Listen to Jesus Christ + Dolly Parton: Leave Your Nets; Be Free on Purpose
A Sermon for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN
by The Rev. Craig Lemming, Associate Rector
Sunday, January 26, 2020 – Third Sunday after the Epiphany
In the name of Jesus who calls us to leave our nets and to be free to love and to serve others on purpose. Amen.
It is with immense gratitude that I return to St. John’s after a marvelous family vacation with my parents, my brother and his wife, and my magnificent nieces. Being on the ocean reminded me of Karen Blixen’s famous quote: “I know a cure for everything: salt water… in one way or the other. Sweat, or tears, or the salt sea.”(1) The Atlantic Ocean, warm sunshine, and time with my beloved family not only cured me from a terrible cold and a deep longing to be with family; our time in the sun and salt sea also cured me from a deep spiritual ennui; a listlessness; a spiritual funk. Thanks to time in the salt sea, in the words we pray at Compline, I could truly let my fears of the darkness of the world and of my own life rest in God. (2) I could let go of my fears and anxieties and simply trust in God again. Trust in God’s goodness and mercy. Trust in God’s presence in loved ones; God’s presence in strangers; and God’s presence in me. I believe that this trust in God’s call on each of our lives to be free from fears and anxieties, and to trust in following the way of Jesus, on purpose, is the Truth proclaimed in today’s Gospel.
Before we delve into the Gospel itself, let’s take a brief detour here into the magnificent world of “Dolly Parton’s America.” (3) Lest you think that I’ve spent too much time in the sun and have completely lost my mind, trust me when I say that country music icon Dolly Parton has much to teach us about following the way of Jesus. “Dolly Parton’s America” is a nine-part, non-fiction podcast series hosted by Lebanese-American Jad Abumrad, whose overall thesis explores how it is that in these dark, bitterly divided times, Dolly Parton is someone with whom we can all agree.
On the podcast, Professor of history and southern studies at the University of Mississippi Dr. Jessica Wilkerson says that Dolly Parton concerts are the most diverse place she’s ever been. She sees multi-racial audiences. People wearing cowboy hats and boots. She sees people in drag. Church ladies. Lesbians holding hands. Little girls who were there with their families. I learned that Dolly Parton’s fanbase has shifted in the last decade from 80% over the age of 55 to 80% under the age of 55; that women, LGBTQ folks, and immigrants everywhere find hope, inspiration, and healing in Dolly’s songs; and that her music connects people globally: from Arabs in the mountains of Lebanon, to folks in rural Appalachia, and farmers in Kenya. In episode six, I was moved to tears when I learned that whilst imprisoned on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela played Dolly Parton records over the prison’s loud speakers because Madiba knew that in Apartheid South Africa both the black prisoners and the white prison guards would identify and commune with the suffering, joy, and human longing for unity expressed in the words Dolly Parton sang. Hers is a voice of freedom that liberates people of all backgrounds. I would argue that Dolly Parton embodies the Anglican “Both/And.”
What does this have to do with today’s Gospel? The story of Jesus calling the first disciples invites us to ponder how the voice of God calls us to leave the nets that hold us captive in order to be free to love and to serve others on purpose. Like those fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, we oftentimes get caught up with nets that we continuously mend and thoughtlessly cast into this sea of existence that seems to grow more and more chaotic and meaningless every day. Nets that God calls us to leave in order to have life and have it abundantly. (4)
As [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And [Jesus] said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and [Jesus] called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed [Jesus]. (Matthew 4:18-22)
The disciples’ courage to immediately leave the work and relationships, the nets and the networks upon which their survival depended, is astonishing. Why would they do this? The Rev. Dr. Barbara Holmes, affectionately known as “Dr. B” when she served as the president of my alma mater, preached a sermon on my first day as a seminarian that stuck with me and helps explain the disciples’ decision. When it comes to Vocation: God’s call on each of our lives, Dr. B said that when you hear that voice, “you’ve got to leave what you know to get what you need.” When the Disciples heard that voice of Jesus saying, “follow me,” they had to leave what they knew to get what they needed. God called them away from nets of mere survival into the Way of Jesus – an abundant new life, on fire with purpose, love, and service – a life in which they would not merely survive but be free to thrive.
There are people who are so alive in their vocation, so on fire with their life purpose, so in love with God’s call on their lives that their warmth and light and energy are irresistible. We feel drawn to the freedom they exude, and we feel liberated to be as free as they are. I believe that the disciples witnessed this irresistible warmth, light, and energy in Jesus, whose life was lived so authentically and genuinely on purpose that they proclaimed the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2).
Dolly Parton is one of the great fishers of people. An authentic sinner-saint who acknowledges her shortcomings; who humbly follows the way of Jesus; who believes in the God of love and grace; and whose light, warmth, energy, music and lyrics liberate her and others – young and old, rich and poor, strong and weak – to be free; to be who they are; and to thrive in the abundant life God desires for all of us to live. We can’t all be like Dolly Parton, but we can live lives steeped in a well-discerned purpose. We can live lives in which our unique, God-given gifts are shared freely in loving and serving God in others. We can leave the nets that hold us captive and follow the way of Jesus – the Way of Love, because “to serve [God] is perfect freedom.” (The Book of Common Prayer, 99). It takes immense strength and courage, but we can let go of our nets of fear and anxiety and trust again in God who gives us grace to answer readily the call of Jesus and proclaim to all people the Good news of God’s unconditional love. That’s when we are fully alive. That’s when our purpose is ignited, and we become the light, warmth, and energy of Christ’s love in service and perfect freedom.
I leave you with the immortal words of Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” (5) Or, in Dolly Parton’s words: “Find out who you are, then be that on purpose.” Amen.
- Isak Dinesen, Seven Gothic Tales (New York, NY: Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 2011), 39.
- John 10:10.
- Howard Thurman, Sermons On the Parables (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2018), chapter 12.