Sunday, February 07, 2010

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 5
Once while Jesus* was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He 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. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ 5Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

It’s not always obvious how news becomes news. Sure the technical aspects of news gathering are obvious: journalist ‘discovers’ story, journalist pitches story and story is shared. Simple enough. But lately it’s a little more complex. A guy takes a photo of a sleeping TTC employee, the photo goes ‘viral’ (meaning all over the internet, email, blogs, etc.) and the media can’t ignore the story. It has a life of it’s own. Same with the TTC banking machine story and the TTC bathroom-break-at-three-in-the-morning story, although that one is a little more tricky. Was the TTC bathroom-break-at-three-in-the-morning story news for news sake, or because the media wanted to keep the TTC under scrutiny, and this was the vehicle (no pun intended).

Either way, there seems to be a sense that if something goes viral it is news. Or maybe it not that simple. A Facebook group formed this week with the provocative name (really a question) “Can this Onion Ring get more [Facebook] fans than Stephen Harper?” Apparently, the answer is yes. Stephen Harper has just over 30,000 fans, and that tasty looking onion ring? 106,258 as of 7 am this morning. Isn’t this news? Clearly the people have spoken. Maybe the onion ring has spoken too. But where is the extensive media coverage? Bob Stanfield fumbled the football, Joe Clark lost his luggage, Gille Duceppe wore a hairnet, and all of these stories led the news. But the onion ring gets no respect.

This past week the CBC “broke” the story of suspended drivers continuing to drive. I’m going to say more about this later, but first, how did something that has been obvious for years become news? Was it the fact that a camera followed these people from the courtroom to the car and then filmed them driving off? Was it simply a slow news day? Numerous people have been injured or worse by drivers ignoring a license suspension, but suddenly it becomes a story, seemingly based on an editorial decision to make it news. Suddenly the integrity of the news becomes a question-mark, when news is news because we are told it is news.

The news this morning in the Galilee Post reads something like this: Itinerant Preacher Disrupts Local Fishing Industry. Late yesterday, a local teacher talked his way onto an idle fishing boat and spoke to the crowd. Moments later, and for no obvious reason, the teacher insisted the nets be lowered. Despite the recent downturn in the catch, and in the face of some protest by the boat’s owner, a man named Simon, the nets were lowered and the result was a record catch. In the midst of this sudden reversal, Mr. Simon seemed to fall to his knees and say something about his inadequacy as a fisherman. This statement was confirmed back on shore, as Mr. Simon and all his companions left their record catch and walked off with the teacher. There was initial concern from wharf officials about fish being left to rot, but the growing crowd soon helped themselves. Local people are already calling it the “miracle of the tidy wharf.”

The media gets it wrong again. Or did they? We give this story the headline “Jesus calls the first disciples,” despite of the details of the story. Maybe it should be “Jesus and the record catch” or “Jesus and the final catch” or “Simon is a sinful man.” Now, news is always a matter of emphasis, and in the case of my last example, Simon’s confession is seldom the story. We make it an aside, an honest response to the power of God, but rarely the point of the story.

The lectionary makers, the men and women who assembled our three-year cycle of readings, seem to lean in the direction to Simon’s confession. Why else would they twin it with the call of Isaiah: with winged seraphim, a nearly verbatim confession, and a burning coal to the lips of the prophet. "Woe is me!” Isaiah said, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" The link may seem to be his call, or the beginning of a unique ministry, or it may simply be a confession in the face of the Living God.

“I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips” and “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” seem to have the same essence in the face of God’s power, and maybe the only word that fits here is fear. They seem afraid that their inadequacy has been revealed, they are unmasked in the face of God, that there is no way for them to hide or deny who they are. So they cry out: “Woe is me!” and “Go away from me,” because the reality of human failure is too large a contrast to the glory and the power of God. And this is not a new theme:

"The LORD delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love"(147:11).
"The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever"(19:9).
"As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him"(103:13).

And a final one, a small poem that says far more than four short lines: (Psalm 86:11)

Teach me your way, O LORD,
and I will walk in your truth;
give me an undivided heart,
that I may fear your name.

It seems that fearing God has fallen out of fashion, that somehow being a God-fearing person is scary or crazy or belongs to Sarah Palin. But read in a poem, like Psalm 86, it is really a form of awe, a kind of reverence that is sadly missing in much of our contemporary experience. Do we really approach anything with reverence? Are we too smart or too clever to hold anything in awe anymore?

Maybe this is why the cult of children is growing, where the little ones are coddled and spoiled and run amok, because they are the last place where we place a sincere form of awe. It seems to be the last place people can gush and be effusive without feeling self-conscious. And the last place you can gush without the danger of a counter-argument. I know you’re tempted to say to new parents “you know she’ll cost you a quarter million before you’re done” but I wouldn’t. We fear the new parents like they fear (and feel awe) for the mystery of birth.

So we’re too clever for awe and God-fearing is for Tea Partiers, so what about good old-fashioned respect? I’m not so sure about respect either. Imagine we create a elaborate system of testing and licensing, enforcement and demerit points, courts and penalties, and 200,000 suspended drivers just keep driving. Ontario is not a big place, and among a handful of millions of drivers, 200,000 simply choose to ignore the entire system of justice and drive anyway?

I kept turning the number over and over in my mind this week, and looking twice at some of the lunatics on the road. The question “how did they get a license?” may no longer apply to the idiot who just cut me off, because there is a good chance they don’t have one, or had one and it is now suspended.

As I calm down, there is a mental tendency (some might say defect) known as “exceptionalism.” Exceptionalism is the abiding belief that the normal rules don’t apply to you. The guy who walks past the line-up and says “I’m in a hurry” is likely suffering from exceptionalism. Earl Jones, Bernie Madoff and everyone who lied to their shareholders before the big meltdown suffers from exceptionalism: because they acted like the normal rules do not apply to them.

But 200,000 people? There this more here than simple exceptionalism, because I like to believe it is still somewhat rare. 200,000 illegal drivers sounds like garden variety sinfulness to me. I don’t think it’s a syndrome or a mental defect, rather, I think that every one of us is a potential suspended driver, or a cheat, or a fudger, or a teller of tiny lies, or a self-deceiver, or someone quick to judge, or unable to see our own faults as quickly and we see the faults of others. In other words, a sinner. We are sinners, in need of redemption. There, I said it, in a United Church no less, and the walls didn’t fall down.

Maybe I’ve told you the story of my dear friend Jimmy and the end of every funeral service. There is a commendation that goes something like this: A sheep of your fold, a lamb of your flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.” So Jimmy says, “hey man, we don’t say sinner anymore, we say friend of your own redeeming.” (We still talk like it’s the 70’s). Well, hey man, I still say sinner because at the end of life the balance sheet is always mixed, and people need to know that sins are forgiven and sinners are redeemed.

So, I’m making a case for fear, meaning fear as reverence or fear as respect. I’m making a case for fear of God as the basis for an entire way of life, an entire system where fear and reverence mean people will obey the law when the state takes away their license to drive, but be willing to break the law when the law oppresses people and causes them. I’m making a case for the God who sent a son to teach us and lead us, a son who said he did not come to end the law but to fulfill it. But then he broke it: he healed on the Sabbath and gathered food on the Sabbath because he knew being sick and hungry on the Sabbath was an offence to God. He feared God, feared in the sense that he knew what offended God and would never do anything to offend the Father he loved so much.

May we be strengthened to love and fear God, to make the right choices and set aside sin in our lives, and may we live daily with Christ at our side, willing to follow in his way. Amen.


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