A prayer for the woman preaching

Loving, life-giving God,
God of Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth,
God of Miriam, and Your many Marys;
God of our mothers, our wives, our sisters,
where men have preceded, succeeded,
pleaded that they do not need us;

while the world learns to walk
without us, away from us,
You remember us as
the woman who anointed Your anointed one.

Ah, God,
Mother of all gods,
remember your daughter
in the name of Your Son,
loosen her tongue,
bear her spirit above
the waters of creation:
let her utter Your Word.


Image: Le repas chez le pharisien, James Tissot [Public domain], via wikimedia commons

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The truth will make you free

A homily commemorating Frederick Douglass at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio


“The truth will make you free” (John 8:30-32).

So Jesus told his disciples – but often we prefer the safe cages of half-truths, legends, or outright falsehood to the freedom, the burdensome responsibility of free agency and authority to love God before all, and our neighbour, in truth, as ourselves.

A couple of years ago, I attended a conference hosted by the Bishops United Against Gun Violence in Chicago. The title was “Unholy Trinity: Poverty, Racism, and Gun Violence.” It was, as you may imagine, three days filled with powerful, uncomfortable truths set free by bible study, communal worship, shared experience, and by the gospel. Then, the Revd Dr Kelly Brown Douglas addressed us. That prominent theologian of the Episcopal Church freed her tongue and told the assembly boldly, “You cannot be White and be a Christian.”

Can you imagine how that incendiary package of truth exploded into the silence of her audience – a silence broken only by the sharp intake of a few hundred breaths? You cannot be White and be a Christian in America today. The truth will set you free.

To preach the commemoration of Frederick Douglass is an exercise in humility for a white woman of considerable privilege. To try to bring his words and example to bear upon the way in which we hear the gospel today, without reduction or exploitation or appropriation, is an exercise in repentance. My repentance will not be perfect, so I ask your forgiveness up front. But in the words of Dr Brown Douglas, I remembered what Frederick Douglass had to say, a couple of centuries ago, about slaveholder Christianity. You remember the truth he told, in an Appendix to his first autobiographical Narrative, regarding what he called “the slaveholding religion of this land”:

… between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference – so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. …

Shall I not visit for these things? Saith the Lord. Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?”

Douglass had told in his Narrative the unfortunate tale of the kind Sophia, his mistress when he first was sent to Baltimore city. She was the one who began to teach him to read. She treated him with dignity, and with kindness. But it was not enough for Sophia to be kind. When her husband discovered their lessons, he instructed her that it was wrong and dangerous to teach slaves literacy; it would make one unfit to be a slave: “there would be no keeping him,” he said. Douglass, a child of around eleven or twelve at the time, seized upon his words:

From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. … The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. …. What he most dreaded, that I most desired.”

He was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering – that to treat a slave with the dignity and invest in him the ability to learn and seek and find for himself all truth – that would unfit him to be a slave forever. The truth would set him free; and his master dreaded freedom.

On the other side of the page, Sophia found herself seduced, corrupted, and finally chained to the profitable lies of slaveholding. After her husband’s rebuke, she began to change. Douglass described how

Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. … Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone.

To borrow a turn of phrase from Kelly Brown Douglas, You cannot be a slaveholder and a Christian. The lies that you tell yourself, wise Sophia, in order to justify your position in the world are incompatible with the truth that sets Frederick free: the dignity of a man made in the very image of God, loved and redeemed for freedom by Jesus Christ.

It is not enough, Sophia, to be tender-hearted, kind, and merciful. Unless you actively resist your husband’s decrees; unless you will oppose yourself to the slaveholder’s life that you lead, and pull down its structure, dismantle its scaffold, you cannot call yourself a Christian. Because, as a slaveholder, you will one day curb the truth, and cut wood for the cross, and find that you have whitewashed your prayers as though they do not run with the blood of Frederick and his mother, his sister, his brothers, his ancestors, and his descendants.

The young Frederick Douglass befriended the poor little white boys who ran around his neighbourhood, and turned them into his teachers. Whatever book-learning they had, he bartered for bread from Sophia’s kitchen. And it is clear from his tender tone that he loved them for it. He loved that he was able to make an equal exchange with them, and they accepted him as one of their own brothers, and amongst themselves, they made a true friendship, a community in which they sustained one another. He freed them from hunger; they freed him to read.

Later, boys like these might have been among the mob that attacked him at the shipyard, afraid that his slave labour might undermine their own wages. They could not grow up White and remain Christian. Unless we are on guard against the corrupting influence of slavery, and its bastard offspring, systemic racism, personal prejudice, implicit, inescapable bias, White self-interest, White supremacy; then we who are descended from Sophia and street urchins are subject always to fall into its snares of sin.

The truth shall make you free. When Dr Brown Douglas addressed the Unholy Trinity, after we had recovered their breath, a few in the audience found their voice again. “We hear the truth in what you say, but you can’t say it like that,” they said, trying to tame her truth and settle it softly into the trap they had not even seen themselves setting, the false promise of peace without righteousness, the false prophecies of redemption without repentance, mercy without justice, the mirage of freedom without the breaking of chains.

The truth will make you free, said Jesus. What is truth? asked Pilate (John 18:38). I am the way, and the truth, and the life, said Jesus (John 14:6), and

the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon him (Luke 4:18-20)


* A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass, a public domain book via Kindle

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The truth will make you free

A homily commemorating Frederick Douglass at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio


“The truth will make you free” (John 8:30-32).

So Jesus told his disciples – but often we prefer the safe cages of half-truths, legends, or outright falsehood to the freedom, the burdensome responsibility of free agency and authority to love God before all, and our neighbour, in truth, as ourselves.

A couple of years ago, I attended a conference hosted by the Bishops United Against Gun Violence in Chicago. The title was “Unholy Trinity: Poverty, Racism, and Gun Violence.” It was, as you may imagine, three days filled with powerful, uncomfortable truths set free by bible study, communal worship, shared experience, and by the gospel. Then, the Revd Dr Kelly Brown Douglas addressed us. That prominent theologian of the Episcopal Church freed her tongue and told the assembly boldly, “You cannot be White and be a Christian.”

Can you imagine how that incendiary package of truth exploded into the silence of her audience – a silence broken only by the sharp intake of a few hundred breaths? You cannot be White and be a Christian in America today. The truth will set you free.

To preach the commemoration of Frederick Douglass is an exercise in humility for a white woman of considerable privilege. To try to bring his words and example to bear upon the way in which we hear the gospel today, without reduction or exploitation or appropriation, is an exercise in repentance. My repentance will not be perfect, so I ask your forgiveness up front. But in the words of Dr Brown Douglas, I remembered what Frederick Douglass had to say, a couple of centuries ago, about slaveholder Christianity. You remember the truth he told, in an Appendix to his first autobiographical Narrative, regarding what he called “the slaveholding religion of this land”:

… between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference – so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. …

Shall I not visit for these things? Saith the Lord. Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?”

Douglass had told in his Narrative the unfortunate tale of the kind Sophia, his mistress when he first was sent to Baltimore city. She was the one who began to teach him to read. She treated him with dignity, and with kindness. But it was not enough for Sophia to be kind. When her husband discovered their lessons, he instructed her that it was wrong and dangerous to teach slaves literacy; it would make one unfit to be a slave: “there would be no keeping him,” he said. Douglass, a child of around eleven or twelve at the time, seized upon his words:

From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. … The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. …. What he most dreaded, that I most desired.”

He was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering – that to treat a slave with the dignity and invest in him the ability to learn and seek and find for himself all truth – that would unfit him to be a slave forever. The truth would set him free; and his master dreaded freedom.

On the other side of the page, Sophia found herself seduced, corrupted, and finally chained to the profitable lies of slaveholding. After her husband’s rebuke, she began to change. Douglass described how

Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. … Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone.

To borrow a turn of phrase from Kelly Brown Douglas, You cannot be a slaveholder and a Christian. The lies that you tell yourself, wise Sophia, in order to justify your position in the world are incompatible with the truth that sets Frederick free: the dignity of a man made in the very image of God, loved and redeemed for freedom by Jesus Christ.

It is not enough, Sophia, to be tender-hearted, kind, and merciful. Unless you actively resist your husband’s decrees; unless you will oppose yourself to the slaveholder’s life that you lead, and pull down its structure, dismantle its scaffold, you cannot call yourself a Christian. Because, as a slaveholder, you will one day curb the truth, and cut wood for the cross, and find that you have whitewashed your prayers as though they do not run with the blood of Frederick and his mother, his sister, his brothers, his ancestors, and his descendants.

The young Frederick Douglass befriended the poor little white boys who ran around his neighbourhood, and turned them into his teachers. Whatever book-learning they had, he bartered for bread from Sophia’s kitchen. And it is clear from his tender tone that he loved them for it. He loved that he was able to make an equal exchange with them, and they accepted him as one of their own brothers, and amongst themselves, they made a true friendship, a community in which they sustained one another. He freed them from hunger; they freed him to read.

Later, boys like these might have been among the mob that attacked him at the shipyard, afraid that his slave labour might undermine their own wages. They could not grow up White and remain Christian. Unless we are on guard against the corrupting influence of slavery, and its bastard offspring, systemic racism, personal prejudice, implicit, inescapable bias, White self-interest, White supremacy; then we who are descended from Sophia and street urchins are subject always to fall into its snares of sin.

The truth shall make you free. When Dr Brown Douglas addressed the Unholy Trinity, after we had recovered their breath, a few in the audience found their voice again. “We hear the truth in what you say, but you can’t say it like that,” they said, trying to tame her truth and settle it softly into the trap they had not even seen themselves setting, the false promise of peace without righteousness, the false prophecies of redemption without repentance, mercy without justice, the mirage of freedom without the breaking of chains.

The truth will make you free, said Jesus. What is truth? asked Pilate (John 18:38). I am the way, and the truth, and the life, said Jesus (John 14:6), and

the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon him (Luke 4:18-20)


* A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass, a public domain book via Kindle

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Mere mortals

A sermon for the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio, in February 2019


According to Luke, Jesus is preaching from a place of even footing. Once again, he embodies the fulfillment of the prophets: the valleys have been raised up, and the mountains brought low, and he stands upon a level plain.

There was a great multitude of people from Lebanon to the north and Jerusalem to the south, several days’ journeys away, who had come to Jesus to hear him, and to be healed by him, because power was pouring out from him. They yearned to touch him, because God’s mercy, the power of God’s love was overflowing from him. He had no political power, no armour, no army, no armory. He didn’t hold the power of the purse, nor even the power of the pen. But the people recognized that Jesus had the power of life, and in his life, they found life, and healing, help, and hope, such as no one else had ever held it out to them before or since.

Jeremiah’s words deal with political realities that have apparently endured for well over two and a half millennia, from centuries before Jesus on the plain, to this day:

Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength,
whose hearts turn away from the Lord.

There is no politician, nor priest, nor folk hero who will save us from ourselves; no philosophy, nor manifesto that will guide us through the valley of the shadow of death. There is none, but only God. There is none, but only Jesus.

Jeremiah is not a prophet with a practical plan. He doesn’t offer a three-step solution to the mess in which the kingdom of Judah has found itself, besieged on all sides. He doesn’t offer, to be more specific, an alternative to the political alliances, compromises, and petitions by which Judah is attempting, unsuccessfully, to save herself.

Instead, Jeremiah says, “Until you change your heart. Until you turn your soul. Until you remember God, this will be your lot. Unless you look for an allegiance to God, all you will find is your own sinful mess looking back at you.”

Jesus says it a different way, on the plain:

Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

The false prophets: those court prophets who assured Judah that all would be well, if they would only hold their course, and not turn aside to anything so foolish as humility, repentance, or the kingdom of God, or any of those whims that Jeremiah preached. The court prophets who have always used flattering words and false arguments to beguile the politicians and the people into thinking that their greatest goal was to maintain the status quo: the layers of power and privilege and profit and poverty that sustained the society which favoured the few false prophets preaching to the choir of the king’s court.

I hadn’t intended preaching about our landscape of gun violence this weekend. Even with the anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on Valentine’s Day. Even so. But I can’t. I can’t be part of propping up the status quo when this country is crying out for a change of heart.

“The heart,” says Jeremiah, “is devious above all else; it is perverse.”

I read parts of a report this week issued to shareholders by the parent company of gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson. I do not own shares in that company, to be clear; I was reporting a story about investor activism for the Episcopal Café. But I found, in doing so, that this company doesn’t like the term “gun violence.” It sees it as extreme language, designed

to create a perception that the presence of a gun, in itself, somehow creates the conditions for violence.

On Thursday’s anniversary, a statement from the White House extended sympathy to the Parkland families, and all victims of gun violence. Hours later, in a Tweet, “gun violence” was reframed as “school violence.” One can only imagine the conversations that might have taken place in between: calls from those false prophets who maintain that we do not have a gun violence problem, but a personal violence problem, a criminal violence problem, a school, workplace, yoga studio, nightclub, church, synagogue, movie theater violence problem.

The heart is devious above all else, and perverse. We have a major domestic violence problem. We have a perverse and peculiar problem with people seeing violence as their vindication. We have a problematic culture which celebrates vengeance. We need a change of heart.

Introducing our proliferation of guns magnifies that problem and its power. It allows the power of violence to spill over beyond the reach of arms-length relationships, beyond person-to-person contact. It is the opposite of the power pouring out of Jesus, the power to heal and to haul people together. Until we have a change of heart, we will remain trapped in cycles of our own construction, placing our trust in mere mortals and their metal, defending the deeply problematic status quo, at the expense of those who mourn, those who weep, those who are lost.

Jeremiah declined to offer an alternative alliance for Judah to fight its way out of the corner it was in. Instead, he only offered God.

Our answer to the problem of gun violence, while it may well take political engagement and alliances, cannot come from the well of the world. That’s one reason I am not in love with the activist investor model to engage with gun manufacturers: we cannot let mere mortals, false prophets, control the environment in which we do God’s work. We cannot let the landscape dictate our footsteps, when Jesus’ call is nothing less than to raise up the valleys and erase the mountains, and level the plains.

I don’t know that anyone here is satisfied with the status quo; but what are we willing to change in order to disrupt it? Will we push back against false prophets of fear, and demand instead to declare the love of God? Will we, instead of the power of the fortress and the citadel, look for the power pouring out of Jesus, without walls, out on the plain, for all to come and reach and touch? Will we, instead of the might of armies and the inventory of armories, arm ourselves with the love of God, and love for our neighbours, knowing that these, these alone, are the marching orders of the kingdom of God?

It’s a tall order, I know. But consider the vision of God’s kingdom that Jesus offers: a world in which the poor have power; where the bereft are comforted. Where profits are harvested as food for the hungry, with ploughshares beaten out of pistols. Where the name Pulse has not been perverted to echo with death and anger, but resumes its resonance of life, and love. Where Aurora means the halo of light around the moon, giving glory to God with all the heavenly bodies, and we no longer ask, do you mean the one in Colorado, or the one in Illinois? Where the south side of Chicago is simply the sunny side of the street. Where the Tree of Life grows green in the Garden of Eden. A kingdom where the name Parkland conjures up, not the valley of the shadow of death, but a quiet place, green pastures beside still waters.

It is not a situation that will come about by accident. It will always be opposed by false prophets and fear. It is perhaps impossible for mere mortals to construct. But here’s our secret weapon: we are not mere mortals. We are created, and called, and commissioned in the image of God and by the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. By his power, the power of God’s love made manifest, made human, we can do more than we will ever imagine.

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Thaw

Create in me a new heart, O God (Psalm 51:11a)


Wind trills taughtly-anchored telegraph wires.

A stave of birds compose an arpeggio, ready for flight.

Hedges shrug off the gusts and hold the line, but

Something is trying to stir my hibernation.

First, it must melt the ice from my arteries,

before I learn to love the dam,

set up a new rhythm:

Love’s invitation to dance.

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Book Review: Outlandish, by Derek Penwell

I just this minute finished reading Outlandish: An Unlikely Messiah, A Messy Ministry, and the Call to Mobilize by Derek Penwell, which is good timing as the book releases today. (I was privileged to read a copy of the final pre-press draft.)

Penwell (and may I just say, what a great name for an author!) has written a book based on the urgent realization of Jesus’ political reality, a realization sharpened and made more urgent by recent political events surrounding those of us in the United States of America. While that framework is roughed out from the beginning, the body of the book takes its time to establish the case for a political Jesus who is interested in the bodies and spirits of the people living and breathing before him, at least as much as in the state of their eternal souls.

The tone draws rather deliberately on the snark of modern online political (and religious) debate, except when it gets deep into a bit of biblical digging, which the author obviously enjoys. But to continue on the topic of tone, I appreciated the extended argument for the use of sarcasm as a discipleship tool. Skewering broods of vipers, after all, is quite biblical.

While his thesis is present throughout, it’s really in the final couple of chapters that Penwell pulls the reader round to considering in practical terms what it means to read Jesus as a political leader, and resurrection as a definitive judgement on the world order, for one (or a community) that considers themselves a follower of Jesus:

“The vocation of Jesus’ followers after Easter places them squarely in the middle of the political fight to protect the most vulnerable, while holding to account those who’ve dedicated themselves to … themselves, and the pursuit of their own aggrandizement.”

That’s quite a bridge from the empty tomb to the empty rhetoric of too many modern politicians, and the empty pockets, and empty papers, of too many people within their principalities.

There is even a list of practical tips for getting involved with social justice movements and communities. I can see this being useful not only for individual readers, but for churches, especially social justice committees or leadership groups, that might read the book together.

A word about Penwell’s interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, in Chapter 3. In my tradition, when we pray that prayer (which we do only all the time), we ask forgiveness of our trespasses, or of our sins, rarely of our debts. So Penwell’s assertion that when we ask forgiveness of our debts we are literally begging for our freedom from economic oppression (and promising not to inflict it on anyone else); and following that up with the idea that to ask God to deliver us from the time of trial and evil is to ask for freedom from very present oppressive systems of injustice – that definitely gave me pause. Took my breath away a little, to be honest.

Of course, the implication is that if we are asking God to deliver us from systems that we the people have organized around ourselves (or one another, or just those others), then we had better get to work answering our own prayers, with God’s help. And I think that’s the point of the book: to galvanize faithful, Christlike engagement with the powers that be, following in the footsteps of an outlandish messiah.

Outlandish: An Unlikely Messiah, A Messy Ministry, and the Call to Mobilize, by Derek Penwell, is published by Chalice Press.

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What the world needs now

A sermon for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany in Year C. The Gospel tells the story of Jesus teaching from a boat because of the crowds, a miraculous catch of fish, and the first few disciples to leave everything, and follow him.


Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.

What is the pressing word that the world needs to hear? What is the great need that Jesus can address?

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 

What makes you trust Jesus? How has Jesus addressed your needs?

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

With whom can you share the Word of God that answers the needs of your neighbours?


Too many people, so many people needed to hear what Jesus had to tell them about the word of God, the stuff of salvation; so he asked for help from a fisherman fresh off the water after a long and fruitless shift. Despite his weariness, his unwashed nets, his aching bones, Simon was willing to accommodate the man; whether out of curiosity, or hope, or need, or common courtesy, the legendary hospitality of their people; or repayment for that time when Jesus healed his mother-in-law.

Simon did what Jesus asked of him, and Jesus, as though in return, perhaps with a twinkle in his eye, said, “Follow me into the deep water and I’ll show you something.” And the catch of fish that they found more than made up for the night of empty nets, and the aching bodies, and the hungry mouths at home, the fear of food insecurity, and the shame of empty-handedness.

And if the story had ended there, it would confirm everything that the prosperity preachers have told us about the way in which God works: do God a favour, and God will work the odds in your favour. Throw in a coin, a seed, a token, and see your fortunes flood. With Jesus, you’ll hit the jackpot.

But the gospel is not a lucky charm, and faith does not work as a vending machine: prayer in, miracle out; and this story does not end with Simon and his friends heading to market and cashing in their fish for a tidy profit, such as they had never thought to see from a night on the Sea of Galilee, and going home rejoicing.

No, when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything, everything, and followed Jesus.

It can’t have been just about the fish. It can’t have been just about the bread. There was something in Jesus himself – his words, his presence, his essence, the Incarnation of God – that made people want to get close to him, to follow him. The fish, to conjure a distasteful image, were just the icing on the cake.

There are a few things I think it’s worth really trying to notice about this story.

One is that the people had such great need of Jesus’ teaching. Remember, what he had been teaching was the message of the prophets, of the day of the Lord, in which the poor receive good news, and the blind see, and the prisoners and the oppressed find liberty. People were starving for that message. They were parched for that hope. They were teeming for that word.

We know a little of how they feel. We know the over-incarceration of our country, the unequal distribution of the consequences of crime based on economic status and most especially on race and colour, the privatization and profiteering off of punishment that traps people in systems that have been likened to modern slavery, that further dehumanize rather than restoring the dignity of us all.

We know the unequal access to healing medicine, and the travesty of maternal and infant mortality that stains our country’s façade as a beacon of civilization and progress. Again, race is a factor. Again, profit too often takes priority over people.

We know the profound need for good news, that sets people seeking after heroes and helpers, so few of whom measure up in the end; so few who prove completely faithful, and fulfilling. We know the disappointment of a people perpetually seeking their own salvation, and coming up short, so we know the need of the people for the message of salvation that Jesus brings: Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand; God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, God willing.

Another thing to notice is that Jesus did not approach Simon out of nowhere. A chapter or so ago, Simon had heard Jesus preaching in the synagogue, perhaps reading again from that scroll of Isaiah, and Simon had invited him to dinner. At the house, Jesus had healed Simon’s mother-in-law, who had a fever. That was a while back; Jesus has been travelling the countryside preaching in more synagogues and healing many more mothers-in-law before he arrives here, at the seaside. But there is a relationship already in progress. Jesus is already known to Simon. Simon is already inclined to trust him.

One more thing that I’d like to draw out of this story is that once Simon Peter started to follow the direction of Jesus, he quickly found himself overwhelmed, out of his depth, and under-resourced to pull up the fish that he found. He had to call in his partners, James and John, to help him. He was afraid, and he could not handle the work alone; he couldn’t even handle a miracle alone. And Jesus didn’t expect him to. When he said, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people,” he might have been pointing to the partners who had gathered around to help out, the community of disciples that was just beginning to become a gleam in Jesus’ eye.

There is a great need among the people to hear the hope that Jesus has called forth. Simon already has reason to trust Jesus, and to heed that hope. Simon needs to call others to help him if he is to follow the path to fulfillment that Jesus has pointed out for him. And once he does, they follow Jesus, too.

Which brings us back to the questions that we asked at the beginning:

What is the word that the world needs to hear? What is the great need that Jesus can address?
What makes you trust Jesus? How has Jesus helped you?
With whom can you share the Word of God, because they need it, and because you need them to help you heed it?

I can’t do my work by myself. If God wants me to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, freedom from the oppression of gun violence, liberty from white supremacy and deep-rooted racism, food for the hungry, my own salvation from depression and anxiety and the troubles that bind me – then the first thing that I am doing to make that happen is to look around to see which other boats are out, and who I can ask for help. Because it’s too much to contemplate alone. But then I have to remember, too, that Jesus is in the boat with me.

Jesus is in the boat with me. He has always been trustworthy. There have been times, plenty of times, when I have felt overwhelmed, underwhelming, in danger of drowning, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Jesus has been there, a whisper away. Sometimes, he drags me to shore. Sometimes, he dances with me in the deep water, waiting with my aching lungs for the tide to ebb. Sometimes, rarely, he flips the whole scene upside down, inside out, and I find myself, a fish out of water, facing a whole new world.

“Don’t be afraid,” says Jesus, “From now on you will be catching people.” Simon, James, and John looked at the great crowd gathered on the sea shore to hear Jesus, to see Jesus, to find Jesus. And they put down their nets, and followed Jesus into the country, into the crowd, who needed more than anything to know the presence of the living God among them.

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