The Rev. Frank
Hope for Fishy People
On last line of our hymn, we sang, “The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.” Can this be right? Peace is no peace? What would that mean? Closed in the sod sounds like burial. Does this sound like Good News to you?
That hymn, They Cast Their Nets in Galilee was written by the Mississippi poet/planter/lawyer, William Alexander Percy. Percy knew a thing or two about unrest. As the First World War raged in Europe, he worked for the Commission for Relief in Belgium, which sought to feed the starving millions cut off from food supplies by the war. When America entered the war, he served in the infantry and rose to the rank of Captain, earning the French Croix de Guerre and a silver star in the process. Percy returned to Mississippi and joined his father, a U.S. Senator in opposing the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in their own town of Greenville. It was during this time that he wrote the poem “His Peace” which gives the text for our Gospel hymn. The war hero Will Percy, who had fancied himself as an idealist, was dismissed as nothing more than a sissy. In the process Percy saw his share of strife closed in the sod.
For Simon and Andrew, James and John, that strife lies ahead of them. The fishermen’s nets were full—if not literally, at least figuratively—when Jesus called the men. Simon and Andrew, James and John did follow Jesus because fishing was not working out for them. All four were assured a decent living if they remained as fishermen. They left their nets to follow Jesus in search of something more.
They did, of course, find much more. It must have been a wild ride to travel with Jesus from the shores of Lake Galilee that day to be present for most every significant event in his ministry. The amazing teaching, the astounding miracles, and standing up to the powerful on behalf of the oppressed. Those four fishermen got everything they bargained for and more. In the words of our hymn, the peace of God filled their hearts “brimful and broke them too.” Jesus’ followers died to everything they had been or wanted to be in order to be born anew as apostles—the ones Jesus sent out into the world with the Good News of the Kingdom of God.
Following Jesus’ resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the disciples set out to turn the world upside down. The apostles made a big splash in those early years of what would come to be called Christianity and in the process all but John were put to death for their faith. John was tortured and exiled. As Saint Teresa of Avila said famously, “God, if that’s how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few!”
If nothing else, the Bible is a very honest book and it pulls no punches in letting everyone know that following God is not easy. It is better, infinitely better than being disconnected from the God who made you. But it was not easy for Jesus to live as God intends and it is not easy for us either.
The Roman Catholic missionary Vincent Donovan has helped me to see the urgency of sharing our faith with others, but he doesn’t paint a rosy picture of evangelism either. He told of this exchange with one of his converts among the Masai of Africa. Donovan writes,
“He said to me, ‘When you first came among us to tell us about Jesus, we used to feel sorry for our ancestors who never heard about him, and for those people you would never reach with his Word across these far-flung plains of ours. But now that we have accepted Jesus and understood what Christianity and the Brotherhood are about, we feel sorry for ourselves. It would have been easier for us, and better for us, if you had never come among us.’”
Easier if you had never come among us? This is worse than strife closed in the sod. What is going on here?
One German theologian, Karl Barth (1886-1968), described God as bringing a point of crisis into our lives. Once you know of the Gospel of Jesus, you reach a point of decision, the point of crisis. Jesus is God’s “yes” to us that we just have to accept. When you come to the point of decision, you say yes to God’s yes in Jesus.
God is not an object to be studied. God is personal and can be encountered. When you come to realize this, you can pray to God, not in formal prayers to dazzle God with your brilliance, but informally, as the one who knows you completely.
Each of us must come to decide whether or not we believe that Jesus is God’s son and then move beyond that knowledge into a relationship. Once you do believe, the Bible suggests you will over time act differently because of your relationship with God?
For the four fishermen in today’s Gospel, Jesus’ call on the shore that day changed everything about their lives. Following Jesus meant a complete break with the past as they moved into an unknown future. For most of us, coming to faith is not that dramatic. And yet, the faith we have is meant to transform us over time. God will not transform you in to some milk toast nice guy or sweet woman version of yourself. God’s transformation does not annihilate you to replace it with some sanitized version of yourself. God leaves you as you and gives you the eyes to see the world as God sees it. God can break your heart by giving you a heart for others.
Just as Simon and Andrew, James and John were transformed from simple fishermen into fishers of people’s souls, we too are to be transformed. In fact, all of us Christians are to follow those disciples’ examples and become fellow fishers of men and women with them.
But why? Isn’t that pushy? We don’t want to impose what we believe on others, do we? Isn’t Episcopal Evangelism an oxymoron anyway? I’ve been told that Episcopal Evangelism is a good idea in theory, but in practice everyone who should be an Episcopalian already is one. No, we get a heart for those others by seeing how they are as loved by God as we are.
What I told our Bishop when I took this job was this, “Growing the Episcopal Church isn’t worth five minutes of my time. The world doesn’t need more Episcopalians. But I will give my life to expanding the Kingdom of God. For that’s what the world needs more than it knows.”
But again I ask why? Can’t people be good without being Christians? Yes, they can. Can’t they in some way know God without being Christian? I’m convinced they can. Without getting in to it too deeply, you can know God in part without knowing all about Christianity. I believe that Christianity is the best and purest revelation of God and God’s love for us. But most Christians would hold that those who have never heard of Jesus Christ would not be automatically out of heaven, but would be responsible for being true to what God has written on the tablets of their hearts.
That’s why learning about Jesus is a crisis. This is why the Masai elder was a peeved. Wouldn’t it have been better never to hear of Jesus? Once you know, you become responsible for what you know. Meaning everyone in this room is either at the point of crisis or has been through it already. We all have heard of Jesus, the Christ, and we’ve had to decide what we think of him.
The same Roman Catholic missionary, Vincent Donovan, helped me to understand why we must bother to take the Gospel to everyone. Donovan writes, “The aim of evangelization can be nothing less than what Israel expected the messiah to do, i.e., to establish the shalom. Shalom is much more than personal salvation. It is at once peace, integrity, community, harmony, and justice. The goal of evangelization, and the basis for its urgency is to put all things under the dominion of Christ.”
Or as I had put it to our Bishop, the goal is to expand the Kingdom of God. For God’s kingdom to come into fullness means that all creation will be redeemed. The goal is that when we go fishing for people, we catch them all, especially the fishy smelling ones. You will never have the fullness of shalom, that peace, well being, wholeness you seek until everyone else has it too. The people who never use their blinkers need God. The people who take the parking space you’ve been waiting for need God. The person at work who drives you crazy needs God. The boy who sits next to you in homeroom that annoys everyone needs God. The person who gossiped about you, and everyone believed them rather than the truth, needs God.
What is it that those of us of faith have that the rest don’t have? We Christians don’t have better lives, cooler cars and nicer houses. We Christians don’t have easier lives, more fulfilling jobs, and perfect children or parents. We Christians don’t have all the peace we long for. What we Christians have is a relationship with the God who is working to redeem our world one life at a time. What we have is the knowledge that everything we now see and experience is not all there is. What we Christians have is hope. Hope.
That’s what all those people who don’t have God need. The people who feel like they have everything under control and life is just perfect without God will come to the day when they need that hope. The people who have already been through that crash have often tried to find that hope in drugs, alcohol, bad relationships, and all sorts of other well worn dead end paths.
The peace of God may not make their lives all nice and rosy with no bumps in the road. But the peace of God can give them the hope they need to rise up from the place where they have found themselves.
We Christians do not have to be pushy to give the world the Good News that God loves each person and wants a relationship with them. We Christians just need to be available, ready to reach out to others. We all live in a world of hurt. Each one of us comes into contact with people every day who don’t know how they are going to make it through this one day, much less this week. All we have to do is pray that God will give us the eyes to see the world the way God sees it and a heart that is both brimful and broken too, so that we won’t be able to not tell that hurt man, woman or child about the hope that is within us.
The peace of God is no mere peace. The peace of God will not clear all the problems out of your life and make everything hunky dory again. The peace of God is the shalom, the health, wholeness and well being God is calling the world to and it will take all of us. So let us pray for but one thing, the marvelous peace of God.
 William Alexander Percy (1885-1942) “His Peace,” from Enzio's Kingdom and Other Poems, Published in 1924 by Yale University Press.
 This idealist/sissy saying comes from Percy’s autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee. I found some sections of the book quoted at www.pbs.org
 From page 188 of Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan, published in 1978 by Orbis Books.
Donovan, page 192.