Time to Fish

This sermon was delivered on 1/22/12.

Text: Mark 1:14-20

I am an unlikely fisherman. I don’t have a boat, or a ton of fishing gear. I do not disappear every weekend, nor do I have a Bass Pro Shops credit card.

It even goes deeper than that, though. I am allergic to fish. I have several Epi-pens stashed around in case I inadvertently consume something I shouldn’t; because, if I eat fish, I experience an anaphylactic reaction: my throat closing, blocking God’s life-giving air from reaching my lungs. I break out in hives, as the swelling begins in my ears, eyes, nose, throat; causing the most intense itching you have ever experienced. All before the lights go out and I meet my Maker. Thankfully, I haven’t yet made it to the end of that process.

My allergy sensitivity used to be even worse. As a child, I was so sensitive that I could not touch a fish without a reaction; I could not be in a home or restaurant where fish was fried without risking certain death.

The peculiar thing, when you think about it, is that I ever started fishing in the first place. The obstacles were numerous and severe:

I could not place minnows on my hook.

If fortunate enough to catch something, I could not remove it from my hook.

Should it come off on its own, I could do nothing with it—not put it back into the water, not fillet it to give to anyone, not cook it, and certainly not eat it.

So why did I start fishing? I became a fisherperson because I was called.

 

I had the fortune of knowing a great fisherman: my grandfather. He has fished for years. He knows all the best techniques, has all the proper gear. He has a boat, and has fished the same body of water for decades. And he loved me enough to take me along, to teach me how to fish.

He loved me enough to bait my hook…to remove the fish I caught…to throw back the fish that were too small…to fillet the “keepers”…to cook and eat the day’s catch while I ate hot dogs…

He also loved me enough to weather criticism from others for even teaching me to fish. What is the point, so many wondered, of teaching a person so ill-disposed to the task? Why fish when you can’t eat? Why teach someone who can’t even do it without help?

The answer, of course, was and is love. It was never about fishing; it was always about each other. It was about sharing…growing…developing…together…

 

I read our NT text and I see a lot of Jesus in my grandfather, or perhaps more appropriately, I see a lot of my grandfather in Jesus.

When you consider the tasks that will be required of Jesus’ disciples, you have to second-guess his choices. Here Jesus calls four fishermen, a perfectly respectable if socially low vocation. But these are uneducated tradesmen, whereas a proper Rabbi gleans disciples from the rabbinical schools, persons who have been instructed in religion since childhood.

Maybe they weren’t allergic to fish, but they don’t look like good choices from any perspective.

And lest any of you feel compelled to rush to the disciples’ defense, remember that they are around Jesus 24/7 and still don’t get it.

At the Last Supper they don’t get it.
At Gethsemane, they don’t get it.
At the crucifixion, they don’t get it.
At the empty tomb, they don’t get it.
When the resurrected Jesus appears to them, they don’t get it.
And even when Jesus ascends into heaven, they still don’t get it. An angel has to explain it to them.

The disciples might be fishers of people, but Jesus spends three years baiting hooks, removing the unlikely catch from their lines, preparing their catch, and generally holding their hands throughout the process. As a parent, I have learned just how time consuming this kind of fishing is, what a labor of love, and how difficult it would be for Jesus to do any fishing of his own. But Jesus, like my grandfather and like me now, trusts the process, values the present & relationships over and above the future & a measurable “catch.”

They are as ill-fit to being disciples as I am a fisherperson. But that is the way our God works. That is the way love works. And isn’t it amazing?

 

Jesus is calling to us: It’s time to fish. We don’t need a big bass boat, a $250 baitcaster, or a thousand dollar fly rod. We don’t need a big budget, a flashy house band, or hundreds of people.

When Jesus calls to these four fishermen, he doesn’t tell them to bring their gear, and they don’t ask what equipment they will need. Jesus calls them precisely because they don’t have what it takes; for that guarantees they will receive it from Jesus himself.

For the Kingdom of God is not built by the strong:

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inhereit the earth” (Matt 5:5).

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).

In fact, the only thing remarkable about these four disciples is their response to Jesus. Their obedience to his call is instantaneous, if not complete.

As commentator Elton Brown reminds us, “This is not the end of the story. This is just the beginning… Ahead, for [the disciples] and for us, there is much to learn, much stumbling, misunderstanding, and backsliding. Becoming a faithful Christian disciple takes both a moment and a lifetime” (Feasting, 284-6).

Still, stories like this one legitimize the spontaneous, impulsive trusting of the prompting of the Holy Spirit. They inspire us to listen for the call of our Master, and cause us to reflect on the promptness of our obedience to that call.

There is a remarkable story of such obedience from early Christianity:

Supposedly, Abba Sylvanus, one of the early spiritual leaders in the desert of Egypt, had a disciple named Mark, who was known for his obedience. To support himself, he copied old manuscripts, and Abba Sylvanus loved him because he was so obedient. So much so, in fact, that Abba Sylvanus’ other eleven disciples were jealous that he loved Mark more than them.

Some other Christian leaders heard that Abba Sylvanus was playing favorites, and they were upset by it. They were so bothered by this that they took it upon themselves to visit Abba Sylvanus one day to correct him.

During their visit, Abba Sylvanus took them on a tour of their little community, knocking on the doors to his disciples’ rooms, and saying “Brother, come out, I have work for you.” None of them appeared right away.

When they arrived at Mark’s door, Abba Sylvanus knocked and said “Mark.” As soon as Mark heard the voice of the old man, he came outside and Abba Sylvanus sent him on an errand.

Turning to his inquisitors, Abba Sylvanus asked them, “Where are the other brothers?”

Then they went into Mark’s room and found a book he had been copying when Abba Sylvanus knocked. Mark had been in the middle of writing the letter “O”—a letter with only a single stroke— and—upon hearing his master’s voice—had not even finished writing the “O.”

“Truly,” the visiting leaders said,” we love the one you love, and God loves him too.” (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 123).

Obedience. Radical, immediate obedience is the response to Jesus’ call in this text. These men stop in the middle of what they are doing, somehow recognizing that the call of Jesus takes priority over every other area of life: work…friends…family…possessions…social & cultural obligations……

How often am I too busy to respond to God’s calling?

How many times do I put it off, wanting to finish what I working on?

Do I respond as did Jonah, who first ran in the other direction because he disagreed with God?

How many times will I turn away, before I will accept God’s call?

Do I respond as many would-be disciples in the NT?: “Sure, Jesus, I’ll follow you, but first let me do this…”

Do I spend enough time listening for God that I even notice when God is calling?

Or does the call of Jesus take first priority? Will I allow God to “interrupt” my life and work, not even finishing the letter I am in the middle of writing? Not even hanging up my nets to dry before I walk away?

Jesus is calling: It’s time to fish. Are you coming?

Journeying

I am at an American Baptist Churches, USA, conference in Orlando this week. The theme of the conference is Going to a New Land:Journeying towards God.

In worship this evening, I found myself deeply disturbed. We sang, we praised, we joined in song, and we began singing the hymn “Holy, holy, holy.”

The room erupted–500 strong–with American Baptists singing with great intensity. All present seemed to pour everything they were and had into enunciating these words and vocalizing these votes. It was truly amazing, prompting tweets on our hashtag like “Holy Holy Holy + 500 voices = amazing (by my friend @celticwander).

But while most were inspired, I found myself disturbed. For some time I wrestled with my unease. St. Ignatius was encouraging me to pay attention to it, to spend some time present with my unease.

As American Baptists, we are a diverse group. Many ethnicities, languages, and geographic regions are represented at this gathering. Sometimes we do well about mixing & honoring one another, sometimes not.

I realized my unease was not a condemnation, but a wondering: What might this gathering (& the ABC & the religious landscape of the US…) look like if we invested that much in each other? If we were focused on overcoming those differences among us to accomplish something real & lasting? What if we put the same amount of energy into our relationships as we did in singing this one old song?

I know I will get some flack for this, but I don’t know how interested God is in being told God is holy. And I can’t remember anywhere in the narratives of the Bible where humans are proclaiming the holiness of God. The Psalter, yes. And angels–angels always seem to say that God is holy. I’m no angel.

We are “going to a new Land.” But are we going together? Are we trying to get there first? Do we sufficiently respect one another to believe that God might have given THEM the key to OUR own journey? Can we come together to do more than sing a hymn that is older than any of us?

I cannot help but think that this is a key to our collective & individual journeys. If our communities will ever be able to think of our churches as places where there is intelligent discourse and intellectual & spiritual freedom–not to mention genuine love & understanding–we must first learn ourselves to come together: really, truly, genuinely, and wholly.

Wherever your journey takes you, I will be trying to find places for our paths to cross. My “journey to God” is headed your way.

Close the door, draw the blinds, turn out the lights–but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

From Africa with Love

In the course of an average week, I probably receive four to six emails from persons wanting my help getting money out of Africa. Using an average of five (to make the math easier), I receive around 250 such emails in a year. It is all bogus, of course, and thankfully my spam filters catch two-thirds or so of these.

Only recently have I discovered that many think these scams are urban legend. They have never seen one themselves, let alone knowingly received one. (I am curious whether their spam filtering is just more successful keeping the stray email at bay, whereas mine ultimately succumbs to the blitz).

I have long thought that I received so much spam of this sort because my email address is publicly available online. But lately I’m beginning to wonder.

Could it be that this is a deliberate strike, that pastors are targeted. Are pastors are fertile soil for these shady hope-mongers? Do these con artists find such blind desire for money and escape among clergy? Are we, as a profession, so starved and scarred that we will follow any promise if it purports to lead us to wealth & security? What does this say about the level of self-care performed by clergy? What does this say about the level of clergy-care performed by congregations?

Or is it because we help people? Yeah, I’m sure that’s it…

Filling Vision

Scripture Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-10

Vision just might be the most valuable commodity in the world today.

Not eyesight-vision, but vision-for-the-future vision

Consider: the outrageous wages paid to CEO’s of major corporations, expecting as it were that their vision will lead them into a future of greater prosperity.

Consider: the turnover rate of leadership in many congregations, as they shop for the vision that will lead them out of the wilderness and into the promised land flowing with milk and honey.

Vision—and the lack thereof—is of vital importance in our text today.

1 Samuel 3 opens by introducing the young Samuel, a priest-in-training under Eli. “And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision” (v.1).

What does this mean for young Samuel? Demographics are shifting. Traditions lose momentum. Cultural and societal changes shift commitments and expectations.

Does Samuel see himself learning a dying profession? Has he accepted a status quo of “going through the motions” as the ship goes down? What kind of future, if any, does Samuel see?

We expect that Samuel’s seeing is important because his mentor—Eli—has lost his actual eyesight. The blindness that afflicts Eli is clearly of both a physical and spiritual nature.

The setting of this tale is the night, and darkness—inhibiting vision even further—blankets Eli and Samuel as they lay down to bed. Only one flickering light of hope remains: the lamp of God, which has itself almost succumbed to the darkness.

 

Have you ever noticed how your brain races when you lie in bed at night, staring at the vague gray of the ceiling? It is hard to stop my brain from thinking about my day, the day to come, things that need done, bills that need paid, where I am short, what I could have done better, and how I feel about persons and circumstances. Instead of a time of silence and rest, it frequently leads to inflamed emotions and restlessness.

For many of us, those moments between wakefulness and sleep are the only pause in our day: the only time we are forced to face ourselves, our actions and inactions, our hopes and disappointments, and perhaps even our God.

It has been suggested that a great deal of alcohol abuse in our society takes place so as to shortcut this gray area between wakefulness and sleep. In order to avoid having to look at themselves in the mirror of the darkness of night, many self-medicate to avoid the reflection and self-awareness that comes with pause.

This seems to happen in our spiritual lives as well. Thomas Merton suggests that “most of us avoid silence and the ‘inner self’ because we are unable to face ‘ourselves…[so] we keep running and never stop'” (Kindling Desire, Northcutt, 105).

Constant activity disorients us. Especially us, meaning small churches. We get so busy fulfilling our programmatic commitments that we lose touch with the Divine Mystery. Parker Palmer suggests that “Too many of us spend time doing things for which we have no heartfelt reason” (Active Life, 39).

Sometimes though, our “heartfelt reason” is that we somehow believe we will be saved by our constant activity and overcommitments. We are so ready to do anything that “we move ahead with vision statements and meetings with consultants, or making motions and voting on them; we decide what to do, all without considering where God is calling us to be” (http://thehardestquestion.org/yearb/epiphany2ot-2/).

We get focused on the “laborers are few” part without considering whether the harvest we are trying to bring in belongs to the Lord of the Harvest.

There is a mathematical principle known as the Infinite Monkey Theorem, which states that “a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare” (Wikipedia, s.v. “Infinite Monkey Theorem,” 1/12/12).

Unfortunately, many of us have been deceived into thinking that the Christian life and ministry works the same way. We bang away at the keyboard of life, a flurry of activity. But our chances of getting it right are about the same as the monkey’s. It takes Divine insight and direction to discern not just what can be attempted, but how and where God desires us to act.

And this—God’s insight—makes the difference between advancing the Reign of God and soothing our own egos with a sense of accomplishment.

Now I am particularly cautious about scapegoating, but I wonder in our text if there is a connection between lack of vision and the constant activity that characterized Temple life. Did Eli, for instance, learn a priestly trade that centered exclusively on the performance of sacrifice and religious service, thereby pushing reflection and vision to the margins? Do we sacrifice reflection and the pursuit of divine vision on the alter of constant activity, due to the false feeling of accomplishment that activity sometimes provides?

Of course, lest we get carried away too soon, we must read “the rest of the story,” as the late Paul Harvey would say.

 

Laying in bed…staring into the darkness and himself…Samuel—whose name means “one who hears God”—hears a voice calling his name. Three times he checks on the aged Eli, because (as the text says) “Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him” (v.7).

Third time being the charm, Eli—lacking vision both metaphorically and biologically—experiences a flash of wisdom. Perhaps (I like to believe) he suddenly recalls a time in his distant youth when God whispered his name in the darkness of night. It is God, he realizes, who speaks to Samuel.

And God calls on Samuel once again—inspiring us all to recognize the infinite persistence of God’s love and desire for us—and Samuel responds as Eli instructs: “Speak, for your servant hears” (vv.9-10).

God speaks. Samuel listens.

It is only after hearing that Samuel is able to act in profound ways. Only after listening and discerning to the Divine Voice can Samuel embody God’s desire through action.

Times of reflection provide space for discernment and transformation, while simultaneously driving activity as a response to what one learns of God’s action in us. Living out that activity subsequently demands a return to reflection and prayer in this perpetual cycle of holistic ministry and life.

This cycle of receptivity to God and activity in the world is very much like the rhythm practiced by Jesus himself. As teacher and preacher Kay Northcutt identifies, “Jesus [demonstrated] a balanced pattern of active ministry alternating with receptive prayer, rest—or simply being with God. Jesus alternated between doing for God and being with God, between action…and contemplation, between activity toward God and receptivity of God” (Kindling Desire, 106).

After Jesus heals the man with a withered hand in Luke 6:6-11, he “went out to the mountain to pray and all night he continued in prayer to God” (v.12).

Similarly, Mark 1:21-34 describes a very busy day for the Messiah: casting out demons & unclean spirits, and healing the sick and curing various diseases. The next morning, Jesus retreats to pray: “rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, [Jesus] departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (v.35).

After the feeding of the 5000, Luke 9:18 tells us that Jesus retreats with some of the disciples. Immediately after this conversation, an even smaller group accompany Jesus “up on the mountain to pray” (v.28).

And of course we cannot forget Gethsemane, that calm-before-the-storm of the Passion, a time of intense prayer and pursuit of Divine Vision.

Over and over we see Jesus model the intrinsically valuable balance of both spheres of activity and receptivity.

Not long ago, I heard a story that I find inspires this balance.

 

This anecdote was communicated by local radio personality Peter Segel, though the story was originally told to him more than 10 years ago by his friend, Morgan Ganesse.

When the story happened, Morgan was a dramaturg, which is sort of an editor of plays, someone who works with playwrights.

When Morgan was a young woman and living in NYC, she had trouble finding herself. She came from a difficult background and was very uncertain of herself. For whatever reason, she had become obsessed with Mother Teresa.

For some reason, in her young mind—and this is around 1980-81—Mother Teresa was the epitome of human beings, the best kind of human there was. And Morgan so wanted to be like or with Mother Teresa.

One day she read in the paper that Mother Teresa was coming to NYC—to visit the UN or testify about something or other. Morgan was such a Mother Teresa fan that she found out what hotel Mother Teresa was staying at, and proceeded to stalk Mother Teresa.

So she is there, outside the hotel, watching through binoculars, backseat full of empty coffee cups and fast food bags, and a car pulls up and all these penguin-like nuns get out. And finally, at the back of the line is Mother Teresa.

So Morgan runs up to Mother Teresa, who was an old woman even at that time, and says: “O Mother Teresa, I am so glad to meet you, Mother Teresa. The work you do is so wonderful.”

And Mother Teresa was very nice and took her hand and listened to her. Morgan said: “The work you do is so important and it is so wonderful, and I so much—I want to come to Calcutta and do that work with you because I think it is so wonderful!”

Mother Teresa just shook her head and said, “No, no. You don’t do this work because you think it is good. You do this work because you so love the people of Calcutta that you can’t be away from them. That’s when you come and do this work.”

So Morgan kind of realized she had been busted in a nice way, and kind of nodded and understood.

Then Mother Teresa said, “What do you do?” And Morgan said, “Well, what I do isn’t important. What I do is work in a theater, and I just help put on plays. What use is that?”

Mother Teresa said to Morgan: “There are so many different kinds of famine in this world. In my country there is a famine of the body. In this country there is a famine of the spirit. Stay here and feed your people.” (Transcribed from The Moth Podcast, Dec 5, 2011).

 

Mother Teresa’s words perfectly encapsulate the Gospel message, and they perfectly encapsulate the challenges we face today. Look around this church. Look at the people who are here. Go out these doors into the community. Talk to people. Prayerfully reflect on who and what you see and who and what you don’t. Love these people so much that you have to do this work.

“There are different kinds of famine in this world.” The mission of this church—the mission of each Christian here—is to feed these people. In order to identify the famine that surrounds us—in order to discern God’s mission for this church, we must not fail to make space for contemplation, for reflection, for receptivity.

We choose our heritage: will we, like Eli, be characterized by restless activity in the shadows as the light of God flickers and dies out? Or are we, like Samuel, willing to face ourselves in the darkness of night as we risk hearing a Voice whisper our name?

There is a famine in the land.

Feed my sheep.

Let us pray:

God of Beginning, Middle, and End,

This weekend we honor one of your saints, Martin King, who looked at this world and shared a dream—your dream—of what can be.

That dream—of little children holding hands—of persons being judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin—sounds an awful lot like the Kingdom of God, where “there is not Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, or free—but Christ is all, and in all” (Col 3:11).

Martin King reminds us today that in the topsy-turvy, inside-out realm of your Kingdom, our dream must be your dream; our vision, your vision; if we aim to fulfill your mission int his community and beyond.

Show us, O Lord, your way. Amen.

Ancient Enemies

The blitz came hard and fast.

It was anticipated, but the force and speed still made an impact. One day temperatures are in the 50’s and we’re wearing t-shirts; the next the temperature is 20 and snow has locked everything and everyone down.

It’s an easy truce we have between snow and life here in the Midwest. Snow is a vicious partner, knowing and exploiting its upper hand over life. Life endures, knowing that Snow cannot reign forever. There will be a delay, yes, but life here knows the setback is temporary. The plows will come, salt and sand will be laid, and life simply adjusts to these increasing time requirements.

With snow, we slow down. We go out less; stay in more. Spend more time with family. Help shovel the neighbor’s driveway. Check on that driver by the side of the road. It seems we only become truly human when we are oppressed by the almighty forces of winter.

Which brings me to…well…me. Cold and snow awaken something raw and untamed in me that slumbers most of the year. Which is why–while everyone else is playing Yahtzee in front of their fireplaces–I am trekking through this winter wonderland.

Snow envelops my obscured shape, blurring vision. Shards of ice are hurled into my skin. My defiance dares the wind to blow harder, the cold to bite more severely. Clusters of winter’s worst knot my beard.

And I know I am strong. This foe, Winter’s Snow, is one I have battled my entire life. It shall not overcome me. It is dangerous, to be sure; but it is impotent against me. This is not a battle it will win. Not today, anyway.

My spouse is confident I am insane. She may be right. But I am a survivor. I have taken on Winter’s Snow and I have conquered by a combination of will, defiance, and Divine Grace.

I say a prayer of thanks for my enemy, Snow, for it has made me stronger. Come what may, I am strong enough to overcome. Will, defiance, and Divine Grace has carried me this far. And it will carry me until tomorrow. That, for today, is enough.