III Epiphany – January 25, 2009
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor.
I want to follow Jesus in this morning’s gospel, but I keep coming back to Zebedee.
Zebedee, we are told, was a fisherman who trolled the Sea of Galilee for his livelihood. He had two sons, James and John, who worked with him and a few hired men, in the honest if not difficult life of harvesting the ocean’s bounty.
Let’s consider for a moment the man named Zebedee and the impact that the call of Jesus must have had on him. We know that, according to Mark, all Jesus had to do was call to Simon and Andrew, James and John, and “immediately, they left their nets and followed him.”
Makes a great, dramatic visual, doesn’t it? You get a clear sense of the magnetism of Jesus and the urgency of his message and his mission. Before we follow them, I’d like to consider, for a few moments, what it did to those left behind.
When I think of Zebedee, my thoughts immediately turn to Jonah, who thought his life was headed in one direction, but took a sharp left turn into Nineveh. I also think of my paternal grandfather. I don’t know much about him as he died when I was very young. On the rare occasions father did speak of him, it was with the halting phrases of one who did not wish to speak ill of the dead – especially to his own children.
My grandfather’s name was Joseph. Joseph Jesus Marie Souza. He was born on a farm near the city of Ribeira Grande on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores – an archipelago of nine major and eight small islands about 1,500 km from Lisbon.
He and his brothers harvested the land and the ocean as farmers and fishermen, depending on the economy or the degree of civil unrest in the government, as well as the weather, which dictated the bounty the earth or the water would yield.
They were the working poor, but I suspect they were made even poorer by my great grandfather’s dream of becoming a fado singer. He did gain a notoriety of sorts in Sao Miguel. In fact, when my grandfather came through immigration in the Boston Harbor, unable to speak English, those in line with him identified him as “the son of Caetano” – which was my great grandfather’s first name, not his surname.
For years, that caused all sorts of legal problems for the family, as they were registered with the Anglicized surname Caeton. Some of the older children carried that name on their birth certificate; others, like my father, carried it as his middle name; the three youngest of the family were correctly named “Souza”.
That only seemed to harden my grandfather’s heart against his father, whom he considered a dismal failure. He was going to do better than that. He came to this country and bought a small parcel of land and had three daughters and six sons to help him live his dream.
Imagine his distress as he watched WWII carry each of his sons away to foreign places he never even imagined existed. There is a reason the doughboys sang, “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paris?” One by one, his sons left the farm, and as each one left, never to return to the farm, so did a little more of his dream of being a success, unlike his father. With each loss, a little more of his heart hardened until his own son could not speak of his father without a pained look on his face.
My grandfather’s story is not unusual or even unique. It is a story as old as time. Jonah is one of those stories which ends with Jonah sulking under a dried up fig tree. It is a story that, I suspect, is one shared by Zebedee.
Imagine him as he watched this carpenter’s son from Nazareth pluck off both of his sons from their nets to – what? There was no war to march off to. That, at least, would carry a certain nobility. To start a new enterprise? For what? To have the Romans tax it to death?
No, it was far worse than that. The sons of Zebedee left their father in his boat to follow a dream. They left what little security they knew to follow a man with a compelling if not dangerous, revolutionary message. A man who talked about “fishing for people”. What, in heaven’s name, did that mean? What about his own people? The people who depended on them? To what purpose? A foolish adventure? These were uncertain times. Israel was an occupied nation. Didn’t this Jesus, this carpenter’s son, understand that they could get themselves killed?
Life always seeks life. When it stops seeking life, it dies.
In his book, Disciplines of the Spirit, the great theologian, poet, mystic and modern philosopher, Howard Thurman, writes about watching a tree being uprooted by workmen in front of his house in Oberlin, OH.
He writes, “I saw that a large section of sewer pipe had been exposed; around it and encircling it was a thick network of roots that had found their way inside the pipe by penetrating the joints in many places. The tree was more than four hundred yards to the other side of the house, but this did not matter to the roots. They were on a hunt – for life.”
Thurman uses the tree as a metaphor for the spiritual discipline of commitment. He writes this: “It has been wisely said that the time and the place of a (person’s) life on earth is the time and the place of (the) body, but the meaning of a (person’s) life is as significant and eternal as he wills it to make. Commitment means that it is possible for a (person) to yield the nerve center of his consent to a purpose or cause, a movement or an ideal, which may be more important to him than whether he lives or dies.”
Thurman goes on to say that once commitment is set in motion, the dynamic of growth becomes automatic. Energy, he says, becomes available, and like the roots of a tree on a hunt for life, once a commitment is made, it can search far from its original base, pushing through barriers and obstacles that seem impossible to overcome.
A life in Christ, Thurman teaches, is one that requires the spiritual discipline of commitment.
As followers of Christ, we have a choice. We can be like Zebedee or my grandfather and watch fearfully or resentfully as the world take away our dreams. Or, we can begin to learn something about the spiritual disciple of commitment; the surrender to something larger than ourselves that is required for it, and the vitality and energy that are available to us once that commitment is made.
The energy of this morning’s gospel emanates from those who have chosen to follow life – Simon and Andrew, James and John – not Zebedee. Zebedee has much to teach us, but it is Jesus who holds the lessons that are life-giving.
Jesus is like the root of the tree of God, on a hunt for life, and his call to follow him in that life is as irresistible as a thirsty person in search of water.
It is as captivating as my great grandfather’s dream of following a song.
As seductive as Paris is to a farm boy turned soldier, there to fight the noble fight of the War to End All Wars.
I will leave you with these words from Howard Thurman:
“We live in a universe that is responsive to an ultimate urgency. The secret is to be able to want one thing, to seek one thing, to organize the resources of one’s life around a single end (which is the spiritual discipline of commitment); and slowly, surely the life becomes one with that end. “
What one thing do you want, what one thing do you seek, that you are willing to focus your energies and organize and commit the resources of your life around that single end until you become one with it? That is the question for the individual life of faith in Christ.
It is also the question for our lives of faith in community, as the church, the Body of Christ. What one thing do we want, what one thing to we seek, that we are willing to organize and commit the resources of the life of this church around a single end, and slowly, surely our community life will become one with that end?
Jesus said to them, “Come, follow me. And immediately they left their nets and followed him.