Sunday, February 17, 2019
Plain Talking: Sermon for the Sixth Sunday After Epiphany C
Last week, in the gospel many of us didn’t get to hear thanks to that rotten weather, Jesus is at the lake of Gennasaret. The crowds were pressing in on him so much, he had to get into a fisherman’s boat there on shore and row out a ways so that he would be able to teach without being knocked into the water. The boat he borrowed belonged to a fisherman named Simon, who had just come ashore to hear this wandering preacher speak. After Jesus finishes teaching the crowd, he tells Simon to row even further out, into the deep water, and let down his net. Even though Simon points out that the night before, when the best fishing often takes place, they had caught nothing, Simon does as Jesus says. And, let’s face it-- that’s always a wise thing to do at all times.
In fact, in the gospels it’s always better to do what Jesus says than what Simon says.
Now the deep water was a place of fear to many Jews. Even fishermen usually stayed close to shore, because in the Jewish cosmology, or mental model of the universe, the deep waters were often places of chaos. It’s where Leviathan lived. It’s a place where if your ship wrecked, you drowned. And there are still many among us who are fine swimming in a pool, or near shore, but get a lot more nervous when the water is so deep you can’t see bottom. We like to be where we can see what’s coming ahead. It’s human nature.
But Simon finds out, as does the watching crowd, that it is in the deep waters where we are often called to do our most abundant and fruitful work. He lets down his net, and as he pulls it up, he gets shocked with the catch of his life. In fact, the catch that Simon draws up in his net is so abundant it threatens to break the nets, and then to swamp the boat.
And our life in ministry—all of us, whether lay or ordained, for we are ALL ministers, as our Book of Common Prayer insists over and over again—is so often like that. Jesus leads us out of our comfort zones. Out where we fear the water is over our heads. And yet, that is where our real work is. And that can make us uncomfortable, or outright frighten us.
That’s when it’s vital to remember this: that Jesus is right there in the boat with us. He’s right there with us when he urges us into the deep waters of mission. He’s right there with us even when we feel the cords of the net straining and feel the boat, hanging above what seems to us to be an unfamiliar abyss, list to one side as we struggle to haul those nets up. Jesus never sends us into the deep waters without coming with us and staying right beside us, supporting us in our ministry.
And then this week’s gospel helps reinforce that. Moses had taught the people of Israel from the mountain, and Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes has Jesus doing the same. That’s why Matthew’s version of our gospel story for this week is called “The Sermon on the Mount.” Matthew sees Jesus as the new Moses, so if Moses teaches from a mountain, so will Jesus.
Luke takes a different tack. Luke starts our story with Jesus going up on a mountain, all right, but to pray, which is omitted from our gospel, but alluded to, because the first words we hear are “Jesus came down with the twelve apostles…” Luke has Jesus going to the mountain to pray, to spend time with God, but then he comes down to a plain to present his teachings on the Beatitudes. And his labelling of who is blessed and who is filled with woe can seem like deep water indeed.
And what basically does Jesus say? I hear a message in this gospel and last week’s gospel that speaks eloquently especially for our ears, as we commit ourselves to being witnesses to God right here at St. Martin’s. I also think these two gospel passages speak to us as we begin in earnest with the search for the next bishop of Missouri, whether we do that as the laypeople of this diocese or as the ordained, whether we do it in filling out the surveys and partaking in the Holy Conversations, or whether we do additional work as members of the Standing Committee, or the Transition Committee, or as our consultant, or as the Search Committee who are doing their particular part.
We’re told all the time that Christianity is dead, that the nets are empty. Yet I am convinced that we are being encouraged to have the faith to go out into that deep water and let down the nets in the places that may scare us, in the places that others have abandoned. I think we are being told to remember that those who are hurting and hungry are the exact places where Jesus is.
Jesus once again comes down in the plain—in the midst of the people. Even though he is God’s Son, he gets right there among us, using his power to heal and to teach. And he tells us this, which was also emphasized in our reading from Jeremiah and from Psalm 1: Those who put their trust in God are those who are blessed, or truly happy. Those who put their trust in themselves, and turn away from trusting God by making themselves the center of attention, will come to woe, even though sometimes it doesn’t look like it in our society.
Sometimes being above deep waters can have a clarifying effect on helping us to remember what is important. Blessed are those on the margins, Jesus tells us—and he urges us to make those margins our home as well as the church. Those who are comfortable believe in their own ability to put themselves into a position of comfort. Putting our trust in God and God’s promises is hard—we tend to come up with work-arounds that in the end undermine further undermine our sense of God’s presence with us.
Jesus is God’s son in human flesh, and thus is our way of seeing what God the Creator is like. We just have to watch. And when we do that, we see that Jesus spends a good part of his ministry living with the poor, and feeding those who are hungry, and comforting the weeping, and healing those whose illnesses caused them to be considered throw-away people.
The Beatitudes are another broad brush stroke in Jesus’s revelation to us about the priorities of God. Staring even before Jesus’s birth, in Luke’s gospel we get revelation after revelation about God’s love for those that society might deem “losers:” the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the outcast, the notorious sinner. We started with the Magnificat, with its proclamation that God has filled the hungry with good things, while the rich God has sent away empty, a raised-fist shout of defiance from Mary, Jesus’s mother that is repeated her in our gospel by her son thirty-some years later. We heard it a few weeks ago, when Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Freedom, release, contentment, jubilee. These are the gifts God gives to those who allow themselves to trust in God, rather than trusting in the working of the human will above all else.
In our gospel passage today, it does not escape our notice that Jesus addresses his remarks to his disciples--not necessarily to the crowd around him, but to those who stand for the church. Jesus has just finished calling the last of the twelve apostles, and already he is giving them their marching orders: If we want to live a godly life, we have to put our hearts and souls into the love of God, into reflecting God’s kingdom values. And Jesus, who reminded us a few weeks ago that his ministry inaugurates the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in the world, leads us to understand God’s love of those who are marginalized.
So Jesus is always with us in ministry. But I want to turn that around for us as well. To be the church, to truly live a life of faith, we also must be where Jesus is.
Where Jesus is, there we must be also, if we are to actually be disciples, and not just fans. And Jesus calls us out into the deep waters and into the margins. As we seek to witness to the life and vitality of the gospel in our hearts and here at St. Martin’s we have to cast our nets our wide in sometimes deep water, and do the hardest thing of all for modern people: to reflect God’s priorities in all we do.
As we seek a new leader for this diocese, that’s a vital understanding of our diocesan mission to carry with us, too. To remember to not rest comfortably on our own knowledge and our own resources, but to listen to the Spirit of God in all things. To not be afraid to cast our nets far and wide into the deep waters, and to rejoice at the catch we bring up rather than fear it will swamp the boat. To pray for someone who will lead us out even deeper into the fertile mission field of this anxiety-ridden, grossly unequal society around us, and model a different way. A way itself modeled for us by God Godself in human form. A way our world has lost sight of, and in losing sight of this promise, we have lost the cohesion and connectedness that is at the heart of relationship, and at the heart of the gospel.
But not here! just by being here, we model part of the truth of God-- and the power of a shared identity despite our differences in a world that too often fragments people and seeks to divide them in order to overpower them. Our willingness to open our hearts to those others despise is one of the strongest strands in the nets we let down into the deep.
That’s where the blessings are—over the deep, out in the margins, where we remember how much we depend upon God, yes. But also, paradoxically, we see that the deep water is also the place of blessing, reminding us that God never fails us, never abandons us, and is alongside us always. That’s the greatest blessing we can proclaim through hopeful hearts. And that’s the blessing we can BE as the people of this parish out in the world.
Preached at the 505 on February 16, and at 8:00 and 10:15 am on February 17, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church.
1 Corinthians 15:12-20