There’s a sort-of joke among clergy, that once you run out of preaching material that starts “When I was in seminary”, then you have to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and then that should carry you through til retirement. I have been to Israel/Palestine four times now, and I rarely talk about it […]
I know it’s very hip right now to complain about the RCL, but SERIOUSLY. Why must we read the same story of Jesus calling Peter and Andrew from John, and then Matthew in sequential weeks? Is the RCL just trolling preachers now?! This, then, is part 2 of my apparent series on Jesus Calls Him […]
So, since we last spoke, o Blog, I have had minor surgery and went to the Holy Land for two weeks. January was wonderful, but did not involve tons of preaching. Therefore, I am playing a bit of catch-up. First up is a sermon that I am personally fairly proud of because I managed to […]
Shepherds, sheep, wise men, and angels. We celebrate the large cast of players in the Christmas story with visual representations ranging from finely crafted Nativity sets to church pageants filled with children decked in bathrobes and homemade wings. … Read More
Easy To Love, Difficult To Discipline: The 7 Basic Skills For Turning Conflict into Cooperationby Becky A. BaileyThe first of several on the list that probably apply to far more than children and parents.So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood an…
My wife Rebekah and I were engaged to each other a bunch of years ago, right on the water, at a park in Washington, North Carolina, a small coastal fishing town along the Pamlico River. After enjoying a picturesque picnic lunch together and sharing the big ‘yes’, we walked hand in hand through downtown Washington, goofy, romantic smiles on our faces, whereupon we saw a church. With a big sign out front. Kinda like ours. As in, unpredictable. ‘Jesus is my pilot car’ unpredictable. The sign read in big letters, all caps, “Be fishers of people. You catch ‘em, I’ll clean ‘em. – God.”
I closed my eyes, inhaled the sea salt air filled with scents of dying fish, and I tried to imagine God cleaning his people. I squeezed Rebekah’s hand, shot her a quiet smile. The image came back. God cleaning his people like fish. Ah. Yes. Romance was in the air.
The sign at the church of course was a reference to the familiar promise Jesus makes to his followers, that he will make them fish for people, but the sign’s creative liberties significantly altered – if just for a moment – my picture of God. Suddenly, the God of all things sat under the shade of a bald cypress tree, decked out in eye black and camo, hitched on the back end of a pickup truck, grinning with a big filet knife in one hand and a Coleman cooler filled with bagged ice and canned beer on the tailgate. The image raised for me all kinds of theological questions, like, “Where does God get God’s koozies?” And “What do they say on them?”
The sign at that church was a great reminder that, lots of times, where we come from shapes our first response to Scripture. The Texan imagines camo and coolers. The Wisconsin fly fisher maybe gets excited at the prospect of tying flies with Jesus. We start with known categories. If we don’t fish, we might run with Jesus’s metaphor to famous caricatures of the sport, like hook, line, and sinker and draw on secular fishing grammar: idioms like, “She took the bait,” which translates roughly, “I sure fooled her.” Or “bait and switch,” which means I promised him one thing and substituted another. Or “it really hooked him when I said that,” which indicates that I hit some emotional triggers that manipulated his energies to an irrational extent, so that I am in control of him now, and have gained the upper hand.
That most of our pictures for fishing involve baited hooks, deception, and control fits the narrative many Christians and non-Christians have constructed for what Jesus is asking his disciples to do when he invites us to become fishers of people. In other words, sharing the faith is an activity that even the faithful do not trust because faith sharing, the thinking goes, is designed to get someone to do something they didn’t want to do in the first place, either by fooling them into it or changing their minds in ways they didn’t ask for or invite. Evangelism, in this way of thinking, is about only the worst kinds of power, pressure, and paternalism.
The mistrust of evangelism, Good News sharing, as unwanted meddling in other people’s lives is reinforced by secular categories of the private and public, where religion is decidedly private. Religion is fine to have, but it’s best kept out of sight. Now, there are very good reasons to raise an eyebrow and push back against the prevailing public and private distinction, but when it comes to religion, most people simply assume it is better to be safe than sorry.
So we think of faith along the lines of concealed carry. Maybe a skilled eye can tell if you have it, but on the whole it’s a mystery we know better than to ask about. And the hiding is founded on a cocktail of fear, mistrust, and the lamentable arbitrariness about where and by whom the religious lines get drawn. That is, while some of the mistrust of religion has undoubtedly been earned, it is also true that mistrust of religion is sometimes exploited to justify separate agendas by those who drew the lines around religion in the first place.
So Jesus hands us the promise of evangelism in a fishing metaphor rife with hooks and a cultural mistrust of religion, and we smile big smiles and nod our heads, but we’re not really interested. Fishing for people is better left to the fanatical or professional or basically anybody other than me.
But. Well. This won’t change everything, but what if we took a step back? You know, back before we projected our cultural understanding of fishing onto Jesus’ conversation with his friends. After all, fishing for Jesus’ friends was different from the fishing granddad did with us. There were no hooks or lines or beautifully crafted ties of one thing made to look like something else. Admittedly, the gospels aren’t fishing manuals, but every time we see them at it, they’re casting nets. They’re gathering fish. They’re bringing to the boat’s edge what was scattered in the water. Together. In teams. And I wonder if this changes how we hear Jesus’ invitation to fish for people. In other words, what if it’s not about deception, the bait and switch, or emotional hooks and manipulating others? What if it’s not about giving people a change they didn’t want or didn’t ask for? What if it’s about gathering and being gathered? What if it’s about being re-collected and made whole? What if, taking a cue from the nets, it’s about mending? What does it look like to be a part of God’s work of gathering all people, and all things, to God? Engaging one another and the world with the love, mercy, and delight made known to us in Jesus?
There are lots of things that sharing in the gathering work of God could mean, but I see three things when I look at the disciples to whom the invitation was first given. When we look to the lives of Jesus’s disciples, what they did when they did become fishers of people, they lived the calling
If we describe the phrase by the lives of the first disciples, that’s what it is to fish for people. So evangelism, over against the power laden, don’t you want what I’ve got, stereotypes, now includes God’s power made known in our weakness, visibly trusting God’s mercy in public, and so includes less popular work like saying, “I’m sorry” and working to make things right. Evangelism now includes, among other things, the white church’s active repentance and work for racial justice. Now includes attention to creation care. The hard, patient working to mend humanity’s broken relationship with the earth and her streams now counts as proclamation. Planting seeds and asking hard questions that will change our lives to answer. We tend to think about violence in terms of wars and fights on schoolyards, but we have so much room to grow, living gently with the earth and with each other. Evangelism now includes meals with friends, family, and strangers, maybe imagined with greater sharing and across generations. What of what God has made known to you do those who are closest to you not know? What stories or heartaches or joys do you find yourself wishing a church could be big enough to hold?
Evangelism comes to include the spiritual practices that will help us better tend to God’s presence in our lives, practices like listening – just imagine, proclamation aided by listening – to discover and better tell the story of God’s love for us and the world, and to tend well to the stories of others.
And evangelism, maybe most of all, includes being made into seamless garments, being the same people out in the streets that we are when we come to church. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has said about sharing the faith, “Don’t try to be hip. You’re Episcopalians! Just be that. Don’t stop being who you are.” The best gift of getting older, so far, has been the gift of realizing that the only thing I have to offer is myself, and that that, with God’s help, is enough. God is only ever calling us, and giving us what we need, to be more truly who we are.
Evangelism, fishing for people, sharing what we have seen and heard of God in this world, faith in action, when imagined without hooks and lures, as a net, an invitation to net-working, even communion, becomes less us for them and more us with one another, because my salvation is caught up with yours. Faith sharing is being stitched back together because we belong to each other because we belong to God. This is the landscape of redemption, where it is without any shame in ourselves but only joy in our God that we proclaim that, through God in Christ Jesus, more is possible! So the work of God I see in you is also joy for me and all the others. The dry places are exactly where relationships might be restored and made right. The wounds are exactly the occasions for healing. And it’s hard. And it’s vulnerable. With the potential to change all parties involved, in any and every direction. Annanias and Peter and Jonah and Sarah and a whole bunch of others will all tell you that being called is not just for the others – it will very likely change you, too, where every change of every person unfolds and reveals the kindness and glory of God. And it’s honest. And it’s demanding. And it’s beautiful. And it’s exactly what Jesus promised his first friends in the water. It’s exactly what Jesus promises us, too.
As associate priest, I am present to and for the gamut of ministries in this place, but particularly ministries of Christian formation for children, youth, and adults. From Theology on Tap to bingo at Rock Ridge. From adult formation on Sunday mornings to our first ever and highly spirited all-congregation hymn sing with Bishop Sumner. From Bible studies to 5th Sunday game nights, and back again. In each of these, the goal is always integration over isolation, facilitating learning and conversations across generations and in ways that help each person find her voice and experience true belonging in the community of faith. One of the first great gifts of God to Christians is one another, holy friendship, and I am heartened by the warmth and open-heartedness with which HTbtL practices holy friendship together, welcoming new people into this family of faith and entering the lives of others with love and interest.
And then, on the horizon, no majestic eagles here, but a caravan of tour buses, out of which poured thousands of people: pilgrims, migrants, other visitors from Ethiopia. Elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, so tight on the banks it was easy to get separated from one’s traveling party and lose one’s sense of safety and internal direction.
Hey Jesus, uh, maybe we could, I mean, there’s this quiet cabin, on the Frio. It’s beautiful. Maybe we could do this there – you don’t have to – Jesus nods his understanding, but doesn’t move from his intention. This is just fine for now, he tells John.
And sure, things were different when Jesus and John walked the earth, but they were different in a lot of the same ways. The Jordan river, back then, was still a political border, still marked the edge of the land of promise. The Jordan, back then, was still every bit a doorway to the desert, no less than now a collector of cold and stirred up waters from other places; the Jordan was every bit a part of Israel’s conflicted sense of what it was to be and to hope, caught somewhere between the promise of God and the rule of the Roman empire; at the time of Jesus’s baptism, the Jordan river was no less than now a river full of the muck of life, violence, individual and systemic broken dreams, hidden fears, disappointments, and failures. All the things people came to wash off there.
Jesus, says John, are you sure? You’re not dirty the way the rest of us are dirty. It’s liable to get all on you. You don’t need a cleaning like this. Say, about that place on the Frio…
Christians through the centuries have sometimes thought about baptism, Jesus’s and our own, with an understandable preference for the clear waters of Blue Hole over the muddy waters of the Jordan. Baptism is supposed to clean you and separate you from all the mess of life, the thinking goes. So at one time in Christian history, people put off baptism until the moment of death, because they didn’t want to soil their souls after getting scrubbed up. They didn’t want to track the mud of their humanity through the halls of heaven. To its credit, this way of thinking about baptism and the life of faith is upfront and honest about how sordid and painful life can be. No rose colored glasses here. Consequently, though, the goal of faith sometimes became maintaining as much distance from the dirty parts as possible. Spiritual cleanliness is next to godliness. Or something like that. This way of engaging the life of faith scratched its head a bit when Jesus came and hung out with all the wrong people: sex workers, tax collectors, lepers, and worse. Standing at the banks of the river, John scratches his head, too. “Look, Jesus, I’m not sure you wanna get yourself mixed up in all this, maybe let’s steer clear of these waters.” But, and this is the important thing for us to see, getting mixed up in these waters is emphatically what baptism, for Jesus, is.
Theologian Katheriene Sonderegger writes that “(the) crushing suffocation of sin, the rage that sweeps over us like torrents, the weakness that undermines all resolve, the pitiful self-righteousness that cannot ignore how tinny it all sounds, the smallness and meanness, the icy darkness of cruelty: Christ has tasted all this in His baptism for us and for our sake.”
In Jesus, God meets us in the chaos of the waters. And it’s in and over these waters that the heavens open, the dove descends, and the voice speaks the surprise and Good News of New Creation: “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” the voice says. It turns out John was wrong, coming into the heart of the mess of us doesn’t undo the love of the Father, but the waters become the place of love’s revealing.
When you and I were baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, we were baptized into the fullness of this same love. In baptism, God’s love for you is manifest as the most true thing about you, as you are sealed by the Holy Spirit, marked as Christ’s own, and made one with, a part of, the Body of Christ, the same Christ who for love sought us in the raging torrents. Or, as Paul puts it, “He became sin who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God.” God’s beloved is what you are. The righteousness of God is what you are.
Now, the righteousness of God is pretty heady stuff, so before you get a big head about it and get to boasting over brunch, let’s get this clear: we are never more righteous than the one who is our righteousness. So we remind ourselves and each other that we inherit from Jesus a righteousness that doesn’t fear the dirt and dirty, one that doesn’t hides from the mess of human lives, others or our own. Instead, we emerge from the waters where he meets us as those committed to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving one another as Christ loved us, which is to say, even before we loved him. In other words, the two places where we discover, on the one hand, the fullness of God’s love for us and, on the other hand, the heart of naked humanity in all its grief and woundedness turn out to be one and the very same place.
So, writes Rowan Williams, “Baptism takes us to where Jesus is. It takes us therefore into closer neighbourhood with a dark and fallen world, and it takes us into closer neighbourhood with others invited there. The baptized life is characterized by solidarity with those in need, and sharing with all others who believe. And it is characterized by a prayerfulness that courageously keeps going, even when things are difficult and unpromising and unrewarding, simply because you cannot stop the urge to pray. Something keeps coming alive in you; never mind the results.”
Holy Trinity knows a great deal, I think, about being present to others in this way, in the neighborhood. The work of the outreach committee is daily transforming our awareness of the needs of the larger community beyond these walls, embedding us in new relationships that are both challenging and delighting. Likewise, the youth of this church have become leaders of outreach by the steadfastness of their days at the Rock Ridge memory care unit and in their participation with local ministries like the Austin Street Shelter and Feed My Starving People.
Baptism reminds us that these efforts and the many others like them are not to be confused with a cheap charity, are not the same as waking up one day to discover that you have a lot and some have a little and then giving to them out of your extra. Baptism calls us into a deeper solidarity, calls us into the waters of a broken humanity, with Jesus, where suffering meets the voice announcing new creation. Life in the mess and mud is just another way of saying, “Living our baptism.”
One day Jesus stumbled across a blind man. He put mud on the blind man’s eyes and healed him. Cleansed through dirt. How wonderfully odd. Even mud, it seems, has been made a part of the story of redemption. God has a history of healing the eyes of God’s people in and through the mess of ordinary life. Like Peter, who feared and then embraced the mud of Gentiles, or Francis, who feared and then kissed the mud of lepers, or Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day who sought out the mud of solidarity with the poor, we are likewise asked to trust that there is healing in the mud; that God would and has troubled the troubled waters; that that which we’d feared might be made a part of our salvation. That old ways of being, lives ordered by fear, the old order, have been upended. Because Christ is in the waters, we have nothing to fear. Because Christ is in the waters, we can go nowhere else. All things are being made new! There, in the waters, with all the wrong people, with all of the suffering, back behind the pretending – even there, and only there – God in Christ has made a home.