Based on Luke 5:1-11
Benjamin Harrison was a rather rotund founding father. The father of future US President William Henry Harrison and the great-grandfather of namesake and also future US President Benjamin Harrison had come to Philadelphia on this hot summer day in 1776 for the second meeting of the Continental Congress. The Virginia Assembly had elected him one of their delegates, representing the interests of patriots in the royal colony of Virginia; the largest and perhaps most powerful of the thirteen.
After several rounds of voting and heated debate, the congress finally came to agreement on revisions to Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Following John Hancock’s famous signature, a line formed for the delegates to come up and sign the document that would cross the Atlantic to be delivered to King George III, a document in which their signatures sealed their status as traitors to the crown.
Elbridge Gerry, future US Vice President and rather skinny founding father, especially compared to his rather rotund compatriot Harrison, found Benjamin after they had both signed. In front of many other founding fathers, mindful of the treason they had just committed and the penalty of death for such treason, Harrison slapped Gerry on the back and jokingly remarked:
“When the hanging comes, Gerry, I shall have the advantage. [My weight means] you’ll still be hanging there a half hour after it’s all over with me!”
Our founding fathers were known to have such a morbid sense of humor, knowledgeable that their actions on this hot July day in 1776 amounted to treason. They knew such treason came with costly consequences to their life, their liberty, and their pursuit of happiness. In fact, most had found comfortable lives in their home colonies. Almost all were wealthy and most had significant influence in their home towns or even nationally. Resistance to the crown constituted nothing less than a significant risk of their property, their fortunes, and their reputations.
Thomas Jefferson, then, spoke for all of them in his writing at the very end of the Declaration of Independence. We speak often of the beginning, but the ending seems to really capture the feeling of these men at this moment in history. Jefferson wrote,
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, or fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
These men, the ones whom we call today our founding fathers, believed so fervently in the principles of the enlightenment, principles of consent of the governed, of the inherent worth of human life, of freedom, that they willingly and knowingly risked their lives, the lives of their families, their wealth and property, and their reputation. Had the revolution they launched gone terribly wrong and the colonies remained in British hands, all of them would have hung as traitors, just as Harrison joked with Gerry.
The founding fathers reordered their very lives in pursuit of ideals higher than themselves. They took tremendous risk individually for the benefit of their community. And in fact, many of them suffered great personal losses, whether the loss of property, the destruction of houses, the loss of the lives of family members, or imprisonment under the harshest conditions imaginable. Their commitment to the cause of the colonies required a radical reordering of their lives, their fortunes, and, as Jefferson stated, their sacred honor.
That commitment stood in stark contrast to many of their time who held similar beliefs but refused to act upon them.
In the parlors and salons and bars and coffee shops of the eighteenth century, the learned and the growing middle class alike were on fire about ideas from philosophers like John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Hobbes, Renee Descartes, among others. These men espoused ideas that populations should be able to choose their own governments, that all humanity was of equal worth, that individuals deserved to be able to chart their own paths in life, that no government nor agency should have power to determine the steps of individuals nor should be able to use individuals as pawns in their power schemes.
Holding these kind of enlightenment beliefs was fashionable, and those who held onto the old beliefs in kings and queens and royalty and rule by a chosen few, those called the monarchists, were increasingly shunned and a diminishing minority. If you wanted to be popular, especially in the colonies in the eighteenth century, you wanted to be a child of the enlightenment, espousing enlightenment beliefs. That was what the cool kids did.
Here, on the shore of the lake of Gennesaret, was a man as popular as Locke or Kant or Hobbes or Descartes early in his ministry. Jesus, in Luke’s account, was hugely popular. He had attracted a huge following. In fact, Luke tells us that one of the reasons Jesus got into a boat at all was to escape the crushing mass of people trying to get access to him. Jesus was already known as a miracle worker, someone who spoke with authority, someone who, in short, could change lives and be transformative. His ideas were spreading across the countryside. One can imagine that the first century versions of parlors, salons, coffee shops, and bars were alight with Jesus’s ideas. The cool kids, at least early in his ministry, followed and discussed and raved about Jesus.
Once on the boat, Jesus quickly moves to demonstrate his power once again, helping yield such a haul of fish that the boats began to sink. Now, fishing boats of this era were roughly the size of the [stage] chancel area, so imagine with me a boat that’s full of fish to the brim spanning the [width and length of the stage] altar rail all the way back to the wall behind the choir loft and all the way across from one side to the other. That’s a lot of fish! The men, including Simon Peter, James, and John, all future disciples of Christ, had just made a small fortune instantly because of this man! They must have been excited at their great turn of luck, for they had the potential to generate some serious wealth based off this haul.
It must strike us as odd, then, that Peter would fall on his knees saying that he was a sinful man and that Jesus, whom he calls Lord, should go away from him. Jesus at this moment looks like their golden ticket to wealth! And yet Peter is moved in a different kind of way. Jesus responds saying not to be afraid, for now they’d be fishing for people.
Which leads to the remarkable thing. They’re standing with a huge load of fish. Their ship has literally come in. They are about to be wealthy, to have all their money problems go away. As Jefferson would put it, they had a fortune.
And they leave it all behind and follow this guy whom they probably only know by reputation. They walk away from a huge pile of money in the haul of fish they just caught.
And besides leaving the money of the fish behind, Peter and James and John probably owned their own ships, so they have significant money invested in their business. Fathers often passed down trades to their sons, so they’d probably been fishermen for generations, meaning they’re not only leaving a significant investment, but they’re also walking away from a family tradition, a family inheritance. In short, Peter, James, and John leaving to follow Jesus comes at significant cost and significant risk.
After all, Jesus is new to this ministry thing. He’s at the beginning of his three year ministry and no one has a sense of what he will do yet. Jesus doesn’t explain what this whole fishing for people thing means. It only seems to contain a vague thought that they’d be followers of Jesus, a special group around him, which gave them access to one of the most popular men in Galilee.
This knowledge of special privilege with Jesus, when weighed against leaving their significant investment and haul of wealth, seems to argue against leaving everything to follow this untested man. The thing that makes sense is to stay with the boat, cash in on the haul of fish, and keep doing what the family has been doing for generations. Following an unproven man with popular ideas contains great risk for their “lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.”
And, indeed, that risk would cost them greatly. The disciples feared for their lives during Jesus’s trial and crucifixion. Even after the resurrection, John’s gospel tells us they were hiding in a room out of fear for their lives. And after they had begun ministry following Pentecost, they still risked persecution and torture. Peter, we know, was martyred at Rome’s main cemetery, Vatican Hill, which is now the site of St.Peter’s basilica at the Vatican. Thomas may have journeyed to India, risking greatly crossing the deserts of the middle east and dying in obscurity. Many of the disciples fates we do not know, but we know that the first hundred years of Christianity was a difficult time to be called a Christian and any follower risked persecution, imprisonment, torture, and execution, all the more so for one of the original followers of Christ himself! The disciples’ decision, starting here with leaving of everything behind, cost them dearly.
The founding fathers were no different. Robert Morris of Pennsylvania, one of the richest men this country has ever seen, went bankrupt and died a pauper after almost single-handedly propping up Washington’s army and the country’s economy. Lewis Morris and Francis Lewis, both of New York, lost their homes to the British and had members of their family imprisoned and brutalized. Richard Stockton of New Jersey, a deep and great patriot, lost his honor and reputation in an honest deal to have him freed by General Washington from prison, dying an outcast from the country he helped found. And Lyman Hall of our own Georgia had invested his entire family fortune in founding the town of Sunbury, not far from modern day Augusta. When the British came through during the South Carolina campaign, they burned the city down to the ground and Hall lost everything. The founders’ decision, starting with the signing of the declaration, cost them dearly.
It’s easy to see how the risks taken by the disciples and the founding fathers were all worth it, for we have the great benefit of hindsight. But imagine yourself in that moment, signing the Declaration, knowing you’re committing treason, or standing on the shore of lake Gennesaret, having decided to leave behind your profession and a fortune in fish. What would lead someone to take such risks, such gambles; to risk their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor?
Admittedly, the founders and disciples were very different groups of men who faced very different situations. But faced with the same decision to act on their beliefs or stay fashionable, to risk greatly or remain comfortable in their lives, both groups chose action over comfort. Why?
We can look back and see why their sacrifices were worth it: a great nation in existence now for 241 years and a world-wide church with 2 billion adherents and the spread and immeasurable impact of the gospel message for 2000 years. But the founders and disciples had no knowledge of any of this; they didn’t have the benefit of hindsight. All they knew was their beliefs and the inherent risks. And yet, even knowing the risks, they chose to act. Why? What would lead them to take such risks? To act so boldly?
It’s a question I have often pondered. These men acted boldly. These men chose to not just be fashionable, but to put their beliefs into practice. These men chose the greater good over their individual fortune. These men chose to, as Gandhi would later eloquently put it, “be the change they wished to see in the world.” These men felt the burden of their convictions and chose to act. These men, as we would put it in church, responded to the call of God on their lives.
They said “Yes!” to God’s call.
That is why they acted so boldly and took such great risks. They heard the call of God on their lives and said “yes.”
God’s call doesn’t often make sense to us and may not give us the benefit of the long-term vision of the future. God’s call is to participate in God’s long-term vision, making a difference for a future we cannot see nor will we likely experience. We might say, the call of God often doesn’t seem rational.
Such was true of the founding fathers. They didn’t have the benefit of the long-term vision, nor did most live to see the day when this country stabilized and emerged onto the world stage. Many scholars point to the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 as the moment the United States became a stable nation, equal in stature to other world powers. By 1823, 53 of the 56 signers of the Declaration were dead. That means that 95% of the founders never saw their vision for this country realized. Think of that. Almost all of them never got to realize the dream they suffered for, they risked for, they even died for.
The disciples actions didn’t make rational sense either when considered against all they stood to lose. They didn’t benefit from the long-term vision, nor did they live to see the day when the church became a stable institution. Many scholars consider the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 as the point at which Christianity became a world religion. Most, if not all, of the disciples were dead by about the year 75, some 250 years before the Council of Nicaea. Think of that; the disciples never saw their vision for the church realized. All were dead before they could realize the dream they suffered for, they risked, for, they even died for.
And yet, they all chose to act, and we, today, benefit from their actions. They heard the call of God on their lives and they said “Yes!,” willing to, as verse 11 says, “leave everything and follow [God].” And for their yes, we can sit in this church, worshipping as a free and informed citizenry the God we understand as love and as our salvation because of Jesus.
Because of these examples of the founders’ and disciples’ “Yes!” to the call of God, the question then comes before us: are we willing to risk and act boldly for the cause of Christ; the cause of reconciliation in this world, the cause of furthering the Kingdom of God marked by love and peace? Are we willing to give up our long-term visions and enter into God’s long-term vision, even if we cannot see the results?
God’s call on all of our lives is to enter into the greater story of the Kingdom of God, acting for the Kingdom as the Holy Spirit leads us to. The long-term vision is God’s; one of seeking relationship with all people. We do not have full understanding of our role in that vision, in that Kingdom, we do not know the full consequences of our actions, and yet God asks that we risk much, that we put aside our comfort to be bold for Christ. We are simply asked to say Yes!
Our Yes! To God enables God to work through us, moving in powerful ways such that our actions today, while perhaps risking our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor; while perhaps making us uncomfortable, will reverberate for generations. When we choose risk over comfort, when we choose action over being fashionable, God’s power moves through us, establishing the Kingdom in our midst, doing far more than we could ever ask or imagine.
Our Yes! Lives into the example of the founding fathers and disciples who took such risks, who chose risk over comfort, who chose action over being fashionable.
The question then for us this morning is this: are our beliefs fashionable or are they actionable?
There’s a call on each of our lives to act out of our faith, to take bold risks and dare greatly for the sake of the cross.
So this morning, I ask you, what is God’s call on your life? It may not make rational sense and it may involve significant risk, but there’s a call on all of our lives to join in God’s work to bring love and peace to everyone.
If you’re not sure how God is calling you, I encourage you today to prayerfully ask God for that call. There’s a call there, no matter age, no matter station in life, no matter what. Sometimes, it takes prayer to make us receptive to that call. And I’m always available to pray and discern with you as you seek God’s call on your life. The altar rail is open to you after you have received of the elements to make just such a prayer.
If you’re sure of the call, but unsure how to respond, I encourage you to prayerfully ask God for direction. There’s a direction that probably involves risk and sacrifice, and prayer can help us find the strength and faith to make those difficult choices as we say “Yes!” to the call of God on our lives. I’m happy to walk that journey with you, praying with you, helping you respond faithfully to God’s call.
For there’s a call on our lives. Are your beliefs fashionable or actionable? Do you know God’s call on your life? Are you willing to take the risks for the sake of the cross?
Faith means having actionable beliefs, faith means being bold, being brave, being risky, pledging our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor as we live into the example of the founding fathers and disciples, responding to the call of God, even this morning, with a resounding “Yes!”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.