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Is This All There Is? The Fishermen By the Sea

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 11:07 pm on Sunday, January 21, 2018

A sermon preached on January 21st, 2018 based upon Mark 1:14-20 and the Book of Jonah.

This is a strange story.  A stranger appears beside the Sea of Galilee where four fishermen are at work in the shallow water.  The stranger says to them, “Come, follow me.”  Immediately, they get up and leave everything behind to do exactly that – follow him.  How could they do such a thing?  It makes no rational sense.   Our tendency is, I think to see their willingness to leave everything and follow Jesus as an indication that the fishermen possess exceptional faith.  Such trust!  But in light of what we know about the disciples from the rest of the Gospel, we know they weren’t really exceptional people in the least.  They constantly don’t understand what Jesus is telling them, and on a number of occasions are called out by Jesus for their lack of faith.

If there is a way in which they are exceptional I think it was in terms of having reached a certain depth of despair in the midst of the routine drudgery of their daily lives that made them willing to entertain such a wild invitation.  Day after day they spend their night out in the boats, over and over lowering their nets and raising them back again, then every morning afterwards going through the tedium of repairing and cleaning their nets.  The same old thing, day after day.

When I read this story this week a strange story from 1947 came to mind that occupied the news cycle for a period of time.  Our country had every reason to feel good about itself.  With a great collective, national sacrifice we had defeated the forces of Fascism.  We were clearly the most powerful country in the world, both militarily and economically ready to enjoy peace and prosperity. On the surface, all seemed well.  But without the great cause of the War to unify our country and give it a great purpose, beneath the surface all was not well.

One morning a New York bus driver named William Cimillo climbed into the bus he drove each day to begin his daily shift.  At a certain point, however without any prior planning William decided that instead of turning left to follow the route he drove each day he would turn right.   He drove over the George Washington Bridge and headed south leaving behind a wife and son. After a couple of days of distressed searching, William and his bus were located in Florida.  A couple of police officers were flown down to Florida to take William into custody and bring him and the bus back to New York.  They couldn’t drive it, so they let William take the wheel.

Upon arrival in New York he was informed he’d lost his job and worse faced serious charges in court.  The peculiar thing however was that William’s highly publicized escapade had turned him into something of a folk hero for the common man.  He had actually done what tens of thousands of worker in their daily grind of making a living had imagined doing.  There was such a public outcry on his behalf that the charges were dropped and he was given his job back.

A hundred years earlier Thoreau had put into words the experience of many:  “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.”

In 1962 a similar sentiment was expressed in the song “Little Boxes” made popular by Pete Seeger that pictured a suffocating life of conformity in the lives of people moving out the suburbs to inhabit the new homes all identical built in neat and tidy rows. In 1967 Peggy Lee tapped into this undercurrent of despair with her hit song, “Is This All There Is?” And then the Woodstock generation came along, rejecting the “quiet desperation” they perceived in the lives of their parents, causing their parents terrible heartache.

I read what I thought was an insightful opinion piece in the New York Times this week by David Brooks in which he talked of the power of touch to effect in both profoundly positive and destructive ways.  The last paragraph in particular struck me:

“It seems that the smarter we get about technology, the dumber we get about relationships.  We live in a society in which loneliness, depression and suicide are on the rise.  We seem to be treating each other worse.  The guiding moral principle here is not complicated:  Try to treat other people as if they possess precious hearts and infinite souls.  Everything else will follow.”

Human beings today know vastly more than any past generation about almost every field of inquiry except one, and that is knowledge of the soul, often referred to as wisdom.  We live in an age in which such knowledge seems to be actively disregarded as we ignore the life of the soul.

There is a symbolism in the story to the fact that the fishermen are in the shallow waters of the Sea of Galilee when Jesus comes along.  Elsewhere in the Gospels we hear of Jesus instructing the fishermen to “Cast your nets out into the deep waters.”  The soul – our connection to God — lives in the depths of life, but if we let it this world will carry us along shallowness and superficiality.  Peggy Lee’s song – the fishermen’s song – will be our song.  “Is this all there is?”

The bus driver William Cimillo gave expression to the emptiness if the tedium of modern life, but he offered no real solution.  But the fishermen intuitively recognized in the mysterious stranger who met them that day by the lakeside a person who possessed what the very thing for which they were longing, though they would have been at a loss to explain their actions that day.

The fishermen didn’t know the back story to the man who appeared before him:  how Jesus had come to the River Jordan humbling himself to be baptized by John with the masses who had responded to John’s invitation – submitting himself to a kind of symbolic death as John dunked Jesus down into the depths of the water, arising to new life.  It was then that Jesus experienced heaven being “broken open”, and the Holy Spirit descending upon him like a dove, entering his body.  How the Spirit then drove him out into the wilderness for forty days to go down into the depths of his heart, to understand fully what God was calling him to do in this world.

He emerged from the wilderness with his soul on fire, announcing the kingdom of God breaking into this world.   Late he would tell parables of this kingdom, including one about a pearl of extraordinary beauty and another about a treasure buried in a field, and in both instances the one who finds these things happily leaves behind everything they own in order to possess them.

The fishermen, leaving behind their nets and all that was familiar, are the embodiment of these parables.

These days it is common to hear people say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” There is validity to this distinction.  By “spiritual” they mean the longing to live life out of the depths rather than the shallows, and it is a valid critique of “organized religion” that often it doesn’t lead a person into the depths – to an experience of the living God.

But the sentiment expressed in the saying, “I’m spiritual but not religious” is misguided when it suggests that a person can pursue the spiritual life all alone without a community to support them on the journey.  The saying also can express an arrogant disregard for the soul wisdom that has been passed down through the ages.

At the center of Jesus preaching was the kingdom of God, which speaks of a life lived in community – a community where everyone’s soul is honored and valued.  Jesus invited this fishermen to be a part of a small, intentional community that together would go on a quest for life lived in the depths  – the little band of twelve disciples with Jesus as their guide and mentor.

The “spiritual” vs. “religious” distinction is imbedded in the book of Jonah, our Old Testament reading this morning.  Jonah has a soul, but it’s gotten buried somewhere that he can’t find it.  He’s all in for religion – a proud member of what he believes to be God’s chosen people.

Through his “religion” Jonah has staged a coup taking over the position of final judge of all people that by all rights is God.   He has chosen the perverse pleasure of hatred and self-righteousness over God and a life lived out of his soul.  It is as if he has become his hatred and in his mind letting go of his hatred would be to lose his very self.  Although Hebrew scriptures speak of a God whose love extends to all people, there are nonetheless ample scriptures for him to quote to back up his hatred and self-righteousness.  When God speaks directly to him, calling him to go preach to the very people he hates most in this world Jonah would rather God shut the heck up and leave him with his neat and tidy religion.

So Jonah hops on a ship headed away from Ninevah, but when a storm threatens to capsize the boat, he volunteers to be thrown overboard, apparently preferring to die rather than surrender his hatred.  But mercifully God has Jonah get swallowed by a big fish that spits him up on shore, at which point God speaks to Jonah again calling him once more to go to Ninevah.

This time Jonah obeys, and a miracle occurs far greater than his surviving inside a big fish for three days.  The people of Ninevah – all 120,000 of them – immediately repent and turn back to God in response to his pathetic, little sermon (a miracle that perhaps provides some hope to those of us despairing over the present state of our country) Jonah goes outside the city to sit and pout.  God asks Jonah what’s up with his attitude, and Jonah talks about how he’d just prefer to die rather than watch the Ninevites receive God’s mercy.  The book ends with God challenging Jonah’s hard heart and his refusal to feel compassion for the people of Ninevah.  It’s much like the way Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son and the elder brother ends, with the father inviting the elder brother to let go of his resentment and come into the party.  How will he respond?  How will we respond?

In some sense, the fate of our souls are at stake.  We don’t get to enter the kingdom of God without letting go of our hatred and self-righteousness.

So with the season of Lent approaching, let us prepare to search out our hearts and the attachments we have made to old hatreds and resentments.  The invitation stands for us intentionally enter the spiritual life in the company of fellow pilgrims seeking together the grace of God that will melt our hardened hearts.  God wants to heal the heart wounds we carry.

Please consider being a part of one of the small group opportunities available, that you may delve down into the depths where God would heal the hearts wounds you carry.

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