Sermon 01.29.23


2601 54th Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33712

On land originally inhabited by the Tocabaga


Date: Jan. 29, 2023
Scripture Lesson: Matthew 4:12-23 and Micah 6:6-8

Sermon:Fishing, Part 2
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

My spouse, Jeff, has a friend from high school who lives in Alaska and was involved in the fishing industry there. Apparently he owned a fishing boat and fished for salmon. He hired an assistant each year and they would go out on the boat fishing for 6 weeks straight; living on the boat. At the end of the 6 weeks, they would return to shore and sell the catch. The assistant was paid $40,000 (this was some years ago) and the fishing was finished for the year. $40,000 for six weeks of work sure looks good to me. But that is about as much as I know about the fishing sector of the current economy.

Thanks to an amazing article by Biblical scholar and theologian Ched Myers, we can learn a lot about the fishing industry in first century Palestine, the time of Jesus. We’ll take a bit of a delve into this since the story we heard this morning involves people who are part of the fishing industry and there are numerous references to fishing in the gospels.

The story we heard today is situated on the Sea of Galilee, a large lake that was dotted with villages related to the fishing industry. Fishing was the most lucrative sector of the local economy. Then there was a change in leadership in Rome, there was a new imperial ruler. To curry favor with the new Caesar, Tiberius, the local lackeys for the Romans decided to build a city named Tiberius, in honor of the new emperor, on the Galilee Lake. This led to increasing Roman influence in the region and the fishing industry was re-directed for export. Fish were salted or made into fish sauce and shipped out. The Roman state regulated all of this. They controlled the sale of fishing leases which were necessary to fish. They taxed the fish that were caught. They charged processing fees to have the fish prepared for export. And they charged tolls on the transport used for exportation. This reorganization of the fishing industry was good for the empire and produced great wealth for Rome but it was bad for the people who fished. The leases, taxes, fees, and tolls were exorbitant. Formerly economically stable and self-sufficient, the fishers became impoverished and marginalized. [See “Let’s Catch Some Big Fish!” Jesus’ Call to Discipleship in a World of Injustice, by Ched Myers, post on 1.22.15 by Radical Discipleship In Theological Animation some-big-fish-jesus-call-to-discipleship-in-a-world-of-injustice/]

Now, if we can know this much about the fishing sector of the economy in Jesus’ day, with a view from some 2,000 years in the future, we can be pretty sure that Jesus knew all of this and probably more about what it was like to be a fisher in his day. As a carpenter, he may even have been forced to help with the construction of the new city, Tiberius. But he would certainly have known about the Roman take over of the local fishing industry and the toll that took upon the fishers and their families.

With that knowledge, it seems pretty likely that the story we heard today of Jesus walking along the shores of the lake and recruiting several fishers was not simply random – like he could just as well have been walking past a forge and recruited some blacksmiths. It seems that the story of the call of the fishers was intentionally targeting fishers because of their lowered status and abuse in the wider economy. Given how they were being treated by the larger structures of the society around them, we are shown a Jesus who has sympathy for their circumstances. Who seeks them out despite their demeaned position, actually, because of it. We are shown a Jesus who elevates their humanity by calling to them. And because he knows that they are being debased, he invites them to a be part of a different reality, the kingdom of God. He invites them out of exploitation and into beloved community. Jesus has good news for those who need it most.

Last week, we talked about how the gospel is a powerful message of healing. This morning we hone in on one aspect of that. We see how from the perspective of Jesus, the fishers in the story, and the people of the early church who shared this story, this encounter was about healing the wounds created by the society around them and about transforming the institutions and arrangements of the society around them to be more just and to treat people with dignity and respect. Everyone a child of God. Period.

It’s as if Jesus is saying to these fishers, I know what it is like for you. And I am here to show you another reality. And we are going to spread that reality of Divine Love. And invite people to be part of it. Jesus is offering the fishers a way out of a dehumanizing system that has been a source of abuse and abasement.

This perspective on the story reminds us that the gospel is a call to new life. And that involves confronting the systems and power arrangements that drain and demean life. It involves working to transform those systems. It is a call to work for justice.

For us, in our context, this story and the gospel call us to be willing to have our eyes opened to the injustices around us. Yes, that includes the horrific video of the killing of Tyre Nichols. But it also means eyes opened to the ravages caused by the economic system that we are a part of which can be hard to see because it is like air – just part and parcel of the ambient environment.

Now our economic arrangements can be seen as truly amazing – we have access to everything that can be made and everything that can be wanted from everywhere in the world all the time. Basically. The marvels of human ingenuity await us via the internet 24/7. And the whole systems ‘works’. I put that in quotes. It delivers. But I am not sure it ‘works’ because this marvelous, amazing system of production and delivery may very well be killing us and the planet as we know it.

The story of the fishers by the sea of Galilee shows a recognition of the power of economic arrangements to do harm. Yes, they can do good, but they can also do much harm. And we see that happening around us each and every day. This week, I had coffee with a colleague and we sat at a table outside at a coffee shop. A person came by asking us for money. And we weren’t even downtown. If you use the highway, you are regularly confronted by people asking for money at the bottom of the exit ramp. Here at the church, we regularly have people stop by and call asking for help with basic bills and they always have a story to tell about how they got into this situation.

We are told that our economy is so amazingly successful because look at all the wealth that is produced. And then we are told of the amazing lives of the rich and famous. Any half decent economist can tell you that the lavish lives of the rich and the severe lack of the poor are not unrelated. The more money there is at the top, the less there is a the bottom. Extreme wealth is propped up by poverty. And the reasonable, rational way to mitigate this is through governmental policy that mandates better wages and treatment of labor, and that redistributes wealth by investing in the common good – schools, libraries, roads, the arts, recreation, health care, etc. Things everyone needs and uses and that contribute to a healthy society. But our current government is not going to deliver that outcome because it is run not by the voters but by corporations whose goal is not a healthy society but a healthy profit.

In the translation of the fishing story from Matthew many of us are used to hearing, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This morning we heard the translation, “Change your hearts and minds, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” This is from the Inclusive Language Bible translation done by Priests for Equality. The scholars of the Jesus Seminar, Westar Institute, who initiated the latest quest for the historical Jesus, offer this translation, “Change your ways because Heaven’s imperial rule is closing in.” They intentionally use the term ‘Heaven’s imperial rule’ because they want us to hear what first century listeners would have heard. What Jesus was offering was a direct alternative to Rome’s imperial rule. And maybe more than an alternative. Maybe a direct threat to Rome’s imperial rule, which is probably why Jesus was killed as a traitor, as an insurrectionist, as an enemy of the government. “Heaven’s imperial rule is closing in.” Closing in implies taking over. Jesus is taking on the entire social, political, economic, and religious milieu of his day. And offering a rule of justice and peace. A rule based on the sacredness of each and every life. Treat workers fairly. See that everyone has what they need. Make sure that vulnerable people, like widows and orphans in Jesus’ day, are protected and provided for. This is in direct conflict with a system that is extracting the labor and wealth from the people and leaving them impoverished and demeaned and devalued.

Jesus is instituting: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God. A dictate of the prophets as we heard today. He was also probably familiar with the teaching from the prophet Amos: “The time is surely coming upon you [who oppress the poor and crush the needy] when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks.” (Amos 4:1f) Well, in the story we heard, Jesus invites the fishers to fish for people. We tend to think of that as inviting others to follow Jesus. But there may also be the implication that they will be hooking the oppressors to end the exploitation and abuse they are causing.

The story about fishers on the shore of the sea of Galilee invites us to see Jesus’ call to be agents of transformation in society at large. And he is not advocating what we so often see in our day: The church working in the political sphere to take away rights, to deny full humanity, to restrict freedom, and to obscure truth. Jesus is inviting his followers to end the reign of abuse and greed and exploitation. And to implement true justice and freedom. He goes to one of the most abused, despairing segments of society, the fishers, and offers hope, transformation, and community. That was probably the last thing they were expecting to encounter that day as they went about their business as usual – tending to their nets and their equipment after a night of fishing.

Our son, Malcolm, has a roommate who works for the government in the fishing sector. She goes out on commercial fishing boats in the Gulf of Mexico to examine the catch of these industrial fishers. She looks first hand at what is in the nets that are brought in. The catch. And the by catch. And she documents what she sees. First, it may be a surprise to know that the government is paying attention to such things and actually engaging in that kind of examination. And it may also be a surprise to hear about some of the things that she has seen brought in by fishers in the Gulf. One of the strangest things she has seen is a Bering Wolffish. Yes, Bering, as in Bering Straights. This fish, which can weigh up to 33 pounds, lives in the Pacific Ocean, in the northeast around Alaska and into the Arctic Ocean, and then around to the northwestern Pacific and Japan. This is not a fish that lives anywhere near the Gulf of Mexico. Yet there it was in the net!

Then there is Julian from our congregation who loves to fish in the Gulf and one day caught a shoe, laces and all!

You just never know what fishing may bring in.

And that is so like the gospel. You just never know what you’re going to get. We hear a nice story about what we picture as idyllic fishers living their simple sustainable life by a huge lake providing food for their families and their community. And we find out that it is actually an extortionist system of exploitation. And that Jesus is offering the good news of liberation to those most battered by injustice.

So like Jesus. Giving us more than we could ask for or imagine. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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