“The Act of Transformation”

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Below is the message I gave this morning on Mark 1:14-20

Mark 1:14-20 “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.”

Today’s text is from the very first chapter of the Gospel according to Mark. Mark begins his story of the life and ministry of Jesus – not with a birth narrative – but with Jesus being baptized by his cousin John. So we see the very beginning here. John has been arrested, and we know that he will soon be executed. But while John is in jail, Jesus wastes no time starting his work. He comes to his home turf – Galilee, and is at a major gathering place – the Sea of Galilee.

 The Sea of Galilee is a large freshwater lake, 13 x 7 miles. The people who lived in this area were fairly diverse – ethnically, religiously, culturally. Even though it was part of the Roman Empire, the major Roman authorities were in Jerusalem and Caesarea. Galilee was the backwoods. And these fishermen were the essential workers of the area, barely getting by on minimum wage.

 We tend to have an idealized version of the fishermen from the New Testament. In today’s world, fishing is seen as a relaxing pastime – a leisure activity which relieves stress. But this was not the case for fishermen back then. The Roman Empire controlled every economic aspect of life. People had to buy fishing licenses and continue to pay fees, just so they could fish. They had to deal with heavy taxation. Fishermen were not simply self-employed people who had freedom and lived even somewhat comfortably. They were at the lower social strata – struggling to ends meet.

And just like so many essential workers in our society – they received some of the lowest financial compensation and didn’t eat if they didn’t work. And their work was essential – fish were a staple of the diet for the people of this area. The economy, and everyone in the area, relied on these people to spend their lives fishing in challenging conditions on a sea known for its sudden storms.

 The fact is – Simon and Andrew and James and John – didn’t really have that much to lose by leaving their nets and following this new rabbi.

So Jesus approaches them and says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the Good News…Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”

Let’s spend a few moments looking at the exact language here. The Greek doesn’t translate exactly to the English. The words which are translated “repent” and “believe” are interconnected, and mean more than what we might imagine. “Repent” comes from the Greek word which translates “to turn around.” It is about physically going in the opposite direction of where we were heading. It’s not just a change of mind – it’s a complete reorientation of the way we live. It is action – pure and simple. And then the word for “believe.” In English, we think of this word as an agreement to certain statements. It’s a gnostic approach to ideas around which we can wrap our heads. But “believe” in Greek is a word that is all about action. “To believe” is something our heads, our hearts, and our bodies have to follow.

 As we know from the ministry of Jesus, he always taught by doing. Traditional rabbis were centered in a particular location, and disciples came to them. Jesus instead traveled, healed, taught in all sorts of places, engaged and interacted with all sorts of people. Actions speak louder than words, and we learn best by doing.

And so the scripture for today reinforces this idea of action – we repent by turning our bodies, and our hearts, and our minds – in the opposite direction. And these four disciples did just that. They dropped everything – including complying to the Roman economic system – and followed Jesus.

Now when we talk about “following” in today’s world, there are a number of things that come to mind.

We follow –

                The news

                People or groups on social media

                Our family’s expectations

                Society’s expectations

                Perhaps our own inner critic

So much of the work I have done over the years with college women is helping them deconstruct the expectations others have placed on them – expectations which dim the inner light each one of them carries. To get in touch with that Divine Light they each carry – to follow that – is to follow God, to let go of those nets and follow Jesus. So many have been taught to follow some authority outside themselves, rather than the Divine Light that shines at their very heart and soul.

And so the disciples in this story follow – and follow immediately. As we’ve already said, they didn’t have a lot to lose – but what courage they had to follow at a moment’s notice, stepping into an unknown life!

Homiletics Professor Karoline Lewis, of Luther Seminary wrote – “Epiphanies, especially of the divine nature, demand an immediate response. There’s no invitation for contemplation or reflection, but instantaneous commitment and risk. Or, to put it another way, no real choice. Naming epiphanous moments, describing those times when your response is out of your control, that might be getting close to articulating what happened with the disciples in Mark. If the heavens are ripped apart, well then, get ready for a wild ride. This can be simultaneously freeing and terrifying. Free to respond in the moment. Terrified of what beyond the moment will unfold.”

I think we’ve all had at least one moment in life where we responded in the moment – our bodies and souls responded before our minds had a chance to think of all the reasons to talk ourselves out of taking said action. I’m not talking about a rash decision, but when we deeply listen to our souls – when we have an epiphany. The disciples had an epiphany that day – and they offered the only appropriate response.

Now for the last part of my message today, I want to address the more traditional Bible Belt understanding of this passage. Repentance and belief are seen as an individual actions, and being fishers of people is all about evangelism and getting people to a confession at the altar.

This kind of interpretation divorces Jesus’ words from his context. He was a rabbi who was a scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures. The metaphor of fishing for people is found in the Hebrew prophets – Amos, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Habakkuk. And the prophets were not talking about individual piety. Their call for justice – fishing for people – was about living in a just society, where the oppressed broke free from their chains, and everyone was valued and cared for. “Essential workers” were not left to do the hardest work in society, for the lowest pay.

Repentance, belief, fishing for people – these were not statements about individuals – but about the community. These words were a call for the transformation of society, so that it might better reflect the kingdom of God.

Theologian Ched Myers wrote, “Jesus is calling these disaffected workers out of an exploitive system and back to a network of “fictive kinship” that practices mutual aid and cooperation… The revered image of “fishing for people,” then, should be understood more in the sense of Dr. King’s struggle “for the soul of America” than in terms of Billy Graham’s altar calls. But as the story makes clear, we can be assured that Jesus’ summons to discipleship was both profoundly political and personal—then and now.”

We know we are struggling for the soul of America right now. The essential workers of the past year – who have made certain we have enough food to eat, who have cleaned infected workplaces and retirement communities and hospitals, – they are on the edge of poverty, and our government has been content for twenty years with a poverty level minimum wage. White supremacy is creating countless domestic terrorists, and the FBI places this group as our greatest threat. Our country has never dealt with the original sin of slavery and racism. When we sweep things under the rug, they are still there and simply rot until the rug is destroyed. Today – we are in the midst of a struggle for the soul of our country.

As we hear the calling from Jesus – to be fishers of people – let us use our hearts and our minds, and our hands to follow in the footsteps of the prophet and bring about a systemic transformation so that we might live in a more just society. This is what it means to say the kingdom of God is near, and the time is fulfilled. All will be fed, will have equal opportunity, and will not be judged by the color of their skin.

Today – let us respond as a community to be fishers of people, so that we may transform our community as we witness to the kingdom of God. Amen.

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