They Were Fishermen

This morning’s story tells the story of the call of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, from the point of view of their father.

What can I say? This is not the life I envisioned for myself. This is not the future, or the old age I planned for. But when the Lord makes demands upon you, when the Holy One puts you to the test… well. What is a man to do, but to rise up, and get to the work?

Scripture can be found here...

I am a fisherman. As was my Abba before me, and his Abba before him, and back, and back, generation before generation and into the mists of time. And for my lifetime and theirs, we have fished the Sea of Galilee, from our seaside town of Capernaum. I cannot remember a time before my father encouraged me to put my hands to the nets… chubby little boys’ hands, that hardly knew what to make of the linen woven into a thing with holes—so my first task was to gather smooth, relatively flat pebbles for my Abba, into which he would drill a hole, so that they could be tied to the nets, for weights. Later, I was permitted to wash the nets—so important. A fisherman who doesn’t wash his nets is meant to be a shepherd, or so my father always said. The nets must be cleaned of debris, every day, or else they rot, and your livelihood is lost—or, at the very least, interrupted.

Finally, I was taught to repair the nets. A fisherman spends far more time with his nets, you see, than with the fish. Without the nets, there are no fish! So, first things first. We attend to the nets, and the fish follow. But I will tell you a secret: the time mending the nets with my Abba, and with his Abba while he was still alive… that was precious time. Instead of his frustration with the weather, instead of his anxiety about the catch, or his dismay at the bargaining at the markets… he was peaceful. While carefully re-weaving the nets together, patching the holes with threads, he became calm. He became talkative. He asked me questions, drew me out, helped me to reveal myself to him. We became closer, father and son.

And this is how it was with my sons—my James and John. As little boys, they gathered stones for weights. A little later, they became proficient cleaners. Then, they learned how to mend the nets, and finally… out to sea we would go.

Our sea is not terribly large—so travelers tell us, but it is plenty large for our purposes. It is filled with more than twenty kinds of fish, and they sell at the market—and they feed my family as well. And small or no, Galilee will show you a storm the likes of which you will never forget. But it will also fill your nets, if you cast them, just so.

The hardest part of our work takes place at sea, the kind of work that requires not only strength, but understanding, communication, working together in precise, coordinated movements…turning the boats, casting the nets, hauling them in at precisely the right moment, to gain the largest possible catch. And my sons do all that brilliantly. Did all that.

My family is not terribly large, either. The other fishermen, they have 5, or 7, sometimes 10 children, and so they have many hands to do the work. It is unusual to have just the two, but my beautiful Salome had a terrible fever after my younger son John was born. We almost lost her. After that… no more.  But my sons have always done the work of three men, each of them, so I never found that I wanted for extra hands.

My sons… they are precious to me. Even now.

We had heard of the healer, Jesus. We had heard, not only can this one heal, but he also has the gift of speech. He is a teacher, and a preacher… a teller of stories. I remember talking about him with my sons one day as we mended the nets, and they both became very animated.

James spoke: “Abba, you know our friend Noah? His father had these terrible blinding headaches, so he went and saw the healer, Jesus. And he told stories, Jesus did, and then he shared bread with everybody, and then he laid his hands on Noah’s father, and cured him, right on the spot!” As James spoke, he waved his hands around, nearly knocking the net he was working on right off the boat.

John is usually quiet, but he piped in, too. “How do you think he does it, Abba? Is it magic?” And then, my quiet son seemed worried that he had said the wrong thing, and bent his head back to his work.

“Well… magic,” I said. “Does he claim to be a magician? Have you ever heard that?”

“No, Abba,” they answered together. And then John spoke again. “He speaks of the Kingdom of… of Heaven. That is what Noah said.”

Ah. So. Our healer is at least invoking the Lord, whether or not he is truly faithful… who knows? I said to my sons, “It would be very interesting to hear him talk, I think. Is he here in Capernaum now?” What harm could it do, I thought to myself.

And they looked at each other, and something passed between them. Victory, I expect. This is what they were hoping their father would offer.

“This week, he will be reading the Torah portion in the synagogue,” James said, all in a rush.

“Well then!” I said. “We will see him, of course!” And that was that. After a while, our nets clean and untangled, the fish delivered to market—all but the two fine specimens we would be roasting in the fire that very evening—our work was done, and we returned home.

I had forgotten about the healer, Jesus, reading the Torah on the Sabbath. But as we approached the synagogue, the crowds that gathered around reminded me. They were so thick, we could not get in the door; we huddled outside with people we did not know, from a neighboring village. As I talked to my sons, a slender man brushed by me. The silence that followed him, told me: it was Jesus.

We could hear as the people inside settled down, and Jesus approached the dais and unfurled the scroll. He said he was reading from the prophet Isaiah.

The spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me
    to bring good news to the poor,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim release for captives,
        and liberation for prisoners,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
        and a day of vindication for our God,
    to comfort all who mourn,

     to provide for Zion’s mourners,
    to give them a crown in place of ashes,
    oil of joy in place of mourning,
    a mantle of praise in place of discouragement.
They will be called Oaks of Righteousness,
    planted by the Lord to glorify himself.  ~ Isaiah 61:1-3

There are times when I hear the words from our scriptures… and they stir the soul. They are like a blast of cold sea air, but not in the face… in the heart. When I hear them, I feel a shiver that I can only imagine is the presence of the Lord.

But this time, that presence was so powerful… I know my sons felt it, too.

We left the synagogue in silence. We slowly walked along the dusty road back to our house. None of us spoke, the entire length of the walk, but it wasn’t a strained silence. It was a shared sense of wonder. I knew they’d felt it, without even asking. I knew they’d sensed that the healer Jesus evoked for us the presence of El Shaddai, the Lord.

We had our Sabbath meal, and a quiet day followed. That night, as I lay on my pallet, I had a sense of the most beautiful peace and calm, as if the Sabbath itself had delivered me safe and whole into the hand of the Lord. At the same time, there was a part of me saying, “Remember this. Hold this, tight, in the hand of your heart. This… perfect peace.”

We returned to our work on the first day of the week. Out before dawn to quickly prepare the nets, then rowing out onto the sea. Waiting for just the right texture of ripple in the water, and letting the nets down, then dragging them back towards land with our catch. My sons and I had never worked so perfectly together… we were as one, we understood and intuited on another’s every move. It was a perfect morning.

The afternoon found us sitting in our boat, quietly working our way through the nets, looking for tears or strains in the linen, taking care of them with quick, sure knots and patches. And then I became aware that both my sons’ hands, usually quickly moving at their task, were suddenly still. I looked up at them, and saw that they were, in turn, looking up and across the expanse of shallow water to a man who stood at its edge. Even though I hadn’t had a clear look at him at the synagogue, there was no question in my mind at all: It was Jesus the healer. Jesus the preacher, and teacher. Jesus, whose reading of the Word blasted into my soul with the force of a gale.

He called out to us… no. To them. To James and John. “Follow me,” he said, “and you will be catching people instead of fish.” Before I fully understood what was happening, my sons had risen and stepped out of the boat, their nets forgotten… and walked towards Jesus, who had already turned his back and was heading down the beach towards other boats and other men’s sons.

I called out in half a voice… my throat was constricted so that I could hardly speak. “James! John!” They weren’t too far away… they heard me, and turned back, just for a second. I expected to see sorrow, or shame, or perhaps even annoyance, that I, the old man, had pulled at them, when they were clearly so resolved to go.

But that is not what I read in their faces. Each of them looked back with a radiant smile, and eyes full of wonder and hope. It was at that moment that I remembered the peace and calm of lying in my bed after the Sabbath, how perfectly I had been delivered into the hand of the Lord by hearing the healer Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah. And I understood. I lifted my hand in blessing. “May God bless you and keep you,” I whispered under my breath. And they were gone.

My beautiful Salome responded to the news that our sons were not coming home with a torrent of tears and anguish that could be paralleled only by a storm on the Sea of Galilee. And I understood, truly, I did. But I also understood my sons. And in a small way, I was not surprised.

All this was months ago.

This morning I got into my fishing boat alone, and went out to sea with other boats and other hands that could help me to turn and pull in my nets. And before the sun had risen, while the stars were still high in the sky, I wondered: where they are now, my James and John, and the healer Jesus? And I wondered: are their days with him are as I experienced him for that brief moment… that marvelous, bracing wind, racing through the heart? And I remembered those radiant smiles upon their faces, the glow of life and hope. And I returned to my nets. What is a man to do, when the Holy One calls, but to rise up, and get to the work?