Fishing for People – January 22, 2017

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 22, 2017

Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27: 1, 5-13;  1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

Let us pray.
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” From the Great Commission to the Crusades to the colonialism of the later half of the second millennium, it’s a command from Jesus that has fueled the evangelical effort to spread the Christian Gospel across the earth, and it is has fed the persistent belief that the primary objective of Christianity is measurable numerical growth, whatever the cost. For too many Christians of all theologies and persuasions, this passage and others like it have justified a sometimes violent Christianity that reduces religion to a project of marketing and sales and turns new Christians or churchgoers into mere trophies to be amassed and accumulated—as if the Christian life were solely about becoming Christian and not at all about what happens after. But I wonder if Jesus really meant to suggest that the Church should be a militaristic conquest to achieve concrete, unambiguous results. Yes, the image of fishing for people could be appropriated to support the unapologetic recruitment of potential believers, yet I suspect that Jesus uses the fishing metaphor for an altogether different reason.

Fishing, after all, is not the most militaristic of metaphors. When Jesus speaks of fishing for people, he does not, I think, envision a merciless, violent battle to win over timid souls; rather, he invokes the image of patient fishers, casting their nets into the sea, not knowing for sure what is out there, but with tentative hope waiting for what will come. I am no fisher, but I have the sense from the little bit I do know about fishing that to fish is to engage oneself in complex and uncertain work. To fish well, you have to have equipment—a rod or, depending on your needs, a net and a boat—as well as some understanding of how to navigate a river or the seas. You have to use proper technique and know exactly where to pursue the specific fish you are interested in catching. You have to mend your nets when they need mending and avoid deadly storms whenever they threaten to get in your way. And even when you do everything right, there are still no guarantees.

Fishing for people, then, cannot refer to some uncompromising quest to bring others over to the right side, but by necessity must incorporate respect for others, an appreciation of our own limitations and an eagerness to engage in improvisation and dialogue. Human interactions are just too messy, and our awareness of our own selves just too incomplete for us to be able to stomp over those who differ with us with our own version of the truth and still claim the moral high ground. We are wired to believe that we alone can see the whole picture, and this tendency of ours breeds the kind of conflict Paul describes in his letter to the Corinthians. We stand resolutely behind our different figureheads, jockeying among ourselves for the power to speak for God on earth and all the while ignoring the Christ who gave up all claims to earthly power.

Like many of you, I was absorbed by the events of this weekend. Some of you, I know, marched among record crowds yesterday; some of you watched with pride as the country made yet another peaceful transition of power; others of you turned it all off and blocked it all out because you knew wouldn’t be able to tolerate it. I myself was glued to CNN and Facebook and Twitter all weekend—not because I was particularly happy about the place our country is in, but because it all felt too gigantic and consequential; I couldn’t look away. Curiosity is one of my vices, and I watched far more than I should have, really, from arrivals at the inauguration itself and hours of post-ceremony analysis to inaugural balls and more hours of the many protests that happened across our nation. I have to say that it all had more of an impact on me than I expected it to have; I knew generally what was coming, and yet I wasn’t prepared for the extent of how unsettling it all would be.

Among the aspects of this weekend’s events that unsettled me most was the repeated evidence of how difficult it is for us as Americans to have any kind of meaningful conversation across differences. Polarization is not something new to 2017, and yet the severe polarizations of our country were on display in the past few days in as stark a fashion as I can ever remember. I know there are real issues at stake, and for many admirable principles stand behind their fervent positions. I’ll admit that wholesale unity—everyone on the same page—seems unwise, if not impossible at such a time of upheaval. And yet I am concerned that Americans have almost entirely given up the desire to attempt to build bridges and have a conversation. Jesus tells us to fish for people, and we say “no thanks. Either they can get on our side or we’ll fight them at every turn.”

On Saturday morning, there was an inaugural prayer service for the new President and Vice-President at the National Cathedral in Washington. Many of you know that’s where I grew up, and I’ve seen and in fact been at several quasi-political events that have taken place there. But this one was like no other. Hundreds and thousands of people spoke out against the Cathedral for hosting the service and for having their choir sing at the prelude to the inaugural ceremony at the Capitol the day before. It seemed to be mostly church nerds and people with particular ties to the cathedral that were upset, so maybe you didn’t see everything I did, but my Facebook feed was inundated with calls for the Cathedral to abandon its plans or lose any credibility it had left. In the midst of it all, several of us with intimate knowledge of the Cathedral’s identity and traditions felt torn. On the one hand, we understood and identified with some of the anger, and yet on the other hand, we could see how the Cathedral’s choices were necessary or at least inevitable. “The context,” someone wrote, “is so complex.”

In the end, the choir sang at the inauguration and the service took place at the cathedral. But the Cathedral’s involvement was no straightforward endorsement. At the inauguration, the choir sang a hymn that prayed for other nations on the same level as our own, and the prayers at the service were offered by representatives of a diversity of traditions and included a multitude of pleas for justice, peace, respect and humility. Most tellingly, I think, my former bishop, Mariann, literally said a blessing over the new President and his supporters gathered at the Cathedral before immediately heading down to join the Women’s March on Washington at the mall. That consecutive set of actions was for me a powerful example of how we can simultaneously maintain our integrity and reach across divides.

On Thursday, before everything began, Bishop Mariann posted some thoughts about the whole situation on her blog. “I believe that there is more than one way to be a faithful Christian, and that in most situations, there is more than one right answer,” the post read. “Some of us may need to be in the streets. But others of us need to show up at the inauguration and the events that follow, secular though some may be, as people of faith and witnesses to the highest aspirations of our nation. I would argue that we especially need to be present among fellow citizens whose views of the world, and of this inauguration, differ from ours… Precisely for times such as this, we are called to be a church with breadth in our witness and capacity for real relationships across profound differences.”

While specifically reflecting on the events of this weekend, her words seem like a good guide for the days and weeks and years that follow. There will be times when, for some of us, anger is called for. Be angry, my friends, when you need to be angry. There will be times when, from some of us, joy should be heard. Be joyful and triumphant, then, when you need to be. But however you feel at any particular time or moment never forget your responsibility to fish for all the others that are out there in the wide, complex sea of this world, perhaps farther away than you could ever know, folks who see things differently from you and who wait, not to be trampled with your truth, but to be caught up in the large, welcoming nets of your mercy and love.

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