Julia Macy Stroud
January 22, 2018 / 10 am
All Saints' Church
Year B 3rd Sunday after Epiphany
I have a pretty clear memory of hearing a sermon about this story when I was a kid. I think I was around 10, because it was during a precocious phase where I asked my parents to let me stay in grown-up church so I could listen to the grown-up sermon, instead of running off to Sunday School with my brothers. Each week, I would try to listen really hard to what the priest was saying, and each week, a couple minutes into it, my mind would wander and many minutes later, I would realize I hadn’t been paying attention at all. So I’d try to jump back in and listen at least to the end of the sermon, and then each week, over brunch with my family, I would try to keep up with my parents as they discussed the sermon, but I would soon realize I had missed some key element.
I remember this one particularly because of a certain language confusion. During the sermon, the priest repeated this line again and again: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Fish for people! He said: “It doesn’t mean what you think it means,” That intrigued me enough to keep listening. “Jesus is not talking literally, but Jesus is talking about making YOU fish for people.” “Don’t get caught up thinking about having to go out with a fishing net, that’s not what Jesus is saying!” “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
So in my head, hearing this take on the passage, and missing a lot of the middle of the sermon, of course: if Jesus was not talking about going out with a fishing net, and I kept hearing over and over again, “I will make you fish for people,” what I was picturing was giant, human-size fish. Like, Jesus is going to turn us all into fish.
So I started the conversation over lunch with my parents that week, I think. "Why does Jesus want to turn us into fish?" And of course they laughed and laughed. "That’s not it!" my parents said. Jesus doesn’t want to make us fish, but fishers. My mother told me the translation used to be “I will make you fishers of men” but the new translation changed it to be more inclusive. (My question: more inclusive of women or of fish?”)
But in thinking about the story this week, I just couldn’t shake my initial interpretation, that Jesus will turn us into fish for people. Actually, I read the line to my wife Caitlin this week, who was not raised going to church, and therefore serves as a really good sounding board for scripture, because she has no preconceived notions from misheard sermons during childhood. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” I said. She was immediately puzzled. What are “fish for people?” she asked? Big fish? Now, Caitlin is very smart! So I don’t think I was so crazy when I was 10 for thinking this might be what the priest was talking about.
What could it mean to be a fish for Jesus? Instead of someone going out and catching fish in a net, what would it mean to be the fish, the one that is caught, and cradled in Jesus’ net? After all, in the story, Simon and Andrew DROP their nets to go follow Jesus. You would think, if Jesus is making them fishers, they would still need the nets.
And where else do fish show up in the Gospel of Mark? This story is from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the calling of the first disciples, but in the middle of Mark, there is the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, where Jesus feeds 5000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. To be a fish, then, is to be food, to be sustenance, in fact, miraculous sustenance, for a community of people who are hungry, who are ready to go and change the world, and who need to be fed.
I like that idea more than the idea of entrapping people into following Jesus; as Christians, Jesus is not calling us to throw a net over unassuming people in the dark of night. That’s not the fishing he is talking about. (And, incidentally, I think that’s what my priest was getting at in that sermon when I was ten.) So as I was thinking about this story, I was liking this interpretation so much, that Jesus wants us to be literal fish, that I turned to the Greek to see if maybe my mis-interpretation as a child might actually have some textual basis.
The Greek word for fisher here is alieis -- which was definitely the Greek word for fisherman, but which literally means “man of the water.” So even though Jesus is not using the word for fish, the meaning is very different than the command to go “fish” for people. Jesus is not actually giving us an imperative, or a to-do list, one more thing to get done to be his follower. The priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor writes about this story and imagines people hearing Jesus command to go fishing for people and responding, “okay, Saturday mornings once a month?” And adding the fishing to their long list of family activities, just another thing to DO.
But that’s not what Jesus is saying here, it’s not a verb, it’s not an imperative or a command. Jesus is asking us to be a people of the water. Not literally to turn into fish, but to recall fish in our life in and among the water. It recalls the waters of baptism we all pass through in our journey as Christians, the entry into this path of following Jesus that we all take, and which the disciples first took here, as they dropped their net and followed Jesus to the water.
The message that Jesus has been preaching that convinces the disciples to follow him, to be people of water and sustainers of community, is right at the beginning of this story: “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Since we’re playing with words today, and rethinking our first thought, let’s look at this word “repent.” For me, this word has an ethical weight to it, it sounds really theological and kind of heavy. You can imagine a preacher pounding the pulpit and demanding an imperative-- REPENT! But the Greek word, metanoia, is gentler and more hopeful. It means to be changed after being with, or to think differently after.
To borrow from the word itself, this definition is pretty meta isn’t it? To be a disciple of Jesus, to be a people of the water, to be a fish for Jesus, is to be changed by the people we are with. To think differently after being with them.
So if you’ve been zoning out for this whole sermon, whether you’re ten years old or 95 years old, I hope you will at least hear me as I finish it: Yes, Jesus is calling you to be a fish. And if you want to know more about what that means, ask the people around you. Because the people around you are your teachers, they will feed you and sustain you and change the way you think. The way of Jesus is not a to-do list, but a change within us that makes us think differently and act differently. Go out into the world, follow Jesus and he will make you a fish for people.
Julia Macy Stroud
October 29, 2017
Year A Proper 25
All Saints’ Church
This rainy, Fall Sunday is the start of a great season at All Saints’, our annual stewardship season, or the month each year where we talk about how we will take care of this place, how we will be good stewards of it financially, how we will offer our time, talent, and money to keep All Saints’ alive.
The perfect beginning to such a discussion is why exist in the first place? What is special about All Saints? What is necessary about All Saints? What do we offer the community and ourselves that merits such careful stewardship? Is 150 years enough? Should we maybe just throw in the towel?
So I will ask you today to keep that question in mind ... a basic existential why are you here, why are we all here, as you move through worship this morning.
Now I'm going to paint you a picture of what I think is a familiar, perhaps universal, New York City scene:
You’re on the subway, and you’re lucky enough to get a seat. You like to be on the edge, so you can lean against the poles on the side of the seat, maybe get in a little shut-eye depending on what time it is and where you’re going. And then the train starts to get crowded, taking on more and more people at every stop. Until someone is forced to lean from the other side, against those same poles, the back mid-section of their body now protruding slightly through and against your face.
UGGHGHGHGH. ICK. Get out of my space. You look up at the back of this interloper and think, “Do you not realize there is someone here?” Every little thing they then do becomes fodder for your increasing annoyance and anger towards them. Ugh, you can hear the music through their headphones and it is awful. Their backpack, thrown on the ground, is perilously close to leaning against your leg. “You are the worst,” you think.
So here’s another familiar subway scene:
You’re waiting and waiting and waiting on the platform. You were about 3 minutes late when you left your apartment, but then you remembered you forgot your umbrella, so then you were 7 minutes late, and then you just missed a train. So now, all of a sudden you’re 17 minutes late, maybe for work, maybe you know your boss will not be happy about that ....
And then ten minutes goes by and the train is not there and the platform is getting crowwwwwded. And the train finally comes 3 minutes later and now you’re 20 minutes late and the car is crowwwwwded. So you just kind of sneak in the best you can, sidewise, so you’re leaning against the side rail next to a seat. You take your backpack off because you’re a good subway rider and put it on the ground wherever you can find a spot and put in your headphones to try to get a little peace of mind but every single person around you is driving you crazy. If people would just move IN there would be enough space. And if this person who is so lucky to have a seat behind you would just stop leaning against your backside. Ugh, “you are the WORST,” you think.
You’ve probably figured it out by now, you are both people. Have we not all been both people?
“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Jesus has thrown up a flare here today: this is the thing to pay attention to, this is the one--Rarely has a preacher’s job been easier!
Of all the other things in all of scripture, this is the most important and the second most important thing to know, this is the Great Commandment, all you really need to know: Love God. Love your neighbor.
Love God. Love your neighbor.
Love God. Love your neighbor.
Amen. Sermon over. What else is there to say?
Well, it’s not easy is it? And my little opening example is just the tiniest, most simple, banal example of a situation that plays out over and over every day in slightly bigger or much bigger or nastier or even systemic ways -- we do not love our neighbors, we do not love ourselves.
We do not love our neighbors when we don’t welcome them in,
when we don’t provide healthcare, especially for children,
when we put them in prison, at especially high rates if you’re a neighbor of color,
we do not love our neighbors when we let them sleep in the street.
We do not love our neighbors when we use guns to kill huge numbers of neighbors at one time, to wound hundreds of neighbors and not offer them any care.
And if we do not love our neighbors, how are we loving God? We aren’t, we can’t.
So if it’s so simple, then what does LOVE look like? What does it really mean to LOVE GOD with all your heart and soul and mind, and to LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.
What does love like that look like?
I was scrolling through Facebook the other day and a friend put up a post about her son’s fifth birthday. She said, “You are 5 today, just like that! My heart, my soul, my 1st born love! This little guy made me see life in such a different way, one in which I understood feelings l never knew existed before.”
“My heart, my soul, my 1st born love!” Maybe you have a child and know exactly what she is talking about. Or maybe like me you marvel at this kind of love. Wonder if it could really be true that a little baby could make you see life so differently.
Even though I don’t have children, I have had the privilege in my life of doing a lot of babysitting. I am currently spending time with a 16 month old named Teddy two days a week. As far as I can tell, 16 month olds think they are fully functioning humans, but in reality they can barely walk. They want to run free, but they tumble over every 20th step. They want to talk, but their words are mostly babble. And to go outside with a 16 month old means a lot of chasing and a lot of calm shushing, a lot of picking up and brushing off, kissing cheeks, and a lot of laughing.
So whether or not you have your own children or not, there is a universal truth about each and every one of us, about you and you and you, and even you! You were 16 months old once. You tried so hard to talk, you laughed at the sound of your own voice, and you relied on someone to take care of you. Someone, somewhere had to chase after you or you would not be here.
Follow that love. The scholar Cornel West often reminds us in his teaching “You are who you are because someone loved you, someone attended to you.” In the world around us, loving God means keeping track of that love. That universal love that keeps the world moving. Reaching deep into that well within you and giving thanks. To know that to God, you are still 16 months old, and God is always chasing after you, brushing you off, taking joy in your laughter.
That is the greatest and first commandment, to love God with all your heart and soul and mind. And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Cornel West says another thing about love, I like to think of it as aligned with the second part of this commandment. Dr. West says “never forget, justice is what love looks like in public.”
If it’s all so simple, the question we’ve been wrestling with is: What does love LOOK like? And the answer is, of course, love looks like justice, it looks like taking care, like serving others, like leaving the world better than you found it.
Recently at a lecture about the economy, Dr. West expanded on his famous quote, what does it mean that justice is what love looks like in public? He says: justice means “We need the courage to question the powers that be, the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people. In many instances we will be stepping out on nothing, and just hoping to land on something. But that's the struggle. To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.”
This is the core of our faith as a Christian people. In our bones, at our center, is the story of Moses, leading the people to the promised land. He stood on the mountaintop and saw it, but never made it there, as we read just this morning from the Old Testament. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on this very text the day before he was murdered. “I have been to the mountaintop, I have seen the promised land.”
To live, to be Christian, is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.
Is this all sounding very easy or very hard? Very inspiring or very overwhelming?
The trick, though, is that you’ve got to love yourself. Right? That’s the thing about the subway story, you’re both people. You’re always both people. So if you find yourself being really hard on the other person, it’s probably coming from a place deep inside. Love yourself, then love your neighbor the same way.
And the gift of Christianity is that you don’t need to do any of this alone. That’s why you are here this morning, together, in community, gathering around a table to be fed. To do that first commandment loudly and in chorus, to love God and worship God in the beauty of this place, in the beauty of these prayers and songs. To let God chase you up to the altar, brush you off when you tumble.
What are we at All Saints’ stepping into together? What promised land can we glimpse, what promised land can we hope to bring those we love into?
Love God, with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, like a mother who is changed by her child, just as God loves you. And love yourself. And love your neighbor the same way. It’s why we are here. Amen.
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
December 24, 2017
All Saints’ Church
Merry Christmas! And welcome to All Saints’ Church. It does not matter who you are, where you are from, who you’re here with, or what you believe—you are welcome here. In the Christian story, our savior was born in a stable because there was no room at the inn. That’s why in this, God’s house, we strive to make room for everyone, so that no one will be turned away for any reason. There is a place at this feast for every person. And if it has been a long time since you’ve come to a church or if you’re just here because you’ve been dragged along, or if you’re just here because you love amazing music, please know that you are no stranger here. This is a special Christmas for our parish, which is celebrating our 150th anniversary. We have been welcoming strangers here for a century and a half, and we don’t intend to stop now. A church is a community of love, and if there is any love in your heart, you are in the right place.
On Christmas Eve, this house is filled with a wide mix of emotions. Many of us approach the birth of Jesus with joy and wonder. For others, being in this place on this evening may be something more of a curiosity, a chance to try something new. There are those of us who bring the pain of grief or loss as we remember loved ones from whom we have been parted or estranged. And there are those who bring hopeful expectation of great things to come, or hearts full of blessings.
Whatever state your spirit is in this evening, let it be filled with the Holy Spirit of this holy evening. God sees all of who you are and what you feel—and blesses it. This particularholiday can make even the strongest among us feel exposed and defenseless. But there is nothing to fear here—only a little child, squirming in the manger. This is not a coincidence. Because in the miracle we celebrate tonight is a deep truth about who God is and what God wills for us. By becoming human in Jesus, we learn that even God is vulnerable—as vulnerable as a tiny baby, an infant in a stable.
Friends, it is impossible to get through this life without being vulnerable. We come into this world just like Jesus did—small, helpless, and totally dependent on care from others. If we are lucky, we have a few years here and there when we may be strong and independent. But even then, human lives are so intimately intertwined with one another that the fate of one depends on the fate of all. And in the end, no matter where you might be today, your situation will become more tender one day, and you will find yourself again vulnerable.
The infant Jesus proclaims with a cry that this is no reason for sadness. He is born at the wrong time in the wrong place to the wrong people—by earthly standards. But because he is God’s holy child, he shows us the divine richness in our vulnerability. The inconvenient time of his birth becomes the holiest night in history. The meekness of his mother elevates her to the greatest of saints. The poverty of his circumstances transforms our poverty into the richness of God’s glory. The incarnation of Jesus Christ under such scandal and improbability is the foremost testament to God’s immense love for us when we are most vulnerable—when we need God most.
In the time of strength, it can be tempting to use our relative power to make ourselves forget that we were once as vulnerable as Jesus. We can surround ourselves with people and things to create the illusion that we will never be vulnerable again. The misguided among us are so disturbed by the thought of the vulnerable that they oppress them, trampling on the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the powerless.
But Jesus was all these things. He was born into poverty, and when he grew up, he chose to spend his life among the outcasts of his world. He never had any money to speak of, and he was never given any earthly authority. In fact, he stayed vulnerable all his life, until he gave up even that.
This is God. God created you and me and everything you see—and yet became as fragile as a human being. When he was among us, God chose a vulnerable life spent with the most vulnerable among us. And Christmas teaches us that God is there still. God is in our moments of greatest weakness. God is in our failings and our tragedies. God is in our infancy and our last breath. When we are at our most vulnerable, God is there. Because God is love. And without vulnerability, there is no room for love.
I have had this word—vulnerable—on my mind recently. You might have heard a news item last week about a government agency called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also known as the CDC. Apparently, the White House gave the CDC a list of words it was forbidden to use when preparing next year’s budget. One of these words was “vulnerable.”
Please, make your own conclusion on whether you think this particular bureaucratic incident is a big deal or not. That is not my job. But for me, the timing of this news—so close to Christmas--makes it impossible not to think about what it means to censor our vulnerability.
A society that punishes or forbids discussion of vulnerability is a cruel and unforgiving group of human beings. It will look for the weak and crush them for their weakness. It will exalt the strong and give them more strength. In such a dark vision for our common life, everyone will eventually be consumed by the lust for strength, because as human beings, we are, at heart, frail.
None of us actually wants to be vulnerable. But if you’re a Christian—or even if you just find Jesus somehow compelling—you must acknowledge and embrace your vulnerability the same way Jesus embraced his. It’s what makes us human. It’s what makes us compassionate. And ultimately, it’s what gives us the capacity to love.
Jesus knew this, and he sought to save us from our fear of our own weakness. He did this by becoming weak himself. He taught us that the highest calling for the strong is to serve the weak and to humble themselves before God.
But this evening—this holy night—the child Jesus is calling out. Hear is cooing and his whimpering. Look at his tiny face, so small against the vastness of the world. This is God. This is God—come as an infant—for you.