What catches me by surprise in today’s Scripture is the quickness with which the disciples respond to Jesus. He walks down the beach, invites them to follow him and they respond immediately: Yeah I am in!
What surprises me about their response is that they already have lives established. They have friends and family nearby and worked as fishermen.
They had been caught up in the predictably pattern of life … working, fishing and spending time by the water …things that us shoreline folk know all about … and then one day, while Simon and Andrew are fishing on the sandy shores of the Galilean sea, they see this stranger coming toward them. They feel the sun warm on their faces as they watch the stranger come closer … it is a young man with an air of confidence about him … who stops right in front of them. The young man issues an invitation:
Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.
Simon and Andrew don’t waste any time, they drop their nets and respond: YES! Their “yes” is a bit surprising. Jesus is asking them to give up everything they know. Jesus is basically saying, hey guys, I know your super busy but would you mind dropping everything because I want to be your Rabbi and teach you a few things. Perhaps that’s what people did back in the first century, but now a days that idea of Jesus followers en masse giving up their livelihoods and wandering around as nomads following Jesus seems a bit outlandish.
And as I looked closer at the text this week, I began to wonder if what the disciples might be teaching us is less about giving up our livelihoods and more about a spiritual way of being in the world. I began to wonder if this text isn’t teaching us something about surrender. There is something about the disciples opening their hearts up to Jesus, about their willingness to follow, that speaks to me in this passage.
Now, to some, surrender can seem like a dirty word. Surrender associated with things like being passive or giving up. Yet, when we read the Bible, Jesus teaches us that surrender has nothing to do with rolling over and playing dead, but rather is about remaining connected to the Divine, even in the midst of suffering or difficulty. In any situation in life, we have a choice how to respond inwardly … we can respond by bracing, hardening and resisting or we can respond by softening, opening and yielding to the Source of our Sustenance.
We see this softening and yielding in the disciples. They respond to the Holy One by saying yes … and opening their heart to God. I imagine their experience of this heart-opening is so powerful and vibrant that all else pales in comparison. Their desires for all else fades and their hearts burn with a desire to follow the Promised One. This burning is how they come to give up their homes and family and loved ones. And it is this burning and connection that gives them the guidance and the strength they need for the days that ahead.
This connection gives them a stability that is not thrown off by troubles or darkness. In fact, one priest, Cynthia Bourgeault, describes the essence of the surrender as “remaining firm in this connection and not bending” (Source: Wisdom Jesus). Isn’t that intriguing? Surrender, in a way, is a refusal to be swept away by the fear and reactivity that pervades our world. Cynthia explains that she learned this principle through years of sailing on the Maine coast. It’s always easy to run downwind, she notes, allowing the sea and the wind to carry you wherever they want to go. But to make your way against the wind or rather into the headwind, you need a keel in the water and you need to stand firm on your heading. Surrender practice is exactly the same.
I was thinking about standing firm in one’s heading and I found myself wondering about the disciples … how they managed to stay firm in their headings …. I wondered how many times they had to say, “Yes I will follow you.”
I ask this because when I was younger – much much younger – I used to imagine faith & discipleship being this linear journey. As a young Baptist, I just kind of figured you learn about Jesus in Sunday School, you accept him as your savior as a youth, and then bam! you have everything figure out as an adult. What do you think?
What I have come to learn is that the path of discipleship is much more circular than that. In the words of one modern day disciple, conversion isn’t a moment. It’s a process, and it keeps happening, with cycles of acceptance and resistance, epiphany and doubt.
Discipleship is a process. I imagine that in addition to moments of epiphany and surrender, Jesus’ followers also had moments of doubt and resistance. I bet that mornings where Simon and Andrew woke up hungry, or sore from all the walking, seriously questioning what exactly they had gotten themselves into, and perhaps wondering if they should turn back. And they could have if they had wanted. Each moment they were faced with the choice again and again: Will you follow me?
One of the things I love about the Gospels is that they end with a story of Jesus once again finding his disciples at the beach. The disciples are out fishing with the warm wind blowing on their face and then all of a sudden they see this stranger … and to make a long story short … they realize it’s Jesus and they come to meet him on the sandy seashore. Jesus and Simon Peter and Andrew meeting again where it all began … back in a place of boats and fishes and headwinds … and Simon-who-is-now-Peter has messed up .. and Jesus understands that and loves Peter and forgives Peter and invites Peter to try again, to soften his heart where before he had resisted. I think that this is story of discipleship. That in each moment, we are invited to notice how we are responding to things – if they are sweeping us away or if we creating space for God to work in our lives – and each moment, Jesus invites us to be gentle with ourselves and inviting us to try again in places that we have failed … that we might stand firm against the headwinds.
This work of discipleship and surrendering is difficult. Time and time again writers reminded me this week that the growth process is a slow one and that we should be patient with ourselves in places slowness, at times when we make mistakes. Isn’t this similar to the message Jesus gives to Peter? That even in places of difficulty, Jesus loves us, is gentle with us and invites us to try again.
Discipleship is a process. Anne LaMott, a famous author, has a story in her book Small Victories: Spotting Moments of Improbable Grace that teaches us about that process. In the story, Anne is having a rough time. Her friends are ill, her dog has cancer and the recent massacre in Syria has come to light. Anne also has an extended family member named Uton who she did not get along with particularly well. Uton’s friends would often sneer at the rest of the family in public … Giving them the stink eye.
So one Saturday, Anne goes to the movies to get away from everything. As she arrives at the theater, she see both how impossibly long the line was but also that her younger brother is at the end of it. That’s a happy surprise! They wait together until a voice rings out behind them, “Hello Anne LaMott.” Anne turns and sees Uton’s friend- one of the ones who gives the stink eye. This particular friend was a brassy blonde named Tammy. Hey everyone, Tammy calls, it’s authoress Anne LaMott.
People turn and stare. Meanwhile someone from the front of the line recognizes Tammy’s voice and invites her to the front. All of a sudden … the super long line begins to divide … with the real line on one side and a new rogue line behind Tammy. “There’s just one line folks!” Anne tries to remind people. “Please get back in line” “Uh-oh,” Tammy says, “I think we are making Anne LaMott unhappy.” Anne calms herself by looking over at her brother and calmly asking if he has a spear … he does not .. but his wife does have some towlettes … so Anne cleans her hands.
Suddenly, when more people moved to Tammy’s line, Anne accidently said, “It’s not fair.” Everyone turns to stare at her …Tammy makes it into the lobby and mimics Anne, “It’s not fair!”
Tears sprang to Anne’s eyes. By the time Anne made it to the theater, all she could hear was Tammy’s voice mocking her, the crowd laughing … and then suddenly something seized Anne and got in … she s had this thought .. maybe this one night, I could try something new .. Maybe it won’t be anything big, maybe it won’t be big T transformational change … But two baby steps forward, she thinks, are better than nothing.
Anne decides to find Tammy after the movie and apologize …. She sighs, remembering what both Gandhi and Jesus teach about love transforming those who belittle us …Anne knows what she has to do and it is not to discretely slink out of the theater or to spend time think about all the ways Tammy needed to improve – but for the record, there is a lot of ways Tammy could improve. So after the movie Anne goes to look for Tammy. Anne surrenders, softening her heart to God. But did Anne find her? Of course not … life does not always work out in convenient linear ways … but Anne reports, she found herself in that process. Anne notes how she had been kind to herself and that she had made progress, even if that progress had come in baby steps. A few weeks, Anne did see Tammy and she smiled and managed to look contrite and Tammy smiled back.
What Anne and Simon Peter teach us is that surrender is about little s- moments in the here and now rather than one singular big s-moment on the seashore. What Anne and Simon Peter teach us is that baby step by baby step, we make it through the headwind, we experience transformation… bit by bit … we crack open … so that the light within us shines ever more brightly through the cracks. Thanks be to God. Amen.