Monday, January 23, 2017

Sermon - Fishing for People

Isaiah 9:1-4
1st Cor. 1:10-18
Matt. 4:12-23

Two people were talking about fishing. One said to the other, "I am NEVER going to take my son fishing with me, ever again!"

"That bad, huh?"

"He did everything wrong! He did everything wrong! He talked too much, made the boat rock constantly, tried to stand up in the boat, baited the hook wrong, used the wrong lures and WORST of all he caught more fish than me!"

What do we imagine when we think of the disciples fishing before Jesus called them?  What do you think of when you think of fishing?  When we go fishing, it is to be a relaxing time of sitting, thinking, maybe talking with a couple close friends.  It is usually not too strenuous and it is enjoyable, a “get away”.  But the reality of fishing as a livelihood is very, very different.  Fishing was extremely unpredictable work, and hard, work.  It was also very dangerous as storms could arise, especially in those days before we had satellite weather systems, with very little warning.  If any of you have read Ernest Hemingway’s book, The Old Man and the Sea, you’ve had a glimpse of just how deadly and dangerous fishing really can be.  While this portrays fishing in a different part of the world than in our biblical story, we none the less gain from this story a picture of what a fisherman’s life can really be like.  The story opens with the old man, Santiago, who is a professional fisherman, having gone 84 days without catching a fish.  He lives on the fish that he catches and so to go 84 days, or nearly three months, without having caught anything is very serious and very scary.  It is so scary that the parents of the boy who has been apprenticed to Santiago refuse to let their son work with him any longer, believing him to be bad luck.  The rest of the story involves Santiago’s struggle with a single fish, a marlin.  He struggles day and night with the Marlin for over three days.  Much of his fishing equipment is destroyed in the struggle.  When the fish finally dies, sharks come and eat every useful piece of the marlin, leaving Santiago with nothing but the skeleton, head and tail.  While this is a story, it is also an accurate portrayal of some of the challenges that fishermen face.  And while the struggles of those in the Biblical stories would be different, for one thing, it was a different type of fishing, the fact remains that the lives of fisher-folk are extremely difficult, and extremely dangerous.
It is to people who lived this dangerous, day-to-day subsistence living that Jesus came.  It is to these hardworking, courageous folk that Jesus said, “come with me and I will make you fishers of people.”  They are being asked to leave a very difficult existence.  But what are they being asked to do instead?  Is it easier, do we suppose, to fish for people than to fish for fish?
Matthew begins today’s passage by referring to the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali.  These were cities that had suffered a great deal.  Jesus begins his preaching ministry in a place where the need is greatest, where there is deep pain.  Matthew then continues by quoting the passage we read today from Isaiah.  While he only quotes the beginning of the passage, the part that proclaims the light that comes into the great darkness, the rest of the passage from Isaiah offers an even more clear example of how that light might shine.  It continues, as we read in today’s passage from Isaiah, by reminding the people that Gideon defeated the hordes of Midian and broke their domination over Israel with a very small army.  God had told Gideon to send back most of his troops so that God might show that with a very small group, with a very few faithful people, God was yet powerful enough to defeat great armies and to overcome oppression.   Matthew begins to quote this passage from Isaiah that his readers would have known well, “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light”.  The readers of the time would have known how this passage in Isaiah continues by talking about the day that Midian was defeated by this small group of God’s people.  Oppression had been halted by these few for the Israelities.  By quoting this passage, Matthew is laying out right away that Jesus will succeed, that God’s people will see the light in this time of great darkness, even against all odds, and even with just a very few faithful people.  But he is also assuring them in no uncertain terms that the work will be hard, will be a challenge against all odds, will lead to crucifixion before it leads to resurrection and life.
This is the work of fishing for people into which Jesus invited those who became his disciples.  This is the difficult road to which they have been called.
We, too, are invited to be part of this journey.  To lay aside our focus on the hard work of surviving, and instead enter into the hard work of doing God’s will, defeating oppression, bringing people to a deeper sense of God’s presence and God’s light, fishing for people, or rather, being a light in the darkness of the lives around us, bringing light and hope to all we encounter.
But as we know it can be very difficult to continue to shine that light when the darkness is strong, and when it feels like we are not getting anywhere by shining the light.  I mentioned a couple weeks ago the 12 step wisdom of the saying “act as if”.  This means that even when it is hard to see the good that is coming out of the work we do for God, we have to keep acting as if it is doing good.  We have to keep acting as if we believe even when we don’t have the faith.  Being a light in the darkness takes practice, and it often takes hindsight to see that we have successfully been that light in the darkness. The call to “act as if” encourages us to keep on keeping on, to keep on reaching out to people in love, to keep on embodying the good news, even when we don’t feel like it, even when we don’t see that it is doing any good, even when it feels really hard.
        How this actually manifests in terms of AA is that people who sponsor other people, who act as support folk for other people, have a much higher success rate in any of the 12 step programs than people who feel that they “have to get themselves together first” before they can help others.
        A while back our family went to visit the National Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati.   While I was there I was struck with the amazing faithfulness of those people who participated, despite the incredible dangers, in the underground railroad, in the rescuing of people who had been enslaved, despite the fact that they had many around them disagreeing with them, despite the fact that their own lives were threatened by these actions as well.  They took their faith, a faith that calls us to care for the oppressed and to lift up the down trodden, to love those others use and abuse and reject – they took all of that very, very seriously, as we, too are called to do.  At times I’m sure they struggled, wondering what they were risking everything for. There were always more slaves coming to the United States.  It must have felt like there would always be more to help than they could possibly handle, and that the danger was increasingly large for those who chose to be part of helping.  But they chose to be a light in the darkness, even when the darkness was so very intense that it must have seemed light would never again shine.  And they became a part of changing the situation in the United States permanently with regards to slavery.  It took time, but the light did shine; through their work, they were able to fish for people and change the way we look at slavery.
        But we can make a difference on a much smaller scale as well.
        When we lived in Ohio, my kids and I lived about a half mile from church, as we do now, and we walked to church as much as we could. At one point during our time there, my kids began the practice of picking up any garbage they found on their way, so after a while we would walk equipped with bags in which they could put the garbage. While I was very proud of them for taking on this particular endeavor, I have to admit that the cynical part of me did not participate in this event with much enthusiasm. The garbage was dirty, the kids would end up dirty, much of the garbage really reflected the seedier or less appealing parts of human behavior (cigarette butts, beer cans, and sometimes even nastier objects), and I really found myself wondering WHAT was the point of picking up all of that when the next day there would undoubtedly be still more garbage that others expected someone else to clean up for them. But the kids chose to take on this particular activity without any suggestion on my part, and I found myself eventually reflecting on the story of the starfish:
      Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work. One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up. As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean. He came closer still and called out "Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?"
      The young man paused, looked up, and replied "Throwing starfish into the ocean."
      "I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?" asked the somewhat startled wise man.
      To this, the young man replied, "The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don't throw them in, they'll die."
      Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, "But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!"
        At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean.   As it met the water, he said, "It made a difference for that starfish."
        My kids may not have been saving the world, and yes, there would always be more garbage the next day. But they were making that one place on the walk to church a little more beautiful, a little more pleasant. They were letting the sun shine on a few more blades of grass that were no longer covered by the litter, they were feeling that they could do something to contribute in this world, and they were enjoying doing it! What more could I ask?
       I know in this point of time in our history there is a great deal of darkness.  There is so much anger and hatred and violence especially being aimed at the “least of these” – at the people that society rejects, at the kind of people Jesus especially worked hard to embrace.  Interestingly many are not that different.  Jesus embraced the Samaritans – who were people of a similar religious ancestry but came out in a different place theologically.  Others rejected them as evil, as wrong.  But Jesus embraced them and included them.  Jesus embraced women, who were also rejected, seen as property, objects – belonging to their men.  Jesus embraced the poor and the disabled, healing them and not blaming them for their own problems.  He embraced the Syrophoenicians: again, people from different races, ethnicities, backgrounds. And he calls us to do the same.  To stand with them and to stand for them.
When Jasmyn was about 2 years old, my little messenger from God one day proclaimed to me, “We are God’s car.”  While that may sound funny, I think it is actually very insightful.  We are God’s car.  We carry around the Spirit of God, we do the work of God, we transport God’s love and light to those around us.
         The work of fishing for people, or bringing light to the people, light into the darkest places of life and of humanity, is not easy.  But when we reach out, when we shine our light, even when it is hard, we are assured that light will come back to us and shine for us as well.