Fish for people

It was one of those great spring days in the South, when the sky is clear and the breeze is light, but before the sun has become so scorching hot as to make outdoor activity nearly unbearable.  I was seventeen and a junior in high school.  My friends and I on the Ridgrecrest High School track team lounged in the middle of the football field at Harmon Playfield, picking grass, occasionally wrestling, and doing our best to outdo each other with bawdy jokes. We were there, and not in school, because that day was the elementary school’s Track & Field Day.  Very soon kids from kindergarten to fifth grade poured into the stadium to run races, throw Frisbees, jump around in burlap potato sacks, and toss softballs.  The high school track team ran the events and timed the races.  It was essentially a day out of school for us, a day free from math, chemistry, and English literature, and it felt like heaven.


Here’s a photo of Track and Field Day years earlier, when I was in the 5th grade.  That’s me on the left, racing in… an Izod shirt.  

At midday the events suspended and all the elementary school kids moved into the bleachers and opened sack lunches.  Coach Carter let us, the track team, walk across the street for lunch at Osey’s Barbeque.  We filled most of the stools at the counter and ordered the kind of jumbo sized pulled-pork-and-coleslaw sandwiches that only seventeen year old boys can fully appreciate.  We were halfway through our lunch break when an elderly man sitting next to me at the end of the counter (who had gotten increasingly sullen the longer we were there) spoke up.

He glared at us and challenged, “Why aren’t you boys in school?”

One of us explained to him what we were doing, but to the man—a Mr. Oates, I came to find out—our reason was insufficient.  We were, to him, vagrants.  Our joking and the noisy volume of our high school conversation suggested to him that we were lost souls.  And he began to evangelize.  Big time.

“The road to hell!” he cried out to us with his jaw set in stone.  He clearly intended this phrase to be the predicate of an unspoken subject, such as, “The heinous way you boys are acting while enjoying your Sloppy Joes is the road to hell.”

Mr. Oates spoke of our need to repent.  He expressed to us the urgency that we believe in Jesus Christ as our personal lord and savior.  Some of us meekly tried to speak up and tell him that we were members of churches, but he preempted us by firing back, “Denominations!  Not churches, denominations!  Not Jesus’ churches; not Jesus’ churches!”

Well, we finished our sandwiches with markedly less enthusiasm than we’d begun them, and we slunk out of Osey’s Barbeque.  As we walked back to the stadium, two things struck me.  The first was, perhaps obviously, that I felt I’d been verbally and spiritually manhandled.  Mr. Oates’ tongue lashing hurt, almost the way physical blows would have hurt.  But the second was oddly more positive.  It also struck me that by evangelizing to us, Mr. Oates was doing something he felt absolutely convicted to do.  I don’t imagine that an elderly old man relished confronting a line of high school boys much stronger and more impertinent than himself.  Who knows how we might have reacted?  But he did not hold back.  He spoke a word that he truly believed needed to be spoken.  And even in my hurt, there was something awesome about that.

Two years later I was a sophomore in college.  My freshman year had been much like the freshmen years that so many college students experience, and by the following fall I was feeling a striking need to kneel in church!  On a Tuesday night I wandered into St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Conway, Arkansas, and within the first five minutes of that service, I experienced a number of irrevocably life-changing things.  It would be self-indulgent and take too much time to go into all of them, but the one thing I must mention is the priest.  A female priest.  The first I’d ever seen.  Her name was Peggy Hays.  She was probably sixty-five and had that dignified air of someone like Anne Bancroft in her later years.  Peggy moved slowly through the liturgy, being quietly intentional about every motion.  Her respect for the prayers and the altar spoke more volumes that any words could.

Rev. Peggy Hays

The Reverend Peggy Hays

When the service ended, Peggy was interested in me.  She was interested in hearing why I was there.  And when I was reticent to go into many details, she was respectful.  But she made a point to say she hoped I’d come back, and I felt as though she meant it.  After shaking her hand, I walked to the door but waited there for a few moments to watch Peggy engage the other few people who’d attended the Tuesday night service.  She was present to each of them.  Some approached her with looks of concern on their faces, and as they interacted I could see the muscles and lines in those faces relax.  It was remarkable.

I did go back, again and again.  And each time I was nourished and fed.  I cannot recall any single conversation that I ever had with Peggy in the same detail as I recall the only conversation I ever had with Mr. Oates, but I can tell you that each conversation with Peggy was infinitely more important to my soul.

I have no doubt that both Mr. Oates and Peggy Hays had studied today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew.  In fact, I would bet that for each of them this very passage served as a primary motivating factor in their lives, as central to who they were.  And yet, they read this passage in two very different ways.

In this fourth chapter of Matthew, Jesus calls Simon and Andrew from their work on the boat.  In his calling, he gives them the formula for the new life of grace which he offers.  He says, “Repent; follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  The first two elements in this formula are clearly vocative, but the third is less obvious in its meaning:  I will make you fish for people.  What is “fish” here?  The question is important, and the answer makes all the difference in how we follow Jesus.  Will Jesus make us fish for people?  Or will Jesus make us fish for people?  Is “fish” a verb or a noun?

For Mr. Oates at Osey’s Barbeque that spring day in 1990, fish was clearly a verb.  For Jesus to make him fish for people meant for him to evangelize with power and courage, to speak a word that might lead me and the other members of the Ridgecrest track team to repentance and belief.  His fidelity to Jesus’ call meant that he proclaimed this message with a prophetic fervor that would not allow him to listen to us or entertain that we might also have something to share with him.  In him, there was urgency; there was conviction…  And not a word he said transformed us.  He fished, but his nets came back empty.

Somehow Peggy Hays relayed the same vital formula of repentance and belief to those around her, but she did so without the vitriol and bluster of Mr. Oates.  In her demeanor, we saw someone who was clearly at peace with God, someone who had repented.  In her actions, we saw someone who truly, deeply, and palpably believed in the grace and love of Jesus.  And in our contact with her person, we experienced nourishment.  She became that through which Christ conveyed himself.  She became fish for us.  Fish the noun, not the verb.  This reading of Jesus’ words in Matthew is in concert with the larger image of fish in the Gospels.  Throughout, a meal of fish often serves as the medium through which the risen Jesus communicates grace: after walking the road to Emmaus in Luke; on the banks of the Sea of Galilee in John.


I will make you fish for people.

Now, do not misunderstand.  This doesn’t mean that Peggy failed to verbalize her faith, and neither can we.  But the ears around her were rendered able to listen to her words because her life first so transparently embodied them.  The Gospel she spoke was first incarnate in the lived relationship with grace that was expressed through her very being.  Before any words were spoken, she became fish for us.

Jesus’ calling is clear.  If we are to experience the life of grace, we must repent, and we must follow.  But how will this look in our lives?  In what way will we follow Jesus, like Mr. Oates or Peggy Hays?  Is fish a verb or a noun?  If we are to transform our own lives and the world for the Gospel, then the way we read Matthew’s tale may make all the difference.


Fractured and bleeding with light

Last May I traveled to what is, by far, the most desolate and inhospitable place I’ve ever encountered.  Twenty minutes east of Jerusalem, it is among the lowest and driest places on earth.  It is the area spoken of throughout the Holy Scripture as merely “the Wilderness.”

The climate and topography of Israel are varied.  In Galilee, the land is fertile, the climate is mild, and in the mountains there is annual snowfall.  In Jerusalem, further south, annual rainfall is actually roughly equivalent to that of London.  But just a few miles east of Jerusalem, in the Wilderness, moisture evaporates, vegetation disappears, and life becomes tenuous.  The Wilderness is a true desert.

The Judean Wilderness serves as the Bible’s badlands.  It is there that those sinful and irredeemable cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were located.  It is there to which young David fled for his life from the angry King Saul.  It is there, on the old Jericho Road, where the man in Jesus’ parable was set upon by bandits and was saved from the ditch by the Good Samaritan.  In the sacred story, if someone is seeking to hide, or escape, or do himself harm, the Wilderness is the setting.  Everything about the Wilderness is bleak.  And it is in this setting that John the Baptist decides to preach and baptize.


The Judean Wilderness

I began my ordained career as a church planter, and I can tell you that it’s all about location, location, location.  In order to have the best chance of having one’s message heard and of building a congregation, one needs to find an attractive and easily accessible place, near a major thoroughfare, and in a high-growth area.  John the Baptist seems willfully to have ignored each of these principles.  To get to the stretch of the Jordan River at which John preached and baptized in the first century, one had to leave the well-beaten path and risk scorching heat, desperate thirst, and ever-present bandits.  And yet, Matthew tells us just before today’s reading that “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan.”

John was attracting a crowd of people, and it wasn’t the refreshments at coffee hour that was drawing them.  What, then, was it?  To understand, we first must grasp the role of the River Jordan in the mythic understanding of Israel.  The Jordan, though a narrow stream then as now, appears on ancient maps as huge, wide as the Mississippi and deep as the Congo.  Rather than a thin crack in the earth, it appears as a chasm.  The ancient mapmakers weren’t simple or dumb.  They knew that their representations didn’t correspond to geography.  But that wasn’t the point.  The Jordan wasn’t just a river; it was the river.  It was the boundary the Jews’ ancestors had first crossed into God’s land of promise. Moving through its waters symbolized the end of one world and the beginning of another.  And so the Jordan has continued to be in our religious imagination.  In the spirituals of nineteenth century African-American slaves, crossing the Jordan symbolizes escape to freedom.  In Christian hymns—like “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah”—it refers to the passage from our earthly to our heavenly lives.  The Jordan is a crack between worlds.

John is preaching that baptism in the waters of the Jordan can, for those present, do what the river crossing did for the ancient Hebrews.  It can be a new beginning, freedom, a different life.  It can spell the end of whatever world one wants to shed and the start of a new world, in which the cracks in one’s old life are washed clean and away.

And so you see, those who travel from the safety of town through the wild danger of the wilderness are not on a pleasant Sunday outing.  They aren’t headed to a garden party on a grass-lined bank, and they haven’t come for casual conversation.  The wilderness through which they walk symbolizes the wilderness in their lives.  They are not solid, well put together people.  They are people whose lives have cracked at the seams.  They are broken, and they are willing to do anything—even confront the desert, both geographically and existentially—for the chance to have their cracks and fissures fixed and made whole.


And Jesus is among them.  Theologians, commentators, and even the Evangelists don’t really know what to make of that.  Jesus’ life surely isn’t cracked at the seams, is it?  Well, we would say that Jesus is without sin, but we also say that Jesus is fully human, and humanity includes the cracks and fissures.  To be human is, often, to be aimless, or confused, or anxious, or even regretful, and it is thoroughly orthodox to allow that Jesus, like so many others, walked through the Wilderness in hope that the Jordan could allow him, too, to leave an old life behind, to cross its existential threshold into something new.

But notice:  With Jesus, it doesn’t work quite like expected.  When Jesus is baptized, the sky above the river cracks in mirror image.  And through that new fracture, Jesus encounters God.  For the first of only two times in the Gospels, God speaks directly, and without requirement or condition God says of the young man in the river, who has come with doubts and anxieties known only to himself, “This is my priceless son. I am deeply pleased with him.”[i]

By cracking open the heavens, the divine response to Jesus’ yearning to be renewed, to be whole, is not a decrease in the cracks and fissures, but an increase.  I think this is crucial.  I think it is the very wisdom the dove of God imparts to Jesus.  Let me explain with a more contemporary story.

Several years ago, the sculptor Paige Bradley found herself at a standstill.  Her style wasn’t en vogue with critics.  Galleries declined to show her work.  In frustration one day, Paige says, “I took a perfectly good wax sculpture—a piece I had sculpted with precision over several months—an image of a woman meditating in the lotus position, and just dropped it on the floor.  I destroyed what I had made.  It shattered into so many pieces.  [I thought] ‘What have I done?’”[ii]

But as she stared at the broken sculpture, Paige saw a truth that was hidden in the whole.  She picked up the pieces and reassembled them, but she didn’t try to mend the fractures or fill the cracks.  Instead, she placed a lantern within the sculpture and turned it on.  The result is stunning.  Blazing light shines through every fissure.  One critic describes the woman as “fractured [but] bleeding with light.”[iii]  Paige Bradley’s career took off because she began to see the light through brokenness rather than seeking perfection.  The sculpture, entitled “Expansion,” is now known worldwide and shows in London, California, and New York.

The great lyricist Leonard Cohen, who died last year, said, “Forget your perfect offering.  There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.”[iv]  It’s also how the light gets out.


“Expansion,” by Paige Bradley

That is the truth God conveys to Jesus at his own baptism.  Not by doing away with whatever fractures Jesus carries, but by saying, without condition, cracks and all, that Jesus is priceless and pleasing does God give Jesus strength and direction.  It is only after this experience of complete acceptance that Jesus is able to match wits with the devil, preach grace, heal others, and find the courage to undergo the Passion.

More than anything else, that truth is what distinguishes Jesus’ ministry from, for instance, that of the Pharisees.  They require perfection; he knows perfection is impossible.  They expect to see a veneer of spit and polish; he can see that deep inside we’re a mess.  They want every crack sealed; he knows that it’s only through the cracks, and not solid armor, that we experience light.  And Jesus came to know this truth on his own baptismal day, when he entered the waters of the Jordan, when the very heavens cracked open above, and when he was told by the Creator of all things that he is priceless.

We’ve entered Epiphany.  It is the season of surprises, gifts from unexpected places, transfigurations on mountaintops, and most importantly of God’s spirit entering through the fractures in our lives.  Our New Year’s resolutions are always about getting a bit closer to perfect.  What if, instead, we made an Epiphany resolution, to be open to the ways God will meet us as we are, to the ways God may redeem rather than fix us, allowing even our fissures to stream with light?

We don’t know what burdens all comers carried to John at the Jordan all those centuries ago.  We don’t know their particular regrets, or failures, or anxieties.  But we each know our own, and we understand what it feels like for the soul to be trekking through the wilderness and parched in the desert.  We, too, want to cross a boundary that will allow us to be renewed.  The epiphany is that we can, that the God of grace wants us to.  But God will not “fix” us.  The epiphany is that even while we are fractured and imperfect, we are priceless, and that there is no crack God cannot infuse with light.

[i] This translation is Frederick Dale Bruner’s in his commentary, The Christbook, Matthew 1-12, pg. 111.