Something Essential is Happening
says the poet Ted Loder,*
let something essential happen to me,
something more than interesting
O God, let something essential happen to me,
Speak to my condition, Lord,
and change me somewhere inside where it matters,
a change that will burn and tremble and heal
and explode me into tears
or love that throbs or screams
or keeps a terrible, cleansing silence
and dares dangerous deeds.
Let something happen in me
that is my real self, God.
O God, let something essential and passionate happen in me now.
Strip me of my illusions and self-sufficiency,
of my proud sophistications,
of my inflated assumptions of knowledge
and leave me shivering as Adam or Eve
before the miracle of the natural –
the miracle of this earth
that nurtures me as a mother
and delights me as a lover;
the miracle of my body that breathes and moves,
hungers and digests,
sees and hears;
that is creased and wrinkled and sexual,
shrinks in hurt,
and swells in pleasure,
that works by the most amazing messages
of what and when and how
coded and curled in every cell
and that dares to speak the confronting word.
let something essential and joyful happen in me now,
something like the blooming of hope and faith,
like a grateful heart,
like a surge of awareness
of how precious every moment is,
that now, not next time,
now is the occasion
to take off my shoes,
to see every bush afire,
to leap and whirl with neighbor,
to gulp the air as sweet as wine
until I’ve drunk enough
to dare to speak the tender word:
“I love you”;
“Let’s live forever beginning now”;
and “I’m a fool for Christ’s sake.”
Tonight we hear of something essential happening to these people.
Our text from Matthew opens after Jesus has been in the wilderness, and after John has been arrested. Jesus has been around, as abrupt and urgent as this text sounds, it’s not entirely out of the blue. People have seen him, they’ve heard him preach, in this small town, he was most definitely on their collective radar. Whether these particular fellows had ever contemplated attaching themselves to him or his message in any way before or not, they’ve at least come across him a time or two. Whether they had longed for something to happen to wake them up and plug them in, we are not told.
On this day they are doing their own thing, their normal thing, they are at work. And Jesus calls to them.
Now in John, in the text we read last week, there was a gentler invitation, given to those already curious, initiated, in fact, by them. Come and see. Jesus answers them. Come find out. Come and discover for yourself.
Here it’s a bit different. Repent! He walks around declaring, The kingdom of God is near!
And then right to them, they don’t even see it coming, he shouts from the shoreline, Follow me and I will make you fish for people!
This week a vanfull of clergy talked about how harsh that sounds, how it seems to invite an aggressive form of evangelism that seeks to hook people for God (or, as one person said it, “guts them alive and consumes them”).
So, upon hearing this text people either feel motivated to get out there and get cracking, catching folks for God, or they cringe and shudder at the invitation. Either way, putting these stories side by side, John’s calling story sounds much more appealing and soothing to our tender Presbyterian sensitivities.
But let’s talk through this a moment. First of all, that word that John the Baptist belts out on the edge of the Jordan to all who come to hear his wild message – REPENT!, Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is coming near!
That word is now in the mouth of the one John said was coming. Repent in the Greek means a changed mind, a total change of view, all of it- it affects social, spiritual, psychic, moral – a full shift of perspective that impacts all aspects of life and personhood. Wake up! Notice! Let something essential happen to you! The reign of God has begun!, Jesus declares, in that “place of deep darkness, on whom the light has now shined.”
What is it to be in deep darkness? When it feels like nothing can reach you, and there is no clarity or perspective at all? When it’s foggy and fearful and you feel desperate for some indication that there is something beyond this moment?
When the light comes to that place, when hope shines in, or love breaks through, when someone reaches you and you know now that you are not alone, when something opens up to indicate there may be a way forward – what is that like?
It just make you leap up and drop whatever you’ve got going, because whatever it is, it’s nothing compared to this light pierces into your darkness, illumining your life. This is the sense of Jesus’ impact on that region; and there were certainly those for whom his message and his promise - that God’s rule was near, that a different kind of everything was just on the horizon - must have felt like air to a suffocating world. Sometimes the call of Jesus feels like just that.
But then, there are those who are just sitting in their boats on a Tuesday morning. Mending their nets. Drinking their coffee. Doing what they’ve always done, and their fathers, and their father’s fathers before them. Filling their role in the world, taking their place, not really drowning in darkness but not really shining brilliantly with light either. Just sort of plugging along the best they know how in life like we do. And of all the beaches in all the world, Jesus strolls onto theirs and says to them this: Follow me. Follow me and I will make you fish for people.
Follow me, and I will reorient your whole life. Lift your head from your work and raise your face toward others. I am calling you to participate with me in what’s happening here. Put down that net, Get out of the boat, and let something essential happen to you.
And they do. Immediately. They drop what they are doing; and something in them thrills to the invitation, something in them resonates with the calling – a note is plucked in the universe that reverberates within them and they wake up. They can’t not get up and go. So they get out of the boat and they follow the light of the world.
We like to think they just strolled out of the scene and didn’t look back, but that’s not really the case. They cycled back from time to time, itinerant-like – we see Peter in the home of his mother in law in a few chapters, and Jesus comes and heals her. Now and then they came home for a round of fishing, they connected with their fathers and ate at the tables of their mothers. They returned to their wives and kids too, I suppose, those that had them. But something within them had fundamentally shifted. They themselves had shifted. They had repented. They had a surge of awareness, awake to an utterly new perception of it all, now is the occasion to take off your shoes! to gulp the air as sweet as wine – and because of that no part of their life could be the same.
And it was a radical enough thing, to walk away from their livelihood, their family trade, their actual nets, even. It probably created quite a stir. But it also was deeply true to who they were, that there was nothing else to do in that moment than to answer the call. Suddenly, immediately, it was the only thing that made sense. Suddenly something had happened in them that was their real self.
Jesus calls us in all kinds of ways, some gentle, some insistent.
Wake up to notice the world with the light in it.
Get out of the boat.
Set down those things that seem so very central and important, so very vital to who you are and how you contribute to the world, and dare to let your real self reach out to others.
I will make you stop fishing for fish, and start fishing for people.
I will take the you that’s in you and plug it in to the thing that connects us to all the other yous in the world- because if you want to know where I am, it’s there.
Some time ago I was on a flight from Minnesota to Los Angeles and found myself sitting next to a woman who was clearly very distraught.
She sat there next to me weeping, her grief palpable and overwhelming. And to be honest, I desperately wanted to ignore her; she was kind of rocking my boat. I was tired from my own trip, and embarrassed by her public anguish, and also it frightened me. I didn’t have any idea what to say.
But I didn’t feel right pretending I didn’t see her, I felt like I should do or say something. So I took a deep breath and got out of my boat. Without having any idea where it would lead, I finally worked up the courage to simply put my hand on her shoulder. On a stranger’s shoulder. I had no words, no answers to give her, so I just sat with her in solidarity. After a time, she started to talk, and told me that she had flown to Minnesota that afternoon for a conference, and upon arriving was informed that her mother, who had been ill in the hospital for some time, had crashed, and taken an abrupt and severe turn for the worse. This lady turned around and headed back to the counter, purchased a return ticket, and was racing time to get back to the hospital in Los Angeles before her mother died.
I just listened. I joined her. Eventually it became a conversation, about the pain of losing someone, and the tragedy of death. We even talked a bit about God, but only because we were somehow sharing an experience of God. For four hours, I sat with a stranger and found Jesus.
Follow me. See the person in front of you. Reach out your hand. Brave the tender word.
When Jesus calls us to follow, it is always something essential happening to us. It is a wake up and take notice. Instead of smothered in darkness, you will recognize that the world shot through with light, and it will illuminate those around you – for you are not in it alone.
Because also when Jesus calls it always reveals other people as the ones to whom you’re called,
I will make you not just fisherpeople, Jesus says, but fishers of people,
not just bankers, but bankers of people,
not just teachers but teachers of people,
I will make you accountants of people and nurses of people, and baristas of people and parents of people, and sons and daughters of people, and friends of people, and neighbors of people.
And in those simple and terribly brave moments that you hear and answer the call to be with them and for them, you are part of the light that the darkness cannot quench – the conspiracy of God-with-us.
The invitation of Jesus to you and to me comes to us every day, into our curiosity and seeking, into our deep darkness and despair, and into our very ordinary, routine kinds of days that blend one into another, The Spirit of Godwithus continues to nudge and prod, I came to be with and for the world. Come be with and for the world with me.
So far this Epiphany we’ve heard:
Come and see: experience it for yourself.
Follow me: join me in this thing.
Repent: wake up and let it all look different.
The kingdom of God is at hand: the purposes of God are unfolding.
It’s happening. Get out of the boat and be part of it.
Let something essential happen to you.
Don’t be afraid.
lead me now,
out of the familiar setting
of my doubts and fears
beyond my pride
and my need to be secure
into a strange and graceful ease
with my true proportions
and with yours;
that in boundless silence
I may grow
strong enough to endure
and flexible enough to share
(*opening and closing prayers by Rev. Dr. Ted Loder, found in Guerrillas of Grace)