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Sunday, January 27, 2008

"Follow Me"

“Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
Matthew 4:12-23
Epiphany III
January 27, 2008
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

My grandfather was a fisherman, as were my father, and my uncles. They had friends who had fishing boats which they kept out at the marina in New Bedford, MA, where their ancestors before them had been sailors and whalers. The men I grew up with in my family, however, went fishing off the shores of the east end of the island known as Cuttyhunk.

Cuttyhunk Island is the outermost of the Elizabeth Islands in my home state of Massachusetts, located about 12 miles south of New Bedford and 8 miles west of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a tiny island – about 580 acres and population 52 (as of the 2000 census). That population changes drastically in the summer, of course, when those who own summer homes, or come to play golf and stay at the country club, swell the numbers,

I’ll get back to Cuttyhunk in a minute. First, let me tell you something I know about fishing. When we say ‘gone fishing’ most contemporary Americans think of a leisure hobby, something you do when you want to relax – or a reward for a hard day’s work – a vacation. A sure sign of leisure activity:

When you see the sign “Gone fishin’” hung on shop door, you know it means "I'm on holiday."

That wasn’t so for the men in my family. Fishing was both a source of food as well as a source of income. It was how we ate and how we made some extra money to fill the budgetary gaps. While others were still in bed, enjoying their weekend off, my grandfather would get ‘his boys’ up at the crack of dawn.

While other children were sneaking downstairs to watch Saturday morning cartoons, I would awaken to the sounds of male voices downstairs in my grandparent’s apartment. My grandmother would be cooking eggs and bacon and toasting bread in the oven while supervising the organization of boxed lunches. They wouldn’t be home much before close to sundown, so they had to pack enough food and homemade beer to get them through the day.

Fishing was hard, backbreaking work. Hauling nets teaming with fish takes brute strength, as does reeling in a stripped bass or large, ocean eels. The work doesn’t end there. The fish had to be kept on ice so large buckets had to be layered on top of the pile of fish. That was the job for my boy cousins (one I was jealous of with almost the same intensity as I was jealous of their role as altar boys.)

Then, the men would have to bring home the haul - 'the catch of the day" - where the fish would be scaled and gutted and filleted, before being frozen. The nets also had to be cleaned and mended. I would often fall asleep hearing them tell their fishing stories as my bedtime stories.

They would be up early on Sunday morning to go to church – that was not debatable - bathed, hair combed, clothes ironed, shoes shined. This was a sight far from the one right now as they sat around, drinking beer in their work pants, smoking too many cigarettes, reeking of fish and beer and cigarette smoke, their bodies tired, their muscles aching and their hands cut and bruised from hauling the net or the line.

Drinking beer was their anesthesia; playing poker was their diversion.

They would be up early on Monday morning, back to work in the factories - work which did not provide a living wage. Their salaries were, in no way, compensation for the work they did. Union labor organizing would come later, but right now, fishing kept their families living just above the poverty line.

I imagine it wasn’t much different for Simon Peter and Andrew or those 'Sons of Thunder', James and John, the sons of Zebedee. I imagine them, there on the shores of Galilee, fishing for the days catch which would be taxed and then taxed again. The Governor believed that, as the occupied force, the Lake belonged to him and he had a right to tax whatever cam out of it or had the privilege of going into it. Whatever they were able to make from the ocean’s bounty would be taxed by the governor, and they again, by Caesar. Hard work and no play not only makes very little pay, it makes for scant hope for the future.

The injustice of the corrupt Roman occupation was breaking their backs and not putting much food on their tables. Even though they thanked God for the way and means to make money, as business men, they knew that they would never be rich. Their hard work simply kept some food on the table, and some coins for the Temple to support widows and orphans, those who were ill or infirm. They, too, lived just above the poverty line.

“Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” I can only imagine how these words were first experienced by Andrew, Simon Peter, James and John. They must have fallen like the sound of sweet freedom on their ears. It makes perfect sense, now, doesn’t it, that scripture reports, “Immediately, they left their nets and followed him.”

Immediately? I’ll just bet it just was! I imagine it didn’t happen soon enough. Doing the work of justice and peace always comes at a cost – a high price, indeed – but, as my grandfather, father and uncles discovered, working for liberation (in their case, in the Labor Union Movement) was worth whatever it cost.

A short story about Cuttyhunk Island to end this sermon.

The Island was originally owned by some folks in Newport, RI, who, in the 1600’s stripped the island of all its lumber leaving it windswept and bare. In 1864, a Mr. William Wood, disgruntled by the politics of his country club in Sakonet Point, RI, built a Country Club there, renowned for its lavish parties. The Country Club was staffed by the newest wave of immigrants – brought in for their cheap labor and their dark – but not ‘offensively dark’ skin – the Portuguese. Bottom line: They worked for far less wages than the locals did.

He could not have known that one of his grandsons, William M. Wood, would fall in love with and marry one of those Portuguese women. It was considered a huge scandal and he was scorned and shunned by his socially elite circle. He was a deeply spiritual man, however, a devout Christian and student of Holy Scripture who believed that the liberation promised in the gospel was not for a few elect but for all.

In 1921, Mr. Wood bought out all the interest in the Country Club as well as any land holdings on the Island, and began to hire the Portuguese at the same rate of pay as any other worker. In gratitude for this, the Portuguese, who lived in the surrounding towns, always made it a point to fish off the waters of East Cuttyhunk, where the stripped bass ran thick in the chilly waters. They always offered their first, best catch to Mr. Wood at the best price, in grateful recognition of his generosity and devotion to the liberation promised of the gospel. I understand from some family members that this practice continues to this day.

When I was a young child, my family told this story to me as gospel. Later, as I grew older and became an Episcopal Priest, I found myself one day having tea with a colleague, another Episcopal priest, in the kitchen of her apartment in Cambridge, MA. She began to tell me the story of her husband’s family and the Island they owned not far from where we were. I had always thought the story a bit of a fairy tale.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that every word I had been told as a child was true. And, here it was – right in front of me – in the image of a sister cleric who, together with her husband, had worked for economic justice for the newest wave of immigrants. Only in The Episcopal Church!

“Follow me,” said Jesus, “and I will make you fish for people.”

For some, that can sound like a simple, clever play on words and leave it at that. Or, it can sound like a bell, calling you to the path of your own liberation on the road to justice and peace. Simon and Andrew heard it first as a manifestation of the glory of God: Hope.

Hope. One of the manifestations of the glory of God. A bright and shining light, bathing those who dare to come near its glow with expectation and encouragement - the strength and courage to lift up their heads.

Depending on their circumstance, the people of God have been hearing it in the same way ever since. Even in our day, gospel miracles can continue to be found whenever Jesus is followed and the good news of the Realm of God is proclaimed.

That never been the question. The question is, how is the glory of God made manifest in your life when you hear Jesus say to you, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people."


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