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The Birth of Hope for the Hopeless

For those of you, and this includes me who are not cradle Lutherans but came to our tradition later in life, there is a part of that tradition that we inherit from the Scandinavian Church. It’s a dish of fish called Lutefisk in the church of Sweden, Lutfesk in the Norwegian Church and something unpronounceable in the Church of Finland. Despite modern fish preservation, it is widely eaten around Christmas and Epiphany in Churches across Minnesota and the Dakotas and other parts of the Midwest. According to Wikipedia it is aged and salted white fish, pickled in lye. It is gelatinous in texture after being rehydrated for days prior to eating.[1]

You had me at gelatinous.

Garrison Keller, among others has referred to it as the “Piece of cod which passes all understanding.”

It was also the primary export of from the Galilee region. The village of Magda, from which came Mary Magdalen, was the site of the processing plants. Mary may have very well been just a peasant worker, a cog in the Roman cannery. Nearby, Tiberius had recently been built by Herod to be the new seat of government for Palestine. 1. The weather was better than Jerusalem 2. It would be modern with plenty of fresh water, 3rd and perhaps most importantly it controlled the wealth of fish that came out of the Galilee. And wealth the fishing industry did produce… for the Romans.

Rome owned the lake, Rome owned the fish and Rome owned the fisherfolk. What had once been a region of family fisher folk was now: “This transformation of the local economy, made possible by the infrastructural improvements (roads, harbors and processing factories) carried out by the Herodians, functioned to marginalize and impoverish formerly self-sufficient native fishing families. Leases, taxes and tolls were exorbitant, while the fish upon which local people depended as a dietary staple was extracted for export. Thus fishermen were falling to the bottom of an increasingly elaborate economic hierarchy. Elites looked down on them, even as they depended upon their labor: “The most shameful occupations are those which cater to our sensual pleasures,” wrote the Roman poet Cicero pejoratively, “fish-sellers, butchers, cooks, poultry-raisers and fishermen” (Hanson:99). “The fisher,” attests an ancient Egyptian papyrus, “is more miserable than any other profession.”[2]

Forget about the sea scenes of serene fisherman in boats gently floating. The boats were taxed, and so was every fish, fishing was by permit only adding another expense. Not to mention that people barely able to fish enough to eat could hardly afford to keep their boats safe as they began to wear out. Fishing was dangerous since most people in the first century believing the waters were filled with demons and monsters (see Jonah) were most likely not strong swimmers, if swimmers at all. Add the uncertain weather coming off the desert and storms channeled down the rift of mountains that frame the see. Anything could and did go wrong.

This is where our story picks up.

John the Baptist has been arrested. Herod in residence at his palace on the shore at Tiberius was afraid to kill him and afraid to let him go. Both moves would endanger the Roman peace. The watchful eyes of Caesar and the watchful eyes of the citizenry were focused on the despot’s sea-side home.

It was into this seascape of despair that Jesus steps.

Good news, says the Gospel, repent and believe for the Kingdom of God is here.

Considering the circumstances, it is quite a statement. Considering the circumstances it is exactly the good news that a land sewn with bad news needed to hear. Repent and believe and believe for I will make you fishers of folks.

This story has been used by American fundamentalist particularly to say that we have to get busy converting people from one faith to another. In fact it is meant for the faithful to see their faith differently. That’s what repent means to “to take a second look, a different look, a fresh look.” And believe Jesus says. The word “believe” that is used here is also defined as trust. Belief in this sense is making the decision to trust your heart and to trust that what our Lord teaches is true. When it comes to the bottom line, Jesus is saying “take a second look and trust me.” This from the one who when given the chance to lie in order to save his own hide from torture and death choose not to. Who chose to be honest. Considering the dire straits these people where in, the hell on water in which they were living, why would the threat of going to hell be of any more concern than what they were already living in? Saving people from hell means pulling them out of the hell that they are currently living in. This is the hell on waves where Jesus walks, and talks and calls.

Of course this is where Jesus always is. Walking, preaching, and inviting in those intersections of life where people are struggling.

When we were in Christmas we did not read from Mark because Mark does not share the story with Matthew’s shepherds and Luke’s Magi. This is Mark’s Christmas, the one born into the disasters of our lives. This is Mark’s epiphany, a light shining in the dark corners of despair. This is the messiah shown forth for people who are over worked, underpaid, undervalued and under appreciated. This is the birth of hope for the hopeless.

This is a calling to be fishers of people as in on behalf of people. And this really is the crux of this text:

Fishers of people is written in the genitive case, people owning the fishers. Fishers on behalf of the people Fishers who belong to people and not profits, Fishers who belong to God and not Caesar. There is more to this call to fish. The job of the prophets was to fish the tyrants out of power. Make no mistake about it, even common people would have known the references of scripture when the heard Jesus use the phrase Fishers of humans.

Scripture in which Jeremiah envisions God “sending for many fishermen” in order to catch the wayward people of Israel, specifically those whose leaders “ have polluted the land with idols” (Jer 16:16-18). References of the prophet Amos targets the elite classes of Israel, whom he calls “cows of Bashan,” warning that God will haul them away like sardines to judgment: “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” (Am 4:1f).

The most clearly anti-imperial version is found in Ezekiel’s rant against Pharaoh, denouncing the empire’s delusion that it “owns” the Nile. God vows to yank the “dragon” of Egypt right out of the River, “hook, line and sinker,” along with all the fish that it claims exclusive rights to (Ez 29:3f).

This phrase is a double entendre of meaning. It is a calling to serve people and save them from the crushing classism of the powerful.

It is also a calling for us to see our lives differently and certainly to see our jobs differently. Not as a place to scrap by but a place to serve God. It is an invitation to trust the only thing truly trustworthy, our Lord and our God. The calling of James and John is no less an important calling today. It is a calling for us to drop the nets that bind us. To reorient our vision so that we may see our own worth when the world does not, to know the importance we have in the lives of others, even those who do not know us and to trust the one who does not lie.

Now with that power in mind, we might even be able to stomach a big bowl of gelatinous lutefisk. Amen, come Lord Jesus.

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St. Matthew Trinity Lutheran Church is a compassionate community that invites all people to experience God’s grace through faith, service, music, and teaching.

We envision a world where all people are fed, brought into community, and experience the wideness of God’s compassion.

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