have noticed an unfortunate trend in the church over the decades that equates the call of a pastor to simply hiring an employee. But that is not the true nature of a call. Certainly, the nuts and bolts of our covenant look a lot like a job (albeit a very atypical job); nonetheless, those elements simply support something else, something far more important, and that is the work of our common ministry. The details of how we go about doing that common ministry should not be misconstrued as the reason why we do it. We don’t contribute to St. John’s, maintain the building, hold services, or anything else, just for their own sake. Our call goes far beyond those nuts and bolts.

One of our seminary professors, Clyde Steckel, once said that everybody should be ordained to their callings, whatever they might be. I remember disagreeing with that at the time; but over the years, I have come to believe that Dr. Steckel was absolutely right.

I was reminded of this by what Professor Lose writes in his commentary on this passage – namely, that members of our churches don’t often have the same sense of vocation that we pastors think they do. He writes: “[I]t turned out that most members of the congregations they serve don’t feel called. Most of the folks listening to our preaching and teaching on vocation, that is, don’t see most of what they do outside of the church as worthy of God’s attention and interest.

“How can that be? One possibility is that in our teaching on vocation we have overly emphasized work as a – and perhaps the – primary place of vocation. We have, that is, all too often equated ‘vocation’ with ‘occupation’… For most of our folks … work is, well, work, with moments of meaning and purpose but often devoid of significant connection to whom they really believe themselves to be and to the rest of their lives…”[2]

In these latter days, we do seem to have fallen into the trap of equating vocation with occupation. That is an easy trap to fall into, because they are connected. But, again, an occupation is about what you do, whereas a vocation adds the all-important element of why you do it. Almost all doctors, for example, as well as nurses and other healthcare practitioners, go into the medical profession because of their deep desire to help people. Those who are purely motivated by possible monetary gain don’t last long – they soon find that the grueling hours, the stress, and the burden of holding the lives of perfect strangers quite literally in their hands are too much; and they find something else to do. Teachers who are attracted to their profession by the myth that they “only have to work nine months of the year” (growing up I heard that one a lot from people not in the know) soon find that the intensity of those nine months and – again – the responsibility for the young people in their charge outweigh the perceived benefits of the three summer months. In both cases, that of the healthcare professional and the teacher, those who not just “stick to it,” but thrive, are the ones who consider what they do to be a vocation, a calling, and not just a way to put food on the table.

So, when Jesus calls his first disciple on that beach to follow him and become fishers of people, he’s calling them to trade a job for a vocation, a higher calling. As David Lose writes: “And that implies relationships. Jesus, that is, calls these first disciples into relationship — with himself, with each other, and with all the various people they will meet over the next few years and, indeed, the rest of their lives. This Gospel ends, keep in mind, with another invitation to relationship: make disciples by baptizing them (into the name of the relational God, by the way) and teaching them what Jesus had taught them.

“Jesus issues the same call to us — to be in genuine and real relationships with the people around us, and to be in those relationships the way Jesus was and is in relationship with his disciples and with us: bearing each other’s burdens, caring for each other and especially the vulnerable, holding onto each other through thick and thin, always with the hope and promise of God’s abundant grace. Sometimes that call – to be in Christ-shaped relationship with others – will take us far from home and sometimes it will take shape in and among the persons right around us. But it will always involve persons – not simply a mission or a ministry or a movement, but actual, flesh-and-blood persons.”[3] At the end of the days, the nuts and bolts of operating a church must have such relationships as their purpose and goal – relationships with each other, relationships with the community at large, and above all, a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Lose then rephrases the statement we began with to read: “Jesus called ordinary people right in the middle of their ordinary lives to be in relationship with the ordinary people all around them and through that did extraordinary things … and he still does.[4]

We are all ordinary people, and yet …. A couple weeks ago, I talked about how God makes us holy. As we read in 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (RSV).” The fact is, we’re both – just like the disciples, we are ordinary people whom God has called, whom God has made holy, and to whom God has given a holy vocation. And that vocation begins with the relationships we create and share, just as those of the original disciples.

Today – right now – this very minute, God calls us to be fishers of people. Actually, you’ve all been fishers of people for a very, very long time; you maybe just didn’t realize it. Now think about someone with whom you’re in some kind of relationship. Well, God is using you, right now, to make a positive difference in their lives.

 “Fishers of people.”  That is who we are. That is our calling.

May God bless us all in that holy work!

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

[1] Lose, David, “Fishers of People,” Working Preacher, Monday, January 20, 2014, 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.