The Sermon on the Mount is not a law to be obeyed, but theology to be intellectually appropriated and internalized, in order then to be creatively developed and implemented in the concrete situations of life. — Essays on the Sermon on the Mount, Hans Dieter Betz
I always hope that when you arrive here at 10 am on Sunday morning that you arrive ready to begin. And not just begin, as in settle down to an hour of relaxing worship — but begin as in start afresh, as in re-ordering, as in getting down to the work of living with wisdom and honesty.
But I know that the reality is, for those of you with young children, by the time you’ve arrived, your ready to stop, to go back to bed and pull the covers up. For others, the reality is that by the time you’ve put in a full week at work, you prefer the former half of that old maxim about preaching: that it should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. You’ve been afflicted enough, thank you. Now, how about some comforting.
But I also know that you do come to church heeding a call that goes something like this: “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers for humankind.” There is something more than seeking a life of ease that brings you here. Something more than seeking succor for your grief. I would suggest that the commandment to “come follow me to be fishers for humankind,” is more than a self-help invitation to do something good for yourself, but in fact, an invitation to life itself.
I have purposefully translated away from the familiar King James language “fishers of men,” so that we might move beyond the familiar and possibly wooden hearing of it. I propose that a compelling way to read that phrase, “fishers of men” is to read the action as action taken on behalf of humanity (For you grammarians, that’s a subjective genitive clause — humanity is not being fished, is not the object of the action, but is actually doing the fishing — in this case through us). Let me repeat — this is not the usual way of reading the phrase, “fishers of men.” where the object of the action, ie, the evangelisation, is to catch converts. I am proposing, by reading it as a subjective genitive phrase, that we arenot being called to a fishing expedition.
Neither way of reading that genitive phrase is “the right way.” In the Greek, you just do not know. But for what I want us to think about today, this non-usual way is helpful. I want to begin at the beginning. Not with dogma; not with the doctrine you’ve been taught to think makes a Christian, but with your sense of call. An abecedarian is someone who is beginning with the basics. I want to begin at the beginning because if we don’t we are liable to uncritically assume that what I mean by this deep seated call to worship, is a call to rope in believers, to snag folk on a hook and reel them in for the church. And this is not what I mean. We have been taught to think by the relatively superficial level of public conversation around religion that religion is all about living by a system of rules to be obeyed — on the conservative end believers might suggest that you ought to be hooked by them because the bible says that this is the way to live or else be damned. On the liberal end believers suggest that you will be hooked on their religious hook when you see that their propositions are intellectually interesting. Either way, the believer is on a fishing expedition.
But what if religion is not about believing, but about living creatively and honestly in the real, modern, concrete situations of life? What if religion is not about this awful debate between conservative and liberal — but about an entirely different way of life marked by a confidence in it and a honesty in dealing with our fellow human travelers.
I ran across a nice little story that describes what I’m talking about.
A girl walked home from school, which she had many times before, when suddenly she noticed a new building. Looking in the windows, she saw an odd sight. There was a girl, about her age, standing in a far room, doing what looked like a dance, from the waist up. Her feet hardly moved at all, but she swayed, holding a rod in her hands, out to her right side. She had the other end of the rod in her mouth biting on it, or at least chewing it. The girl outside could not see clearly for the window was dirty. Still it was the strangest sight! She began stopping by this building each day to watch the dance, always about the same time, and soon found herself wondering whether she wasn’t looking into the window of some kind of hospital — a hospital where they put people who did these slow dances while biting on metal rods.
One day, when she walked by, the window was open. And now the girl could see clearly and hear as well. And she heard the sound of a flute. It was a flute player, not a dancer, and the point of it all had not been the movement, but the music, which the girl had never heard before. “Aha,” said the girl, “now I understand!” Then, no longer interested by the spectacle, she turned to leave.
It’s a strange story — not all that interesting I suppose. But it describes the way we think about religion in this country. There are some of us for whom it is enough to observe the rituals, to follow the motions, to say the words. I think that fundamentalism is like this. It seems to miss the point altogether. Others of us, persist. And we finally get the window open, and we discover that what we saw on the surface, through the looking glass faintly, as St. Paul puts it, was indeed only part of the whole picture. The music was the real point of it all. We liberals read things metaphorically.
But the story is not over. It goes on.
The flute player saw the girl and called out to her. Surprised the girl stayed by the window as the other approached. “Here,” said the flute player when she reached the open window, “wouldn’t you like to play? This is yours, after all, and it is your turn now.” With that, she handed the flute through the open window to the girl. The flute player then disappeared and the whole building with her, and the little girl found herself standing in the street with her whole life still ahead of her, holding a flute — and trying to remember the movements and the music.
I have often asked you to look beyond the dirty glass of the window (whether that glass be our scriptures, or our traditions) and to see the whole point which lies beyond. But unless we put away the sense of being a liberal appropriator of clever, metaphorical ways to think about God, and pick up the flute, all of this around us (the building, the scripture, the history) remains and we are not set free to make the music and live by its making. We are instead still speactators.
I’ve introduced one long word to you today — abecedarian. One who begins at the beginning. In the religious world there’s another long word that we who would play the music creatively should know. It’s existentialism. If you have been a student of philosophy, you may be surprised to hear me suggest that we should know that word. Most existentialists have been atheists. But existentialism is simply a term some use to describe the kind of life the girl with the flute now lives — the existentialist, like the Christian, is constantly faced with a decision — shall I risk my dignity and attempt to make music with this instrument — or to put it more pointedly, and with reference to the Jesus story, ” shall I risk my life to follow Jesus?”
In other words, to follow Jesus and to be fishers for humanity, are one and the same thing in this sense.
It is not so hard to follow Jesus when Christianity remains on a wooden level, whether literally or metaphorically. Who will persecute you when the music you make with that new flute floats in the ears of the powerful? But Jesus asks you to do something different with his call to follow him — he asks you to play for all humanity — for in fact, the vast majority of humankind hears only the noise of ceaseless and thankless labor, of growling stomachs and of the machines of war. The difference between the safe making of music for the powerful, and the calling of the powerful to make music for the oppressed by putting an end to imperial practices, by seeking regenerative and renewable ways to power our economy, by regulating unfettered accumulation of capital, is the difference between honest religion and spectator religion.
Because we are existentialist abecedarians — let us choose to take upon ourselves the risk and make music for humanity. Each in our own ways along our own journeys. Amen.