Fishing for People: January 22

When I was about ten years old, I discovered a pond behind our neighborhood. Within a year it became clear that this was no remarkable discovery. The pond was man-made, part of the landscape for a fancy new subdivision. A big fence would go up to keep the kids from my neighborhood out of their backyards. But for one summer, that tiny unexpected pond was the center of my fun. The pond was full of frogs, and I made a project of watching the tadpoles grow.

One day in the late summer my friend Sara and I sat perched on the rickety wooden dock when we saw something that sent us into immediate fits of screaming. There, floating near the surface of the water, was a fish that was clearly struggling to survive. Through the clear water we saw the source of its suffering: a shiny metal hook had punctured its mouth. We were moved a compassion for this fish that ten year old girls usually save for bunnies or kittens or horses. We wanted to be the heroes that rescued this fish from its pain. The only problem was that we were terrified to touch it. Why this fish grossed us out after spending the whole summer catching frogs with our bare hands is a mystery of the ages.

We finally did it. With nervous laughter and plenty of shrieks, we extracted the hook from its mouth and threw it back into the pond. We were so proud of ourselves—overcoming our childish fears to hopefully save its life.

There you have it. This is essentially my only story about fish, and for all practical purposes, it is really the opposite of a fishing story.

Fishing is the central metaphor of our gospel text today. John the Baptist has been arrested, and Jesus is finally beginning his mission on earth: to proclaim the Good News of God. At the Sea of Galilee, Jesus gathers a bunch of rowdy fishermen into the life of discipleship by promising he will make them fishers of people. Simon, Andrew, James, and John become Jesus’ first Disciples in the Gospel of Mark. They are fishermen, and Jesus meets them where they are, using the language of their trade to communicate the task he calls them to do.

Fishing for people is a tricky thing, though, isn’t it? Most of us associate fishing with poles, not nets, and we are forever filtering biblical passages through our own experiences and notions. While the hook, line, and sinker method is good for catching dinner, it isn’t so good for making disciples. The old bait and switch doesn’t seem to work for people any more than it worked for an injured fish in a manmade pond. Unlike trout, that always fall for the treat disguising their demise, people often see through the bait. They distrust anyone who would dangle a hook in front of their nose, even if the bait is something as inviting as eternal life.

Sadly, many people, both within and beyond the church, think of evangelism as roughly equivalent to snatching fish out of water. The fish would rather stay in the water, thank you very much, and when they do venture above the surface, it is only because they have been tricked into swallowing the hook. The perception of evangelism is that it is pushy, rude, embarrassing, and even manipulative. And you know, folks have been given plenty of good reasons to start walking the other way when someone starts invoking the name of Jesus. His holy name has been used as a tool for fear and judgment. There are those who read the Bible not as the Holy Word of God but use it as a crude weapon. The threat of hell is often given more credence than the promise of the Kingdom of God, even though God’s mercy is infinitely deeper than God’s wrath.

When non-believing fish see a gung-ho Christian casting a line into the water, you better believe those non-believers are dashing for the other side of the lake.

But most of us aren’t gung-ho Christian evangelists with tackle boxes full of judgment. We tend to be just as mortified by manipulative evangelism as the non-believers that pretend they aren’t home when the evangelists come a-knocking. We are just as passionate about our faith as the folks that pass out tracts on the street corner. But by and large, we have a very different way of responding to the gospel.

I am not trying to say we are better Christians. As much as I am deeply concerned with practices of evangelism that seem to be more about fear than love, I know that good people sincerely interpret Jesus’ call for his disciples to fish for people in different ways. But I also know that the level of discomfort the majority of mainline Protestant Christians feel toward evangelism is a full-fledged crisis within the Body of Christ.

We have allowed evangelism to be defined in strict terms, terms that we are not comfortable with, and therefore we have determined that we are not evangelical Christians. We have been like Jonah: we would rather be swallowed up by a great fish than tell our neighbors to repent.

As Disciples of Christ, our primary responsibility is to follow Jesus. We are called to form our lives in the cruciform example of his life and teachings. Jesus’ first ministry in Galilee was to proclaim the good news of God. To be faithful to our baptismal vows, we must also proclaim the good news of God. We cannot let the good news continue to sound like bad news, nor can we let it go unreported.

We are called to be fishers of people, catchers of men and women. But the kind of evangelical fishing we are to do is not done by force with sharpened metal hooks. Not metaphorically, and certainly not literally, as the medieval Christians forcibly converted nonbelievers by the sword.

The first Disciples fished with nets, and a net is a very different sort of tool. Last fall, when James Chung fell while trimming the tree in our garden, those of us who witnessed that fall from the safety of the ground would have done anything to have a net to catch him before he hit the sidewalk.

What if that was how we perceived of evangelism? What if catching people—fishing for men and women—meant sharing the life-saving net of God’s good news?

People are falling. People are lonely, depressed, hungry, and desperate. People are nursing injuries incurred by bad experiences of organized religion. People need forgiveness and repentance. People are falling, perhaps even jumping, and we have been given the responsibility to humbly but boldly extend a net to break their fall. The net is woven of the good news of God, a strong rope made of love, forgiveness, hope, and justice.

The net is not a trap. The net is not a trick. The net is the complex gift of God’s grace and healing, given to a creation that is given to spills, a creation that has broken a million bones against the hard cement of sin. When men and women are caught by that net, they are given new life, new breath.

We are witnesses to the love of Christ. We would not withhold a safety net from a falling friend; neither can we withhold the life-giving story of what God has done in our lives.

I know this is difficult. We feel like we don’t have the words. We fear that our friends and neighbors will write us off as one more pushy Christian.

Friends, we need to trust that the gospel really is good news. Our unique witness to God’s love is essential to the building of the
Kingdom of God. We must humbly share God’s love, not only through actions of generosity, but also by telling our stories and bearing witness to the grace we have experienced in Jesus Christ.

We, too, were falling once, but we were caught by the net of God’s love. We lived to tell about it. May God grant us the wisdom, the gentleness, and the courage to proclaim the good news.

And may God hurry. People are falling.

Epiphany 2: January 8th

The tale of Samuel is an old story, an ancient story. Samuel is called out by God to be a prophet for a people who have lost their way. Like the priest, Eli, their eyesight is dimmed. They struggle to see the righteous path and to hear the holy Word. Samuel is roused from his sleep and given the mixed blessing of being one called to proclaim the hard Word of God. Invariably, prophets of the Lord are burdened with messages their people do not want to hear. Samuel was chosen as a prophet because he was able to submit himself to God’s service. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Samuel’s vocation is all about listening. He is awoken in the night by a voice, over and over again, until Eli help him understand the strange thing at hand.

Nathaniel, on the other hand, is called out to the life of faith not by sound but by sight. Nathaniel dismisses Jesus with the disparaging comment, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But Philip wisely encourages Nathaniel to “Come and See.” Philip, like Eli, trusted that the spirit of the Lord had something in store for his friend. Philip himself has just experienced the rush of newness and joy that accompanies being in the presence of the Son of God, and he convinced Nathaniel that there is, in fact, something amazing to see in Jesus of Nazareth.

Now I want to draw attention to a delightful detail in this story, one that we might miss if we don’t look carefully. Philip has persuaded Nathaniel to “Come and See.” But when Nathaniel approaches Jesus, it is Jesus who sees Nathaniel coming toward him. It is Jesus who recognizes something profound about Nathaniel. Even though this fellow just made a snide comment about his hometown, Jesus sees that this man is utterly honest, that there is not a speck of deceit in him. Jesus knows and understands him, and there are few things more powerful than truly being known and understood.

Nathaniel is a little confused, seeing as how he has just met Jesus. But the fact that Jesus sees him—first sees him under the fig tree, and then sees the very condition of his soul—transforms Nathaniel. He is called into the life of faith not by going to see Jesus, but by Jesus’ ability to see him. What’s more, Jesus promises him he will see much, much more—Jesus says to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Samuel hears the voice of the Lord, and responds to his call. Nathaniel is seen by the Son of God, and sees the truth of his identity. Both reveal ways in which God calls people, and both include the invaluable contributions of third parties—Eli, the priest who assists Samuel in discerning the source of his wake-up call, and Philip, who directs Nathaniel to go and see Jesus. While the focus of these stories tends to fall on God’s actions toward Samuel and Nathaniel, the roles of Eli and Philip are critical. We need the wisdom of our family and friends to enable us to hear and to see the new ways God is moving in our lives.

On the first day of my seminary experience, one of my professors invited each student to share his or her experience of vocation—just how we all heard God’s call on our life to uproot ourselves and devote our lives to Christian ministry. As my classmates stood and recounted their encounters with God, it dawned on me that none of our stories took the form of Samuel’s dramatic midnight encounter with the Lord. My friend Lara recounted how her experiences in a class on nonviolence and on a mission to Chile stirred a deep desire to help other people respond to the gospel. Another student described how he careened into rock bottom when his drug and alcohol abuse spiraled out of control, and how the long and painful process of climbing out of the depths revealed that his life might have a greater purpose. My own call story started when I was fifteen when I had the faintest perception that I maybe, might, possibly, perhaps want to be a minister.

None of us were ever awoken in the night by a voice booming from heaven. Our stories emerged with all the drama of a shadow, all the volume of a whisper. But our experiences of vocation were full of characters like Eli and Philip. A common element in every single story, as diverse as they were, was the importance of faithful mentors along the way. My friend Lara was only able to go on that mission trip to Chile because of the spiritual, financial, and emotional support of her grandmother. The seminary student who struggled with addiction was firmly and lovingly confronted by concerned friends. My own vocation might have stalled out at maybe, might, possibly, and perhaps if not for the United Church of Christ seminarians I met at church camp the year I was fifteen years old. They offered guidance, encouragement, and wisdom as I awkwardly discerned the path God would have for my life.

God calls people. And God doesn’t just call people to be prophets and pastors. God calls people to be witnesses to the gospel of Christ in as many ways and in as many places as there are people on this earth. Just as Jesus saw Nathaniel, God knows each one of us intimately and deeply. And just as God summoned Samuel again and again, patiently waiting for him to recognize the one calling his name, God waits for each of us to realize that our own names are murmured by the Creator of the Universe. At the core of every sight and sound from on high is God’s hope that we will experience and reflect the love and grace of Christ. Our ultimate calling— regardless of where we get our paycheck—is to be witnesses to the gospel.

Living our lives within the space of a Christian community is not an optional piece of our journey with God. Christian community is essential. It is here we are able to be Eli’s and Philip’s for one another, saying, “Listen to this,” and “Look at that,” all the while getting closer to the heart of our vocation as individuals and as the Body of Christ. We must be trustworthy companions for one another, for it is only in community that we can be truly held accountable to the Gospel. We hear the Word in community. We see the glory of God in community.

God calls people out of fear, desperation, and loneliness. God calls people into deep Christian spirituality, true community, and a passion for justice. Let all who have ears hear, let all who have eyes see, and let us boldly proclaim, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Epiphany 1

Ministers can be a persnickety and cranky bunch, especially during the holidays. It isn’t the busyness that turns pastors into grumpy scrooges. Rather, during the Christmas season many pastors are affected by a bad case of liturgical purity. The primary symptom of this disease includes the refusal to sing Christmas carols until Christmas Eve. We stamp our feet and cross our arms, insisting that churches should sing Advent hymns during Advent—even though there are very few well-known and beloved Advent carols. And then the big liturgical taboo—the equivalent of wearing white shoes after Labor Day—is the practice of combining and conflating the nativity stories of Luke and Matthew. The first time I encountered this pastoral oddity was before I started seminary, when I was working as a youth minister at an Episcopal Church. Now I think I can safely say—and my Episcopalian friends would likely agree—that no minister is more likely to have an attack of liturgical purity than an Episcopal priest. Well, during a staff meeting at church one Advent, the director of Christian Education was sharing her ideas for the Christmas pageant. She innocuously mentioned which kids might play the shepherds and angels, and then noted that she had already handpicked some board members to play the three kings, the Magi that come bearing gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense.

The rector suddenly turned the seasonally-appropriate shade of purple, and ever-so-calmly explained that the three wise men could not possibly appear in the same Christmas program as the shepherds and angels. Close readers of the bible will remember that Luke never mentions the wise men at all. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is welcomed by Shepherds and angels. Matthew never mentions these character, but he alone portrays the three sages of the Orient welcoming the Christ child.

Church tradition and worship liturgy places the arrival of the kings on Epiphany, a feast of the church that is celebrated on January 6th. And really, this liturgical practice makes sense; according to the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi see the rising star that announces the birth of Christ and hurry not to Bethlehem, but to Jerusalem, asking to see the king of the Jews. King Herod consults the chief priests and scribes and is reminded that the Messiah is to be born in the city of Bethlehem. Only then are the three wise men sent on to Bethlehem at King Herod’s bidding. This is where the tradition of the twelve days of Christmas begins. A geography lesson and a bit of imagination lead the early church to celebrate the arrival of the three wise Gentiles twelve days after the birth of baby Jesus.

I’m still young and impressionable, so I haven’t completely decided if I’m going to be one of those ministers who have a fit about liturgical purity. I will say this: I appreciate that the church at least tries to celebrate the arrival of the Magi after the fact of Jesus’ birth. The days and weeks after Christmas can be an emotional and spiritual letdown if we aren’t careful. Maybe your holidays were ideal—your family reunited, your Turkey was tasty, that perfect gift you gave clearly had the intended effect. But now it’s all over, and even in sunny California, January can seem a little bleak after the feast of Christmas. But maybe your holidays weren’t so great. Maybe they reopened old wounds, or reminded you of a persistent grief. Maybe you’re disappointed that another year has come around, and the things you wish could change in your life haven’t budged a bit. Last year at this time the world was still reeling from the shock of the Asian tsunami; this year we are broken with compassion for the tragedy that unfolded in a West Virginia mine. Right about now is when even faithful Christians begin to wonder just what sort of transformation the Prince of Peace really set into motion.

Just as we are starting to wonder if our wonderment on Christmas Eve wasn’t in vain, then the Wise Men finally arrive. Their presence in the gospel is heavy with significance and charged with metaphor. First of all, they are Gentiles. The child born in Bethlehem was supposed to be the Messiah for Israel—and yet these Eastern mystics are showing up, bearing gifts for the newborn babe. The presence of the Magi reveals that Jesus Christ came to redeem all humankind, regardless of their status: Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, to quote the apostle Paul. The Magi likely had no deep knowledge of the prophetic tradition. Their hope was not shaped by the words of Isaiah. They didn’t even know that the Son of God was to be born in Bethlehem; to the three wise men, Bethlehem was just another impoverished village buckling under the oppressive Roman government. The lineage of King David was unknown and irrelevant. Despite all of this, the Magi recognize and follow the light of Christ, opening the doors for those who are not descendants of Sarah and Rachel to recognize Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Secondly, the story of the three wise men demonstrates just how profoundly people will respond to the Christ child. The Magi are mysteriously drawn out of Persia to the city of Jerusalem. They have seen a star, and their good reputation for wisdom is on account of their uncanny and unexpected knowledge of what has occurred. When they arrive in the city of Jerusalem, they know to ask, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” For all their intelligence, the innocent question posed by the well-meaning wise men sets into motion a terrible outcome. King Herod, desperate to maintain the status quo that confers him with considerable power, will heartlessly murder every single boychild under two years old in and around the Bethlehem. How can it be that the same child can evoke such contrasting reactions in the hearts of the eastern Magi and the Jewish King? The three wise men were overwhelmed by joy; King Herod was overwhelmed by fear. The three wise men emptied their pockets for the newborn baby, generously giving him priceless gifts. King Herod devastated a generation of mothers by killing their beloved sons.

Jesus is not yet a month old, and his birth has already roused worship and violence. This is the price of the incarnation—that some people will be delighted by God’s brilliant light, and some people will do anything in their power to extinguish it. The story of the three wise men and their refusal to betray Jesus to the hands of Herod establishes the profound reactions people will have to Jesus and his ministry. These reactions will shape his life and define his death—that is, until God has the final word.

The third element of this narrative that I want to lift up today is the reason why I am so glad we celebrate the three wise men after the fact of Christmas. Their story demonstrates that Christmas is not something that happens and then is over until next year. For the Magi, the nativity of Jesus is merely the launch of a momentous journey. They experience Christmas as a rising star, a display of radiant light. The star proclaims the birth of Christ. But it isn’t a star to be admired from afar. It is a star that transforms lives. The wise men follow the light out of their own country. They follow it under the nose of the murderous King Herod. They follow that star right to the house in which Mary nursed Jesus, and they kneel before that child who reveals the gracious nature of God.

We, too, are called out on a journey. Like the Magi, we must decide if we are ready to follow the Light that draws us into the heart of God. Are we ready to resist the forces that conspire to smother God’s presence? Are we ready to respond to the manifestation of God on earth by turning everything we have and everything we are over to God?

Epiphany is not a bookend marking the final day of Christmas. Epiphany reminds us that the work of Christmas has only just begun. The child born in Bethlehem came to make us people of the Light. People willing to get up and follow Christ no matter who they are or where they’ve been. People willing to walk the path of Jesus even when that path is plagued by doubt and danger.

The Christmas decorations are back in the closet; the New Year’s resolutions have already been broken. But the Light of Christ that calls all people into God’s loving embrace burns ever more brightly. Let the wisdom and courage of the Magi be our example as we entrust ourselves to the journey of discipleship. Amen.