The Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany: February 10, 2019
The symbol of fishing, of which we have heard in today’s Gospel, has a rich background in antiquity. Since Luke was writing for those familiar with Greco-Roman traditions, he singles out that aspect of the symbol which was exploited by teachers who “lured” people to themselves (yes, pun intended), and through their education of them transformed their lives. That aspect is the “bait.” Peter will now be catching women and men with the bait of God’s word and thereby bringing them new life.
I like the imagery of fishing, especially as I am one who is passionate about the sport of a particular kind of fishing, that of fly fishing. If you look closely at this chasuble I am wearing today, you will notice that on the central front panel there is a depiction of a rainbow trout rising to a fly. The means of catching, whether it is a net, or live bait, or a fly, is not what’s important here. What is important is the catching. So let’s be a bit playful and look at the scriptures to see what God is up to in the drawing of people to himself and then what that might mean for our role in the catching.
First we have an account of the call of Isaiah. He “saw God’s face,” indicating he had an experience of divine presence that was compelling and potentially life-transforming. This led him to accept God’s call as a prophet, a truth-teller to Israel and also to the power domination system of Assyria. As is often true in call stories in Scripture, he is at first resistant, even horrified, to be chosen in this way by God. Why? He knew of his foul mouth, but a seraph is sent to Isaiah with a burning coal to burn away anything not of God.
So God first caught Isaiah with a vision of his transcendent holiness: “Holy, holy, holy,” three times holy, meaning really, really holy. Then, after Isaiah has been cleansed for this new role by God’s gift of grace, Isaiah is prepared to be one who dares to tell God’s truth with beauty and power, to catch others with divine love and mercy. I wonder if we, individually and as a community of faith, might be caught if you will, by a vision of God renewed in our passion to be radical truth tellers to power, calling forth the changing of hearts wherever we see God’s hope for humanity being threatened? It can be risky to be sure, but that kind of integrity just might be attractive bait to the world out there to which we are called to minister.
Then we have St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian Church. As you will recall, he was caught by a compelling experience of God’s call when he was knocked off his horse on his way to Damascus to continue his persecution of the followers of Jesus. Again by the gift of grace (there’s a theme developing here), he is granted a new vision of God’s liberating truth, where God’s net is cast wider than St. Paul ever could have imagined. The net was cast wide, and it was cast deep. It transformed his life and it transformed not only the lives of the people of the churches to whom he wrote, but eventually the entire world. So much so, it is the reason you and I are here today. We at some point were “caught.”
Don’t forget that the Church to which Paul was writing was a church in conflict. Some things don’t change. The bait he offered in the part of his letter we read today is the resurrection of Jesus, the promise of new life not just after we die, but the “life-giving, liberating, loving” truth available to us even now. Any Gospel worth sharing is one that sets us free to be fully who God calls us to be. That is the bait—when people see us set on fire with God’s love, transformed as God’s people to a new vision of hope and peace for the world. Our call is never to threaten people into the Kingdom, but to love them into it with a love that knows no bounds. No bait and switch allowed once people join us. “All are welcome” on our signs needs to mean just that, all are welcome, no exceptions. What is that to look like here at Christ Church and through you to the people of Denmark and beyond?
Then we come to Luke’s account where we specifically find the fishing metaphor played out. Peter took the bait, “hook, line and sinker,” as they say. He, the expert fisherman who had caught nothing after an entire night of fishing, was so overcome with amazement by the abundance of the catch, he totally abandoned the life track he was on in order to follow Jesus.
We hear stories like that all the time and I have experienced it myself. In the late 70’s I was all set to go off to Frenchman’s Reef in the Virgin Islands to be the assistant manager of a new hotel there, but because of the call of Jesus went to seminary instead. Gosh, I was all set to retire 2 ½ years ago, but because of an experience of the beauty of God in God’s people while meeting with the Standing Committee, followed the Spirit’s call to come be among you in South Carolina. I’ve watched young people go with us to El Salvador for mission work with one life-goal in mind, then be encountered by God in a way that they shift those goals completely in service to God’s people. I hope you have seen such life-changing grace in your own life.
The compelling call of Jesus shown in the grandeur of God through the great haul of fish caught the imagination of Peter’s heart. He then was able to hear God’s call that from then Christ’s life in him was to be the bait as he was to be fishing for people. To be clear, Isaiah, Paul and Peter were not the bait, but it was the Good News of God in them. Just as the net was let down into the deep water, we too are called to go deep, not willing merely to play around on the spiritual surface, but to plunge the depths of our faith in ways that make us irresistible in our all-embracing love, in our extravagant mercy, in our never-ending hope.
It was Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple who said that the Church exists primarily for those who are not a part of it. Filled with gratitude for God’s life-changing presence in our life, let’s go fishing.
The Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany: February 3, 2019
We live in a strange time in the life of the Church, and I don’t just mean in The Episcopal Church in South Carolina. Participation numbers in any kind of a faith community across our country continues to drop. If we are paying attention we must always be asking what it means to be a people of faith in a 21st century context and how we will live fully into our call to be disciples of Jesus. We do this work knowing that there are no easy answers or any quick fixes. What we do know is that we have a God who promises to be with us always and is calling forth our trust in the possibility that God’s vision can be made manifest, an epiphany, in you and in the life of our own faith context.
We talk a lot about love in the Christian faith. You will recall this theme from our most recent diocesan convention. Today we hear once again that great ode to love in I Corinthians 13, commonly heard at weddings. In some ways that’s unfortunate, because it means that the point St. Paul is making is often lost in that context. His letter to the Church in Corinth is not about a feeling, an emotion, or a romance. He is talking about a gift of the Holy Spirit given to a community of people in order that they might be who God calls them to be. To Paul, love is selfless action always seeking the good of the other. In Jesus’ life we see this perfectly on the Cross. Our discipleship as a community of faith is to be an outward and visible sign, a sacrament if you will, of the radical nature of God’s love for the entire creation, including you and me, as found on that Cross. Allow me to share with you some places where I see that kind of Jesus-love lived out.
In about ten days I will be leaving for El Salvador. I will be meeting as a member of the Board of Trustees of a human rights organization called Cristosal, originally founded through The Episcopal Church and with continued close ties. The people of El Salvador continue to struggle for the basic norms of justice that you and I might take for granted. When there, I witness the people of that country who, in costly ways and sometimes at great risk, seek to change the structures and confront the violence that keep God’s people oppressed and without the basic rights that all human beings should inherently be able to enjoy just by being human – made in God’s image. The work is about loving as we seek to tell God’s truth to power.
Or perhaps you recall an occurrence in an Amish community in Pennsylvania a few years ago, when many of their children were horrifically murdered while at school. Do you recall the response by the Amish? It was to forgive, right in the midst of their own deep pain. They said that the killer had been hurting too, clearly ill, and had not yet come to the light. They even went to his family to console them. Why? Because they said, it is the Way of Jesus.
Then there was the moment in Florida outside of a prison where an execution was about to happen. In a TV interview of the mother of the murder victim, there protesting the execution, she said, “To execute this man only perpetuates the violence, it doesn’t end it.” Contrast this with another scene on that same parking lot where at a beer party the group cheered when the body of the executed man was taken away in a van.
All three of these accounts are about radical ways of loving. They challenge us. They might make us a bit uncomfortable. Such a feeling may give us a sense of what Jesus’ hearers may have been thinking and feeling when they heard his teaching in today’s Gospel. Jesus was at a homecoming of sorts, in his home town, Joseph’s boy, but does not hold back confronting them with who they are called to be as the people of God. He lays before them the thought that God always tends the outsider, those on the edge and beyond our comfort zones. He was confronting a community that had focused too much on itself. What was the result? They tried to throw him off a cliff. Indeed, he ended up on a cross.
Likewise in the I Corinthians reading. It is not about weddings. It is about loving your worst enemy, the quirky neighbor, the person in the pew next to you, the refugee, the outsider. It is about loving those who want to saw you in two as tradition tells us happened to Jeremiah when he dared to speak God’s truth. It is about loving those who want to crucify you. This is radical stuff. No sentimental loving anywhere to be found here. Jeremiah protested that he was not capable to speak for God. God’s response? I called you and will give you what you need. God expects big things from us while on this earth.
True justice is love in action. Love is hard work. We don’t have to look to El Salvador, or the Amish community or that prison parking lot. We know its hard work. Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom, his way of loving, is not passive. It does not settle. It is about leveling the playing field of the exercise of power and dominance over one another, calling all of us, including politicians by the way, to a way we’re often not ready to hear much less put in place in one’s life.
Herein lies my struggle with being a disciple of Jesus. It is the Christian’s call to stand not only with the victims of our world, and here’s the rub, but also with the unforgivable, the condemned and the hated. Why? Because this is what Jesus embodied in his life. It cost him his life and he forgave them from the Cross even as they were executing him.
I am convinced that being an authentic community engaged in radical, costly love is how we begin to reshape who we are as the people of God. People would find the integrity of this way irresistible, as hard as it may be. We know it is the better way and it is the work we are called to do. This way of love is to be definitive for all who follow in the Way of Jesus.
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.