The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”
Psalm 138:2, Luke 5:10
Good morning Saint John’s New Haven,
Before I begin my sermon, I send my prayers and condolences to Awet and her family as they mourn the loss of her mother, Hanna. In the words of our Lord and Redeemer Jesus Christ, blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4, NRSV)
In today’s scripture readings, we witness a theme of humility in one’s closeness to the Divine. In Isaiah 6:5, while in the presence of the Lord, Isaiah confesses, “Woe is me! 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 Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, humbly describes himself as the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, due to his persecution of the church. And, finally in our Gospel reading from Luke 5:1-11, Peter fells down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Resembles the theophany in Isaiah 6) Collectively, their statements of humility and intimate encounters with the Lord signify changes in their future ministries.
After Isaiah’s confessional statement, God instructs him to proclaim His prophetic message to the people. (Isaiah 6:9-13) Paul affirms, after his confessional decree, that God’s grace has led him to believe and to proclaim the Gospels. (1 Corinthians 15:9-11) Most importantly, this homily focuses on Peter’s dialogue with Christ. After Peter’s humbling confession, Jesus replies, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” This dialogue marks a transformation in Peter’s life. Something new is happening in his life and it begins with his encounter with Christ. The common fisherman Simon Peter who is also known as Cephas from the fishing town of Bethsaida (Galilee) receives a promotion. He obtains a position in the ministries of Jesus Christ. He becomes an evangelist!
Some may suggest or assume that Peter is crowned as the leader of the Apostles. (Matthew 16) But, what if we focus on Peter’s profession prior to his ecclesiastical appointment, and what if we reflect on what Peter needs to accomplish this task of catching? Ironically, the only device that Peter needs is his net. After all, his livelihood is dependent on the tides and the fish of the sea: two essential and uncontrollable realities of life. However, Peter has control over the actions of his nets. He can mend it and cast it into the sea. Thus, at the beginning of the passage, Peter complains to Jesus saying “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” (Luke 5:5) With feelings of skepticism, Peter follows Jesus’ instruction [piano] saying, “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”(Luke 5:6) I highlight these verses to demonstrate that it is through the grace and truth of Jesus’ words along with Peter’s obedience leads to a change in Peter’s futile predicament. The impossibility of an unsuccessful day of fishing changes into a day of bountiful abundance. “Their boats were so filled that they began to sink!” (Luke 5:7) After this bountiful experience, Jesus says to Peter, “do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”
Of course, Peter and Jesus did not imply that people would be placed in bondage and nets, in the same manner in which he caught fish. I believe that Jesus is saying to Peter, despite your uncontrollable realities and hardships, “do not be afraid.” Peter’s willingness to obey and to follow Christ is the transformational key of his reality. Peter is cognitively equipped and skilled to gather essential resources and people. Jesus just activates Peter’s potential and calls him into His ministry. Peter was already equipped with some of the basic skills to accomplish the task. A fisherman not only catches fish but he is effective at collaboration and leadership.
Routinely, Peter worked with his brothers and local fishermen to navigate the seas. (Luke, John T. Carroll, 123) In addition to navigating the seas, a fisherman was observant: studying the patterns of the moon, the tides, and wind waiting and discerning when and where to cast his net. Jesus instructed Peter to do his job and to do it more abundantly! Not simply by Peter’s strength, but also with the power of the Holy Spirit and Peter’s willingness to follow Christ and then Peter confesses his belief. Notice, that Jesus does not instruct Peter to commit any acts of violence or harm.
I admit that it is nice to return to a thriving worshiping community. During my time at Saint John, I have witnessed God’s love and our willingness to remain a worshiping and beloved community. I am grateful to God that we have gathered in such a humbling and intimate space for this Taizé service. I adore the acoustics and the visual consciousness of our closeness. Wow, maybe you’re seated so close to together to hear me preach. Just kidding!!! We gather today for the sake of fellowship. For Christians, fellowship implies a friendly or a hospitable association with a particular interest in God and His real manifestation in the life and death of Creation, in Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit. Christian fellowship, when performed faithfully fosters a sense of moral consciousness which refuses to remain silent against evil and it testifies against systems of injustice.
Christians play a role in creating and in sustaining spaces of justice and reconciliation. Today, we also gather for the sake of racial healing, justice, and reconciliation in obedience to the resolutions our bishops and clergy. I do not take this fellowship for granted.
I’m pretty sure that I can’t. The concept of race for many non-Whites is a matter of life and death. Life has not given my ancestors and me the privilege to understand and to live into a life of freedom. This same scripture Luke 5:10, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” has a paradoxical role in the history of slavery, especially within American and Caribbean histories. It has been exploited. Historically, the leaders of European nations and its nobles, merchants, and sailors have literally shackled non-Whites, not just those from Africa, but our indigenous brothers and sisters from Polynesia, the Americas, Australia, and Asia especially the natives of India, China, and the Aborigines. We do not know how to forgive European slave traders for the kidnapping, the trading, and the selling of our ancestors, especially when they have refused to apologize and further deny the nations in which they exploited of their truth, human dignity, and resources.
After all, Jesus says to Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” There is no pun or attack on the biblical integrity of this scripture. My anger and frustration arise from the various ways in which Western Christianity has interpreted and justified slavery, racism, and the Church’s historical silence and condolence of such horrific and sinful actions for the means of gain and profit. Abolitionists spoke up but they were too few and it took a long time. Many of my ancestors had already died. (Harrill, 2000)
I hope you now understand why I spent some much time on the characterization of Peter’s humility and His willingness to obey Jesus’ instruction and Jesus’ revelation of Peter’s future ministries: the catching or gathering of people.
You see, history indicates that my ancestors were stolen and captured some children from their mothers’ arms or while strolling through their villages. They were shackled, some slaughtered, thrown overboard on the TransAtlantic Express to drown, as their bodies were conquered by the tides of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, and then beaten into submission. Those who survived the oceans and the seas were laid on the butcher’s block for selling, where the salt of their tears washed their torn and infected wounds. Oh, there is more: after being auctioned to the highest bidder, their family structures were further destroyed and many wives and daughters were abused in inhumane ways for the sake of their so-called Master’s desire to obtain and to preserve the wealth of their family’s legacy, the plantation. Many Christians and their clergy remained silent during these times. (https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/article/too-many-episcopalians-were-silent-slavery-massachusetts-bishop-tells-congressional) You see, it was not their problem, and many of them benefited from the slave trade.
“Slavery in America started in 1619 when a Dutch ship brought twenty African slaves ashore in the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia. Though it is impossible to give accurate figures, some historians have estimated that 6 to 7 million black slaves were imported across the seas and oceans during the 18th century alone, depriving the African continent of some of its healthiest and ablest men and women”. (https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/slavery) Jesus says to Peter, “do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” The year is now 2019, four hundred years later, and the American people and their churches continue to struggle with the sin of racism and its impact on Non-Whites. Yes, we have a Black Presiding Bishop but that does not matter if racism still remains a problem for our churches. So, when a racist person tells me to go back to where I came from or to attend a Black church, I simply say, “nowhere is safe for us.” “My ancestors and I were not even safe in our native lands.”
Secondly, our willingness to follow Christ is crucial to our interactions and how we understand and respond to the Divine and each other. Writings from the Early Church suggest that sin is a product of the human will. In other words, it is in our actions. The person’s body or the corporeal flesh itself is good, since it was blessed and created by God as stated in Genesis 1. A person’s action, on the other hand, is vulnerable to the evils of sin. Augustine discerns that the problem of evil results from humanity’s unruly will, thus evil affects the moral life and our interactions with not only God but also with one another. Augustine in his autobiography, Confessions, indicates that he knows the difference between what is true and right, yet he does not listen to reason, or do the good. (Babcock, 1988) Similarly, the Book of Common Prayer defines sin as the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation. (Book of Common Prayer, 848-849)
Racism distorts our understanding of the person who appears different from the self. I intentionally use the verb, appear to emphasize the feelings and attitudes of apprehension and reluctance towards the unknown. Because at times, we presume things. As a result of this fear, disinterest in others arises along with pretentious beliefs and social devices which prioritize the rights of Whites while degrading the human and civil rights of non-Whites. This is sociologically and theologically dangerous, because it creates a false sense of supremacy and produces an intellectual fixation on what others should do, who they should be, and where they should exist. Also, the imminent danger of such a stance is that the person who claims to know all is truly ignorant. (Mills, 2017) This position of ignorance distorts and harms the person’s moral consciousness and their experiences of fellowship: their humbling and intimate experience with the Divine and others. Racism, in this manner, has historically and spiritually made it difficult for communities to embrace the promises of Christ’s abundance and His grace in the lives of His people, especially when we reflect on the Church’s response to slavery. Can you imagine, if Jesus instructed Peter to kidnap and to shackle people in His Name and to drag them along the sea for the sake of His ministry? How can we console an enslaved mother whose children have been sold or a husband whose wife has been abused? Let us say that the Lord works in mysterious ways. Jesus says, “do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Furthermore, Christ does not suggest any sinful actions, in the remaining verses of Luke 5, He evangelizes by cleansing a leper, healing a paralytic man, and He invites Levi to join his ministry.
Thirdly, episodes of racism continue to harm our communities. In a recent research conducted by Tufts University’s School of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Business School, researchers indicate that Whites believe “that racism against Whites has increased significantly as racism against blacks has decreased.” (https://www.socialworktoday.com/news/dn_060311.shtml) This is an unsettling thought and the researchers challenge this belief themselves by using statistics and historical facts. This false presumption ignores racial struggles for emancipation, segregation, mob violence, lynchings, and most importantly the recent innocent deaths of Blacks such as Trayvon Martin (https://www.biography.com/people/trayvon-martin-21283721) and Ramarley Graham. (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/27/nyregion/ramarley-graham-nypd-richard-haste.html) They were both murdered, and their killers were set free due to their defense of apprehension. Their killers were afraid of these young black men, so they killed them. According to several different studies, black men aged between 15–34 are nine to sixteen times more likely to be killed. This futile reality for people of color is real and it’s violently dangerous. (https://www.vanderbilt.edu/ctp/The_New_Jim_Crow.pdf) It would be nice for parents of color to feel assurance and hope in knowing that their children can walk and play in their communities.
We cannot repent of the sins of racism and move towards healing ministries of justice and reconciliation without fellowship: humility and closeness to Christ and towards one another. The work of justice and reconciliation in this particular space, for today, is to humbly acknowledge the sin of racism and how it has historically and violently harmed and exploited the livelihood of people of color throughout the centuries, especially in the lives of Americans. Basic acts of hospitality and accessibility are ideal places to start. When someone different or new arrives, greet them say hello or acknowledge their visible presence and human dignity in addition to your friends etc… You don’t have to have a long conversion. Believe you me, people of color are just as apprehensive or even more. Historically, it is the people of color who should be afraid of Whites. I know that it can be awkward or offsetting however it takes courage. Our willingness to confess and to turn from sin fosters a transformative change in our moral consciousness and it draws us closer to Christ and others.
I confess that a few years ago, I was guilty of believing in the epidemic of hopelessness concerning sin and the depravity of racism: after reading about the Holocaust, slavery, and reflecting on my personal experiences with racism. At the time, I was struggling to find an apartment. You see, numerous East Rock landlords refuse to rent a single Black woman who has no affiliation with Yale an apartment, especially one with Shancia as her name. Although I held full-time employment, had an excellent credit score, and had the necessary financial provisions to pay my rent for at least four months in advance, I was still rejected. My mother and Nana warned me, but I was determined to stay. Things finally turned for the good when I shared my testimony with fellow parishioners and Father George. Some of you prayed with me and one person in particular traveled with me to view apartments. When she connected me with a landlord, I was finally worthy of renting a space in East Rock. She approved me without checking my credit score or checking my bank statements. This friend who helped me was a White woman, her presence made a difference.
When we prayed together in the upper room of Phil’s and Wendy’s home, during their retreat (led by Pastor Gordon), that was also a liturgical manifestation of justice and reconciliation that led many of you assist me during my futile predicament. That was my justice. I pray, just like how my ancestors who prayed for the emancipation of their future generations, that my descents will have equal access to housing and to Christian fellowship in whatever tradition they desire. It would be a blessing, if they remained Episcopalians but who I am to decide such things. I can only pray.
Lastly, when Rev. Ellendale asked me to preach in January, she sent me an email and I instantly said, “yes,” blindly: without reviewing the lectionary readings for Feb. 10 and without reviewing its theme of racial healing, justice, and reconciliation. “Here I am, Lord.” (Isaiah 6:8) It is I, Lord. Here I am, Church, a Black woman standing here in front of you, many of you I know well, and yet there remains so much more… I am your postulant, the person that you are sponsoring and recommending as a priest in The Episcopal Church. You have shaped my ministry and transformed my experience of race. I am no longer compelled by obedience to love and to honor my neighbors. I gather with you by my own choice, my free will. I gather with you because I deeply love and care for our fellowship and our willingness to be courageous and affirm our love of God.
If you’re thinking, why did Shancia greet us in such a welcoming fashion in the beginning of her homily and then just laid it on us like this (with slavery and racism)? I did so to demonstrate the sudden apprehension and historical violence of what it means to be a person of color living in America and to demonstrate how European Christians have embodied Jesus’ invitation to discipleship and evangelism. My ancestors and I cannot afford the privilege to take our present realities for granted. I know my history, believe in mercy and forgiveness, and I continue to pray that God no longer sees His people as those who “keep listening but do not comprehend. Those who keep looking, but do not understand. I pray that sin does not make our minds dull, and prevent our ears and eyes from seeing and knowing. I pray that we comprehend with the mind and the heart of Christ, and turn and be healed,” as we affirm an Evangelical style of worship. (Isaiah 6:8)
Some of the many roads of evangelism are found in the way of love and of justice. Yes, justice is one of the ways, and it’s a healing process which cultivates reconciliation. This does not mean that we have to create a campaign to protest the epistemic injustices of ignorance and the evils of sin. (Some churches have also lost sight of justice by substituting their work with personal agendas which are centered on individualism rather than the teachings and evangelism of Christ.) Jesus calls Peter to gather people and tells him to not be afraid. Our priests, Rev. Ellendale and Rev. Chuck “solemnly vowed in their ordination rites to remain loyal to the teachings, the discipline, and the worship of Christ as have received by the Church.” (Book of Common Prayer, Ordination Rite) In doing so, they guide us and serve to make Christ’s teachings and sacraments more accessible through their ministries and their willingness to be our leaders. Both Rev. Ellendale and Rev. Chuck, similar to Peter, are already equipped with the skills and the abilities to transform our community, and we have to be willing to give them a chance to do the work that Christ has called them to do. This is what we prayed for. God can do anything, this parish and my life are living testimonies of God’s grace and truth.
May the grace and truth of Our Lord Jesus Christ along with the Holy Spirit and the willingness of faithful and skilled women and men continue to transform the horrific and futile realities of American slavery and racism. Let us continue this loving and bountiful fellowship, as we walk humbly with our God.
Babcock, William S. “Augustine on Sin and Moral Agency.” The Journal of Religious Ethics 16, no. 1 (1988): 28-55. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40015077.
Harrill, J. Albert. “The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 10, no. 2 (2000): 149-86. doi:10.2307/1123945.
Mills, Charles W. Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Oxford Scholarship Online, 2017. doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190245412.001.0001.