Third Sunday After Epiphany
TEXT: Mark 1:14-20
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” (Mark 1:16-17)
That is the call Jesus issues: to come and follow him … but … to where?
To God-knows-where. To the strangest of locations. To fish for … people! People with unfamiliar faces. People who may turn out to be difficult, or even hostile—people who may not, at first, want to hear about a God who loves them.
I want to tell you a story now—one that I found years ago on a website called “52 Best.” But before I do that, I need to check on an assumption. I need to ask you a question. Do you all know who Helen Keller was?
Helen Keller (1880-1968) was an American author, political activist, and lecturer. She was also the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. If you’ve ever seen the film, The Miracle Worker, you know something about her.
O.K. Now, on to the story from the website, “52 Best.”
The renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Frank Mayfield was once taking a tour of the Tewksbury Institute, a hospital in Massachusetts. On his way out, he accidentally ran right into an elderly floor maid. To cover his awkwardness, Dr. Mayfield started asking questions.
“How long have you worked here?” he asked.
“I’ve worked here almost since the place opened,” the maid replied.
“What can you tell me about the history of this place?” he asked.
“I don’t think I can tell you anything, but I could show you something.”
She led him down to the basement in the oldest section of the building. She pointed to what looked like a small prison cell and said, “That’s the cage where they used to keep Annie.”
“Who is Annie?” asked the doctor.
“Annie was a young girl who was left here because nobody could do anything with her. She’d bite and scream and throw her food at people. The doctors and nurses couldn’t even examine her. I was only a few years younger than her and I used to think, ‘I sure would hate to be locked up in a cage like that.’
“I wanted to help her, but I didn’t have any idea what I could do. So one night after work I just baked her some brownies. The next day I brought them in here to her by her cage and I said, ‘Annie, I baked these brownies just for you. I’ll put them here and you can come and get them if you want.’
“Then I got out of there just as fast as I could because I was afraid she might throw them at me. But she didn’t. She actually took the brownies and ate them.”
When Jesus calls his disciples, he calls people who are notably very different from one another. And I don’t think this is an accident.
To me, it seems that Jesus was very deliberate about whom he chose to be part of his inner circle. Last week’s RCL gospel (John 1:43-51), told us about the calling of Philip and Nathanael. Today we hear Jesus summon two pairs of fishermen: Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, and then John and his brother James.
Elsewhere, Jesus calls Matthew, a tax-collector. And at a certain point in his ministry, Jesus calls five others: Thomas; another James; another Simon; Jude the brother of James; and Judas Iscariot, who would betray him.
Now, if you have some background in the Roman Catholic or Anglican traditions, you probably know that each of these (except, of course, Judas) has his own feast day—each of them, not just all of them together. Why? Because—aside from the stark distinction between Judas Iscariot and the others—the remaining eleven are still profoundly different from one another in important ways.
And that’s the point. Each disciple follows Jesus for reasons known best—perhaps known only—to himself. We can presume that they all share a desire and hope for salvation … but who can say what salvation meant to a fisherman beside the Sea of Galilee? Or to a tax-collector caught between the Roman army and his own people? Or, for that matter, to a young woman with a poor reputation who is welcome at no one’s table? Who can say that the meaning of salvation for each of them is completely the same for all of them?
Ultimately, each one—in their own way—becomes a witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ, and takes his Gospel outward to others in farther parts of their world.
First-generation writings from the early Church describe the various apostles spreading out from Jerusalem to carry the Gospel into parts of Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, Syria, and Mediterranean Africa.
More legendary accounts describe Thomas reaching India, even China; James the brother of John reaching Spain; the other Simon—not Peter—going as far as Britain.
Regardless of how far they really traveled, the fact is that they—along with others whom Jesus called—did manage to carry the Good News to many more places than any single one of them would have been able to reach alone.
And—perhaps less obvious—each one had his or her own unique audience. Each one, I imagine, was able to relate to individuals and groups to whom, perhaps, the other disciples could not—because of barriers of race, or language, or experience. Each one, I suspect, was sent to minister where they could best succeed … even, perhaps, where others would fail.
Anyway, back to our story from that website …
At Tewksbury Hospital, Dr. Mayfield is entranced with the story of Annie. The floor maid continues:
“After she accepted the brownies I’d given her, Annie was just a little bit nicer to me whenever I was around. And sometimes I’d talk to her. Once, I even got her laughing. One of the nurses noticed this and she told the doctor. They asked me if I’d help them with Annie and I said I would if I could.
“So that’s how it came about that every time they wanted to see Annie or examine her, I went into the cage first and explained and calmed her down and held her hand. That’s how they discovered that Annie was almost blind. After they’d been working with her for about a year—and it was tough with Annie—the Perkins Institute for the Blind accepted her. They were able to help her and she went on to study and became a teacher herself.”
Jesus cannot hope that Galilean fishermen will communicate in the language of the ear or of the heart with people far outside their own experience, or far beyond their borders or their times. But he knows that they will reach some. And of those, some will reach others. And of those, they will reach still others.
But I digress. The maid at the hospital has more to tell Dr. Mayfield.
“Once,” she said, “Annie came back to the hospital to visit, and see what she could do to help out. At first, the Director didn’t say anything.
“And then he thought about a letter he’d just received. A man had written to him about his daughter. She was absolutely unruly, almost like an animal. She was blind and deaf, as well as ‘deranged.’ He was at his wit’s end, but he didn’t want to put her in an asylum. So he wrote here to ask if we knew of anyone who would come to his house and work with his daughter.”
The old woman looked up at Dr. Mayfield. “And that is how Annie Sullivan became the lifelong companion of Helen Keller.”
“When Helen Keller became famous,” the old woman continued—now almost whispering, “someone asked her who had the greatest influence on her life and she said, ‘Annie Sullivan.’”
“But do you know?” said the old woman, “Annie disagreed. Annie said, ‘Helen, the woman who had the greatest influence on both our lives was a floor maid at the Tewksbury Hospital.”
Discipleship is a funny thing.
The Gospel spreads not just in spite of the boundaries of differences, but because of them.
The Word of God is proclaimed not just in spite of the limitations of individuals, but because of them.
The voices of those whom Jesus first called ring out through the generations, with rising volume and increasing harmony—calling others, who call others, who call others.
That’s how it works, until, finally, more voices are speaking, more lives are being touched, and more and more people are hearing—in terms that they can understand—the call begun by Christ himself: to come and follow him.
That is the call we have received. And that, my friends, is the message we are called to pass on. Wherever we may reside, we live in the mission field. At home, at work, at school—even as we live and move in cyberspace—we can touch lives with the peace of Christ, with the love of God, with the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
Each one of us is capable of doing that, for someone, every day. So, let’s stay alert to the opportunities we are given. Amen.