When two people are just getting to know one another - imagine they've just met at a party or something - a common question is "What do you do?" It makes sense, doesn't it? It's not a perfect way to understand who the other person is, and it does open up the possibility of all kinds of stereotypical misunderstandings, but as a first pass it's not that bad. And for a lot of us, what we do for work is (for better or worse) an important part of who we are. Interestingly, people don't usually ask me that when we first meet. You see, as an Episcopal priest, I often wear a clerical collar, which many people recognize and marks me as a member of the clergy. They don't need to ask. Just by looking at me they can know all they need to know about me - at least at first.
I imagine it was the same with Simon, called Peter, and his brother Andrew. But it wasn't their special clothes that gave them away. Indeed, if you met them on the street, their clothes were likely to be pretty utilitarian, maybe still wet from the sea. They would shake with rough hands, and the unmistakable odor of fish would accompany them. You wouldn't have to ask to know what kind of work they did. They were fishermen, no doubt about it. And in the time and place they lived and worked, that was all you needed to know about them - at least at first.
For the last fifteen years or so, I've worked in theological education, mostly teaching in seminaries, but also ministering in congregations. And in that time, I've seen hundreds - no, probably actually thousands of people - respond to the simple instruction Jesus gives in our passage today. "Follow me!" Simon and Andrew were fishermen, but in my life, I've seen him say it to college students, bankers, police officers, full-time moms, philosophy professors, all kinds of people. They almost always respond to Jesus in the same way. "Nah, I'm good!" They somehow have an instinctive feeling that Jesus is calling them away from the life that they have. They don't want to, or at least are not yet ready, to leave it behind.
And I can't really blame them. After all, that's what I said the first time Jesus called me. And if we're being honest, the second and third time too, at least. I first imagined the vocation I have today when I was in high school, and it would be more than a decade before I went on to seminary and started preparing for this life. I've heard that story, or a close version of it, so many times.
And you know, it's not just people called to professional ministry that can tell this story. It's people who have heard the call to missionary work, or who have been invited to join the governing board of their congregation, or to tutor young children at the nearby elementary school, or even sing in the choir. They hear Jesus' voice somehow pulling them toward something new, "Follow me," and yet their reaction is "Nah, I'm good." They just don't want to, or are not yet ready, to take on this new way of living into their faith.
And it makes sense. The new is often scary, and as humans we've worked hard to achieve whatever peace and security we have, and of course we want to protect it. The Bible is full of stories of people who have said "yes" to God and look where it got them! Hunger, and rejection, and sleepiness nights, and prison time, and beatings, and death. "Nah, I'm good" is starting to sound like the most reasonable response.
So, what was going on with Simon and Andrew? What made them leave their nets and follow Jesus when surely, they were subject to all the questions and worries any of us would be? And what about James and John, the sons of Zebedee? Why did they leave their boat and their father "immediately" and follow this strange man? Were their lives so terrible that they had no better prospects? The Bible doesn't make it seem like that. They seem to be reasonably successful fishermen with a family business, boats, and nets. But they left it all to follow Jesus into an unknown future, all because he said, "Follow me."
But, of course, that's not all he said, is it? We don't often think about the second half of Jesus' call, but it seems to me that it makes all the difference. Jesus says, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." This is a different kind of call, one that I think is easier to follow, and one that is actually more authentic to the kinds of calls that Jesus is offering us today.
You see, in Jesus' call to Simon and Andrew, he calls them not to abandon all that they know, but rather to put what they know at the service of the Gospel. Jesus says "I will make you fish for people." True, that's a strange thing to say, but I bet it was comforting to them. Jesus is saying that he has a new mission for them, a totally new kind of work, Kingdom work, but he is still going to need them to be fishermen. Something in their new calling will be an extension of their old calling. For Peter and the disciples that were fishermen, maybe they saw the work of evangelism in fishing terms. They thought about going where the people were, throwing out the net of the Good News, and then hauling in the catch. The other disciples probably thought differently. For them, maybe bringing souls into the church was like collecting taxes, or vine-dressing, or whatever work it was that they did before. Entirely different in some ways, but in some ways, very familiar.
It's what happened to Tom. I first met Tom at a gathering of people who were spending a year of their lives in an intentional community, and working in various ministries throughout the city. I immediately liked him. Of course, I asked him "What do you do?" He said, "I'm a chef." And then he paused, looked around as if to check if it was OK to share a secret and said, "But, you know, a chef for Jesus." He had been a chef in some of the city's fanciest restaurants, and even owned one of his own for a while. But one day, he said, he heard one of Jesus' sayings in a new way. Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep." He immediately understood what Jesus wanted him to do. He began to make preparations to leave his expensive restaurant, and take over as head chef of one of the city's largest soup kitchens.
He told me that his work at the soup kitchen wasn't all that different really. He still woke up early in the morning to get to the vegetable market. He used his contacts there to make sure the soup kitchen got good food for good prices. He still spent his time preparing recipes that would make best use of the ingredients he could get. He still worried about producing the right amount of food - enough so he didn't run out, but not to have too much leftover, either. And there were some differences, too. Much less shouting, he told me, and he went home each night knowing that he had used the gifts God had given him to serve God's neediest, and hungriest, children.
That's the kind of calling Jesus wants to bring into your life. Perhaps not so dramatic as Tom's, or as those who go off to seminary, but still an invitation to a more full, more fulfilled, life - one where your gifts are used in all the ways that God intended. Not only to fish for fish, but also to fish for people. Not only to cook for customers, but to cook for Jesus. Not only to do whatever it is you do, but to do it for the glory of God.
When Jesus calls you to follow him, he doesn't do it because you've been wasting your life, or because he doesn't value what you have been doing until then. No, Jesus calls us to follow him precisely because of what we have been doing, and who we have become. Jesus knows how to use your skills, your gifts, your desires, and even your wounds, in deeper relationship and service to the One who is the maker of all plans. And when people see you then, they might still assume you're just a fisherman - at least at first - but you will be so much more than that. In reality, you are a beloved child of God, uniquely gifted, and called by the Holy Spirit to serve the world in Christ's name.