"Fishing For Justice" (Mark 1:16-20)

Mark Longhurst, January 21, 2018
Part of the Epiphany series
the scripture readings can be found at the bottom of the page

Sermon 1/21/18: Outreach
Rev. Mark Longhurst
Jan. 21, 2018
Scripture: Mark 1:16-20

Fishing for Justice

Evangelism. There’s that word again. The word that makes progressive shiver. And, like you, I have little taste for the door-knockers and tract-pushers seeking to persuade me to come around to their version of reality. But what if, what if, the failure first to experience, then to share and enact good news of God’s love and justice is one part of the mainline church’s decline in morale and mission?

Fishers of people. You may have heard this strange phrase that Mark uses before, a phrase often associated with that other word, evangelism. “Follow me,” Jesus says, “and I will make you fish for people.” But what if, what if, fishing for people is not really about aggressive proselytizing, or increasing an institution’s ranks; what if it is about announcing a movement of revolutionary love, justice and equality? And, while we’re at it, repentance, repentance, that blistery, hellfire and fear-instilling word, repentance has much more to do with whole-life transformation to the good than it does with converting to a specific religion. After all, Jesus didn’t found Christianity; he led a renewal movement in Judaism.

And, conversion, conversion, by the way, like repentance, is simply the inner and outer orientation of a life ablaze with love and justice, which Mark calls the kingdom of God.

Right before today’s passage, Jesus’s baptizer John is arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience. It turns out that dramatizing Exodus liberation from slavery in Jordan’s waters ruffles a few feathers. This is followed by Jesus’s first sermon, which, as sermons go, is short: “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe in the good news.” Really, that’s the only sermon you need to hear. And if the monarchical resonance of kings and kingdoms troubles you, fear not, we can think of this realm as the kin-dom, the family, or, as Martin Luther King Jr. words, the beloved community, of God.

Language matters, and I’m all for reclaiming language instead of throwing it out. This is why I love the modern day human rights leader Rev. Dr. William Barber and his way of redeeming words. He says, “I’m a preacher and I’m a theologically conservative liberal evangelical biblicist. I know it may sound strange, but I’m a conservative because I work to conserve a divine tradition that teaches us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God…Some issues are not right versus left. They are right versus wrong.” Do you see what Barber is doing? He is refusing to allow theological and moral language to be wrongly appropriated.

Mark’s rabble-rousing Jesus is not fishing for individual souls to add names in heaven’s ledger-book. He is, instead, calling people to join a movement for social change while simultaneously naming and confronting the oppressor. To fish for people in Mark’s context emerges likely from two ancient sources, one philosophical, and one from popular movements: the first is fishing as a metaphor for the teacher-student relationship. This a metaphor used by Plato, for one, but also by Jews in the first century to describe a Rabbi’s recruits. (see Gamaliel, Christology and Discipleship, 59).

But Mark also combines this fishing metaphor of gathering followers with a fiery, justice-seeking usage. To fish for people is a reference to those clear-eyed Hebrew prophets, the ones who stared at the abuses of kings from generation after generation and refused to back down.

One of those prophets is a man named Amos, who wrote “Hear this, you cows of Bashan, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy…the time is now surely coming upon you when they will take you away with …fishhooks.” (4:1-2). They will fish for you. Bashan in ancient days is known for its green pastures, and the cows of Bashan are well-fed; they are cattle who have everything they need. Amos is taking a positive image and he is turning it upside down, as if to say: “you, you one percent, you well-fed and wealthy, you who receive the tax breaks, you corporate heads and lobbyists, you sold-out politicians who put immigrant futures at risk, you are the ones who have forgotten the poor, you are the ones who have perpetuated inequality.” And Amos’s message is that a reckoning is coming for, fishhooks are coming. God is coming. The movement is coming.

We progressive Christians shirk from the word judgment in the Bible, but what if judgment has more to do with righting injustice and naming oppressors than it does with eternal damnation? Judgment could be a word to reclaim for our time, along with science, fact, and truth.

Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” Well, William Barber’s organization Repairers of the Breach, as you might have heard, has launched a “New Poor People’s Campaign” in America to continue the unfinished work of Martin Luther King Jr. Before King was assassinated, he was planning a poor people’s campaign to bring together people of all races to Washington to highlight the “other America” that suffers in poverty. And today, Repairers of the Breach are commissioning some of the best social justice policy minds in the country to do a moral “audit” of America on the very issues that King saw as interrelated: systemic racism, poverty, and the war economy.

Here are a few facts from the New Poor People’s Campaign’s initial moral audit, which entitled “The Souls of Poor Folks.” The fact is, the audit says, is that America is still as racist as it was. The fact is that hate groups are increasing. The fact is that people of color are still disenfranchised from voting; the tactics have simply become more subtle, through legislatives such as striking down key aspects of the Voting Rights Act with a false explanation of racial progress, to voter ID laws and elimination of same-day registration. The fact is that we have more people in prison than ever before, which disproportionately effects people of color. 66% of the prison population is African American, and 1 in 3 African American men will be imprisoned in his lifetime. 1 in 3. It’s about 1 in 17 for white men. The fact is that people of color still are not able to access quality education in the same way that white people do. Whites are, the audit says, twice as likely to have a college education than African Americans or Latinos. The fact is that the trend of policing the border and deporting immigrants continues to increase, and dramatically so with the current Administration. The fact is that people in poverty have increased 60% since the 1960s, which is affecting people of all races, whether, white, black, or Latino.

The dire truth of the facts is why fishing for people, or, perhaps more easily put, organizing for justice, is so desperately needed today. And, as we look towards the future vision of our church, I see a bold place for a faith-based progressive voice in our larger community and region. What if our church became a leader and convener of local faith-based social justice activism? What if we deepened our partnerships and commitment to action with other faith communities, including the county-wide Berkshire Interfaith Organizing? What if became organized and sent delegations of people from Williamstown to Washington for the Women’s March, or the Climate March, or the Science March, or pick your march? What if a group of us joined Repairers of the Breach’s campaign at the Massachusetts State House later this spring to risk civil disobedience in protest of our countries moral failure?

One objection that I often hear, and that I share is: it sounds great, but who has the time? I wish I could be doing more, but I’m stretched thin as it is. And, believe me, I can relate, and well, your church can help. Our Outreach Team this past year has done some deep discernment about how it can make an impact in these days, and has undertaken careful budget planning to create a community organizer position. This person will be tasked with working with the Northern Berkshire faith communities to ensure that a faith-based vision of action for the common good is front and center in our community.

I put a question mark after Vision 2022, because this is a conversation. It’s not something I can achieve, and it’s certainly as easy as me standing up here and talking about church vision; we all need to do the work of discernment and expansion and strategy to live into, and to see the future that God is calling us towards. May God give us these eyes to see, these ears to hear, vthese oices to sing, and these feet with which to march and dance, and these bodies to fish for justice.

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