You will become the very thing you hate


Sermon for February 20th, 2022


So first this morning a little bible refresher course:

Joseph was the son of the patriarch Jacob. He had eleven brothers who were extremely jealous of his relationship with their father. So jealous in fact, that they decided to get rid of him. First by throwing him down into a pit, and then by selling him as a slave to some traders headed down into Egypt. They didn’t exactly kill him, but they might as well have. They turned their backs on him and basically left him for dead. That is what they told their father, that he was dead. 

But Joseph doesn’t die. Through a number of circumstances he actually manages to prosper in Egypt. His ability to interpret dreams and look to what they may mean for the future eventually puts him in a position of great influence with Pharoah. Despite the horrible thing that happened to him in the past, Joseph is a very future-oriented person. And this orientation actually leads him to help save Egypt from famine.

And now Joseph is in a very unique position. He is a powerful man in Egypt. Egypt, through his own leadership, has stores of food set by. His brothers, the very brothers that abandoned him to slavery and death, have shown up on his doorstep begging for food. They don’t recognize Joseph, but he knows who they are. It is a scene right out of a prime-time television drama or a soap-opera. It would make a great musical. 

How many people who have been really hurt would love to be in Joseph’s position? He is in the prime position to get revenge on his brothers for what they did to him. They sold him into slavery. They left him for dead. Nobody would fault Joseph if he told his brothers to go to hell. It would seem like justice served. And you know, maybe it is a human instinct, but we all like to see people get what is coming to them from time to time. If we didn’t, television programs and movies would tend to end a whole lot differently. We like to see justice served. We want the bad guys to get it in the end. But that’s not what happens here. 

Why? Why does Joseph feed his brothers, reconcile with them and forgive them? Well I think it is because Joseph recognizes a few key things: the first is God’s power to turn any bad thing into a good thing. Human beings do terrible things all the time, and while God may never approve of the bad things we do, God always has the power to take that bad thing and make it work to serve some positive good. We see this happen all the time. In the wake of an immense tragedy or disaster, people band together and help one another and care for one another. In life we make bad decisions and wrong turns, but sometimes those wrong turns lead us to places where good things happen. Joseph’s brothers did a terrible thing to him, but God managed to make something wonderful come out of it. Joseph recognizes God’s power to transform our circumstances and to turn bad things into good things. 

The second thing that Joseph recognizes is that the future matters more than the past. He hasn’t forgotten what happened to him by any means. He hasn’t forgotten the past, but he isn’t living there. He is living in the future and focusing on the relationship that he could have with his brothers and their families. 

The third thing that Joseph recognizes is that if he turns his back on his brothers now that the circumstances have changed and he is in the position of power, if Joseph takes his revenge and abandons his brothers for dead, then he becomes just like them. Joseph has a choice to make: he can choose to be like his brothers, or he can choose to be different. He chooses to be different.

Here is a divine law: you can write this down and there is plenty of scripture to back this up. I could also stand here for days and give you one historical example of this law in action after another. If you allow yourself to hate someone or something, you condemn yourself to become them. You will become the very thing you hate. Be careful about who and what you hate in this world. If you let that emotion fester and grown within you, if you let hatred control your thoughts and actions, you are destined to become just like the thing you are reacting against. Watch for it. Abused people very often turn into abusers. Political extremists from the left and the right are sometimes very hard to tell apart, because they talk and act just like each other even though they are supposed to be polar opposites. Their mutual hatred turns them into the very thing they are reacting against. British historian David Starkey has what he calls “Starkey’s law of revolutions” and it is this: Revolutions reproduce the worst aspects of the regime they replace. Revolutions reproduce the worst aspects of the regime they replace. Hatred that is nursed over past wrongs and the thirst for revenge upon the wrong-doers leads to this perpetual cycle of people becoming the very thing that they supposedly hated. Political parties and regimes do this all the time. Individuals do it too. And when you point out a wrong that is being committed, the response you often get is: “well so-and-so did it to me first.” It’s only fair! They did it first. That is a child’s argument. That is essentially saying that if somebody did a bad thing to me, then I am free to do what I like in response. I am exempt from having to consider the moral implications of my own actions. It is a child’s argument, but it is very seductive. How often do we see supposed adults making that very same argument?

A number of us are reading Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s book on morality right now. It is a superb book, and one of the chapters we discussed this week was on the idea of victimhood. Rabbi Sacks discusses how a number of people managed to survive the holocaust and rebuild their lives afterwards. One survivor comments that “there is a difference between victimization and victimhood. All of us are likely to be victimized at some stage. We will suffer abuse, injury, ill fortune or failure. We live exposed to forces beyond our control. Victimization comes from the outside. But victimhood comes from the inside. No one can make you a victim but you. We develop a particular kind of mindset, a way of thinking and being that is rigid, blaming, pessimistic, stuck in the past, unforgiving, punitive and without healthy limits or boundaries. We become our own jailors.”

Rabbi Sacks adds that “there is a fateful difference between the two. I can’t change the past. But I can change the future. Looking only back, I will see myself as an object acted on by forces largely beyond my control. Looking forward, I see myself as a subject, a choosing moral agent, deciding which path to take from here to where I eventually want to be.”

You cannot control what other people do to you. You cannot choose how other people behave. You can however, choose how to respond to them. You have control over your response. You can choose to love your enemies. You can choose to do good to those that hate you. You can bless those who curse you. You can pray for those who abuse you. These aren’t just nice things to do for others. They are key to not becoming the very thing you hate. If you want a better future, then don’t let the past and past hurts dictate your thoughts and actions. Joseph has not forgotten the past, but he isn’t letting it control him or dictate his future. He has a choice to make. Does he want to be like his brothers or not?

From people who need something into people who have something.


Sermon for February 6th, 2022. Annual Meeting Sunday


“Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” 

This is how Simon Peter first responds to Jesus when Jesus tells him to go fishing again. He basically says: “well, what do you think I have been doing all this time?” Peter is tired, hungry, probably cold, and then the man who has been telling the crowds “Come to me all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest,” that same man is now telling him that he needs to row out from shore, go back to work, and drop his nets again. So much for rest.

You know, I think it is important when we are talking about Andrew and Peter and James and John to remember that when we talk about them as fishermen, we aren’t talking about a bunch of weekend anglers that just want to have some beers on the lake with their buddies in their free time. This is their livelihood. Empty nets mean empty pockets. Those fish didn’t just represent something to toss in the frying pan for supper. The fish was food, but it was also their security. It was their healthcare, it was their retirement, it was the mortgage, it was their children’s tuition. That empty net means more to Peter than you think. Peter needs fish. 

And maybe it is because Peter so desperately needs fish that he is willing to go out again when Jesus tells him to. Maybe he figures what else does he have to lose. He’s tired now, he’ll be more tired in a couple hours. Maybe it’s worth trusting Jesus, or at least giving him a chance. So Peter says, “alright, if you say so, I will do it. Let’s give it a shot.” They row out from shore, let down their nets, and well…you know what happens. They catch more fish than they know what to do with. Peter needs help getting the net full of fish into the boat. 

And Peter is so stunned. He can’t imagine why this is happening to him. He’s just an average working man. He’s not special. And he knows that he’s a sinner. He’s not some holy roller that sits in the synagogue all day reading the holy books. He doesn’t deserve this blessing. He’s not worthy of it. But Jesus blesses him anyways and it completely changes his life. Completely changes it. There is a transformation that happens in Peter in this gospel passage and I want you to watch for it because it would be easy to miss it. It’s critically important though.

In the beginning of this gospel passage Peter is a man who needs something. He needs fish, that is his pressing concern. Actually Peter probably needs many things, he needs fish, but he also needs rest, he needs food, he’s aware that he’s a sinner so he also needs forgiveness, he needs some sense of holiness or righteousness or relationship with God, he knows that that is missing in his life too. Peter is a man in need. He starts out as a man who needs something, and then he has this encounter with Jesus. He takes a chance on Jesus even though he is tired and worn out. He decides to trust him and not only is he blessed with the fish that he had spent all night looking for, watch what happens when he gets to shore: when Peter and James and John get to shore they leave everything behind and follow Jesus. Everything, the fish, the boats, the nets, they leave all that behind to become fishers of men. After Peter has this encounter with Jesus, suddenly those things that he thought he needed don’t seem so important anymore. Peter started out as a man who needs something, but he has been transformed into a man who has something. He has Jesus. He has a relationship with God. He has grace. He has forgiveness. He has a message about God’s miraculous power, and Peter hasn’t even seen the empty tomb yet. The really stunning earth-shaking miracles haven’t even happened yet, but Peter has already been transformed by meeting Jesus and trusting him. 

He has been transformed from a man who needs something to a man who has something. That is the difference between being a fisher of fish and a fisher of men. When you are a fisher of fish, you are catching something to keep. It is for your own profit or your own empty stomach. It is something you need. But when you are a fisher of men, you don’t do it for your own benefit, you do it for theirs. You aren’t getting something, you are giving something away. You have something they need. You are giving people Jesus. You are giving them a relationship with God and forgiveness and grace and everything that comes with that relationship, including the promise and hope of eternal life. To be a fisher of men is not about catching something that you need, it is about knowing that you have something that others need and being willing to share it with them. That is why Peter can walk away from his boat and all the fish at the end of this gospel: Jesus has changed him from a man who needs something into a man who has something, and what Peter has now is more precious than all the fish in the lake, because Peter will never have less of Jesus by sharing him with others. God’s grace works differently than human economies: with God’s grace the more you give it away, the more you get back in return. 

That is the transformative power of meeting Jesus. It isn’t just that Jesus can fill your nets with fish. Obviously, Jesus has the power to do that. Jesus can and will see to your needs, but the more amazing thing is his power to completely reprioritize your life to the point where the things you thought you needed now seem insignificant and you can walk away from them or not focus on them. Jesus can transform us from people who need something, to people who have something. People who know they have something of immense value that the world needs. People who have something that has the power to change, and yes even save, lives. That is what happens when you really meet Jesus.

Every week we come here to meet Jesus. We meet Jesus in baptism, we meet Jesus in the proclamation of Holy Scripture and in listening to his teachings, and we meet Jesus in the sacrament of Holy Communion where we are regularly fed and nourished by his divine life. We meet Jesus in the place in so many ways, through the sacraments most fully, but also in music, in prayer, in art, and even (as hard as it may be to believe) we meet Jesus in each other. And you know what, that meeting should change us. We come here every week as a people who need something: people who need guidance, people who need forgiveness, people who need courage or hope. And when we walk back out those doors, we should be walking out as people who have something. We should be walking out as people who have met Jesus once again. As people who know that we have something, and have something that the rest of the world needs. And the best thing of all, it is something we can give away and never have less of. That is what it means to be a fisher of men. It is having something of immeasurable value that you can give to others.

So often when we talk about Church growth and evangelism and “catching” new Christians or new parishioners, we think about it in terms of the benefit that it will be to us, or our needs as a parish community. We think about it like we think about catching fish for supper. It’s human. We all do it. Every parish does it. You’re here five minutes and we are already measuring you for a cassock and trying to convince you to serve on the vestry. It is so easy for us to become so focused on what we need, or what we think we need, that we forget or lose sight of what we have. And that is never more true than when we are talking about parish finances. You’ve probably already seen our budget for 2022, if not you will at the meeting later. I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a little scary. Not so much for this year, but five or ten years down the road and the loss of five or ten tithers or faithful givers and we could eventually be faced with some very hard decisions, as many, many churches already have. Do I worry about that? Of course I do. I have a lot of sympathy with Peter at the beginning of this gospel; sometimes it feels like we fish and fish and fish and at the end of the day still have an empty net. It is so easy when you have needs that you become so focused on them that that is all that you see. And then evangelism becomes about balancing the budget, you worry about getting new people to help us pay the bills and you start to think that we need new people, more than they need what we have. And that is where we fail. Peter and James and John, they knew what a treasure they had. They knew just how transformative an encounter with Jesus can be, and if we don’t know it we will never really grow this church. Certainly not the way that they did. 

Because the truth is that we have something that other people need. We have grace; we have hope; we have an intimate relationship with God; we have Jesus. We need to know that and know it deep down. Now I’m not suggesting that you need to walk up to every person on the street and say “you need Jesus” although some days I am tempted, but I am suggesting that when you leave here every week you should do so as someone who has just been given something that the world needs and is ready to share it with them. People need Jesus and we’ve got him. We may not have a monopoly on him, other churches may have him too, but we’ve got him. He is in the boat with us. We’ve got a lot of things going for us as a church and I could stand up here and brag all morning about the choir or the kids, or any number of things that we do well, but at the end of the day what matters most is that this is a place where people meet Jesus. That is the most precious thing on earth. That is more important than anything we might need, or think that we need. Because Jesus has the power to transform us from people who need something into people who have something. So let’s let him do that. We have something that the world needs; we have a blessing to share with others. That is the real difference between fishing for fish and fishing for me: When you are fishing for fish it is the one who is fishing that has the most to gain, but when you are fishing for men, the one who stands to get the biggest blessing is the one who is caught.