Frightened, Fishless, Failures

“St. Peter’s fish”

“St. Peter’s fish”

If I was advising St. Luke on the presentation of his version of the call of the first disciples, I’d suggest  that before we find Jesus standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, he should give us a little backstory.  We’d see that the two boats at the shore of the lake are old, worn out, leaky tubs that have to be bailed out regularly just to keep them afloat.  We’d see that the nets the men are fishing with are more hole than net, patched with string, and just barely holding together.  We’d see that the fishermen, who indeed were fishing all night, have brought practically no bait with them.  And we’d be shown that perhaps the reason these men passed the night without catching any fish at all is because, although they were short on bait, they had brought plenty of beer with them.  And smokes, too.  Come morning, they’d be tired, and they’d be dirty, and they’d be unshaven, and they’d stink of alcohol and old fish that somebody else caught.  But they hadn’t caught any fish because they aren’t very good fishermen, and they aren’t even trying to be.  Their girlfriends or their boyfriends (or both) would have left them.  They’d be feeling sorry for themselves.  And they’d generally be a mess.

Believe me when I tell you that no one else was going to write about these guys and assign them their place in history, let alone in scripture, if St. Luke and the other evangelists had not done so.

You think I am making all of this up.  But actually, I think St. Luke has left clues in his text, that back up my backstory.

We know the nets are junk, because they fail at the very thing they are intended for: catching fish.  They start to break once fish are actually being collected in them.

We know the boats are junk, because you can’t actually sink a boat by filling it with fish - even a lot of fish - unless that boat is already pretty compromised.  And yet, that’s exactly what happens to these boats when they start to fill with fish: they begin to sink.

And we know that Simon is a loser, because at the first sign that something good is happening in his life he, a) tries to stop it from happening; and b) reveals his guilty conscience: a conscience that we have every reason to believe is guilty for good reason.

And we know that James and John are losers too, because they are partners with this guy, Simon, with whom they have just spent the night getting drunk and high out on the lake, and not one of them could catch a single fish.

We can guess that even St. Luke thinks that Simon is a loser (at least at this stage of his life) because, as a writer, he (Luke) can’t even wait to start calling Simon by his new name, Peter, which he (Luke) doesn’t even tell us is Simon’s new name until the next chapter.

And we can assume that even Jesus knows what losers these three are (or at least Simon), since he has to tell Simon not to be afraid, even though there isn’t an angel in sight.  And usually, the assurance to “fear not” is only found in the scriptures when there are angels around.

So, what you have are lousy boats, filled with lousy nets, manned by a lousy trio of lousy men.  There’s your backstory: frightened, fishless, failures.

The backstory is important because it’s important that we see what Jesus does to the lives of these men.  And it’s important that we understand that Jesus’ recruiting technique is unconventional.  And it’s important that we realize that Jesus doesn’t call them because of their skills, or their talents, or their good looks, or their charm.  Jesus doesn’t call them because they have the right stuff.  They do not have the right stuff.  They’ve got nothing, and they bring nothing.  And Jesus provides no indication at all as to why he calls these men, except, perhaps, that they are available, with nothing else to do but sober up.

It’s a trope of modern life that nothing and no one is what it seems to be; that public success often hides deep private failure; and that the facade of prosperity often masks deep dysfunction and unhappiness.  But our frightened, fishless, failures are not presented to us with any such pretense.  They are exactly what they appear to be, and we are allowed to see them for what they are.  And what they are does not amount to much.

See how different the dynamics of this part of the story are from St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, only a few chapters ago.  The evangelist took pains to describe the angelic visitations that precede Jesus’ birth, and foretell his identity.  Simple shepherds can see that this child is holy.  And the testimonies of Simeon and Anna are presented to reaffirm the case.  St. Luke knows how to make the point that a person is special, anointed, chosen by God.

But here, at the shore of the lake of Gennesaret, the three men who will become the innermost circle of Jesus’ confidants and friends, to whom will be revealed mysteries that the rest of the disciples will have to read about later... these men are presented to us as they are, with no embellishment whatsoever: frightened, fishless, failures.

We are meant to relate.

Remember that these verses are not a parable.  This is just the story of how Jesus called his disciples.  But in many ways this episode of the story of salvation is a perfect parable for our times, for the church today.  All around us on the shore of our lake are aging boats that have seen far better days.  I could show you a few holes in our own boat too, and where we keep the bailing buckets.  The church is no longer a place where the world expects to find people of much consequence.  Perhaps in the pews there might be a few of you, but among the clergy you won’t find many.  This is not false modesty, I’m just saying this is the way it is.

We have proved ourselves, in the church, not only to be inadequate at the metaphor (we don’t catch any fish); we are actually also inept at the very thing Jesus called his disciples to do: fish for people.  I have statistics to back up this assertion, and believe me when I say that the statistics are more depressing than any sermon could be.  I will grant you that we may not have been out all night getting drunk.  We may not even be losers, and I certainly don’t want to attach that label to anyone.  But as the church around us gets smaller and smaller, and less and less effective at her mission, it might be time to admit that the church is seen by many as delusional if we think we are an institution of any consequence, when what we really are is frightened, fishless, failures.  Yes, we are meant to relate to these men who are clearly inadequate to the mission that lies before them, even though they don’t know it yet.  But we can see it, and we are meant to relate.

If I am correct that this passage of Luke’s Gospel is a parable for our time, however, it would be important not to miss the point.

The conventional way to bring this sermon home would be to point out how wonderful was the unlikely draught of fish that the men caught with Jesus in the boat, when they did what he said and put out into the deep water.  Bring Jesus into the boat with you, and see how many fish you catch: hallelujah!  I have preached such a sermon before, I am certain.  I don’t object to this conventional reading of the story.  But if this passage of the Gospel really is a parable for our time, the draught of fish cannot be its point.  You can tell that St. Luke does not see it as the point of the story, since the fish fill up the boat in verse 6 - halfway through the story, which ends at verse 11.  No, Luke has not yet made his point in verse 6, and if we conclude that he has, then we will be missing the real point.  It’s so much easier that way, though.  Easier to decide that the point of the story is to ask Jesus into my boat.  In that case, not only has my boat just shot up in value, but also, everything that improves from then on is mine: my catch of the day, my partnerships, my business, my profits, and my bottom line.  Everything is still mine, and on my terms!  What could be better?

Manifestly, that cannot be the point of the story, which is still only at its mid-point, when everything is still essentially the same as it was before.  For although circumstances have changed, nothing about Simon, or James, or John has yet changed.  So the draught of fish cannot be the point of the story, in verse 6.

No, this story is headed unstoppably to verse 11, where St. Luke tells us this: “When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

They left everything and followed him.  And if we understand that this has been the point of the story, then we realize that the consequence of the story is not that some fishermen caught a lot of fish - no!  The consequence of the story is that the lives of these three men have already been changed by following Jesus.  And now they will follow him as he goes on to teach and to preach about the kingdom; to heal and to forgive as signs that the kingdom is near; and then to suffer and die and rise again in order to seal the victory of that kingdom.

The consequence of the calling of the disciples is not what happens in the boat; it’s what happens on the way with Jesus, when you let go of what prevented it, and you decide to follow Jesus.  And if that was the point of the story for Peter, and James, and John, (who, after all, left behind that enormous catch of fish for Zebedee to deal with and profit from), then it is also the point of the story for us.  It’s not what happens in the boat; it’s what happens on the way, when we follow Jesus.

Two conclusions seem clear, if we read St. Luke’s account of the calling of these disciples as a parable for our time.  

First, when we relate to the fishermen who are inadequate to the task, then so be it.  Is our boat the worse for wear?  Are there holes in it, and does it leak?  Have the nets seen better days?  And are we, ourselves, less than perhaps we could be?  Are we sometimes frightened?  Haven’t we known failure?  Do we clearly lack the right stuff?  OK.  Then we are in the company of saints who have gone before us, and our feet will nicely fit in the footsteps of the apostles who first followed Jesus, who doesn’t call because you are good enough, or smart enough, of holy enough.  Jesus just calls.

Second, it is too light a thing to suppose that God has called us here to tell us that we could fill this boat with fish if only we’d rely on him.  I mean, it’s true, but it’s only verse 6!

God is calling us because God calls.  God calls, and he beckons us to follow, most often where we would not otherwise choose to go.  And often, he asks us to leave something behind in the process.

God is calling us to follow Jesus because to do so is to follow Truth and Justice and Righteousness in a world that is quickly forgetting what any of those words mean.

God is calling us to follow Jesus because in a world that is trying to get us to buy everything, the only god worth believing in is the One who frees you to leave everything aside.

God is calling us to follow Jesus because we are all headed toward death, and rather than perfect the various arts of avoiding death, Jesus wants us to know that he has conquered death for us, so there is nothing to fear.

God is calling us to follow Jesus because he sees how much and how often we resemble those frightened, fishless, failures he first called, even when we would never admit such a thing.

God is calling us to follow Jesus, because only by following him does the path to his Cross unfold.  Only by following him does the path lead us to his tomb.  And only by following him do our footsteps find the way to his resurrection life, which he has promised to share with us.  And God knows that if we will follow Jesus we need not be frightened, we will never be fishless again, and we cannot fail… if we will let him lead us.

If all St. Luke expected of us when we read this story was that we’d decide it would be a good idea to ask Jesus into our boats so we could catch more fish, then he’d have gone into the church consulting business.  But St. Luke is an evangelist.  He wanted us to hear the saving word of God’s truth.  He wanted us to forget about our own boats, leave them behind, and follow Jesus.    So St. Luke doesn’t end the story at verse 6, since verse 6 gets you nothing but a boat full of fish.  But if you go all the way to verse 11, and follow Jesus, you’ll get a life that never stops being renewed by his grace and love.

And he wants us to know that God has always called where the boats are leaky, and nets are ripped, and the fishermen are not necessarily all that good at what they do, and might still be a little hung over.

God calls.  And from frightened, fishless, failures, God builds a church of astonishing beauty, and power, and mercy, and love, that can easily remember who we used to be, but who now rejoice to leave every that hinders us behind, and follow Jesus, take up the Cross, and bask in his glory!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
10 February 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on February 10, 2019 .

Competing Loyalties

I imagine that most of us would consider loyalty to be a positive thing. We all want loyal friends and loyal spouses and partners. We want loyal leaders in the organizations to which we belong. We want loyal family members and loyal pets. And we are conditioned to display loyalty ourselves, too. God, of course, is deserving of our loyalty. Friends depend on our loyalty in return for theirs. Businesses expect loyalty from consumers. If loyalty to country morphs into treason, well, the penalty is dire. Some of us might be thinking particularly of loyalty on this day, when I gather there is an important game scheduled for this evening. While loyalty levels in this city might not be quite as high as last year, perhaps, for lack of a better choice, you’ve settled on a team to root for. There’s always some team to which you can lend your support. Because loyalty, after all, is basically a good thing, isn’t it?

And so it’s not surprising that the citizens of Nazareth hoped for at least a little loyalty from Jesus, the local boy. This son of Joseph, who had gained quite a following outside of his hometown, has returned to his synagogue. As we heard in last week’s Gospel, which continues in today’s reading, Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah and announces something amazing to all gathered. The poor will be recipients of his good news. Captives will be released. The blind will recover their sight. The oppressed will go free. It is the year of the Lord’s favor. On top of that, Jesus proclaims that he is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s hopeful words. Could it get any better than this for little old Nazareth?

If you were a resident of that town and were blind or were feeling a bit oppressed by the Roman government or knew someone who was unjustly imprisoned wouldn’t you have hung on every word that Jesus uttered in that synagogue? Scripture tells us that this is exactly what happened. The eyes of all who heard him were riveted on Jesus, and they were amazed at his gracious words. It certainly didn’t seem unreasonable for this hometown notable to offer some special favor to his fellow citizens. Can’t you hear the unspoken expectations of those listening to Jesus? “Jesus, we raised you in this town.” “Jesus, we nurtured you in this synagogue.” “Jesus, you are one of us.” Do something for us. Now.

But Jesus utterly disappoints. He draws on imagery from Israel’s Scriptures to remind his fellow townspeople that even Elijah, in days of old, was not sent by God to one of the myriad number of needy widows in Israel. He was sent instead to a widow in Sidon, in forbidden Gentile country. Similarly, the prophet Elisha was directed not to an Israelite leper but to a Gentile one. In the presence of hometown folk, in the company of those who expected some allegiance from him in return for having raised him up and for being one of them, Jesus announces that God has sent him to work wonders not in his hometown but in other places. God has other plans. This is not Nazareth’s lucky day. Jesus is bringing God’s good news to all people, even to those who were anathema to the residents of Nazareth.

So can you blame Jesus’s townsfolk for being enraged? Would it have hurt Jesus to work even some small act of favor in his hometown? Couldn’t he have been just a bit more devoted to his own clan? After all, we’ve already established that loyalty is virtuous, a basic characteristic of a well-ordered society and community.

Or have we? Because how can loyalty be virtuous when devotion to one group, cause, or view has become an idol that is at odds with God’s unfathomable purposes in the world? When Jesus makes his proclamation in the synagogue, the residents of Nazareth have already convinced themselves that they are the intended recipients of God’s favor. They have it all figured out. Since Jesus is one of them, he will do something for them. They are thus befuddled and angered when they hear that Gentiles—outsiders, those not like them—are to be blessed by God. And because they cannot cope with their disappointed expectations, they revolt and attempt to throw Jesus off a cliff.

 Doesn’t this sound familiar? It doesn’t take too much mental stamina to look at history or to look around us today and see people being thrown off cliffs because they have challenged or are challenging anticipated loyalties. Whether recognized prophets of history or contemporary people who simply want to speak a word of truth, it’s no news flash that truth aligned with God’s desires is often what people don’t want to hear because it pushes the limits of their worldview or of their pride. And when confronted with such provocative truth, there usually is a fork in the road: follow God or follow the idols of our loyalties.

Ultimately, loyalties, whether rightly directed or misdirected, bring a sense of comfort, don’t they? The familiar becomes the expected, and the expected becomes what we worship. The end result is fear, fear that if we betray our loyalties we will lose out, we will be alone, or we will face an uncertain, unfamiliar future. It’s much easier to stick with the idols of our misshapen loyalties because at least they’re convenient.

Unyielding loyalty to party membership frequently supersedes loyalty towards realizing the Gospel in the world, which requires its own loyal hands to work for justice, peace, and the dignity of every single person, regardless of what they look like or what they believe or where they come from. Is it too much to imagine that God might ask us to transcend human-created loyalties in order to do his will in the world? Is it too much to imagine that God’s favor might be extended to people who don’t share the same loyalties as we do? Humans are pretty good at limiting God’s power and are not so good at trusting that God can do far more than we can ask or imagine.

Devotion to a particular religion or denomination might even surpass devotion to God, because what a religion or denomination represents can mistakenly become the image of God in people’s minds. Outside the Church, earthly leaders demand unswerving loyalty to the extent that should you question a decision made or an action taken, you might be thrown off a cliff. And the supposedly faithful friend who writes you off because you question the morality of a deed done or left undone has misunderstood what loyalty is all about.

The lingering question, a question acutely present in our current state of affairs in this country or across the globe, is whether God’s voice of truth can continue to be heard in a world wracked by misshapen fidelities. Have warped loyalties squeezed out any chance of human loyalty to God’s word? Must every prophet of God or every speaker of truth be thrown off a cliff or assassinated or deprived of a voice? The situation seems to be one of great despair until we recognize that there is a profound difference between God’s loyalty to us and the loyalty we often demand of God. While we play quid pro quo with God, we forget that God doesn’t work that way. We are the recipients of God’s gracious favor even though we fall short on our faithfulness to God time and time again. God is faithful. And even when it seems like there is no room for God’s word of truth to get through to us because everyone is throwing prophets off cliffs, God’s gracious favor passes through the midst of it all and goes on its way to reach willing ears, hungry for some truth.

For however much we barter with God, and however tempting it is to expect that God’s loyal response to our prayers will result in special favor on our own terms, God slips past the limits we attempt to impose on him. God reaches those who need him, even if those people are beyond what we could ever have anticipated. And God reaches us, too, in the process.

Though God’s people build walls as they close ranks out of blind allegiance and fear, God’s word breaks through the cracks to reach those who especially need to encounter his blessing. Because the word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword and can pierce its way through the calcified hardness of human hearts.

Thank God that he doesn’t seek out only the places we want him to seek out. Thank God that he doesn’t occupy only the turf of the hometowns of our hearts, or of our particular parishes or of our particular civic organizations or of our particular country. God knows whom he needs to reach, and God will do so. For the question is not whether God is loyal to us but where our loyalties lie.


Preached by Father Kyle Babin
3 February 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on February 5, 2019 .

The Year of the Lord's Favor


In the year 1790, an American artist named Samuel Jennings was living in London, and working in the circle of Benjamin West.  Only months earlier, in 1789, the United States Constitution had been ratified. I have every reason to believe that although he was living abroad, Jennings was a patriot.  It was now, seven years since the end of the War of Independence, and fifteen years since that war had begun.  At last, a government had been created, and the shape of what the United States would be, was coming into view.  Indeed, I suspect that to Jennings, and to many patriots of the day, 1790 may well have felt like the “year of the Lord’s favor,” to borrow the phrase from the prophet Isaiah. 

In London, Jennings learned that the library that Benjamin Franklin had founded nearly sixty years earlier was building a new home, at Fifth and Chestnut Streets, in the shadow of what we now call Independence Hall.  And the artist wrote to his father, asking him to make an offer to the directors of the Library Company of a painting he would make for them.  He suggested that suitable allegorical subjects for the painting would be one of the goddesses, Cleo, Calliope, or Minerva.  But Jennings felt that Minerva would probably be best, since, as “Goddess of Wisdom & all the Arts,” she is “The Presidentess of Learning, which seems to comprehend everything that can be desired.”*

Jennings received the following response to his suggestion:

“The Board have considered the three Subjects submitted to their Choice, and readily agree in giving a preference to that of Minerva; but as a more general latitude has been so politely granted, they take the liberty of suggesting an Idea of Substituting the figure of Liberty with her Cap and proper Insignia displaying the arts by some of the most striking Symbols of Painting, Architecture, Mechanics, Astronomy etc, whilst She appears in the attitude of placing on the top of a Pedestal, a pile of books, lettered with, Agriculture, Commerce, Philosophy, & Catalogue of Philadelphia Library.”**

As it happened, the leadership of the Library Company comprised not only men who instinctively understood product placement, but also a concentration of Quakers and others who were devoted abolitionists, and who saw an opportunity, as it were.  Their suggestions of the detail of the composition of the painting went on (with apologies for the anachronistic language that sounds hard to our modern ears):

They suggested that the painting should include, with Lady Liberty, “a broken chain under her feet, and in the distant background a Groupe of Negroes sitting on the Earth, or in some attitude expressive of Ease & Joy.”

Today the Library Company inhabits modern quarters at a new location, but the painting, in which Jennings closely followed the compositional suggestion of the directors, still hangs prominently in its reading room.  The painting is known by two different titles: most often as “Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences.”  But, secondarily (and again with apologies) as “The Genius of America Encouraging the Emancipation of the Blacks.”  It was given to the Library Company by the artist in 1792.

Let me acknowledge that the painting, by today’s standards, is problematic.  It would be hard to find a lily whiter than this Lady Liberty, who is porcelain-skinned, with blonde tresses, and draped in an ivory gown.  Even the liberty cap she displays on a slender pole - customarily red - is, in this image, white, to match her dress, her skin, and everything about her.  The black people in the foreground of the painting sit or kneel below Lady Liberty, at her feet, in supplicant, but eager, posture.  Before them lie the broken chains of their bondage, held firmly beneath one of Liberty’s milky white feet.  This lady puts the “p” in “maternalistic.”  She is, admittedly, a figure of her time.

But for her time, she was remarkable.  The Library Company owned not one piece of visual art until the moment it received this gift, which is possibly the earliest known pictorial expression of the abolitionist cause in either Britain or America.  I am reliably informed that the painting also includes the first depiction of a banjo in all of western art.  Remember that the year was 1792.  And although the imagery is woefully out of date in this century, by most measures it expressed a hope that was many decades ahead of its own time.  And we could reasonably ask whether or not that hope has yet been fulfilled.

When Jesus reached back to the words of the prophet Isaiah in order to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, he pronounced those few words that did then and still do echo so persistently through the ages:

“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....”

Far from sounding anachronistic, these words sound entirely ahead of their time.  Of course, Isaiah was looking to God’s future when first he was given these words to write.  But when Jesus stands up to read them in the synagogue in his own home town, he then sits down to declare that “today this scripture has been fulfilled….”  But sitting here today, can’t we reasonably ask ourselves whether or not that hope has yet been fulfilled?

For one thing, the whole idea of the “Genius of America” has begun to feel somewhat anachronistic in the hands of our present leaders, as it must have now long felt to people of color in this nation.

And for another thing, the idea of the “year of the Lord’s favor” might sound to many ears, like so much of the scriptures: pleasantly anachronistic poetry without much heft or significance.

But to my ears, these words have not lost their promise.  They amount, I believe, to more than a painting whose imagery is out of date, even if its aspiration is somehow laudable.  And the recitation of these verses, in which we reach back in time, to remember when Jesus reached back in time, in order to express the reality of God’s future, make me wonder how it is that with all that we have been given, we can be so woefully behind God’s time; how it is that we continually hobble what God would set free.

And if I feel this way, how must it feel to those who are in so many ways still made to kneel in supplication before the feet of Liberty, now being told to wait for that which has always rightfully been theirs, even though the chains that kept them from it were supposedly broken long ago?

It is telling that when Jesus reaches into the scriptures to locate the charter for his ministry, he does not remind his congregation to love God and their neighbors, he does not settle for the Golden Rule.  Rather, he declares freedom to the oppressed as the sure sign of the year of the Lord’s favor.

People these days often think that faith is a thing of the past.  But as long as there are chains of bondage to be broken, those of us who call Jesus “Lord” have work to do.  And if we have to reach back in our faith to claim the promises of God’s future, so be it.  Sometimes faith is as simple as believing that freedom is coming.  That’s why in this country, oftentimes faith has been so much stronger among the people who in Jennings’ painting are kneeling in supplication, than it has been among the people who look like Lady Liberty.  Their faith has had to sustain the promise that freedom is coming.  Their faith has had to remind them that their chains have been loosed, since so many ways were devised to keep them in bondage anyway.  Their faith has had to supplement their supposed freedom, since so much has been done to prevent their Ease and Joy.

Year after year, Jesus walks into our midst to stand up and teach us.  And we sing, do we not, that he is our friend; that we want him among us; that he can consider this, our nation, as good as his own native soil, so much do we want to make this place his home.

So, he stands up, as he did in his own home town, and he reaches back in time to recite the timeless formula of God’s promise...

“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.”  And he sits down.

And do we decide that we are not yet ready for the year of the Lord’s favor?  That we do not want to do what is required?  That we cannot accept his promises?

We do enjoy sitting here with our liberty cap at hand, where everything is ours.  But do we really want to share it?

And so we sit down, too, and wait for another year.

But the promise will not go away.  Jesus will be back to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor again next year, and the year after that, and the year after that.

And faith is believing that freedom is coming, and nothing can stop it.  

Thanks be to God!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
27 January 2019
Saint Mark’s Church Philadelphia

*Library Company of Philadelphia Minutes, Vol 3, April 1, 1790, “Extract of a Letter from Samuel Jennings, dated London, January 12, 1790”

**Library Company of Philadelphia Minutes, Vol 3, May 6, 1790

Posted on January 27, 2019 .