Love called Bob
My husband’s last sermon
Last week when I asked what was the assigned text for him to preach on, my husband, the Rev. Bob Smith, said he’d been trying to run down translations again. Old translations of Matthew 4:19 have Jesus telling fishermen Simon and Andrew that if they follow him, he’ll make them “fishers of men.” The inclusive re-wording in the New Revised Standard Bible says they’ll “fish for people.” “It’s different,” he said. “One is about changing who you are. The other is just an action.”
Three Sundays remained in Bob’s current Interim Rector assignment at St. Luke & the Epiphany. It is a wonderful church. And thanks be to God for them, because figuring how to minister to people one has never met in flesh is/was hard. And Bob was not, as he lamented, an electronic, or any other kind of, extrovert. A former magazine editor, Bob loved to mull text and context: the liturgical seasons, the needs, today, of this parish, this community, and nation. Everybody needs the Spirit, but will hear the same texts differently in East Falls or Wayne, Doylestown or Torresdale, Ludwig’s Corner, Chester County, or Philadelphia’s Gayborhood. Somewhere around Wednesday, Bob would study the appointed texts for the week. He’d review what he’d written before. What was different now? Or what had he missed? A week after the King holiday, after the 2020 election and the January insurrection, after all the hate and oxymoronic talk of Christian nationalism, the ability to be changed by love, and yes, redeemed, seemed as urgent as ever it had been.
And besides, well, that was Bob’s Ur-sermon. God is Love; Love calls us to Itself. More love, less fear. Do it. Let Love change you.
We thought silently for a moment about the distinction: becoming a fisher versus learning to fish. He had stopped halfway up the stairs. Then he took his coffee to his desk, and I went back to my work. He finished the draft on Saturday. On Sunday morning, he rose about 4 am to tweak the sermon, read the papers, walk the dog, and have breakfast.
Just before 8 am, an aneurysm burst in his brain. The resultant stroke closed down his left side. It closed down movement, vision, talking, breath. The EMTs came fast. Bob, who wore thick glasses from waking until bedtime, everywhere, every moment, except to shower, handed me his glasses as he was hoisted into the ambulance. By the time I saw Bob that afternoon in Jefferson’s Neurology ICU— and in COVID times, what a blessing to be able to see him — he was no longer breathing on his own. The ventilator was inflating his lungs like a blue plastic bellows. Air forced into him. Chest up and down, mechanical, staccato, none of the ease and grace of the 80-year-old whose body remembered playing basketball in an Iowa high school gymnasium, riding a bike over the Golden Gate Bridge when he lived on the West Coast, and running and walking with one of his border terriers most mornings for more than 30 years. He used to say gratefully that his body was one of those Toyotas with 200,000 miles on it: not showy, but, as they used to say when cars were sold in newspaper ads: Runs Good.
But now, what was left of his animal joy of living, his gusto for chocolate and hot coffee, grilled cheese, and doro wat, for snuggling in the bedroom he agreed to keep just a little colder than he really wanted, because I like the window open? He could squeeze my hand to tell me he was in pain and, yes, needed morphine. Thanks be to God. But the flooding aneurysm had washed away his connection to joy in thinking, mulling, learning; his ongoing exploration into love. I held his hand and sang, and prayed Evening and Morning prayer, and read his favorite poems, poems so dear to him that he preached them: Rumi’s “The Guest House,” and Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” That one begins abruptly with waking. Eyes opening.
On Wednesday morning, very soon after the nurses removed the breathing tube, Bob died, eyes wide open, no glasses, mouth moving as it had had to to accommodate the God-awful tube that had forced breath into him for three days. His lips moved for how long, half a minute, but breath. Rodger Broadly, the priest who had retired from St. Luke’s before Bob’s 2020 Interim, prayed the prayer for the dying:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your
servant Bob. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of
your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your
own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy,
into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the
glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.
Then the vein that had pumped so faithfully in his neck went still.
Bob loved the word redeem, loved the hymn line: “Redeem the time.” Today, I finally read the sermon he’d prepared. About being fishers of people. And change. Because it’s Bob, the sermon manages to combine translation from the King James Bible, a movie (he loooved movies), a love affair between Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Clarence Thomas, Jonah and Nineveh, America’s cultural call to self-regard, Bill Gates, and all the rest of us. Here it is:
“Follow me,” Jesus says to Simon and Andrew, “and I will make you fish for people.” This morning our subject, our problem, our challenge, always and forever, is whether and how to answer the call to be God’s instruments for good in the world.
We all know we are commissioned, commanded, beseeched to follow him — you’ve heard it from the pulpit and the church and Christian culture generally. But do you accept it as an item of faith, literally, that is so powerful that you are likely to follow through and do it? Do you do it the way you respond to the command from self and culture to “take care of your kids,” “Take care of the ones you love”? Or how about this Great Commission of our individualistic culture: “You need to look out for yourself,” with its cynical follow up, “No one else will.”
One commentator on this passage says that like the disciples, “We are called not to private salvation but to public vocation.” How do we, in our complicated, busy, crowded 21st-century lives, live into such a command? Not very easily. We could start by looking at the text of our gospel and noticing that the meaning of one of the most famous phrases in the Bible has been changed, and compromised, by a modern translation. Jesus calls us to be “fishers of men,” the King James Bible says. The New Revised Standard translation, which we heard this morning, could have been satisfied with “fishers of people,” to eliminate male-centered language, but it goes further, perhaps to make it easier to read, because “fishers of people” is a bit of a mouthful. Instead, the modern translators changed the wording to “I will make you fish for people.” Thus a call to a lasting change in identity, that we become “fishers of men,” or fishers of people, has been changed into merely choosing an activity, that we will “fish for people.” What we want as Christians, for ourselves and others, is not merely to enlist members or converts, but to change lives — our lives and the lives of others.
Often when we think about this demanding call our minds swarm with objections. Won’t we be meddling with other people’s lives? Are we to pester them into conversion to Christianity, or conquer and bludgeon them into it, as the church and its imperial partners all over the world did for several centuries? Conversion, in the hands of Christians, has changed from an act of joyful choice to an act threatened by violence and fear of everlasting damnation.
This fear of hell, however mildly expressed in deference to the contemporary seeker, no longer has much force — and we are better off for it, even though less fear of punishment probably means fewer converts.
Jesus’ call to discipleship is not only, or even primarily, about a call to become a Christian, in the formal institutional sense of the word, such as when we ask, “What church do you belong to?” It is a call to realize that Jesus shows us a better, more fulfilling, more creative and productive way of being human. (A fashionable word for it now would be that he models a better way of living.)
The trouble is that in deep parts of ourselves we have been shaped by our culture and our individual realities not to believe it. Or, we may believe it, but we can’t find it in ourselves to live it full time or even part-time. Our powerful cultural training (which we may call “Reality” with a capital R) says it’s not possible; that it’s not realistic; that it’s may be a beautiful idea or, a bit more pejoratively, a beautiful dream, but the world is not like that. Our god, small g, which we never call a god, is the individual, who can do anything if she or he is determined enough.
Hero worship of the charismatic powerful individual is an idol of our society, and its high priestess is Ayn Rand, whose books, written seven or more decades ago, are still immensely popular. I recently ran across once again the marvelously entertaining movie of her novel The Fountainhead. It is the story of a great architect, played by Gary Cooper, who is spurned by the business and corporate establishment, because their philosophy is to build buildings that are popular with the people. Of course he meets a beautiful woman strong enough to appreciate his greatness, and the sparks between them soon turn into a conflagration — I think that’s the word you use when things get this flammable. (It doesn’t hurt that the stars, Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, were having an affair while making the film.)
Ayn Rand, whose ideas contained bits of partially digested Darwin and Nietzsche, thought that caring about your neighbors was abject weakness, revealing most of all that you wanted to be cared for. Her novels appeal especially to young people. They appealed to me in my distant high school days, and in more recent years, public figures such as Senator Rand Paul, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and former House Speaker Paul Ryan have admitted being shaped by her ideas. She appeals to many who desperately want high-minded reasons to be free of obligations to other people so that they can get down to the exhilarating task of thinking only about themselves and their own power and success.
Christ has shown us a better way, and it is real. My favorite form of evidence of the Christ-like impulse, if not instinct, to help others is how citizens reach out generously and wholeheartedly during mishaps and catastrophes up close, our admiration for the medical professionals risking their lives and working to exhaustion on the frontlines of Covid-19 being a recent example.
Then there are the bonds of love that form between members of the military in combat, when giving oneself for others can seem to be an absolute and miraculous value.
For most of us it’s harder. We struggle along the relentless, ever-shifting continuum of giving more or less than others around us or others we admire. Not many of us follow Christ’s advice to the rich man, to sell all he has and give it to the poor. Some do it, but others, like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, do half of it with their immense wealth and are rightly much praised for it.
We are more like Jonah, who refused the Lord’s command to go to Nineveh, that great city. He had to experience being swallowed by a great fish and then being spat up on dry land before he finally responded to God’s second command to go where he was supposed to go and be what he was destined to be. But we don’t have to wait for such a drastic experience. We just need to find our own ways to listen when Jesus says, “Follow me,” knowing that following his example doesn’t mean we have to equal it.