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Off the Hook: Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, January 21, 2024

-- The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire

Readings, 3rd after Epiphany B:

Many of you have probably heard the old Chinese proverb: Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.


It’s a beautiful sentiment. But I have also seen the truth of its corollary: Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he will be gone the entire weekend.


There’s a lot of fishiness in this week’s readings, and hopefully, we are hooked into trying to learn more.


We start with just a snippet from the Book of Jonah. It’s unusual among the prophetic books. There are very few prophecies of his included. Instead it is a narrative of Jonah’s life. His life as a prophet is unique because in this book he is sent not to the people of Israel to correct their sins and shortcomings, but to the people of Israel’s oppressor—specifically, to the great city of Nineveh. A city Jonah hates, because it is the capital of Israel’s enemies, the Assyrians. So when Jonah is told by God to go offer his enemies salvation, he adamantly refuses and does everything he can to avoid it. I mean, a prophet who defies God. That’s some chutzpah. But in the end, to Nineveh he does go, and converts them with a single sentence. And in doing so, he learns that God’s mercy is wider than the widest sea.


In Mark’s gospel, which is notorious for using the word “immediately” dozens of times, Jesus converts two pairs of brothers with a single sentence, too. As I discussed this gospel with the vestry the other night, some of us contrarians reflected that the idea of fishing for people can seem rather negative. This image implies, after all, that maybe people should be baited, or hooked, or caught against their will. Fishing works by fooling the fish, or sneaking up on them unawares, after all. Not to mention the fact that fishing for a living, rather than when one does it as a hobby, is backbreaking work with no guarantee of success—and desperate, too, when fishing is a matter of survival.


When we survey the scope of scripture, being caught in a net is almost always a negative thing. A net is almost always portrayed as a trap. In the psalms, a net is what your enemies lay out to trip you up, to ensnare you. With that in mind, the idea of “fishing for people” can be seen as manipulative.


And sure, there are some faith communities that use gimmicks to ensnare people. There’s the obvious things, like offering childcare—I used to know a lot of parents who would send their kids to a local church in east Tulsa because it had a fleet of old school buses that would drive through the neighborhoods, and they could send the kids off to this church and get a couple of hours to themselves while the church kept the kids busy on a Sunday morning. I know other churches that advertise coffee bars, and climbing walls, and even Mixed Martial Arts bouts and fashion shows, or who play to the very attractive idea that those who DON’T belong to the church are losers, outsiders, cast off from God—like God’s love is an exclusive offer to only the right sort of people. Then there are churches where people go to make business connections, or to be “seen”—a story as old as time.


This week’s readings continue last week’s theme of being called by God and the mutual recognition that is involved in call, as we are given more depictions of being called by God and the various ways we can respond.


To review: we could respond with innocent eagerness, like the boy-prophet Samuel last week.


We can respond with skepticism, like Nathanael did last week in John’s gospel.


We can respond with a desperate and angry “NO!” until one gets FORCED to surrender, as in Jonah’s story--and surrender he does, but he resents the hell out of being forced to offer a chance for repentance to his most hated enemies.


Or we can respond with shocking abruptness, like our two sets of brothers in our reading from Mark. Here we see them drop everything that they are doing—leaving behind bewildered (and undoubtedly angry) fathers and unmended nets and following this stranger with a handful of words.

I don’t know about everyone else, but for me, choices two and three have definite relevance for my life. After all, saying yes to God sometimes means ceding control, letting God’s will triumph over our own will. And there are few things more unsettling and potentially scary than that. We live in a culture, after all, in which sacrifice, compromise, joyful obedience and being malleable are seen as signs of weakness, signs of being a patsy. We have been conditioned, after all, to always seek to win—to demand “What’s in this for me?”—and the way our churches are set up can be no different.


So maybe that’s why some of us feel sorry for those poor fish-people. Visions of that scene in Finding Nemo might be flashing through your mind’s eye right now—the one where poor little Nemo has been caught in the net of the trawler along with hundreds of other fish, and they panic at the prospect of their impending doom as the net inexorably cranks upward.


But Jesus’s Good News never starts by tricking or guilting people into conversion and repentance. Jesus’s Good News, one that we are called to proclaim and embody, emphasizes living a life of discipleship rather than an emphasis on how to suffer through life until you get a reward of heaven when you die. My life was hard enough growing up. “Get used to it, kid,” or, a million times worse, smugly being told “It’s all God’s will” in answer to the real deprivations and chaos in which I grew up did NOT entice me into feeling like I was on the winning end of a bargain.


Jesus met people where they were, and invited them into relationship by being spiritually and intellectually welcoming. Again and again, he invites us to bring our questions and our doubts and not be rejected or shamed for them. And the places in my youth that operated with baiting nets and condemning some people as “garbage” worthy only of destruction when they got caught in God’s net did not appeal to me one bit.


In calling us, Jesus doesn’t offer us a bargain. In calling us, Jesus offers us our lives.


Rather than vengeance and punishment, Jesus calls us to mercy and grace. Rather than a transactional mindset like the rest of the world around us, run by merciless parameters like “dog eat dog” and “take advantage of others before they take advantage of you,” Jesus’s Good News is instead an orientation toward compassion and helping others without stopping to refuse those who were deemed “unworthy.” An emphasis on helping the struggling rather than ignoring their struggles or seeing those struggles as “God’s will.” A proclamation of how Jesus’s incarnation is meant to remind us of how precious we are in God’s sight, rather than how fallen and corrupt the material world is—and letting Christians off the hook from trying to make the broken places in the world better.


It's a question of emphasis. As our gospel passage begins, Jesus is walking along the shores of Galilee proclaiming GOOD NEWS. Good news, of mercy and grace, rather than suffering and smiting. That’s what entices people to leave the nets that have ensnared them and follow Jesus.


We can hear Jesus’s call with a different emphasis.

Instead of “Follow me, and I will make you fish for PEOPLE.”What if we heard, “Follow me, and I will make you fish FOR people.” To live for others, to live for God, and in doing so, living lives that really matter.


Jesus calls Simon and Andrew and James and John and you and me to actively join with him in proclaiming the Good News to those we encounter in OUR lives. To take stock of what God’s love does for us in each moment, and to be so overjoyed we share that love with others. And that’s how we get out of the net and off the hook, and instead live lives of richness and abundance.


Jesus’s call to us, as disciples, is to not to trap people in our nets, but to leave the nets and the manipulations and seek reconciliation and good news for ALL.


Jesus’s call to us, as disciples, is to have faith in God’s love for us—and for our own ability to share that love in a world that DESPERATELY needs it. Immediately.

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