Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 25th January 2009
“At once they left their nets and followed him.” Mark 1:18
Two weeks ago, the 1911 Census for England and Wales was published on the Internet; in the first morning 700,000 people went to find records of their family and community. The surge of interest in genealogy, in family histories, is a mark of how important to people is a sense of having roots, a sense of there being a place where they belong. Our family, our community, are part of what we are, none of us would readily let go of those things.
I remember being in England one day back in 2003 and taking a tour through the past. My sister was there with her husband and they decided to go out. “Where do you want to go?” I was asked.
“Nowhere in particular”, I said, “I’ll just sit in the back and look out of the window”.
It was an instructive day, we didn’t really go anywhere, just here and there with a stop for coffee and cakes. I sat in the back and looked out of the window as the Somerset countryside rolled by.
There were roads where at one time I could have named every resident. Farms where I would have known what tractors to expect to see. Signposts from which I could have recited all the place names and all the distances before the sign was even in sight.
Things have changed. The old farms are interspersed with smart new stone built houses. Farmhouses themselves have often become detached from the fields around. The land has become part of some larger holding; the farmhouse has become the home of a professional family from outside of the district. The towns have got bigger. Taunton is reached about two miles before the sign that announces the town’s name.
People have changed. There is a poignant moment at the end of the film, ‘Goodbye, Mr Chips’, where the character sees a schoolboy he thinks he knows, and then realises that the boy is the grandson of a schoolboy he once knew. Things haven’t reached that point yet, but I was aware that a new generation had risen. The people I thought I recognised were sons and daughters of the people I once knew.
Yet in the midst of the change there was a sense of continuity in the place. The dampness that permeates the bones in the wintertime, in a county that was given a name meaning ‘summer lands’ because it was only in the summer time that the floods receded and that farming was possible. The firmness of the sandstone and blue lias stone buildings, unaltered in generations. In all the strangeness there was an unchanging familiarity, still a sense of place, still a gravity-like pull.
I suspect most of us would feel similarly about our own home areas. Letting go of home and past is not an easy thing to do. To let completely let go of family and roots and the place where you belong would be a painful decision to take.
When we read the Gospel today, it is important not just to read it, but to try to get inside the minds of the people there. These men aren’t men of the world, they aren’t much travelled, they aren’t cosmopolitan, they are hard-working, small-time fishermen. They have probably never travelled more than a few miles from home. Perhaps they have been up to Jerusalem to attend a religious festival, but that would depend on having the money to do so.
These men, to whom Jesus goes, are traditional and conservative. Life for them is unchanged from one generation to the next. They would have had a very strong sense of place, the place to which they belong is the shores of Lake Galilee. If we want to see how strong was this sense of place, then look what happens when Jesus dies and they think that everything is lost, look at where the risen Lord goes to find his friends, back to the shores of Galilee.
When we read Mark’s words, “At once they left their nets and followed him,” we should not do so lightly. Imagine our own home area, whether its here in this neighbourhood, or whether its miles away from here, think about all our memories, all our attachments, and think about being prepared just to let go of everything. Not just letting go of the past, but letting go of the present as well – family, house, job, possessions, friends, everything. Think about what these men gave up to follow this Jesus.
The people Jesus calls as followers are what in England would be termed as ‘blokes’: ordinary, working men. They were not especially religious, they were not highly educated, they were neither wealthy nor influential. They were the sort of men you meet on the bus or the train in the early mornings before the white collar commuters start appearing: readers of The Star, The Sun or The Mirror, not the Irish Times.
Jesus goes to these men – these men who would have never gone anywhere, these men whose lives followed a hard daily routine, these men who would have been wedded to family and home and community, and he says, ‘come on, lads. We’re starting something new.’
Looking at the church today it is hard to imagine that the words we read this morning once brought such a reaction. Who would be prepared to leave their home and family now for the sake of what Jesus says?
The commitment we make is to do what suits us in our own time at our own convenience (and if it doesn’t suit to come to church when the Rector is away, we don’t come). This is a far remove from the Galilean blokes who acted, St Mark tells us, at once, without delay.
Things were different then, we would argue, it’s not the same today. But those Galilean fishermen could probably have found every excuse we make and a few more besides. They would have had every reason for not following Jesus. They couldn’t afford it; they weren’t qualified; they were the wrong men for the job; they had a lot of responsibilities; there were family reasons; and so and so on.
Yet we are here this morning because they were prepared to give up the places and the people they loved, to let go of the memories and the sense of place and to go out and tell people about this Jesus.
“Come, follow me,” says Jesus, and he’s talking to you, he’s talking to me. What are we prepared to do?
“At once they left their nets and followed him”. What are we prepared to give from our lives in response to this call?