Dropping the Nets that Entangle

         Mark 1:14-20

Today’s Gospel makes no practical sense. There, beside the Sea of Galilee, you had Simon and his brother Andrew doing what fisherman do, that is, fish. Fishing was their livelihood. It’s how they fed their families, not only from the fish themselves but from selling the surplus in the local market. Folks in the market would know Simon and Andrew to be brothers in business together. They were hard workers. They were fair with their pricing, and persons respected them. Another generation of family fishers was James and John. Their father, Zebedee, and perhaps his father before him made their living from fishing. They’re discovered in their boat alongside their father and hired men, all mending their nets. Were Zebedee and his sons wealthier than Simon and Andrew because of the mentioning of their boat and nets, or did Simon and Andrew discard boats, preferring the shallow shoreline to the deep waters? Regardless, they all were fishermen, and fishing is what they did. Fishing was a part of their vocational identity. It is unconscionable that they would be anything more than this, and yet, life happens when we least expect it – Like waking from a deep sleep our eyes open. We look back on our old, slumbering selves and forward to a bright reality wondering how we ever fell asleep in the first place. How could we be sleeping for so long? The question disappears like a breath as we turn and face a new dawn, eyes wide open towards hope. Hope springs eternal as eternity speaks a word. Surprisingly, it’s not a word of inspiration. It’s not some credulous maxim to believe in yourself. It’s not a song to say you are beautiful in every single way. Saying such things just keeps us comfortably asleep. No, the spoken word creates new life, awakens the dreamer, and shocks the practical. The word is “Repent.” “Repent” is the first action verb of the first line of Jesus’ preaching ministry. It’s not practical but personal. It’s not respectable but relational. It doesn’t alienate but aligns. It’s not easy, it’s hard. St. Jerome once wrote, “The sweetness of the apple makes up for the bitterness of the root. The hope of gain makes pleasant the perils of the sea. The expectation of health mitigates the nauseousness of medicine. One who desires the kernel breaks the nut. So one who desires the joy of a holy conscience swallows down the bitterness of penance.”

         “Repent” was the first action verb of the first sentence of Jesus’ ministry. “Follow,” was the first word of the second sentence in Jesus’ ministry. For Simon and Andrew, repentance was imagined as nets dropping out of the fishermen’s hands. We may also note that they did not release the nets reluctantly, but “immediately” is how the scripture described it for us. Notice too that their nets were empty. Does this represent a lost cause, a hunger that needs filling, a forgotten longing? “For God alone, my soul in silence waits,” the Psalmist reminds us today. “Truly, my hope is in him,” it continues. Was it this Jesus for whom the soul had been waiting? Was he hope and the spring eternal enfleshed? Knowing and yet somehow unknowing the answer, they left their nets and followed him down the shoreline to find men who were just like them – men they knew needed the one whom they were now faithfully following. Like Simon and Andrew before them, now it’s James and John’s turn to leave their livelihood to discover Life. Leave their earthly father to follow their spiritual one. Leave their empty nets in need of repair. Little did these fishermen know that God had captured them in his net only to be rereleased – not into the uncertainties of the sea but into the mysteries of love.

         If this story is not a story for our lives right now, then I don’t know what it is? This past year’s collective tragedies have made us all reconsider our vocations, values, and beliefs. Like the first disciples, we have discovered empty nets collecting nothing but air. Many of our institutions are like torn nets we never realized needed repairing. Closets have opened, revealing skeletons. Mirrors tilted toward ourselves, and we didn’t like what we saw. Nature abhors a vacuum, so political and cultural ideologies crept in undercover, promising certainty. Certainty morphed into cult, cult into mob, mob into physical and psychological violence, disdain, cancellation, and corruption. These nets, although profitable, are still spiritually empty.

I would argue the nets cannot be mended but must be dropped altogether. “Repent,” and “Follow,” the One who calls us each by name. Come to him if you’re weak and heavy burdened. He will give you rest. He will lighten the load. His name is Jesus. We know this, but at the time, Simon and Andrew did not. He’s the savior of the world. We profess this, but James and John could not have known. He’s your savior, my savior, their savior, the world’s savior coming into the world to untangle the net of sin and mend the net of death that separates. Right now, today, and this week pray to God for the grace to “answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ, and to proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation.”

In Your Mercy, Hear My Prayer

**Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2020 by The Rev. Brandon Duke, Rector of St. Julian’s Episcopal Church. To see a video of this sermon click here.** 

 “Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.”   ~Acts of the Apostles 7:55-60

 St. Stephen is the patron saint for deacons in the church. A deacon’s ministry imitates the role of Christ as suffering servant. Deacons inspire all the baptized to go where Jesus went, to live out his teachings, to offer healing, and to serve those whom Jesus served. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen had just preached a lengthy sermon to the Sanhedrin counsel where the chief priests and other religious elders gathered. It was a scene not unlike where Jesus found himself at the beginning of his Passion. Like Jesus, Stephen was condemned for his teaching, dragged outside the city by an angry mob and murdered. Like Jesus, Stephen, asked God to receive his spirit while at the same time begged God to forgive his executioners. Today’s story remembers the realities faced by the early Christian community, and the paradoxical experiences of grief and hope founded upon the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, it introduces a “young man named Saul” religious historians would label as the progeny for the spread of Christianity itself through his letters to various Christian communities in first century Palestine. Before any of these letters were penned; however, The Acts of the Apostles portray Saul as another King Herod hunting down the innocent and scapegoating them because of his own deep, unconscious insecurities and ignorance. Later, Saul would be confronted on the road to Damascus by none other than the living Christ. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9.4) The resurrected and ascended Jesus did not ask, “Why did you approve of Stephen’s murder,” or “Why do you hunt and kill my followers?” No. Jesus asked, “Why do you persecute me” and in doing so joined himself with all those who suffer from the injustices of this world.

This week, many of you now know the name, Ahmaud Arbery.[1] Mr. Arbery was a resident of Georgia, the state I call home. On February 23rd of this year in Satilla Shores, a suburban neighborhood about 15 minutes from downtown Brunswick, Ahmaud was out for his daily jog when he found himself being stalked, assaulted, and killed by racist vigilantes out of their own deep, unconscious insecurities and prejudicial ignorance. On February 27, the Brunswick district attorney recused herself from the case because of a professional tie to one of the perpetrators, Gregory McMichael. Then in early April, another prosecutor a town over (in Waycross) found no reason to charge Gregory and his son Travis claiming they were acting in self-defense. On April 13, the case was transferred to a third prosecutor who serves the Atlantic Judicial Circuit. It’s my understanding that this is currently where Mr. Arbery’s case resides. On Tuesday, May 5th of this past week a video circulated online that showed the visceral hunting, attacking, and murder of Ahmaud Arbery. The horrific video ignited cries for justice all across the state of Georgia and the United States, as well as revealed the hubris of local officials for not taking the McMichael’s into custody back in February. Because of the outcry, as well as the Georgia Bureau of Investigation stepping in, the McMichael’s were finally arrested two days later on May 7 – Thursday of this past week, over two full months since they murdered Mr. Arbery. On Friday, May 8, the Feast of Lady Julian of Norwich, runners all over Georgia and the United States gathered to walk and run 2.23 miles to commemorate Mr. Arbery as well as to remember what would have been his 26th birthday. Personally, I have been heartbroken over this story and horrified by those images found on the video, and deeply grieved that a modern day lynching happened so close to my own home. My heart aches for Ahmaud and the way he died. My heart aches for his family who have already born the burdens of intolerance, disinterest, and collective silence even before this case will be tried in a court of law.

What is the Christian’s response?

One of the reasons why “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” is because it ignores Christ.[2] When St. Stephen said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” the Son of Man referred to is Jesus Christ serving as the glorified heavenly judge. The scriptures continue with, “But they covered their ears [when they heard him say this], and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.” They couldn’t hear the truth. They were not interested. They held Stephen in contempt rushed upon him, and had him killed. After his death, the scripture reads that “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” In other words, they believed the murder of this man was justified, a reverent act of defense approved by the violent complacency of the pious. This piety was put on trial by none other than the heavenly judge himself. The will of God was revealed to Saul on that road to Damascus. His charge was persecution and murder of Jesus Christ himself (Again, “Why do you persecute me.”) His penitence was told to the disciple Ananias that “he (Saul) must suffer for the sake of my name” – the name of Jesus Christ. Saul was baptized Paul three days later and immediately began to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God. So again, “What is the Christian’s response?”

The Christian’s response is repentance, followed by tangible acts of mercy, justice, and healing grounded in the virtue of humility. When a Christian confesses their sins to God, we claim that our sins are against God and our neighbor. The two are so closely related that to deny the dignity of someone’s humanity is to deny the very ground being itself – that is, God. The reason why we confess is not to be condemned by God. We confess in order to be forgiven by God. The very act of confession frees us to get up, try again in imitation of Christ as the suffering servant. For over a thousand years recalling one’s sins has been the practice of generations of Christians. Through scripture, preaching, teaching, participating in the church’s sacraments, and fellowship, one is able to self-examine one’s life, which leads to a contrite heart, as well as the freedom found in receiving God’s forgiveness.

If you’re like me, it’s so much easier to see the sin in another than to turn that mirror upon myself revealing my own. Saul, for example, was guilty of the sin of pride. Pride defined, “puts the self at the center, and is not willing to trust or obey God; it holds oneself above or away from others and refuses to see oneself within the larger human family.”[3] Some subsets of pride are presumption, distrust, impenitence, and arrogance. When we disobey God by neglecting our neighbor, pride can also show itself with a resentful or retaliation-type mindset while malice, contempt, and domination are not too far behind. All of these prideful sins can be attributed to the McMichael’s from Ahmaud Arbery’s case. In fact, it is fairly easy to see these sins in them. The hard part is naming our own part of the mess.

As Christians, we often stumble into the sin of irreverence. Irreverence defined is “being satisfied with religious feeling or sentimentality while not striving to know and do God’s will.” It’s so much easier to believe we are serving God by saying nice prayers than it is to live out the virtues found in those prayers and putting them to practice in our lives. We suffer from the sin of presumption when we “fail to recognize that our work, as well as our relationships are the means by which we serve God and forward [God’s] kingdom.” All of this can lead to a distrustful relationship with God and neighbor where timidity or cowardice are accepted more than the courage to face difficulty, suffering, or responsibility.” Finally, a slothful favoritism toward others who are just like us shackles one to “silence in the face of prejudice, abuse, bullying, or cruelty for fear or for desire of favor, or acceptance” within one’s group, family, or connections.

Put simply we combat sin by naming our sin. When we own up to our little messes in the midst of bigger messes, we’re able to be forgiven and move on. Saul, who later became St. Paul, said it this way, “Grow up. Grow into the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13). This leads us back to St. Stephen and the inspirational ministries of deacons. Again, a deacon’s ministry imitates the role of Christ as suffering servant. Deacons encourage all the baptized to go where Jesus went, to live out his teachings, to offer healing, and to serve those whom Jesus served. If the Christian’s response to sin is repentance, followed by tangible acts of mercy, justice, and healing grounded in the virtue of humility then we’re only going to find mercy, justice, and healing when we’re able to claim that we have received these gifts, and they are gifts to be given away. If you have received mercy in this life. Give mercy to another as a gift knowing exactly what it feels like to receive that gift. Do the same with the gifts and graces of justice as it leads humanity to healing and wholeness. Living out these virtues for the common good is Christian activism.

In a moment we’ll pray a small set of intercessory prayers simply called “Suffrages A” in the prayer book (BCP, 97).[4] These prayers speak of God’s mercy and salvation. We will petition God to afford us the privilege to be on the march for righteousness, joy, peace, and safety. The prayer then makes a turn to nation states, asking God to care for our nation and all nations guiding us in the way of justice, health, and truth. Finally, it ends with us petitioning God to help us not to forget the poor, and to clean and sustain our hearts by the power of God’s Spirit. Suffrages A is an active prayer which has the potential to lead to prayer in action.

This week, repent confessing your sins to God taking responsibility for your piece of the mess. Then, pray Suffrages A looking for those strong verbs that will compel you to get up, get out, and do something in the name of justice, mercy, and peace. Finally, try putting yourself in the mind of St. Stephen as well as Saul from today’s story. What comes up for you? Let that be your prayer. Let that be your meditation. Let that be your action and catalyst for change which leads to God’s deliverance.

Justice & Mercy Links:

Suffrages A [5]

V.     Show us your mercy, O Lord;
R.    And grant us your salvation.
V.    Clothe your ministers with righteousness;
R.    Let your people sing with joy.
V.    Give peace, O Lord, in all the world;
R.    For only in you can we live in safety.
V.    Lord, keep this nation under your care;
R.    And guide us in the way of justice and truth.
V.    Let your way be known upon earth;
R.    Your saving health among all nations.
V.    Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten;
R.    Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.
V.    Create in us clean hearts, O God;
R.    And sustain us with your Holy Spirit.

[1]                The sequence of events I used in the sermon are taken from “Ahmaud Arbery Shooting: A Timeline of the Case” from The New York Times found here: https://www.nytimes.com/article/ahmaud-arbery-timeline.html?action=click&pgtype=Article&state=default&module=styln-georgia-shooting&variant=show&region=TOP_BANNER&context=storylines_menu

[2]                Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” penned April 16, 1963: https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[3]                The following definitions and listing of sins come from Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book, Revised Edition, 2014, prepared by Forward Movement on behalf of The Order of the Holy Cross. The editor is The Reverend David Cobb and the liturgical editor is Derek Olsen, PhD. “A Form of Self-Examination Based on the Seven Deadly Sins” can be found on pages 122 – 132 in the book.

[4]                BCP is short for The Book of Common Prayer. An online version can be found here: https://www.bcponline.org/. Suffrages A can be found after the Justice & Mercy Links below.

[5]  “V” means “Versicle” which is a short verse from scripture (usually taken from The Psalms) sung or said by a leader of public worship. “R” stands for “Response” where the people gathered answer or continue the prayer begun by the prayer leader (called an Officiant in Morning & Evening Prayers).

Go

**Sermon preached at the midnight mass Christmas Eve service at St. Julian’s**

And [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. ~Luke 2:7

 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” ~Luke 9:58

It’s been said that Jesus’ shortest sermons ever can be boiled down to one word, “Go.” “Go, your faith has healed you” (Mark 10:52). “Go. Teach all nations. Baptize” (Matt 28:19). “Go. The harvest is plentiful, and the laborers, few” (Luke 10:2). At one point in Jesus’ ministry, he told his disciples, “I am going away. Where I am going you cannot come” (John 8:21). In tonight’s Gospel, the shepherds get a positive reinforcement of the command, “to go”. The angels persuaded them in this regard, and they replied, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” The scripture continues, “So they went with haste… and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.”

Tonight, we go. We travel, making haste with those shepherds the journey to see the Son of Man lying in the manger because there was no room in the inn…because the Son of Man had no place to lay his head. In this regard, the Son of Man slept underneath the stars like a lowly shepherd. No wonder the two related; and the scene of the manger foreshadowed it all for us:  The Son of Man would suffer, die, and be buried in a tomb that was not his own. It is a story of poverty as common as breathing, and as old as the wind; and yet this night shepherds and angels join in a chorus proclaiming holiness. In that manger scene was the man who would one day say to the poor, those that mourn, the meek, hungry, and merciful, “You are blessed, and you will be a blessing.” Not much nostalgia tonight, is there? No reminiscing here. In fact, there are two different reactions/responses we gain from the characters in our story this evening. The shepherds go again, making “known what had been told them about this child.” The scriptures continue, “and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” Put sequentially: The shepherds were doing the work they had always done. They stopped this work; discerned a word from the Lord; acted upon that word which transformed their lives; and then went and told others about it. This is the call of a convert and disciple – a classic call to repentance: To turn from something to something (all together new) by the power of God. This process of repentance is ongoing. It’s not one moment in time, but a lifetime of giving up oneself for the service of God and a chance to participate in His holy story.

The other reaction/response came from Mary. The scriptures read, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” I think Mary needed something to hold onto. In the season of Advent, we learned that Mary’s very soul would be pierced. Pierced, possibly by despair as she kept giving more and more of herself, and eventually her son to the world that wanted nothing more than to destroy him. At that moment when lowly shepherds sang out the music of angels, she knew that Jesus was going to be bigger than her. She knew she would have to let go and let God time and time again. As a mother, these selfless acts would be piercing. As a follower of God, she understood them to be necessary. “Where I am going,” said Jesus, “you cannot come,” would later be directed at his disciples, but I wonder if he didn’t have his mother in the back of his mind while commanding this?

Tonight, you will leave. Go to the parking lot. Get in your vehicles, and go. Some of you will go home. Some of you will go to a place that welcomes you, be that another family’s home, or a hotel. In other words, you have a place to lay your head. But if you will, I’d like for you to do something. When you walk outside, and feel the cold brushed up against you, look up. If you don’t do it immediately after church, look to the sky on your drive home. This is the night where angels once gathered in those skies, but it is also the night where the one they proclaimed had no place to lay his head. When thinking on these things, I believe we carry with us the two responses mentioned earlier. We have the response of the shepherds who could relate to this holy family bundled up in a manger. Their response was one of repentance and praise. The other response is treasuring these things in our hearts. Not in some nostalgic, worldly way, but in a Godly way. That is, recognizing the holy in the mundane and being grateful. This Christmas why not be grateful? Return to the manger. Sing with the angels. This Christmas, join Mary, the shepherds, the disciples, and Jesus in his mission and ministry…
and “Go”.