Sermon for January 21st, 2018
Music by Bell Choir:
Awesome God and Almighty arr. Mullins & Watson/Cota
Deep River arr. Morris, Hart
Bulletin Cover: Depictions of fish and fishermen, popular symbols in Christian art, can be found in the colorful floor mosaics at the sixth-century basilica at Horvat Beit Loya (also known as Khirbet Beit Lei). The mosaics were destroyed by iconoclasts in the eighth century. Although the figures have been defaced, one can see on the mosaic medallion from the church’s north aisle (above) that a fisherman has caught a fish and a helmsman is steering the boat with oars. Photo: Gabi Laron.
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
the calling of the disciples lucille clifton
has come on me
i throw down my nets
into water he walks
i loose the fish
he feeds to cities
and everybody calls me
an old name
as I follow out
laughing like God’s fool
behind this Jesus
At A Window Carl Sandburg
Give me hunger,
O you gods that sit and give
The world its orders.
Give me hunger, pain and want,
Shut me out with shame and failure
From your doors of god and fame,
Give me your shabbiest, weariest hunger!
But leave me a little love,
A voice to speak to me in the day end,
A hand to touch me in the dark room
Breaking the long loneliness.
In the dusk of day-shapes
Blurring the sunset,
One little wandering, western star
Thrust out from the changing shores of shadow.
Let me go to the window,
Watch there the day-shapes of dusk
And wait and know the coming
Of a little love.
After John was turned in, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming God’s good news. His message went: “The time is up: the empire of God is arriving! Change your ways, and put your trust in the good news.”
As he was walking along by the Sea of Galilee, he spotted Simon and Andrew, Simon’s brother, casting their nets into the sea-since they were fishermen-and Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I’ll have you fishing for people!”
And right then and there they abandoned their nets and followed him.
When he had gone a little farther, he caught sight of James, son of Zebedee, and his brother John mending their nets in the boat. And right away he called out to them as well, and they left their father Zebedee behind in the boat with the hired hands and accompanied him.
The year was probably 1985 or early 1986. Beverly and I were sitting in the study of Rev. Francis Horner. I had just started to attend White River Presbyterian Church in Auburn, Washington. Bev had been going and had wanted me to go to church with her. One of the first things we attended was a class led by Francis in his study.
He asked the class if God called us to change our lives, to “leave our nets” and follow, would we do it? I don’t really remember what other members of the class had said, but when it came around to our turn to answer, both of us said, “Sure.”
We have laughed at that a lot since then, about how young and naive we were, and yet charmingly adventurous. Maybe I felt safe saying that as I doubted God would ever call me to do anything anyway. “Yeah, sure, if God calls me, I’ll go.”
Sitting in that class was one of the defining moments for us in our marriage. It is something both of us look back on, both surprised at the other’s reaction, and both of us delighted that each of us had picked an adventurous mate.
We have left our nets in different ways throughout our marriage to follow an uncertain call. Uncertain in two ways: Is this really a call from God or something else and uncertain in how we would manage this leaving of nets and following. I continue to hope in my life and our shared life that we would never become so entangled in our nets that we would refuse the invitation to follow the call of Spirit.
I had the honor on Friday of officiating at the graveside service for Charlene Hawkins. Earlier in the week I met with Alan, Michael and Chuck in my study. Alan told me about his life and his ministry with Charlene, leaving a good job with good pay, taking teenage boys across several states to go to Bible college, to prepare for ministry. As Michael put it, “it was all hands on deck” for the family at that time to support each other.
I was inspired by their story. A couple of times, Alan was offered “an out” to take a secular job with higher pay and opportunity, but turned it down. He and Charlene truly had felt a call and he felt his response was to trust the one who called him. Alan told me of their various adventures in ministry and the places they served together, and of course their shared struggle through Charlene’s early onset of Alzheimer’s and yet another call for Alan to leave his nets and be by her side through it all until her baptism was complete just nine or ten days ago.
I asked Alan if he ever looked back thinking he should have taken one of the secular job offers. Moving from pulpit to pulpit isn’t always the easiest thing to do. He shook his said and smiled. “No.” He said they trusted that God would make a way for them and God had.
It was obvious that Alan and Charlene had found their vocation. Author Frederick Buechner defines vocation in this way: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Have you ever wondered what was meant when Mark’s Jesus says: “Follow me and I’ll have you fishing for people?” A fairly common interpretation of that is evangelistic. Catching people, saving people, making them Christians and so forth.
But being caught in a net like a fish doesn’t sound like a pleasant thing. Jeremiah uses this metaphor:
For scoundrels are found among my people;
they take over the goods of others.
Like fowlers they set a trap;
they catch human beings.
For Jeremiah, “catching people” is not a good thing. It is what scoundrels do. Was Jesus calling these disciples to be scoundrels? To trap people? Take their goods? That might be hard to imagine, but opponents of Jesus and his disciples might have thought of them that way. They were kicked out towns, accused of being possessed by demons, of being gluttons and drunks, and of course we know what happened to Jesus.
Later in Jeremiah, the metaphor of fishing and catching people is turned around. In this case, Yahweh is angry with the people of Israel who are treating others unjustly. This is Jeremiah 16:16:
16 I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they shall catch them; and afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks.
In this case, Yahweh is sending out fishermen and hunters to catch the bad guys.
This is even more clear in Amos, when the prophet speaking for Yahweh says to those “who oppress the poor, who crush the needy…”
Amos 4:2: The Lord God has sworn by his holiness:
The time is surely coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
even the last of you with fishhooks.
You definitely do not want to be a fish.
Finally, in Ezekiel 29:4, Yahweh tells the prophet to speak against Pharaoh in Egypt:
I will put hooks in your jaws,
and make the fish of your channels stick to your scales.
I will draw you up from your channels,
with all the fish of your channels
sticking to your scales.
The point is that it is a rather odd image for Jesus to use. Fishing or catching that is ensnaring people is not a positive image in the Bible. Either it is used for bad people who ensnare good people or it is used as a judgment by Yahweh on bad people who have oppressed others. Yahweh through his fishermen will catch them.
Ched Myers in his book, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, says that this call by Jesus is a call to these fishermen to overturn an unjust social order. A paraphrase of the invitation of Jesus is: “Follow me and we’ll catch some big fish, guys. We’ll drain the swamp.”
It may not be that Jesus is calling disciples to save souls for Christ as much as an invitation to overturn an unjust social order. Of course, as we continue to read Mark’s gospel, we realize that what Jesus does is not always what we expect. The disciples often do not know what they have gotten themselves into. The radical ways of Jesus include healing, feeding, embracing, calming storms, welcoming, forgiving, and ultimately, loving those who would be considered enemies, the big fish, with his own life. So maybe fishing for people is conversion, in a way, after all.
I will leave that for you to ponder as I want to turn back to the willingness of the disciples to leave their nets.
“Immediately, they abandon their nets and follow him.”
In one case two brothers, James and John, take off and they leave old Papa Zeb in the boat with the hired hands. Crazy kids leaving responsible employment to follow some long-haired cult leader. There is that, right? This passage can be uncomfortable for us when we think it might justify the young and impressionable following fads or kooks.
That brings up an important question about life, our lives, yours and mine, and the lives of those we love.
Under what conditions do we leave our nets and how do we decide?
Who do we trust?
What are our values?
What are our principles?
What is life for?
To what or to whom do we hold on when it is uncertain?
Big questions. Those kinds of questions are what I think this invitation to discipleship opens for us. I can think of no better place to ask these big questions than in a spiritual community. Take a look around. There is a lot of life experience in this room. Joy, sorrow, success, mistakes, healing, feeding, embracing, calming storms, welcoming, forgiving, loving enemies, it is all here in our collective experience.
People in this room have left their nets and followed a summons. There are many leaving nets stories to be told here. They should be told. They should be shared with those who are questioning. Those who are questioning should ask.
How did that turn out when you left your nets?
What did you see?
What did you learn?
No one can provide answers for us as to how or when or if we should leave our nets in search of the big fish, but we can be inspired as I was inspired by hearing Alan’s story of his life with Charlene.
Southminster is a treasure of stories. Even though leaving nets to follow a call is a decision we each make in our own way, often many times over, we don’t have to decide alone. We have a community. That gift of grace is sitting nearby.