You may listen to Father Mullen's sermon here.
Modern translations of the Scriptures have brought many blessings of clarity, meaning, and wisdom to our encounter with holy writ, none of which is apparent in the famous line we hear this morning on the lips of Jesus: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” This sounds ridiculous; it sounds like Jesus is promising to do a magic trick that will leave Andrew, Peter, James, and John flapping around on the dock, their lips puckered, and their gills heaving. It certainly does not sound like the sort of call that would convince you to drop your net and follow the guy. Everyone knows that what Jesus really said was, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” He wasn’t being sexist; he was just using the linguistic conventions of Jacobean English. Duh!
I raise the matter not to be curmudgeonly, but because something has been lost here, despite our translators’ intention to hold onto it. And I think it’s important that we try to reclaim whatever has been lost, as I will try to demonstrate. What’s been lost isn’t a turn of phrase, it is the urgent and appealing sense of call, transformation, and mission.
There are Andrew and Peter (still going by his old name, Simon), doing what they do: casting their nets, being fishermen. There are James and John with their father, doing what they do: mending their nets, being fishermen. And along comes Jesus, and his call is inexplicably like a siren-song to them (but in a good way). Immediately they drop what they are doing to follow him. And in an instant, St. Matthew tells us that they have ceased to be the people they were before, as they drop what they are doing to follow Jesus; they are about to be transformed into something new that their old selves (fishermen) intriguingly prepared them to be (fishers of men); and this new vocation brings with it a missional implication of gathering up disciples, just at their old vocation involved gathering fish into nets.
Now, you don’t see lots of fishermen at career day these days, and that is a problem if we are looking for this passage to say something to us in our own day and age; if we think that Jesus means for us to be eavesdropping on his call to Andrew, Peter, James, and John, and to hear him speaking to us, too, through the ages. When you and I are doing what we do, it isn’t casting or mending nets. And, aspirationally speaking, being a fisherman isn’t high on a lot of people’s lists outside of Newfoundland and Alaska. So our context, does not contribute anything to the situation already made difficult by the translation (“fish for people” – ugh!).
Plus, we know, don’t we, that over-fishing is a big problem in our own time! I know practically nothing about commercial fishing, except what I’ve seen on Deadliest Catch, and except that I am pretty sure the methods of industrialized fishing have left large ocean fisheries depleted of a number of once abundant species. Plenty of fish in the ocean there are not – at least not as plentiful as they used to be!
But wait a minute! This is a useful point of reflection for an Episcopalian: perhaps there are not enough fish in the ocean? I contend that this view is the tacitly held Episcopal position on both over-fishing in the North Atlantic, and interpreting and appropriating Matthew Chapter 4, verse 19 in our own contemporary context. We hear Jesus say: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” which grates on our ears to start with, as we yearn for the older translation. And in a fashion that is atypical for an Episcopal response to the contemporary meaning of nearly any passage of the Scriptures, we have a ready reply. “Oh my,” we say, “there just aren’t enough fish in the ocean!”
How else can we explain the empty pews in church today? How else can we explain that we Episcopalians are becoming more adept at closing churches than at opening them? How else can we explain the despondency and resignation that possesses the church in so many quarters? How else can we explain the empty pews in this church, this morning? How else can we explain it? How else? There must just not be enough fish in the ocean. Ain’t that a shame.
It would be convenient to blame all this on that lousy translation: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Gawd, how I hate that! It sounds ridiculous! I wouldn’t get up off my tuchas for a rabbi who wanted to make me fish for people! I hear no call! I hear no promise of transformation! I hear no mission in the words! Oh, I would like to blame these empty pews on that silly translation! But I cannot.
And I think I know where the fault truly lies. Here’s what happens: When you start to worry that there are not enough fish in the sea, you gradually, without intending to, without even knowing that you are doing it, begin to turn your own little corner of the ocean into an aquarium, where you carefully protect your endangered species: pisces episcopalianis. You make it safe for these rare and exotic fish: you keep the water warm, and the filters running. You put pretty little model churches in the aquarium like castles for the fish to swim in, through, and around. You keep them fed, and you do your absolute best for the fish, because you truly do care about them. And you begin to regard with some pride your beautiful aquarium, forgetting that once you were called to be fishers of men. As though, now, there are not enough fish in the ocean. And do you forget what happened a long time ago: Jesus was walking along, and he saw these fishermen, and he called them, he changed them, and he sent them out to build up the kingdom of God?
The church does not struggle today because there are not enough fish in the ocean, the church struggles because we have not listened to the call of Jesus; we have not allowed ourselves to be transformed by following our Lord; we have not taken up the mission of Christ! I know the waters are rough. I know some of the fish have become hostile; some have joined other religions; some are avowed atheists; some think we are crazy. Do you think it was any easier for Andrew, and Peter, and James, and John!?!?
Well, we say, there were plenty of fish in the ocean back then, but not enough today. Humbug! The ocean is teeming with fish, and they are hungry. They are hungry for a reasonable religion that takes seriously the simplicity of the Golden Rule, a church that earnestly means what it says about God, and that reverently worships the one, true, only, and living God!
We cannot pretend that the waters have been over-fished, when we know it is not true – there are too many people enjoying brunch at Parc right now for us to take this line of reasoning seriously. Instead, we must hear the call of Jesus; we must allow him to change us, even though we do not want to be changed; and we must take his mission seriously to heart – telling the story of why it matters to be his follower.
For me it has always been simple. No other path leads anywhere. No other path promises justice, freedom, peace, mercy, forgiveness, beauty, life, and hope the way his path does. And nothing else I have seen in the world has had the power to call me when I did not want to be called; to change me when I did not want to be changed; and to send me where I did not want to go… and to make me very happy in the process!
Jesus can do all this just by walking by, and calling out. But it depends on our willingness to heed him, to allow him to change us, and to go out where he sends us.
People often ask the clergy, “when did you get the call.” And I take this question seriously. I have a story I tell about it – some versions shorter, others are longer. But one of the troubles with the church is that we believe that this question is reserved for the clergy – and we clergy are perfectly happy to keep it for ourselves. But not one of those four fishermen – not Andrew, not Peter, not James, not John – went to seminary after Jesus called them. But when they got the call, they knew it, and they responded to it.
Jesus doesn’t just call people into professional, ordained ministry: he calls all his people as he moves among them in life; he promises transformation to all his people; he has a mission for all his people, including me, and including you. And there are lots of fish in the ocean, my friends, there are lots of fish. And we have room for more of them here, and in churches around this city, and across this land.
Right now, a few blocks away from here, at the corner of 15th and Walnut streets, the southeast corner of the street is surrounded by construction fences, and a project has begun there that has drawn a lot of excitement and interest. The project is the construction of a building to house – wait for it – a branch of The Cheesecake Factory.
I promise you that the people behind this project have carefully considered how many fish there are in the waters around our neighborhood, so to speak. And I promise you that they have meticulously thought through the question of Sunday mornings. I promise you that not a few of you will find yourselves there after church on Sundays. And what have they got? Cheesecake?
We have got the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This Gospel is pardon and hope, mercy and forgiveness, justice and peace, healing and life! This is better than cheesecake!
Along comes Jesus. Hear Jesus calling you. Allow him to transform your life, to change you from what you were to what you can become. And come with me on his mission to build up his kingdom, which is to renew this troubled world and to give hope for the world that is to come!
Jesus is calling, Jesus is calling. Let us follow him, and he will make us fishers of men, and lo, there are oodles of fish in the sea! Thanks be to God!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
26 January 2014
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia