Shuck and Jive

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Prophet, Artist, Fisherman--A Sermon

Prophet, Artist, Fisherman
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 16th 2011
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Sunday
Gospel of Jesus 3:1-10

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), pp. 21, 23. Mark 1:16-20; 2:14; Matthew 4:18-22; 9:9; Luke 5:27-28; 8:1-3

As he was walking along by the sea of Galilee, he spotted Simon and Andrew, Simon’s brother, casting their nets into the sea—since they were fishermen—and Jesus said to them: “Become my followers and I’ll have you fishing for people!”

Right then and there they abandoned their nets and followed him. When he had gone a little farther, he caught sight of James, Zebedee’s son, and his brother John mending their nets in the boat. Right then and there he called out to them as well, and they left their father Zebedee behind in the boat with the hired hands and accompanied him.

As Jesus was walking along, he caught sight of Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the toll booth, and he says to him, “Follow me!” And Levi got up and followed him.

Jesus traveled through towns and villages, preaching and announcing the good news of God’s imperial rule. His male disciples were with him, and also some women whom he had cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary, the one from Magdala, from whom seven demons had taken their leave, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided from them out of their resources.

A book that has been influential to me in my ministry has been Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination. Walter Brueggemann is a scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures and prolific writer. This little book, The Prophetic Imagination, written in 1978 is more relevant than ever today. Even though it is really just a little book about the Bible.

Brueggemann compares and contrasts the prophetic imagination with the royal consciousness. The prophetic imagination envisions a new reality that the royal consciousness cannot envision. Brueggemann makes his point by showing that the Moses story is an alternative story to Pharaoh’s story. Pharaoh’s story is one of forced labor economics, oppression and religious legitimation of that reality. Alternatively, the god of Moses is a god of radical freedom who can hear the cry of the enslaved.

The god of Pharaoh is an accessible god. It is a god who does the royal bidding. This is a god who is easy to find and this god stays on message. That message is that what the king wants is what god wants. God bless Empire. What we find in the contest between Moses and the Pharaoh’s religious leaders is that the god of Pharaoh, this god of Empire, is no god at all. In the end, it is the god of Moses who leads the slaves out of Egypt.

But the story doesn’t end with Exodus and liberation. The god of freedom and justice is not an easy god to follow. It isn’t long until the monarchies of David and Solomon reintroduce the royal god who was really not that much different than the god of Pharaoh. In Solomon’s time, a time of great prosperity for Israel, you have the same conditions that were in place under Pharaoh: forced labor, standing armies, economic inequalities, oppression, and religious legitimation of that way of life. From the king’s point of view, that way of life is non-negotiable.

In this time of David and Solomon and the kings who followed them in the northern and southern kingdoms, there arose by necessity, prophets. These prophets spoke to the royals out of an alternative imagination. David, Solomon, and the kings had a god. This god was very sophisticated with a temple and rituals and priests. It was a god who blessed order and who blessed the emperor and who blessed empire.

But not everyone is blessed in Empire. For instance, an economy based on forced labor is not a blessing for those doing the labor. Prophets like Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, and Jeremiah spoke from a different consciousness. It is very difficult for those who benefit by empire to hear the cries of those who do not benefit by empire. If we hear them at all we hear them as whiners and as malcontents. Lazy. They don’t understand that it takes a standing army to be secure. They should be grateful that they are fed and shouldn’t look to closely at where that food comes from or who really pays for it.

The prophets have a role to play in that they speak on behalf of a god of radical justice and freedom. This god is not kept. This god is not kept in the temple. This god does not stay on message. This god speaks on behalf of those who are engaged in the forced labor. This god speaks on behalf of those who pay the price for the blessings of the few.

Who are these prophets? According to Brueggemann, prophets are not predictors of the future. They are not fortune-tellers, even though the future is in mind. Nor are prophets simply advocates of a liberal social agenda. Prophets imagine an alternative reality. This reality is articulated through poetry, lyric, symbol, and theater.

It is poetry of lament and poetry of an energizing vision.

First the poetry of lament.

Rachel weeps for her children and will not be comforted. By the waters of Babylon we weep rivers of tears. How can we sing a song in a strange land? It is a valley of dry bones. Our lips are parched. The poetry of lament is the poetry of passion and feeling. As much as the emperor thinks that his way of life is non-negotiable and will remain that way forever, the prophet reminds him that it is not so. But the prophet, according to Brueggemann, does not scold as much as grieve. It is his pain too. He grieves for the injustice of empire. He weeps for its downfall. He weeps that the emperor refuses to see what is coming. The prophet grieves for an emperor who will not and cannot keep his promise that his way of life is non-negotiable. It is not even sustainable. It is a lie.

The prophet weeps then as now for a people who cannot see and who cannot hear. The Chinese proverb says you cannot wake a man who pretends to be asleep. The royal consciousness, the consciousness of empire is numb. It only knows its present course regardless if that course is headed for collapse.

“We will get that economy back on track. Onward and upward forever,” promises the emperor and his minions. It is a promise that cannot be kept.

The prophet invites us to experience passion. The prophet invites us to compassion. To feel. To hear and to see. To touch. To weep. To grieve. Today prophets are inviting us to grieve with the mountains, with the Gulf, and with our streams and forests and for a humanity that has lost its connection with them.

This is Jeremiah in particular and Jesus weeping over Jerusalem.

Make no mistake. This is not doom and gloom. This is passion and grief. The royal consciousness cannot hear it. Grief is considered unpatriotic. “Our empire will be here forever!” is its claim. “God ordained it so. We are exceptional.” The royal consciousness is forced optimism. “Our institutions are too big to fail and so are we.” The prophet begs to differ.

That is only one part of the prophetic task.

The prophet also energizes. Once we feel, then we can see. Once get shaken, we can awaken. Once someone pinches our arm and stirs us from our stupor, we can feel the breeze and catch a new fragrance. Once the royal consciousness is shown for the unsustainable, unjust lie that it is, once we are able to grieve and mourn its injustice and its demise, we can hear a new song. All of our senses come alive.

There is an alternative. Jesus called it the “Kingdom of God.” Martin Luther King, Jr. called it the “Beloved Community.” It is an alternative that we speak about through the language of dream, exemplified in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech he delivered in 1963:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood….

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character….

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
How do you make that into a law? How do you make that into a five point plan of action? King was considered a prophet not because of political and social agenda. He was a prophet because he dreamed an alternative reality that ultimately is poetic. He spoke from imagination. He heard the voice of the god of Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Jesus. He spoke of a god on the margins who was free and not beholden to any royal theology.

This prophetic energizing is not exhausted in a particular social or political issue although particular social and political issues are embodied in this energizing. This energizing cannot be reduced to the practical or the reasonable or the politically expedient. That is the agenda of royal theology. Once you start with what is politically expedient, it is over.

Prophetic energizing is imagination. It is the imagination of the artist. It is the imagination of the fisherman who discovers he is an artist. It is an imagination that looks to the future and sings we will overcome. The language of the poet is the language of the prophet. It is the language of hope.

The lion shall lie with the lamb. A shoot will grow out of the stump. The blind will see. The lame shall walk. The poor will hear good news. The captive will be free. Everyone shall sit under his or her own fig tree. No one shall hurt on my holy mountain. Spears shall be made into pruning hooks. Swords shall be made into plowshares. Guns shall be turned into singing bowls.

Prophetic lament and prophetic energizing is the via creativa, the spiritual path of creativity. It is the prophetic imagination. Jesus invited his disciples to participate. He invited these fishermen to be prophets and artists.

The readings from the scripture feature the calling of the disciples. The overarching symbol is the fisherman’s net left behind. The fishermen dropped their nets and followed Jesus. Levi left his business and followed him. Wealthy women left their positions and followed him too. What are they doing? It isn’t that any of those things are necessarily bad. But they are lifeless in comparison.

Jesus invites them to take what they know and turn it into something they don’t know yet. To the fishermen he says “I will teach you to become fishers of people.” Whatever that means, right? He is inviting them on an adventure. Would you, if you could?
Oh it is not practical, is it? My life is all planned out. I have too many responsibilities. From birth to grave I will stay right here and follow the script that has been written for me. I won’t step out of line. I couldn’t possibly think of doing something different.
“Leave your nets. Follow me,” says Jesus.

The god of Moses and Miriam, Sarah and Abraham, Jeremiah, Jesus, and Mary, is a god of adventure. This is a god on the move and on the margins. This is a god of creativity and imagination. This is a god that hears the cry of suffering. This is god that feels. This is a god who calls us to travel lightly and eat the bread provided for the day. This is a god who invites us to imagine an alternative reality.

This is a god who invites us to…
  • Imagine a world in which there are no weapons because no one can ever think of a need for one.
  • Imagine a world in which we don’t fear each other but enjoy each other.
  • Imagine a world in which no one ever needs to worry about what to eat or what to wear or where to sleep.
  • Imagine a world in which we give what we take and everyone has enough.
  • Imagine a world in which our talents and creativity are valued for the joy they bring not the profit they make.
  • Imagine a world in which the circle of care is so large that no one is left out.
  • Imagine a world in which education is a lifetime love of learning.
  • Imagine a world in which we live with the rhythms of Earth.
  • Imagine a world in which we respect and care for all living things.
  • Imagine a world in which the decisions we make are made with the awareness of how they will affect seven generations to come.
  • Imagine a world in which we are daily filled with awe and joy.
Imagine a world…
Imagine your world…

Imagine that you are a prophet.
Live your truth.



  1. Thank you, John, for this sermon, and for so much more.

    Sending Love to you and yours, from Rhode Island...

  2. Thanks Nomi and David! Hope all is well in Rhode Island! Love back at ya!