a sermon for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21B/Lectionary 26]
“We’re all in the same boat.
Fishing in the same hole
Wondering where the time goes
We’re all in the same boat.”
I don’t know if you’ve heard that yet, but that’s the chorus of the new song by country music artists Zac Brown Band which is getting lots of play on the radio these days. It has that familiar sound as if it might have been around a while, but actually it’s a song they wrote and released this year in response to the overwhelming divisiveness they feel has taken over culture and society. It is their appeal to unity and persevering with each other, not against one another. It continues later, “Spread a little love, gotta give back something. If the ship keeps rocking we’ll all go overboard.” The song seems to say that whether or not we realize it, we are bound together and our success is dependent on acknowledging our common goals of survival. It’s like what Jesus says to his disciples at the end of this morning’s gospel reading, a teaching that sums up a long string of lessons about being one of his followers. “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” You’re all in the same boat, fishing in the same hole.
Jesus finds it necessary to keep reminding his disciples of the common goal of his kingdom. They get off track, they aim for personal glory and power, they misunderstand that his mission involves suffering. They are to be the core community that gives the flavor of love and justice to the world. Through their ministry of mercy and forgiveness they will release people from the bondage of darkness. This is the work of salt. It brings out the best in the things it touches. The issue is that the disciples have run across another person who is doing the same kinds of things, being that same kind of salt and they don’t recognize him. It’s like copyright infringement for Jesus, and the disciples are suddenly patent attorneys. This person does not have an official license to cast out demons like they do, or so the disciples think. That’s when it gets interesting. To their surprise, Jesus says that person is in their same boat too, fishing in the same hole. This boat is bigger than the disciples realize. In fact, Jesus clarifies it even further: anyone who is not actively working against them in their Christlike work is actually in their boat too.
Don’t we often forget how big the boat is? No one person or group can claim, identify, or encapsulate the Spirit-driven work of Jesus. In fact, any basic act of compassion, like offering a cup of water to those who bear Christ’s name, is considered a work of the kingdom. If they find themselves on the receiving end of even a basic act of kindness, that, too, is part of God’s work in the world. That sounds like God may be using people for God’s work without their even being aware of it!
God’s kingdom is more expansive than we often realize. Being a good disciple means being aware of that—that as we have salt within ourselves and live peacefully with each other, we constantly remain open to others in the world who are also doing the kinds of things Christ does. And we are not just open to them, but grateful for them. We learn from them. We partner with them when possible. We adopt their wisdom and incorporate it as needed. This past week we had a meeting with the new batch of confirmation mentors to provide a type of orientation to the conversations they’ll be having with their confirmation students. One person offered up a book she had read as a resource, explaining how it had given her good insights on how to have healthy conversations with young people. After she spoke a little about it, she added a little disclaimer, saying, “You just need to know that the book and the author aren’t specifically Christian. And yet it contains such good wisdom about forming solid relationships.” The group of mentors rightly acknowledged that a book doesn’t have to be by a Lutheran author or a Bible scholar in order to impart godly wisdom. I know that listening to certain U2 songs in my angsty teenage years certainly helped cast out a lot of my own demons. They weren’t explicitly Christian songs, but I did encounter God’s care through them. Whoever is not against us is for us.
Then Jesus turns all the focus on them. The disciples are so worried about other people, about who is working against them or for them, about who should be stopped doing this or that. Jesus reminds us that when it comes to the work of his kingdom, the only person we really need to worry about stopping now and then is…ourselves. Isn’t that funny? So often Jesus’ followers get a reputation of calling other people out, organizing coalitions to protest something or censor something. I’m afraid we’re often known as the naysayers of others’ actions, of what we’re against. Yet with some of the most violent images in the New Testament Jesus explains that they need to take far more seriously their own behaviors. If push comes to shove, we need to be more concerned about pushing ourselves out of the boat of God’s forward mission, not other people.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And yet I’m not sure we grasp just how countercultural these teachings of Jesus are. At least I know I don’t. I get caught up in all this talk of hell and the unquenchable fire and undying worms and I miss the point of what Jesus is really saying to me. For example, cancel culture is huge issue these days. If one person makes a comment or gesture deemed to be politically incorrect or even offensive, they are lopped out of human society for good, lampooned on social media, ripped of dignity and honor. With hatchets in hand, we jump on the bandwagon of criticizing others’ lives.
But what Jesus is really saying is that we should really only apply cancel culture to ourselves. If something I am doing brings about temptation or sin, I should address it immediately. If something about me and my actions might be getting in the way of other people seeing and possibly knowing the grace of God, it’s better if I take myself out of the picture somehow. Do some self-examination. Receive forgiveness. Be transparent. Of course, Jesus is exaggerating with the methods. He doesn’t literally mean for your to drown yourself with a millstone or gouge your eye out or cut your limbs off. All middle eastern people of Jesus’ times spoke in hyperbole. He’s trying to stress just how serious of an issue these things are.
And it also should be noted that when he mentions hell here he isn’t talking about life in an eternal fire pit somewhere. He is talking about Gehenna, or the valley of Hinnom, the literal burning garbage dump and burial ground at the edge of Jerusalem that had been there since ancient times. It had even been a place of child sacrifice centuries before. The people of Jesus’ times considered it to be a godforsaken place where no one could imagine living. When it comes to human brokenness, our propensity to mess things up, it is important that we take its dangers seriously. A life lived only for ourselves and our own preservation, a spiritual life that focuses on cutting off other people’s hands and feet ultimately leads us all to Gehenna, desolate and sad.
But as seriously as we may take our brokenness and sinfulness and our ability to be stumbling blocks to others’ faith, no one takes it more seriously than Jesus, himself. He goes to a godforsaken place for us. People take nails and hammers to his own hands and feet. They spit in his eyes. They cancel him bigtime. We cancel him. In a cold blooded effort to show him that we know how to row this boat ourselves, thank you very much, we tie a big millstone around his neck in the form of a cross and throw him overboard. And as he dies, we see that in Jesus, God present in everyone we attempt to cancel or destroy. In Jesus God is with in every person who is humiliated and shamed. In Jesus, God is sheltering anyone who has ever been mocked or abandoned. In Jesus, God is beside everyone who is given just one cup of cold water to drink. In Jesus, God is with you and me whenever we are aware of our brokenness and because Jesus is risen we are set free and made whole again.
Jesus makes us whole, our arms and feet reassembled to go where he sends us and embrace the suffering of the world. Jesus makes us whole, our plucked-out eyes reattached and given new sight to see opportunities to grow and love. Jesus makes us whole, our hearts forgiven so that we may be salt for the earth. I think so often we tend to think of our discipleship in grandiose gestures of making a difference. We wait for God to send us that big mission or that big purpose that puts all the different parts of our lives together in one cohesive world-changing whole. But more often than not it’s the the seemingly small gestures of compassion among us that wind up as big gestures to those on the receiving end. I tried to think of one such example, but as I did, I came up with dozens that I’ve seen just among the people here. The Stephen Ministers who just take time to sit with someone in their darkness. The bag of school supplies given to Southampton Elementary School that allow a young student to feel like she belongs. The meal cooked in the middle of a busy afternoon and dropped off at the home where people are grieving their loved one. There are too many to name. And that’s not even counting the ones done by others in other congregations and those done by people in no congregation at all. These are the saltiest things, my friends, truth be told. Have faith! Jesus builds his kingdom among us one cup of water at a time with the hopes we do see, at long last, he is pulling us all, over and over, into the same boat.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.