2 Epiphany 2020: The Fish

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by Diliff

TEXTS For SERMON: Isaiah 9:2-4; “The Fish” by Mary Oliver; Matthew 4:12-23

There are so many times
a poem is better than a story
and this morning, I would prefer
to riff on Mary Oliver’s fish poem.

It is elegant and wise:
“…Out of pain
and pain, and more pain,
we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished
by the mystery.”

She is writing there, I think,
about eating the fish
and how then, the sea is in her
with the fish glittering inside her,
and she is now the fish
just as fish is her – “tangled,” she writes,
and both of them, “certain to fall back into the sea.”

It is an idea about the mystery of life,
and poetry gets to play with ideas
the way Lisa gets to play notes
on her way to music.

But someone who does not like to play with ideas
will come along, look at the dead fish
in that poem, and say,
“right, it was good for her
but bad for the fish.”
Without the poetry it is just a murder and a meal.

Without the poetry
Andrew and Peter were out of their minds
to drop everything and follow Jesus –
like impressionable children
falling under the spell of a cult leader
who we would go after
and bring home.

So let’s not tell this,
or any of these stories,
as if reading a newspaper account
or history textbook.

Let’s read this story like the story we are in –
a story without a script.
We don’t get to know everything in advance,
do we? Do we?

Sometimes we are able to sense
what kind of a down payment we will have to make
when embarking on an adventure
or continuing our way into a story.

Take Peter and Andrew for example.
Their adventure begins when Andrew
hears Rabbi Jesus talking to someone,
and suddenly…
he feels as if he has never,
ever in all his years,
heard anyone
make such utterly clear-and-certain sense.

That is the moment that Andrew can choose
to walk away with a nice experience;

He can go home with a short story
instead of an adventure.
He can make the whole incident
just an afternoon tale
he tells his family and friends,
OR he can run home,
get his brothersand insist on sharing
a spectacular experience with them.
We know that tension.

We can tell someone about a gorgeous sunset
that has just thrilled us, or we can drag them
outside or to the window to experience it with us.

From Peter’s place in the story,
he can listen to his brother
and enjoy the moment vicariously,
OR he can go and crawl into the story himself –
actually, become part of the story.
For reasons we will never know –
and let’s not pretend we do –

Andrew and Peter enter the adventure at that moment
and it changes their lives.
That is how it is with us, or how it isn’t.

That snippet of Isaiah’s poetry
has the same story behind it –
one that those listening to him can climb into
or just hear about with mild interest.

You see, for fifty years
the remnant of Israel
that had been carted off into exile, languished.
Exile hurts.
That is a grotesque understatement
for something akin to slavery,
and economic bondage.
Those of us who have been listening
to the 1619 podcast about slavery in America
are sensing again the brutality of exile.

For Israel, exile
amounted to religious
and cultural disintegration.
Prior to exile
every hope and promise
of their relationship with God
was rooted in land.
A place.

On Mount Zion,
upon which Jerusalem was built.
In Judah, the Promise Land
bordered by the Jordan River.
Take away that place –
the temple
the city
the land
the river –
and there was no religion.
Exile brought with it the terrifying question
of whether there had ever been a God named Yahweh.
In short,
to live in exile
was brutal and painful and hazardous,
but to live without hope
in the midst of exile,
was an intolerable suffering.
That is when the prophet Isaiah’s poetry
was most brilliant.

He was a poet of hope.
Isaiah’s poetry kept hope alive
during Israel’s exile in Babylon –
and it kept the religion and culture alive too.
In the same way African tribal cultures
were nursed and nurtured secretly
throughout American slavery,
the religion and culture of Israel
was kept burning in exile by poets like Isaiah.
When there is no hope for a conquered people,
total assimilation into the foreign culture
and the beliefs of their captors,
is a hazard.
But Isaiah just kept telling people
that God could
and God would
do a new thing.
After fifty years, God did.
Persia defeated Babylon
and the King of Persia
not only allowed people to go home to Judah,
he actually gave them money
to help rebuild the temple on Mount Zion.

That was the point at which the exiles
had to decide if their story was an armchair story
or an adventure they would enter into –
were they living the last chapter of Israel
or writing a new chapter?

The 2ndSunday of Epiphany
is my fourth anniversary at Trinity,
and the Sunday I first preached up there
at 520 S. Main Street.
So this sermon is as much about what we have done
these last four years, as it is some fine theological point.

I want to do something I don’t think
I have ever done before –
read you part of the sermon I preached that day.
Now, please do not think it is because I THINK
that sermon was so fine
that it merits quoting myself.
I re-read it this week
and I found it tremendously helpful
as a kind of poem
with which to see the last four years –
to remember where we were that day
and to see where we are this day.
For those who entered into the adventure
with your own bizarre and crazy reasons
somewhere between then and now,
it may also offer a useful snapshot.
Since this is our Annual Meeting, it seemed right to do.
So here is a lengthy quote from January 2016.

“At this particular time in your history,
when you are uncertain as to what your future is,
I am, for reasons still not totally clear to me,
a priest embarked on a future with no script…
or at least none that I’ve seen.

Here is what I have come to know
as a result of where I have been the last thirty-six years
and from the people I have been with in that time.
If you and I walk into our future together
with an openness of heart and mind,
having the courage to affirm what we hear,
and respond with acceptance and courage
to what we see – whether or not we like it –
then we will be transformed.
That transformation won’t be like water turned into wine – that’s down right magic,
something that takes one thing
and turns it into something altogether different.
The kind of transformation I can imagine,
the kind of transformation I have seen and experienced,
is more like health where there was illness;
hope where there was despair;
resilience where there was rigidity;
and the nascent spirit of a community
becoming its defining presence.

I come to you with no pre-disposed ideas
about what Trinity’s future should be or look like;
and I come asking, and maybe even agitating,
for your bare-chested openness too.
I liken our situation
to that of the exiles who returned to Jerusalem
after captivity in Babylon,
and to whom Isaiah was cooing
in that reading we heard this morning.

Their situation was grim.

Actually, according to Isaiah,
it wasn’t grim at all
but they could NOT see or imagine the future
because what was happening all around them
was not what they had expected.
Their situation was not what they had wanted
and even though God had an amazing transformation
in mind, and already in play,
they could not see it
or participate in it
because it wasn’t what they expected or wanted.

In my personal experience, in my own life and work,
whenever I know what is supposed to happen
and I have the barrels of my intention
loaded with ideas and plans,
that is exactly when I cannot see or hear or sense
the presence of God
that is surrounding and infusing us.
In my experience of Church,
every time we know exactly what the problem is
and have a sure-fired solution to it –
one we declare comes with the blessings
from the Kingdom of God –
we are about to fall on our collective face.
There is never, and I emphasize never,
one solution,
one source of blame,
one answer,
one hero,
one action,
one direction,
one person,
one path,
not even one vision
to bring forth God’s best dream for us.
It is never so easy and never so simple
and never so direct.

I do not know why it couldn’t be easier
to uncover and pursue God’s best dream for us,
but I know it isn’t.

And what is worse,
I don’t think we really get to know how we did
or if we followed God’s best dream
until afterward,
and we look back
and things pop out of our experience
that confirm we did or did not.

All of which is to say
we need to be courageous
in our openness to God’s best dream for us.
We need to be radically brave
as we open ourselves
not knowing whether it will be a hernia operation
or a heart transplant.

Along with that bravery
must come trust so radical
that we are willing to free-fall with our eyes closed
into the arms of God.
Really, it is just that radical.
And believe me,
at my size and weight,
I have never liked trust falls!

But that is where we are,
you and me,
together. (I am still quoting from that sermon).
We do not get to hedge our bets.
We do not get to second-guess ourselves.
We do not get to hem and haw.
Once we have a strong inkling about God’s best dream
for Trinity Church Geneva,
we probably only get one chance to live into it.
So this is our time – yours and mine together.
I know some of you have imagined the future,
have pieces of a scenario that might make sense
and that you wish would come true.
Let it go. Give it up.
Stop imagining. Stop wishing.
Stop pretending to know the way
and open yourselves to any and all possibilities
as God leads us into that best dream.
If (what I am saying)
does not sound like what you expected me to say,
then we are already defying expectations!”

END OF OLD SERMON, and here is the end of this one:

We are still in that story,
the last chapter has not been written – that we know of.
Re-reading that sermon
helped me look back and say, “Hell yes.
I think we done good together.”