Epiphany 5B: Walking the Way of the Empty-handed Fishermen
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Walking the Way of the Empty-handed Fishermen
One of difficulties of hearing the gospel chopped up into little bits each week is that it’s pretty easy to lose a sense of the overall arc of the narrative, God’s story in which we find ourselves storied . We miss the forest for the trees, you might say. So let’s just take a moment to look back at where we’ve come from and forward to where we are going in Mark’s narrative to see what that can illuminate what Mark wants us to see about Jesus and how to apply that in our life together.
Remember, last week we heard the calling of the disciples—the invitation, as real and urgent now as it was then—to drop our nets, stop fiddling with our bilge pumps, and follow after Jesus empty-handed, placing our trust not in things that pass away and inevitably disappoint, but in God and God alone. The Kingdom of God, Jesus announces, has come near. All that is required is that we understand what it means to repent, to change the direction in which we are looking for happiness. We turn around from seeking ultimate lasting fulfillment in all that is transitory and fleeting, and root ourselves, ground ourselves, in that which cannot be shaken, and that remains a sure foundation through all the inevitable ups and downs of life. What’s interesting, of course, is that Jesus’ “Kingdom Project” of making the love of God tangible and manifest to the last, the least, and the left behind, rests on the backs of ordinary fishermen. The mission to the margins, the spreading of God’s inclusive love and radical welcome begins not with powerful elites—the capable, the competent, and the comfortable—but with ordinary rough-and-tumble folks like you and me.
So that’s the first thing to realize: Just as God doesn’t wait around for us to get our act together before he loves us—“While we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8)—neither does God wait for perfect people to continue the Kingdom-building work of justice, love, and mercy. We celebrated the Confession of Peter not too long ago, and the point I made on that day is instructive here. Did you ever notice that the “rock” on whom the Church is founded is pretty un-rocklike? What happens after Peter confesses Jesus as Lord? He gets immediately rebuked for his “Say it isn’t so, Jesus!” after Jesus tells him about his impending arrest, and execution at the hands of the authorities. The rock, the one with the keys to the kingdom, is the guy who pretends not to even know Jesus while he warms his hands over a charcoal fire in the courtyard and a rooster clears its throat three times.
What is God up to? This is about as far as one could imagine from assembling a “Dream Team” of superheroes with assorted powers to combat the forces of darkness. The message for us is that God uses us—just as we are, warts and all—for the bringing about of the Kingdom. God doesn’t want us to sit on our hands until we have a mystical vision of the throngs of angels going off in our heads like roman candles on the fourth of July. Right here, right now, with our faults and foibles, God is working in and through us to make love manifest. God is in this place—no ifs, ands, or buts about it. What’s more, God puts fallible people in charge—un-rocklike Rockies and Rockettes—because he knows how easy it is for us to put our ultimate trust in the wrong place, to worship the creation instead of the creator as Paul says in Romans (1: 25). We put our trust in God in Christ through the Holy Spirit—not Peter, not the Church, not the clergy, not the liturgy, not coffeehour. Peter’s fallibility reminds us of our fallibility, and of our need to rely, to depend, on God as the source of all goodness, truth, and beauty. If Peter were perfect, I can guarantee that we would have stopped worshipping the Living God a long time ago. We’d have the Temple of the Holy Key somewhere where we would supplicate to Golden Key and swap stories about Perfect Pete and buy t-shirts with his face emblazoned the chest. The greatest gift God ever gave the Church was to put an impulsive, fickle-minded guy who always says the first thing that comes to mind in charge.
The calling of ordinary and Janes and Joes to embody the in-breaking Kingdom of God is instructive in what it means for us to practice being Church as well. Michael Ramsey, the late, great Archbishop of Canterbury from 1961-1974, was fond of pointing out that the Anglican Church is “reformed and reforming.” Reformation isn’t a one-and-done event that happened in the lead-up to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. There was the English Reformation, of course, that gave birth to what we now recognize as our Episcopal tradition, but the Church, properly understood, is, as Ramsey points out, always reforming. We are always on the way, on the Road to Emmaus, traveling with Jesus. The journey is the goal. We practice as a Church always laying ourselves open to the judgement and mercy of God. The Church is always willing to be wrong, to admit its failures, to beg for mercy and assistance, God’s help, in learning to follow after Jesus more nearly, and to love Him more dearly.
That’s why the confession we make each week isn’t just a private affair between the individual soul and God. We confess, as a community, how we have failed to love God and neighbor and ask for God’s help in instructing us in the ways of justice, love, and mercy, and walking the path of the empty-handed fishermen. The always-reforming Church knows all-too-well its own fallible impulses and places its trust, over and over, in the Living God. The always-reforming church allows itself to be called into question, interrogated by the Living Word of God, that what obstructs the free flow of grace might be corrected, and what furthers God’s mission in the world might be built up and strengthened. The Church exists, not as an end in itself, but as an open place in which God, in God’s freedom, might act in and through us. Our job is to keep ourselves, and the community opened up, exposed, laid bare, to the transfiguring light of God’s love, that He can make of us what He wills. Not my will, but thy will be done.
So that is all about the who—who Jesus calls to follow him and why he chooses such ordinary folk. But we should also pay attention in these opening healing stories to the space through which Jesus moves. The first thing Jesus does upon returning from the desert is call his disciples and then immediately begin healing people. Jesus is about healing, wholeness, integration, and restoration of relationship—all of which are wrapped up in what we call salvation. And Jesus doesn’t start in an unobtrusive, low-key way. Instead, he goes to the heart of religious power and authority and manifests a new teaching. He goes to the synagogue—towards one who has been declared unclean—and heals him. Don’t let the talk of demons trick you into the dismissing the power of what Jesus does here. He embraces, speaks with, goes towards, the one whom everyone else wants to exclude and discount. He holds up a mirror in the synagogue and unflinchingly shows the congregation—whose whole reason for existing is justice, mercy, and love—a blind spot. Jesus points out the one rendered faceless, invisible, voiceless, in the very midst God’s chosen people. The man with an unclean spirit is a prophet call to the church to ask itself that question—the question that keeps it on the path of always-reforming, always opening itself to the judgement and mercy of God: who aren’t we seeing? Who aren’t we listening to? Who’s been declared ritually unclean and cast aside? How might we open our arms to that person, or that community of persons, and welcome them as God has already welcomed us?
You see, it’s not just the man with the unclean spirit who is healed in today’s gospel, the congregation is healed as well. The man is healed of being an outcast and restored to productive, loving, reciprocal relationship with the community. But the community is healed of its blindness as well—the blindness that divides the world up into clean and unclean, insider and outsider, those on top and those languishing invisibly, silently, on the bottom of the heap. When we get close to Jesus, and stand where he stands, our eyes are opened to those who have been rendered invisible, and our ears are opened to those whose cries we have distractedly drowned out. When we get close to Jesus love happens, and everything that gets in the way of love is burned away by the light of love.
Where does Jesus go from the synagogue? To a Christian house (Peter’s mother-in-law) and then into the surrounding towns and villages. Jesus moves from Church, to the privacy of the household, and into the public square. Nothing is left out. Love seeps into every nook and cranny. All dimensions of our lives are to be touched and transfigured by the love of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. In that movement, from church, to household, to village and town, we see a perfect representation of what it means for us to be church: we start with getting close to Jesus, of knowing God’s unconditional love for us, just as we are, and are fed at his table. Then we are kicked out the door to be that love in the world to all those we encounter. It starts at home. But it expands outward like a spreading red wine stain of blessedness over the whole world that no amount oxiclean can remove.
We’re 28 verses into Mark’s account of Jesus’ life and already we have a pretty complete picture of who we are called to be as followers of Jesus:
· God works with us right here and right now, through the ordinariness of daily lives for the bringing about of the Kingdom.
· Our weakness is our strength and fallibility is our friend—it reminds us where to properly place our trust—in God and God alone.
· The question we need always to be asking, to keep uncomfortable before us, is who haven’t we heard? Who haven’t we seen?
· We are loved into loving. Having known God’s unconditional love for us in Christ, we leave this place as that very love.
That’s a lot of heavy-lifting for 28 verses. Pretty good for a Gospel some characterize as unartful and inelegant. And It all starts with being close to Jesus—that Kingdom of God has come oh so near. When we live from that place—and not from scarcity, lack, self-protection, or fear—we become a part of that slowly spreading stain of blessedness. Christ playing in ten thousand places. It’s the way of the empty-handed fishermen and it might just heal the world. Let’s walk it together.