Sermon for January 26, 2020 | The Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13; 1 Corinthians 4:12-23; Matthew 4:12-23
As a young boy, my church school teacher was Miss Ryder, an ardent student of the Bible and someone blessed with a wry sense of humor. On the Sunday in which this gospel reading was proclaimed in church and then discussed with us in church school, Miss Ryder wore a miniskirt and fishnet stockings: her homage to the fishing nets mentioned in the gospel reading. To say the least, her attire caused quite a stir among some of the older teachers in the church school, those other teachers who spoke in quite literal terms with their students, telling them that their purpose as young Christians was to bring people to church, you know, fish for friends. Our teacher, on the other hand, invited us to talk about our experience of fish and fishing, and imagining what it would be like to live as the poor fisher folk who worked in the San Francisco Bay.
What Miss Ryder could not have known was how people in ancient Palestine understood the practice of being called to follow someone as disciples – for the act of inviting people was made frequently by a person who had a grievance and wanted help from others in addressing that grievance. That is, the person who had a complaint or protest was moved to organize people into a faction or movement for, as you can imagine, there is greater strength in a group’s action than one person acting alone. Well, that’s a different view than the one many Christians heard and continue to hear in church, a variation on fishing for friends, a romanticizing of the call to the first disciples: “Let’s go out and catch more people in our churchy nets.”
Thus, if there is any truth in what biblical scholars suggest was Jesus’ call to address a problem, we rightly ask: Why was Jesus aggrieved? What bothered him so much that he needed others to assist him? And, what if anything, might this have to do with our lives as his disciples today? We begin to see an answer to those questions when we consider the actual experience of life in the ancient Galilee. Jesus, a stone craftsman, and these four fishermen were workers who toiled in a region governed by an all-powerful emperor who cared not one bit for toiling laborers in lakes, fields, or building projects. Matthew does not mention that fishing took place in a large lake controlled by the emperor and his local appointees and that to fish there meant fishermen, who paid a steep price for a fishing license, were either poorly paid by a fishing broker or left with little fish to sustain them and their families. We must set aside the privately owned boats of the Tacoma Yacht Club and the leisurely fishing ventures of the American middle class. And Jesus, trained as a stone mason, would have labored as a construction worker on the imperial city of Sepphoris, just to the north of Nazareth: labored in a city intended to increase ever greater Roman control over the people and the economy of the Galilee, a control expressed in taxation debilitating to the vast majority of the population. In other words, the emperor and his kingdom held no interest whatsoever in nurturing the life, the health, and the wholeness of his subjects. They were simply anonymous workers whose labor would benefit the wealth of the local and imperial elites.
It is within that unsettling context that we see another aspect of the answer to our questions. The emperor and his local toadies were not considered helpful leaders or patrons whose primary concern was the real welfare and wellbeing of the vast majority of people. Who cares about the workers? In that context, what does Jesus say? Repent – that is, turn toward, go in another direction – to kingdom of God. In other words, the one leader, the one patron who calls for your loyalty, your love, is the God of Israel – not this narcissistic leader who when threatened vilifies and retaliates violently. It is the God of Israel who offers life, health, and wholeness – that is, who offers salvation in the midst of this world’s sin, this world’s comfort with inequality, injustice, and lack of loving-kindness.
We live in a nation where affiliation with a religious group is considered an individual and voluntary action. No attendance in a state church required of us. And as you can imagine, there is not one reason alone that explains such affiliation. But I wonder: is our gathering here together in the presence of the Triune God – the God who desires that all creatures experience life, health, and wholeness – is our presence here animated by our concern for those in our families, neighborhoods, and city who suffer? Is that why we have come to Christ Church this morning? Is this our grievance: that the work of Jesus Christ, begun in ancient Galilee, is not yet complete on this earth and that this is abundantly clear to us when we recognize governmental abandonment of the unhoused, the destruction of the environment by predatory developers, the growing number of children in our city who wonder if there will be food for tomorrow? In a culture besotted with entertainment, do we gather here to be entertained: by the music, the jokes, the sermonizing that only comforts, the prayers that lead us to think only of the afterlife?
And so I wonder: was Miss Ryder in her gloriously risqué leather miniskirt and fishnet stockings actually right on target when she asked us to imagine what it might be like to live as poor fisher folk who labored in and beyond the San Francisco Bay? After all, she was an investigative reporter with a local TV station and was well aware of the challenging conditions that faced struggling fisher folk and their families. Can you imagine the surprise for us: that sixth graders would be asked to look beyond their own precious lives and to recognize the sickness of this world as well as its cure, a cure flowing from the hands of Jesus the healer, yet flowing into our hands, your hands and mine?