No Fishing Allowed
A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz
January 22, 2012
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St Paul, Minnesota
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea– for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
What is the best decision you ever made? Was it to marry the person you married (if marriage was an option for you?) Was it to pursue a career you love? Was it to have children – or not have children?
One of the problematic choices I made in my own life was driven by a Newsweek magazine cover in the late ‘80’s. It was a study which showed that a never-married college-educated woman at age 40 was less likely to get married than she was to be assassinated by a terrorist. Of course, I wasn’t yet forty, I’d already been married once, terrorists were not a thing then, and the numbers were subsequently disproved but –– I sheepishly admit the cover alarmed me enough to feed into an important decision.
How we make decisions is not only a secular issue; it is a religious one. Our spiritual well-being or our spiritual dis-ease is, to some degree, based on the decisions we make and how we make them.
By the standards most of us use every day, the decision made by Simon, Andrew, James and John to follow Jesus is a strange one. In Mark’s account, they commit when see him walking on the beach, a charismatic rabbi with an invitation and a vague promise to make them “fish for people.” What did that even mean?
There is no evidence that the soon-to-be disciples thought through the consequences of walking away from everything, for themselves or for any of the people in their lives, like their dad, poor Zebedee – left out in the boat with the hired men who just gets a good-by wave and a “we’re outta here…” I think there is more to this story than a simple call and response, and that “more” goes to the crux of religious experience.
We have some unique challenges as 21st-century decision-makers, one of them being the tsunami of information that comes at us each day. A major new study from The Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University says: “Trying to drink from the firehose of information that comes at us every day has harmful cognitive effects. Nowhere are those effects clearer, and more worrisome than in our ability to make smart, creative, successful decisions.”
Based on this research about decision-making and also against the intense objections of the rector who will be presenting numerous pro-fishing sermons and odes to salmon at a future date, I suggest to you that fishing is an unsatisfactory metaphor for the spiritual life. Note that Jesus calls the disciples away from their nets to make a journey with him.
Granted, both fishing and journeys have elements of chance, but one is less static than the other. Fishing is about waiting to get lucky; a journey is about movement. Fishing is more solitary than the journey to which Jesus invites us in community. Most importantly, fishing is about casting a wide net or using a variety of bait to get – whatever you get — the catch which must be sorted through, keeping some things and rejecting others.
We do a lot of religious fishing today. In the LA. Times, author Eric Weiner observes: “We’re increasingly a spiritually- promiscuous nation…. Today at least a third of us will change our religious affiliation over the course of our lifetimes. It’s one thing to explore different faiths, and something else entirely to hop aimlessly from one to another, bolting for the door when the going gets rough. (And it always gets rough)…”
I suggest that it is up to us intentionally transform the many fishing expeditions that await us each day into a directed spiritual journey, and that this journey be informed by three themes: commitment, trust and gratitude.
At the risk of sounding like a needy girlfriend confronting a reluctant boyfriend, let’s talk about commitment.
It’s easy to compartmentalize religious faith, as something that should be there when we need it (like when we’re in crisis or want to get married) but less urgent at other times. Yet there’s something deep within us that wants our values and our behavior – and our time commitments — in sync. Gandhi called “worship without sacrifice” a sin, and Weiner points out that “the most popular religions groups now are those that make great demands on their followers.”
I think coming to church, for example, is less about getting points with God, than it is about committing each week to putting ourselves in a place where we are reminded that there is a power greater than ourselves, where we hear the stories about experiences of God from those who came before us, and where we are offered rituals that formalize gratitude, like prayers and Communion. Maybe we should take some of our endless choices about time, for example, off the table, and transform them into commitments.
It is also trust that guides our religious journey.
One conclusion about contemporary decision-making that is especially startling is that our best decisions are usually not based on rationality or logic, but on emotion, on the gut level, the conscience, whatever it is called. However, when we are overwhelmed with information, we default to a conscious, rational system which the study says, “causes us to make poorer choices.”
What? Something is more important than facts? More compelling than the scientific method? More fundamental than a thesis supported by evidence?
Well, yes. And while we might make a pretty convincing list of, say, rational, factual reasons that God exists or does not exist, remember that is not our best thinking. That is listening to the heart, being prompted by our conscience, letting our emotions direct us to the values on which to base a life.
We have seen more than we let on. After an unmistakable moment of clarity, or unexplainable peace, or overwhelming compassion, we are changed. When exquisite randomness invades our life with the sound of music that makes us weep, or the vision of the florescent full moon glowing in the winter darkness, or the phone call that comes at just the right moment, too often we dismiss it as coincidence, or wishful thinking. We go on as though nothing has happened. To go on as though something HAS happened – even though we don’t understand it and may not even be able to articulate it — is to enter that realm that “religion” is a word for. We might join the prayer of the ancient rabbis, “Lord do not let me use my reason against the truth.” Don’t let us have the experience and not miss the meaning.
Our journey is also informed by gratitude. Too often gratitude is prompted by something horrible happening to someone else, and in comparison, we whisper, oh my God, that could have been me or my family…. In the movie “Awakenings,” a mother says, “When my son got sick, all I could do was ask God why. But earlier, when he was born, so perfect and healthy, I never asked God why.” Gratitude is not something we haul out when we’re forced to; it needs to be a regular practice.
We can equip ourselves as well as we can for our journey with heartfelt commitment to having a spiritual life, with trust and faith that the times God drew close to us were real, and a heart well-trained in gratitude. Then we join Jesus on the path to which he called the disciples, or we keep fishing for diversions from the emptiness and the perfect catch.
Gidding Church is a secluded place in the remote English countryside which has borne witness to turbulent times over a thousand years with serenity, simplicity and peace. Nicholas Ferrar and his family formed the first Anglican community there in 1625 after the religious changes of the English Reformation. King Charles I sought refuge there in 1646.
The poet T.S. Eliot journeyed there in 1936, and had a profound experience in the tiny chapel, feeling present there the spirit of all religious communities at all times and at all places. He reflected upon the chapel Little Gidding in the last of his Four Quartets. His are words for us here today, in these pews in this place:
“If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same:
you would have to put off
Sense and notion.
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, inform curiosity
Or carry report.
You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid…
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. “