November is Commitment Season at First Baptist Church Greensboro, as we remember again who we are and pledge our gifts to the life and ministry we share as a community of faith. Our Commitment theme this year is “As We Go,” based on the benediction we share at the end of each service. This week’s sermon is the second of three sermons on the theme, remembering who we are as “followers of Jesus Christ.”
“Follow me,” Jesus said, “And I will teach you how to fish for people.”
My grandfather taught me how to fish. My grandfather, Charles Proctor, and I don’t share everything in common. He’s a second-generation farmer in N. Florida and I’m now in my fourth autumn of trying to grow tall fescue in North Carolina. He once passed through New York City while serving in the Navy after the war, and all these years later can’t understand how his grandson ever could have lived there. It’s almost as baffling to him as how any of his grandkids could buy a car that wasn’t made in the USA. And I think it’s probably safe to assume that my grandfather and I have never voted quite the same way.
Still, I love him and he loves me. And he taught me how to fish, on the dock that stretches out behind the house he and my grandmother built on the St. John’s River in North Florida. I remember age 6 or 7, when the dock was being built, watching from the yard as Papa waded into the river to set the posts deep into the riverbed. Around that time, his neighbor was also having a dock built, hiring an outside expert – an Engineer in from Jacksonville sporting a Masters degree, a team of workers, and lots of unsolicited advice. My grandfather listened politely, but decided to do it his own way. “That young man knows about a lot of things,” Papa said, “but I’ll tell you what he doesn’t know the first thing about: how to build a dock.” Well wouldn’t you know the first big storm proved him right? The neighbor’s heavily engineered dock was left in ruins, while my grandfather’s dock remained.
It’s where we learned to fish – how to bait a hook, the muscle memory and motion of the cast overhead, the patience to watch and wait (“no one catches it right away, Alan”), and the quiet and stillness needed (“Shh, don’t scare em off.”). I spent countless days on the end of Papa’s dock. It was the first place we’d run any time we visited, out to the end, looking at familiar landmarks and still water.
It was such a foundational place – such a symbol of home and family – that when it was clear that Jenny and I wanted to join our lives as one, I asked her to marry me on the end of my grandfather’s dock, one cool evening with the sun setting and moon rising as I tried not to drop the ring between the boards.
Because it wasn’t just where I learned to fish. It was where I learned motions much deeper, more foundational, more enduring. And there is much in his life that I’ve wanted in my own.
That’s the sense of Jesus’ call to “follow” in our passage this morning. “Follow me,” Jesus calls out to these fishermen. It’s a verb, “follow,” that comes from the Greek word, mimos. You can hear in it the root of our words mime or mimic, the way a 6 year old might copy the movements of his grandfather who had fished the waters so many times before him. The call from the shore is an invitation for your life to mimic and take on the motions, reflexes, and qualities that defined the life of Jesus. To be a follower of Jesus is, then, to be what the book of Ephesians describes as an “imitator of Christ.”
“Follow me. Live as I am living. Go where I go. Touch who I touch. Mime your way through the motions I will show you, and you will never be the same. You will be like me.”
This is the grand, bold hope of the follower – the hope that in some way, some day, all of the mimicry will give way to something more and they will become someone like the person they are following.
But before these fishermen can take up the life of Jesus – before they can take on this new way of fishing that he will teach them – they have to set some other things down. They have to unlearn some motions and forget patterns they’d rehearsed for years. They have to leave the family business and all they’d inherited. They have to drop their nets in a tangled pile on the dock. They follow immediately, Matthew says, because they sense in this invitation a chance to become more than they could have imagined themselves being on their own. But first they have to leave some things behind.
It’s the first task for any of us who would follow this call, for there are motions we’ve rehearsed, and patterns we’ve inherited, and waters we’ve fished for years with no real satisfaction, so we, too, have to bring ourselves to set some things down.
Among the things we set down today, I suspect that we’re eager to drop the worn, tangled net of our political season. We carry it into this sanctuary today, after an election day result that surprised just about every pollster and has prompted such a range of response – bewilderment to elation, with protests at the prospect of the next four years including here in Greensboro last night, and even instances of violence in a few cases.
I’ve heard from many of you throughout this week. You know we make no assumption of political uniformity here. There’s shock, dismay, grief from those who believed in a vision of America as “Stronger Together.” There are others for whom our president-elect is a break from politics as usual, and who believe his more incendiary remarks and rhetoric will prove to be political theater that won’t define a presidency.
We feel these things deeply. We are a tangled web – a matted mess of the mixed emotions that we see in a divided country. There have always been differing opinions among those who worship together – no less than those who fish together. So we won’t assume how you voted or why you voted. But we will make this assumption: we are committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, we have heard the call from the lakeshore, and we are willing to set down the motions we’ve rehearsed and the patterns we’ve inherited to take up the way of Jesus.
It’s absolutely vital right now for us to embody this way, in the climate after this campaign, which has intensified some of the grim and threatening realities of our country, amplified some of its most hateful voices, and reflected to us once again who we still are as a nation, as much as we’d like to just ignore it and move on.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hateful speech and incidents in the United States, reported yesterday a marked uptick in instances of reported hate speech, vandalism, threats, and intimidation since Tuesday’s election, saying it’s occurring at a rate that reminds them of the United States following September 11, 2001. The highest numbers of complaints are anti-black and anti-immigrant incidents, followed by anti-Muslim. Some of this we’ve heard about, like a planned December parade of lunatics of the KKK right here in North Carolina – an act widely criticized by many, including the North Carolina GOP. But some of this hatred is more personal. It’s not draped in a white sheet. And it’s not so far away.
Adriana is a member of our seminary church, First Baptist in Lexington, just down the road. An immigrant from Mexico, who lived through horrors on her path to citizenship, Adriana voted in her first U.S. election this week. The next morning she was dropping her daughter off at her elementary school when someone rolled down their car window. “Get ready to go home soon,” they said to Adriana, a US citizen.
My friend Scott’s mother teaches school in Charlotte, and described how taunting and anti-immigrant, racist language she’d never heard so much of before was occurring in her classroom on Wednesday of this week, in one of many schools across our nation that were provoked to take action.
Rev. Sara Beth Pannel, a daughter of this church and now a minister at the Lemon Springs Methodist Church in Eastern North Carolina, shared yesterday how her church had sent a group of teenagers to the annual youth conference of the North Carolina Methodist Churches this weekend. The conference includes the long-standing tradition of youth taking clothespins, writing encouraging messages on the wood, and “pinning” one another randomly throughout the weekend – mementos of the community shared. Only this year rather than simply Bible verses or kind words and wishes, some teenagers with brown skin were pinned by their peers with messages that told them to go back from where they came.
All right here in North Carolina. All in the last few days.
It’s ringing in our ears so loudly, that it can be hard to hear the call of Jesus and recall the belief that Jesus has for those of us out on the waters: “Follow me. You can become like me. Your life can look like my life.”
And when I read the gospels, I see a man who at every turn finds his way to the people that need him most. On every page he seems to make his life about the people that find their existence on the edges of his world. There’s no getting around this. He was building a kingdom, one scholar has said famously, of “nuisances and nobodies” (1) – those who frustrated the elite and powerful. Those Howard Thurman has described as “standing with their backs against a wall” with nowhere else to go. To these people Jesus said in a direct, targeted way, “The Kingdom of God – this place I dream about – it’s near to you.” You don’t have to go someplace else to find God. You don’t have to clean up your life for God to dwell with you. God is near you. Right here where you are, God is with you.
That’s good news for those in our world – and maybe some of you here today – who happen to feel like, for whatever reason, your life is lived out on the edges. Perhaps someone has told you, or you have come to believe that you matter less, and that whatever God is doing in this world that is true and meaningful, you’re not a part of it, you’re not in the middle of it, you’re somewhere out on the edges. The good news – maybe the best news of the gospel – is that in the kingdom of God, there are no edges. It’s near to you.
The clear and compelling call of the gospel this morning is for those of us who are strong and unafraid to speak this good news just as boldly as we can, particularly from a tall steeple and a brick façade, where people wonder if it’s true. It’s for us to say to those who are feeling on the edges of things or particularly vulnerable right now because of origin, or race, or ethnicity, or sexuality that this is a place where you are known, and welcome, and loved. It’s now for us to remember that Jesus measured his followers by what we offer to the least of these strangers, and hungry, and wandering and fearful. In a time when hate is dramatic and pointed, the call is for the church of Jesus Christ to be just as precise and just as targeted in proclaiming the welcome and embrace of our God. Cause I don’t know how we all feel today, but here’s what I do know about us: we are followers of Jesus Christ. And we will make our lives – and the life of this church – about the things for which Jesus laid down his.
That’s what Jesus knew about us, too. He believed that through all our following – all our mimicry – we could become like him. So later in the gospel he will turn to these same fishermen, and a handful of others, and send them out on their own to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons – the very things they had seen him do.
And still later, when he knows his time with them is short, he gathers them all together and says “Love one another as I have loved you. All you have experienced from me is within your ability to pass it around to others.”
And when he’s displaying his power on the water one day, and Peter says “Lord let me walk out to you” Jesus says “Come out of the boat.” He doesn’t say, “Peter you could never do it.” Jesus actually says, “If I can to it, Peter, then you can do it, too.”
Jesus doesn’t seem to see our limitations and our brokenness first. “If I can do it, by the power of God, you can do it, too. You can walk on this water. You can heal those sick. You can love with the love you have experienced in me. You can preach the gospel and baptize in the name of father, son, holy spirit. You can transform this world to look more and more like this kingdom I dream about. You can be like me.”
And that is good news. But it’s also demanding news. It’s challenging news. Because I have to ask myself, am I following it? Am I giving my life to it? Here’s the question: Am I becoming more like Jesus, or am I trying to make Jesus and the gospel look more like me?
Many years ago I was sitting in a formal dialogue session between Christians and Jews. A rabbi from the local temple sat on the panel, along with a Christian minister and two religious scholars. From the crowd, a question was posed to the rabbi – the question many curious Christians want to ask – “Rabbi, why don’t you believe that Jesus was the Messiah?” “Glad he asked it, and not me,” I thought. Still I watched the pensive rabbi and awaited the answer. The rabbi paused, and from where he sat he leaned back to peer out the window. And as he gazed, he said, “If Messiah had come, the world wouldn’t look like this.”
Much as we might want to leave it all up to God at a time like this, that’s not the call of Jesus. Jesus calls us to live like those who have seen the Messiah, who have mimicked his life. If we do believe the messiah has come, what are we doing in this world of ours with his good news? Have we mimicked his life? Have we acted out his Kingdom? Do we even believe we can do it? Or has our following been too cautious? Our limitations too apparent? Our brokenness too visible? Our hatred too loud? Our mimicry too hesitant?
There was no hesitation or inhibition from those called from the lakeshore. Immediately, on the spot, Matthew tells us they dropped their nets in a tangled mass. Why did they do it so decisively? I think that at some point in the midst of casting their nets and rowing their boats – somewhere in the midst of their labor – they began to ache for their lives to be something more. They imagined that their world could be something different. And they saw this man with all of his compelling grace and thought, “Maybe it can happen to us! Maybe we can become like that!”
Maybe that’s your desire, too. I know it’s mine. That in the midst of our labor, our lives might become something more. If that’s what you want, the challenge from the gospel is very clear for us today: mimic Jesus. Follow in his path. Mime your way through his motions.
But isn’t it too far-fetched? Aren’t we too feeble and flawed? Broken and divided? Isn’t it a bit disingenuous to presume we can become something we’re not? Something we have never been?
Maybe. But don’t forget, Jesus believes it about you. “If you’ll follow me, I will teach you how to fish like you’ve never fished before.”
It’s been a while since I fished on my grandfather’s dock. Actually, no one has recently. A couple months back, just weeks following his 90th birthday, my grandfather suffered a stroke that has changed his life – many of you, church family, have been praying for him, and my family is grateful as we adjust to a new stage of life and love with Papa.
But I’m not sure I told you that just a few days after his stroke Creation itself seemed to groan, as Hurricane Matthew sped up the coast and the swell caused the water levels to rise, sending the river up and over Papa’s dock. When the water receded, the topside of the dock was in pieces, and many of the boards had washed away. But the posts were still there.
So we’re making plans to replace the boards. We’re not sure when Papa will be back to the house, but we know we want to be able to walk out there again. We want to be able to teach others how to bait a hook, cast a net, and take on some of the muscle memory. How to be patient and watchful. How to be sensitive to the rod in their hands. How to be quiet and still. Papa probably can’t teach as he once did, but actually, I could teach my kids myself. It’s second nature to me now. Because you see what’s happened: I’ve now become like my grandfather. I’ve now become, you see, like the one that I was once only imagining I could be.
And I don’t know precisely how it happened, or when it happened. But somehow, over time, through all the mimicry and motion it happened. And the good news of the gospel this morning, is that it can happen here. And it can happen now.
Maybe you’re here today, and you feel like your life is in pieces. You’re not sure where to step. Familiar sights are obscured. Let me encourage you that a foundation remains. And we will do what the church of Jesus exists to do: Call out to you, and invite you to join us as we seek to follow Jesus. We’ll walk the way he walked and move the way he moved, until we look out our windows one day and the world itself looks very different.
So hear the call to you this morning, cutting through all the other noise: “Follow me, and you will never be the same. Follow me, and you will become more than you ever imagined you could be.”
1. John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus