Fish or Cut Bait?

Mark 1:14-20

You heard about Sven and Ole? Sven and Ole died in a snowmobiling accident, don’t ya know, and found themselves in the company of the devil.  But the devil observed that they were really enjoying themselves.  So, he said to them ‘Doesn’t the heat and smoke bother you?’ ‘Vel,”Ole replied, ‘ya know, ve’re from nordern Minnesota, da land of snow an ice, an ve’re just happy fer a chance ta warm up a little bit, don’t ya know.

Well, the devil decides that these two aren’t miserable enough, so he turns up the heat even more. And when he returns to the room of the two from Minnesota, he finds them grilling Walleye and drinking beer. The devil is astonished and exclaims, ‘Everyone down here is in misery, and you two seem to be enjoying yourselves?’ Sven replies, ‘Vell, ya know, ve just got ta haff a fish fry vhen da veather’s dis nice.’

Now, the devil is absolutely furious. He can hardly see straight. So, he decides to turn all the heat off in Hell. The next morning, the temperature is 60 below zero, icicles are hanging everywhere, and people are shivering so hard that they’re unable to wail, moan, or even gnash their teeth. The devil smiles and heads for Sven and Ole’s room. But when he gets there he finds them jumping up and down, cheering, ad screaming like mad men.

The devil is dumbfounded, ‘I don’t understand, when I turn up the heat you’re happy. Now its freezing cold and you’re still happy. What is wrong with you two?’ They both look at the devil in surprise and say, ‘Vell, don’t ya know, if hell is froze over, dat must mean da Vikings won da Super Bowl.”[i]

Okay.  That has nothing to do with the Scripture for today, but this one does! One day, Sven and Ole were bragging about their secret fishing spots.  Sven said, “Ole, I got the best fish ‘in hole in all the nort-woods, don’t ya know?” “Really,” said Ole. “Yep,” said Sven, “As a matter of fact, da fish are so hungry and ready to bite, dat I have to hide behind a tree to bait my hook.”

Now, as we look at today’s text, the calling of Andrew and Peter and of James and John, it seems like evangelism is a piece of cake.  Whether we’re the one being called or the one doing the calling, Jesus’ example makes inviting others to “come and follow” seem simple. Mark makes is seem like people are so anxious to join us that, like Sven, we must hide behind the nearest tree to keep from being overwhelmed. But you and I know both know that’s simply not the case.  People today are resistant to even acknowledge the existence of God, let alone commit to joining a faith community. But why? Why do we have so much trouble getting others to join us?

Well, it might be helpful here for us to look at some of the features that set Mark’s Gospel apart from the others. First, it’s the shortest gospel and moves at the quickest pace. And Mark’s Gospel conveys a sense of the urgency in the ministry of Jesus. There are no birth narratives; no manger, no shepherds, no elderly prophets singing praise to God in the temple as they hold the promised One in their arms. Instead, Mark sets the scene with some very concise accounts of John the Baptist preaching, Jesus being baptized, and then driven out into the wilderness. And then he moves very rapidly into the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. I mean, by the end of today’s reading, we’re not even halfway through chapter 1! Time, then, and urgency are at the heart of this passage.[ii]

So, Mark isn’t saying that inviting others is going to be an easy proposition, but instead, that evangelism contains or requires a certain sense of urgency. But how does that translate to our experience of God? How is this “urgency” a part of our call to fish for people?

Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upward, says that, “True religion is always a deep intuition that we are already participating in something very good, despite our best efforts to deny it or avoid it. In fact, the best of modern theology is revealing a strong ‘turn toward participation,’ as opposed to religion as mere observation, affirmation, moralism, or group belonging. There is nothing to join, only something to recognize, suffer, and enjoy as a participant.”[iii]

And this makes a whole lotta sense to me. Evangelism, extending the call of Jesus to others, is best done through example; through participation in the mission of Christ.  In my first call, I became involved in an area wide ministry called Outreach Africa. This group would gather a couple of times a year to package thousands of meals for people who were starving.  Now, when I presented this opportunity to my congregation, I could have just shown them the poster and said, “If you’re interested go.” But instead, I decided to give a power-point presentation about the plight of those in the Sudan. And I concluded my presentation by telling them that Becky and I were going to help and invited the whole congregation to come and participate with us.

Now, this might seem like a little thing, but you must understand that participating in a mission project, beyond just bringing canned goods once a month or giving money, was way outside the comfort zone of this congregation. So, an invitation to “join” us rather than just “go” was important and effective.  You see, 30 adults and about 15 youth joined with many others to package meals for people an ocean away.  As a matter of fact, participating in this mission was so heartwarming, that the mission committee began to wonder why we couldn’t host such an event ourselves.

So, participation, boots on the ground outreach, is a vital component to inviting others.  In other words, our actions speak louder than our words. But in addition to participation we must also be authentic.  We can’t be all things to all people. We must be ourselves. We must be the church that God is calling us to be. So, as a congregation, who are we? How is Jesus calling us to be fishers of people?

Well, maybe the words of Anne Lamott might help us out here as we approach this question.  She says, “I think joy and sweetness and affection are a spiritual path. We’re here to know God, to love and serve God, and to be blown away by the beauty and miracle of nature. You just have to get rid of so much baggage to be light enough to dance, to sing, to play. You don’t have time to carry grudges; you don’t have time to cling to the need to be right.”[iv]

There’s an awful lot of wisdom in her words. Joy and sweetness and affection, these aren’t your typical theological words: but I like um.  Too often, I fear we get caught up in the dogmatic “thou-shalt-nots” and forget to meet people where they’re at.  We forget to be authentic as we relate to others, sharing our vulnerability, our fears, and our doubts.

But Jesus was authentic, and his authenticity drew others to come and participate in a gathering movement. A movement that would change the face of the world. A movement that would be vehemently opposed by the religious authorities and catch the notice of Rome. A movement that would lead to a ministry of reconciliation and restoration, of social justice, and the propagation of peace.

But Jesus didn’t begin this ministry in the Temple or by recruiting the religious mucky-mucks.  He started with simple fisherman. He began his ministry at the grass roots level.  He chose to reach out to the common people, meeting them on their terms and amid their crises.  When he went fish ‘in, Jesus didn’t use doctrine or arcane rules or traditions as bait, rather he used the promise of healing and restoration, of compassion and kindness; he promised a closer relationship with God. And yes, he challenged his followers to take up their cross, but these metaphorical crosses we bear are not cast upon us by God, rather made lighter because of Christ.

And this is where it all comes together. Our ministry begins with a wide welcome.  In our church and in the United Church of Christ we offer an extravagant welcome to “all” because we are a part of the “all.”  We’re no better or worse than anyone else. And it’s this understanding of being on equal footing that allows us to echo and expand upon the words of Paul. “In Christ,” he said, “we are no longer male or female, Greek or Jew, servant or free,” …and we might add: “In Christ we are no longer rich or poor, white or black, citizen or dreamer, native or refugee, gay or straight; in Christ we are no longer us or them. But in Christ, because of Christ, we are “all” one people.

So, here’s the question we’re left with today; are we going to fish or just cut bait? Are we going to hide behind the nearest tree or are we going to step out into the world, participating in the mission and ministry of our congregation and of the United Church of Christ? What’s preventing us from dropping our symbolic nets, whatever those nets may be, and offer an extravagant welcome to all our neighbors, inviting them to join us on this journey of faith? What’s stop us from offering an authentic invitation to those who are on the fringes of society, to come and walk with us, pray with us, weep with us, laugh with us… just as we are? What’s to prevent us from go ‘in fish ‘in? I don’t know. Perhaps, nothing…?

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen.

 

[i] (an email forward from Patty Anderson)

[ii] Kathryn Matthews Casting Call (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[iii] Richard Rohr.  Falling Upwards (Jossey-Bass, 2011)

[iv] Quote from Anne Lamott (www.goodreads.com) 2018

Known & Loved

Psalm 139

How do you experience love?

Well, back in 1995 a minister and marriage counselor named Gary Chapman considered this question.  You see over the course of his years as a therapist, he noticed that couples experienced problems in their marriage because they did not understand how their partner experienced love.  So, he wrote a book that outlined five ways to express and experience love which he called the “love languages.” These five ways or categories are: gift giving, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of devotion, and physical touch. The book is called The Five Love Languages. And in this book, Chapman suggests that to discover another person’s love language, one must observe the way they express love to others. He theorizes that people tend to naturally give love in the way that they prefer to receive love, and better communication between couples can be accomplished when one can demonstrate caring to the other person in a love language that the recipient understands.

Here’s an example of what I mean. If a husband’s love language is acts of service, he may be confused when he does the laundry and his wife doesn’t perceive that as an act of love but rather as simply performing household duties.  The disconnect in communication here comes because her love language is perhaps words of affirmation; verbal affirmation that he loves her. Thus, she may try to use what she values, words of affirmation, to express her love to him, which he would not value as much as she does. But if she would come to understand his love language and let’s say, mow the lawn for him, he would perceive it as an act of love; and likewise, if he would tell her that he loves her, she would value that as an act of love.[i]

So, the crux of Chapman’s premise leads us to conclude that understanding how another person feels love and being able to communicate in that language is the key to a successful relationship.  Now, what if we were to apply this same logic to our relationship with God. What if we were to take a step back and think about how we feel loved by God.

This is where Psalm 139 might help up out. 139 is a “creation psalm.”  But not one that delves into the vast mysteries of how the universe came into being.  Instead, this psalm is about God’s ongoing work in bringing human beings to fullness of life, unwrapping the mystery of us, and loving us all the while. In a very real way, this psalm expresses God’s love language in a very personal and intimate way.  You see, while much of the Bible is about “the people,” this one is about a person, you, and tells you that you are unique and of immeasurable worth.[ii] I’ve heard it said like this: “we are not mass-produced but custom-made.”

But isn’t a relationship supposed to be reciprocal? If we are known and loved by God, how might we express our knowledge and love back to God? Well, a couple of things come to mind here.

First, we need to be authentic. I read a story recently about a “young Rabbi Zusya, who was quite discouraged about his failures and weaknesses. In his desperation he consulted and senior rabbi, saying, “why can’t I be more like Moses?” Said an older rabbi to him, ‘When you get to heaven, God is not going to say to you, “Why weren’t you Moses?” No, God will say, “Why weren’t you Zusya?” So why don’t you stop trying to be Moses, and start being the Zusya God created you to be?'”[iii]

An important part of being uniquely created is to recognize, and then live out, our uniqueness.  We’re all different from one another.  We’re all on individual paths of faith; the path we were created to follow.  And all people are created in the likeness and image of God; an image that transcends color or race or nationality; it transcends gender or sexual orientation or religion. And this is important.  It’s important because none of us travel this path alone.  We’re surrounded by family, friends, and a faith community.  And our journey is affected by relationships beyond our inner circle; we are influenced by the wider culture.

But it’s within this diversity that we find our greatest strength and purpose. And that leads us to the other aspect or our “expression of love back to God” that I would like to lift-up today; we authentically live out our love of God, and our uniqueness, by loving others. And this speaks to the purpose of the church.  We are a diverse collection of individuals finding our way together.  Walter Brueggemann says of this journey, “What a stunning vocation for the church, to stand free and hope-filled in a world gone fearful – and to think, imagine, dream, and vision a future that God will yet enact.”[iv]

My friends, as we move forward into the coming year, how might we, as individuals, think or imagine our way ahead? How might we as a church community dream into reality a future that God will yet enact?

One final thought this morning.  This weekend we are invited to celebrate the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by serving our neighbor. His nephew said (and I’m paraphrasing here) he said that Monday isn’t a day to rest, or a time to pull out the grill, rather it’s a day to live-into the ideals of his uncle.  It’s a day to think of the other before self. It seems to me that this invitation is in lock-step with the gospel message.

However, as a nation, I fear we’ve wandered from the path. Over the course of this past year, we see racism, sexism, isolationism, and fear-mongering dominate the conversation. Make no mistake, these -isms and perpetuations of fear fly-in-the-face of the gospel message. And this isn’t a political position, it’s a Christian position.  The core of Christ’s ministry and the tone of his message challenged his listeners to be more accepting, more loving, more compassionate; and he challenges us, still today, to think of the other before self. Psalm 139, along with many other passages from the Hebrew Scriptures informed Jesus’ teachings. He treated all people as if they were beloved by God. Because he knew they were. He crossed religious and social boundaries because for him the ideals of justice and equality and peace outweighed the dogma of the religious and political leaders. Jesus respected the uniqueness of all people while showing them, and us, a better way.

I would like to leave you today with a quote from Martin Luther King.  It’s one that I’ve used before, but I’ll say it again because it finally leaves us with at least a fragment of hope today. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” he said, “but it bends toward justice.”[v] May it be so. Amen.

 

[i] Gary Chapman The Five Love Languages (Northfield Publishing) 1995 (via Wikipedia)

[ii] Kathryn Matthews Discerning God’s Call (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[iii] Ibid Matthews.

[iv] Walter Brueggemann. Quote found at (www.ucc.org/samuel)2018

[v] (www.brainyquote.com/quotes/martin_luther_king_jr)

Defining Moments

Mark 1:4-11

Who’s seen the movie Finding Nemo? Well, if you haven’t, it’s a classic children’s movie about a father clownfish, named Marlin, whose searching, against all odds, for his lost son, Nemo.  And after a long and harrowing journey across the sea Marlin finds his son in the fish tank of a Sydney dentist. And with the help of the other fish in the tank, Nemo escapes and they all lived happily ever after. That’s a very quick synopsis of the movie.

My favorite scene, however, takes place at the very end, after the credits begin to roll. Even though the main story has ended, we soon discover that another story has just begun. You see, the fish who had helped Nemo escape from the tank had managed to free themselves, too. While their tank is being cleaned, they manage to roll the plastic bags they’re in along the counter, out the window, across the street, and into Sydney Harbor. When the last one finally reaches the water, there’s a collective cheer and sigh of relief. But then the reality of their situation begins to dawn upon them. Bobbing in the ocean, still encased in a thin layer of plastic, Bloat, the puffer fish, breaks the silence with the words: “Now what?”[i]

As we look at Mark’s account of the Baptism of Jesus today, I wonder if those who were baptized that day in the wilderness, had that same thought.  Now what? I mean, John seemed to know what to do.  He kept on doing his thing.  We can surmise from the larger context of Mark’s account that he kept on preaching repentance and forgiveness.  And that he wasn’t afraid to challenge the powers that be, which unfortunately, lead to his head on a platter.  And Jesus knew the score. Immediately, he was taken into the wilderness to face his own inner temptations and overcome them. Which, combined with the baptism kicked-off his earthly ministry.

So, the future of the main characters was pretty much set in stone.  But what about John’s followers; what happened to them?  Did they switch over and follow Jesus? Some probably did. Some probably became a part of “the crowds” we read about later in the gospel. But was that all of them? Did some of these folks leave the wilderness, go back home, only to have the fervor of the moment wear off as the struggles of life returned? Maybe. It stands to reason that the realities of life, planting crops, keeping food on the table, raising children, might obscure the memory of their wilderness experience. I don’t know.

But here’s the thing. We’re not told what happened to those dripping wet souls after the party broke up.  But I’d like to think that some of them took the words and experience of their Jordan cleansing to heart, and shared that experience with the folks back home. I’d like to think that it was a defining moment in their lives.

We know it was for Jesus.  The baptism in the Jordan was a defining moment for his mission and ministry.  It was the beginning of “something more.” And that something more was defined, moment by moment, in his life and teachings. Jesus lived and taught a way of justice and peace, of equality for all people regardless of social status, religion, or nationality. And he showed us that these ideals were the ideals of God. And it was this defining moment that charted the path of his life and ministry.

But what about our path? What about the times when we’re like those wet souls standing on the riverbank, when we’re bobbing on the sea of life in our plastic bags; what about the times when we find ourselves asking: “Now what?” I know from my own experience that the path sometimes seems unclear or obscure and that God’s ideals sometimes seem too lofty to attain. So, what do we do if that’s the case? What do we do if the way ahead it obstructed?

Well perhaps, it’s in our struggles, perhaps it’s in our wrestling with doubt, that we find these defining moments. Do you see what I’m getting at here?  A defining moment doesn’t always come to us as a voice from heaven, sometimes our defining moments are born out of the challenges we face in life. And it’s one’s response to these challenges that finally defines one’s character.  When we face our struggles with faith and grace we are changed.  We are changed, transformed, from the “inside/out.”

That’s what I think John was driving at as he spoke to the folks on the riverbank. He was saying that this baptism was about transformation.  It was and still is about changing the trajectory of our lives when needed.  It’s about putting aside the hurtful words and attitudes that may haunt our being or cross our tongue. Jesus’ baptism was, and is, about getting rid of those things in our lives, that do harm to others or ourselves. In other words, it boils down to loving God and others.

You know, Julian of Norwich, the 14th century Christian mystic once said, “…and thus I understood that any man or woman who deliberately chooses God in this life, out of love, may be sure that he or she is loved without end”[ii]

And that’s finally the crux of the matter.  As we reaffirm our covenant with God today, by remembering our baptism and by partaking in the Lord’s Supper, we do so with the understanding that we are all loved by God.  Because through these sacraments, these sacred acts, we are symbolically demonstrating that we “choose” God; that we choose to live, as best we are able, lives in service of God by reaching out to and loving all of God’s people.  May it be so this day and as we progress forward into a new year.

Amen

[i] Rev. Dr. Tim Boggess.  In the Hole He Goes.  (www.Day1.org) 2009

[ii] Quote found on www.ucc.org/samuel. 2018