Sermon at Holy Trinity in West Palm Beach, Florida
There's an old story about a congregation not unlike this one who has to paint its church building. They have a really hard time keeping it painted, because the weather's so harsh. But they raise the necessary funds, put out bids, and hire somebody to put the paint on, and wait to see the result. The contractor begins the work, but a bad storm comes along and wrecks the wet paint job. He starts again, and gets a good portion of the work done, when another gullywasher comes along and forces him to start over. He has a real problem, however. If he has to buy any more paint, he's not going to make a penny on this job. So he puts some more water in the latex paint and starts in again. Along comes another thunderstorm, the thunder booms, and a voice comes from the heavens, 'repaint, and thin no more.
This fellow's problem is his profit motive. It's also the congregation's problem ' for rather than recognizing that they could do the work themselves and save a lot of money as well as build some community in the process, they just went looking for the lowest bidder. When they hear, 'repaint and thin no more, they might as well be hearing the words of John Baptist and of Jesus, 'the kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe in the good news. Repenting really is about gaining a different perspective. Repainting your building is not just about saving money ' it's about mission and ministry in the fullest sense. How is it going to serve God's larger purposes?
That understanding of repentance as a new perspective underlies all of what we've heard this morning. Seeing the world with God's eyes means that we can see evidence of the presence and nearness of the kingdom of God, we can see 'the hand of God at work in the world about us. It's an invitation to let our eyes become less self-centered and more like God's, concerned for all of creation.
When Jesus calls the first disciples, he's asking them to leave their old way of life behind, not because it was sinful, but as an invitation to see the world in a larger perspective. Some of us really are called to fish for fish, and feed others in the process ' note that Jesus didn't call Zebedee or the hired hands. He called Simon, Andrew, James, and John to work that would feed more than just their own families.
That change in perspective, from fishing for fish for your own folk, to fishing for more abundant life for the larger community, is the kind of transformative gospel life we're all invited into. Sometimes that bigger picture confronts us before we're ready. Jonah was a pretty reluctant evangelist, and shocked when his words actually produced some transformation. And presumably even more shocked to discover that God had changed the divine mind! [When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.] Does our perspective include the possibility that the divine mind might be changed?
Paul's words are even more challenging to our usual perspectives. Think about his story ' he was absolutely certain he was doing what he was supposed to be doing, as a 'keeper of the law. He was trying to clean up the community by getting rid of these heretics called Christians. He was diligent, forceful, and totally committed, until he quite literally got knocked off his high horse and discovered he was blind. His perspective got changed, from high above to down on the ground, from seeing clearly to being blind, and eventually, to seeing the world and God's intent for it in a completely new way.
That change of perspective is what he means when he says, 'the present form of this world is passing away. He's inviting others into a new view ' the married as though their spouses are not the center of their existence, those who mourn, that their grief not be the center of their being. Strikingly, he says, 'let those who buy be as though they had no possessions, in other words, let the folk who go to the market place be as if they were poor.
If we remember that Jesus says more about poverty and riches, and economic issues, than he does anything else, maybe we'll recognize that this is of central importance.
I had the great privilege to be in the Diocese of South Dakota last spring for something called the Niobrara Convocation. It's an Episcopal gathering of the Sioux people, from all the Lakota tribes. It is at the same time a diocesan convention, a tent revival, and a family reunion. There is much singing, praying, story telling, and gift giving. It is a time to report on the condition of the various congregations and discuss the welfare of the people and the larger community. I was deeply humbled and honored to be given a name, nice olewin. I was told it means 'looks for the poor. I also discovered that the poverty statistics on the Lakota reservations are the worst in the United States ' only the rural counties of Mississippi come close. I've come to realize that looking for the poor is what Jesus means when he tells his disciples to go fish for people.
When you think about it, the poor are those who live with the greatest uncertainty, who are most dependent, and know their dependence on God. Development workers talk about 'food insecurity as the biggest challenge of the poor, and they mean that you don't know where your next meal is coming from. I'll wager that most of us here this morning had something to eat last night, and this morning, and that we aren't too worried about our ability to find something to eat when we get hungry in a couple of hours. That's not true of a large fraction of the earth's population ' something like a third of the world's people live on less than $2 a day, and 'food insecurity is their ever-present reality. Around 1 in 8 of the people in Florida live in poverty; in Palm Beach County, 10%. In Haiti, it's 80%.
Going fishing, and finding the poor, is not just another social service ministry or a corporal work of mercy. It is where we're most likely to find Jesus ' both the suffering Jesus on the cross and Jesus the party animal, the gracious host celebrating with his friends. Meeting the poor is where we have the greatest possibility of getting a different perspective on the world ' that's where our blindness might be healed, and that's where we're most likely to find that God is already at work, in spite of our fondest American prejudices about the connections between hard work and success.
If we're interested in repainting our church, in the sense of building a world where no one goes hungry and all have the opportunity to know a God of new and abundant life, we're going to have to recognize that it has something to do with abstaining from thinning. God did not create a world of scarcity ' the tempter has prompted us human beings to see it that way. God created us to be a community of abundant life. We can't thin the resource, and dribble it out, if we're going to help to build a world like that, a world that looks more like the kingdom of God we pray for so earnestly. We have to be prodigal in our generosity, and at the same time ready and willing to receive the liberality of others.
Go fishing, go get a new perspective, go look for the poor, and discover Jesus in their midst.