Carla J. Bailey, Jan. 22, 2017
Scripture Matthew 4:18–23
In 1986, Warren and I travelled to India to welcome our new baby into our family. The trip involved a stay in Chennai so we could get an Indian passport and a U.S. visa for her. While we were waiting for documents to be processed, one morning Warren went out for a run along the Bay of Bengal, and he came upon a group of men who clearly fished for a living, folding their nets. Warren being Warren, he stopped to help. The men, who didn’t speak English, laughed at this pale, scantily dressed American, but they accepted his assistance. Warren, who didn’t speak Tamil, laughed with this dark, scantily dressed group of workers and learned how hard it is to fold up a huge, heavy net. All of them were hot, tired and joyful. When Warren made it back to our hotel and told me the story, he said we needed to return the next day to introduce our baby to his new, hard-working friends, which is exactly what we did. I have permanently emblazoned in my mind’s eye the joyful, familiar greeting the men gave Warren when they saw him again, how they laughed and cheered when he introduced me and our baby, how they all wanted to touch her little dark head with a blessing.
We stayed on the beach with the men for a long time, but then they finished their work and wandered off and we returned to our comfortable, air-conditioned hotel. When our documents arrived, we came home to Minnesota, but I’ve never forgotten those workers who blessed our baby as she journeyed into her new life. And I’ve never not thought of them whenever I read a story about fishing along the Sea of Galilee. How would it have been possible for those first disciples to just leave their nets and their responsibilities to accompany Jesus at the start of this ancient-but-still needed protest movement? One truth I learned from those Chennai workers in 1986 was that fishing labor was back-breaking and scarcely profitable, if at all. If that was true for the first disciples, perhaps they felt they had nothing to lose by laying down their nets and going with Jesus. Still, it was an incredible commitment, wasn’t it?
Over the centuries, scholars of Matthew have wondered how Jesus was so compelling, so inspirational and magnetic that those first disciples would “immediately” lay it all down to go with him. I’ve no doubt Jesus was a persuasive rabbi. But I suspect the response of those first disciples had as much to do with the economic desperation of their lives as with Jesus’ invitation. In her article “Fishing Economy in the Sea of Galilee,” New Testament scholar Alicia Batten gives some insight:
Fishing was a fundamental part of the embedded economy of first-century Galilee. This region was ruled by Herod Antipas, a client king of the Roman [oppressors]. An “embedded” economy was one in which questions of production, processing, trade and their regulation could not be separated from politics. There was no free market that functioned independently from other dimensions of society and little if any upward mobility. Most peasant fishing families were poor and lived at subsistence level, while a small minority of elites held the bulk of wealth and power.
I wonder: Might it not be true that grinding poverty and a non-living wage were as responsible for Peter and Andrew and James and John’s commitment to Jesus as was Jesus himself? Or, might it possible that Jesus told them something about that unjust economy that resonated with them? Mightn’t Jesus have said, instead of that corny line “Follow me and I’ll make you fishers of people,” something more like: “Have you ever wondered why you do this back-breaking work for pennies on the dollar, while Herod gets all the fish he can possibly eat without lifting a finger? Does that seem like the will of God to you?” “Well, when you put it that way, hell no!” Down go the nets and four new disciples go with Jesus, preaching and teaching and healing across Galilee.
Yesterday, a few of my family members and I joined up with nearly 100,000 other Minnesotans to walk to the capital in Saint Paul. You’ve no doubt seen coverage of the Women’s Marches—hundreds of them, apparently, across the United States and in many cities around the globe. There was even one in Antarctica. According to USA Today, hardly a progressive news source, there were more than two and a half million marchers in the United States. I think there were more, since I know there were marches in many a small town—35 marchers here, 72 marchers there—and they add up. When we were finally too cold and damp to listen any longer, my sisters, brother and I went for a late lunch and there looked at a CNN video of aerial views of the marches in major cities—Washington, of course, but also New York, Phoenix, Denver, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Oakland, Miami—a veritable sea of pink hats. We were mesmerized watching for those few moments, my siblings and I. I wonder: What made so many of us commit to the march? What issues, what insults, what degradations, what economic, gender, racial and religious injustices, anxieties and alienations could provoke so large a coordinated, nonviolent response?
Well. I leave the answers to those rhetorical questions to you since I’m certain we all have opinions, and I turn instead to the summons that is woven throughout the entire Christian endeavor. It is simply this: commit. Commit yourself to something that will make life more livable for someone else. Commit yourself to living serenely, trusting that God is always with you. Commit yourself to nonviolence “of fist, tongue and heart.” Commit to listening, thinking, learning. Commit yourself to humility and rigorous self-examination. Commit to loving your neighbor. Commit to seeing everyone who is not you yourself as your neighbor. Commit.
Earlier in our service this morning Tenzing read the 10 commitments leaders of the Civil Rights Movement asked of protesters before every protest or resistance action against racism in Alabama in 1963:
I hereby pledge myself—my person and body—to the nonviolent movement. Therefore, I will keep the following 10 commandments:
- I will meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
- I will remember always that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation—not victory.
- I will walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
- I will pray daily to be used by God in order that all people might be free.
- I will sacrifice personal wishes in order that all people might be free.
- I will observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
- I will seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
- I will refrain from the violence of fist, tongue or heart.
- I will strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
- I will follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.
They were commitments to be made individually, personally, before joining collective action. I wonder what 10 commitments I would write and commit myself to keeping before I join a collective resistance movement. Actually, I don’t wonder, because I’ve already made them. I was asking that rhetorically to pique your curiosity, because I think it is essential to commit to principles of honorable behavior and being before stepping in to the swift current of public life, in protest and resistance, in elected office or position, in any arena wherein you have influence. Commit.
Do you know how to read, and has reading brought you understanding and satisfaction? Commit to teach someone how to read. When you go grocery shopping, are you incredulous over the array of choices you see? Commit to giving to the Groveland Food Shelf. Are you aware that you can drive just about anywhere in the city and not be afraid you’ll be arrested—or worse—for a taillight that has gone out? Commit to reading and demanding that our police forces adhere to the “Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.” Are you reasonably confident your religious affiliation won’t require you to show identification? Commit to immigration protection and the First Amendment to the Constitution. When you need to see a physician for care concerning your lady parts, are you assured of professional, affordable, respectful treatment? Commit to protecting Planned Parenthood. Do you live on more than $15 an hour? Commit to the Fight for Fifteen. Are you alarmed by violence against women? Commit to stopping it. Would you like to assure clean water in Flint, Mich., and Standing Rock, N. Dak.? Commit to protecting it. Do you value a free, uncensored and deeply investigative news source? Commit to supporting it. Do you want common sense guns laws and restricted access to private ownership of firearms? Commit to insisting on it.
Choose an issue you care about. Identify a privilege you enjoy that is withheld from others for reasons that are beyond their control. Squeeze your heart muscle so that it becomes stronger, more courageous and compassionate and commit, commit, commit.
Which brings me back to those fishing laborers who dropped their nets to follow Jesus. Use your imagination. Don’t be constrained by the narrowness of a literal reading of Scripture. Think about what it might have been like then, and what it could be like now, to be objects of an oppressive government. Imagine a voice of courage and love, inviting you to freedom, not through violence or hate or even legislation or public policy. Rather, a voice that says “God loves you.” I love you. You have dignity and worth and beauty and self-determination. Come with me to tell others that they, too, are loved, that they do not ever need to submit again to a yoke of slavery. Commit. Commit. Please commit. Amen.
Alicia J. Batten, “Fishing Economy in the Sea of Galilee,” Bible Odyssey, Society of Biblical Literature, http://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/places/related-articles/fishing-economy-in-the-sea-of-galilee (accessed January 25, 2017).
President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. 2015. Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, https://cops.usdoj.gov/pdf/taskforce/ taskforce_finalreport.pdf (accessed January 25, 2017).