Fishers Three

Mark 1:14-20

Gather ’round me, everybody

Gather ’round me while I’m preachin’

Feel a sermon comin’ on me

The topic will be sin and that’s what I’m ag’in’

If you wanna hear my story

The settle back and just sit tight

While I start reviewin’

The attitude of doin’ right

You’ve got to accentuate the positive

Eliminate the negative

And latch on to the affirmative

Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum

Bring gloom down to the minimum

Have faith or pandemonium’s

Liable to walk upon the scene

To illustrate my last remark

Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark

What did they do just when everything looked so dark?

(Man, they said “We’d better accentuate the positive”)

(”Eliminate the negative”)

(”And latch on to the affirmative”)

Don’t mess with Mister In-Between (No!)

Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

(Ya got to spread joy up to the maximum)

(Bring gloom down to the minimum)

(Have faith or pandemonium’s)

(Liable to walk upon the scene)

You got to ac (yes, yes) -cent-tchu-ate the positive

Eliminate (yes, yes) the negative

And latch (yes, yes) on to the affirmative

Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

No, don’t mess with Mister In-Between.

Lyrics and music by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. #1 in 1945 on Billboard. Sung by Bing Crosby, The Andrew’s Sisters, played by Artie Shaw.

A fun song. Part of American secular religion, it is meant to be uplifting and direct. Its simplicity is appealing. Its theology is appalling, because for the Christian, for those of us who stand in a church that embraces countless martyrs, there is more to the Gospel than accentuating the positive.

You and I are called to be “fishers of men.” We are called to witness, sacrifice and lead others to Christ and to salvation. We are called to join with the communion of saints, to be Christ’s body in the world.

I want to tell you about “three fishers of men,” extraordinary ordinary individuals who bore witness to the Gospel. Their names have been changed. Nevertheless, they were fishers, for by the witness of their lives, they brought others to “the good news.”

Alice was in her late eighties, confined to her bed and dying from the complications of diabetes. I always liked to call on her because she looked like the Pillsbury Dough woman. She was roly-poly with the whitest skin and even whiter hair. In her room there was a Bible, Grauman’s portrait of Jesus, a picture of the Queen and a snapshot of a niece. On her chest was a small cross at the end of a delicate chain. One morning I was called by the head nurse to come see Alice. “Alice is dying. She is in a comma, can’t speak or hear. However, she has left the request that we call you when she entered the time of dying.” I went into the room and Alice lay very still in her bed. The comforter was tucked under her ample chin. I read prayers for healing and “the prayers at the time of death.” Then I sat and read the Twenty-third Psalm and Psalm One Hundred and Twenty-one. After a minute or so Alice opened her eyes, smiled and said, “It is so good to hear those beautiful words from the Prayer Book and the Psalms, and to open my eyes and see your smiling face.” She then closed her eyes and turned her head. I blessed her, kissed her cheek and left. I buried her a week later.

In the poverty of her condition, her illness and circumstances, she had blessed me and carried the message of the Good News. She was at peace with herself and God and firmly connected to her Christian tradition. Although in some pain she was not in despair. Although close to death she was not afraid. She could affirm life and others. Hers were words of faith, hope and peace. In life she witnessed to her faith and brought others to a better understanding of the Christian life. In her Godly dying, she witnessed to God’s forgiveness, the peace that passes understanding and the promise of eternal life.

Some people are so smart they are down right scary. Such was the case with Ray, one of my roommates from l953-57 at Yale. Ray and I both came from the Midwest and were reared Methodist. He was a voracious reader and had an “inquiring mind.” Very early on he lost his simplistic protestant piety and became an avowed agnostic. But the religious questions continued to haunt him. “Who am I? Where am I going? Is life totally without direction and meaningless?” Ray read Augustine, Sartre, Aquinas and Whitehead. He also took courses from and talked to some of the learned faculty members. At that time there were professors who went to church and embraced the Christian faith. Such men were Richard Sewall, author of The Vision of Tragedy, Cleanth Brooks, author of The Well Wrought Urn, and Louis Martz, author of The Poetry of Meditation Sewall was (I think) a Congregationalist, Brooks an Episcopalian, and Martz a Roman Catholic, brilliant men in the field in which Ray majored. There was also Franklin Baumer, who taught “Intellectual History of Western Europe,” probably the best course I ever took. He was (I think) Dutch Reform, a seeker and one on an intellectual pilgrimage. Ray finally read Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain. It was time to stop playing games and to start deciding what counted and what did not. Ray underwent an intellectual conversion experience, became a Roman Catholic and eventually a priest. He has continued to pursue rigorous inquiry (earning a PhD) and to push the edges of intellectual exploration – while at the same time ministering to the downtrodden in very poor areas of Canada.

Ray proclaims the Good News at Madonna House in Kitchener, Cumber mare, Ontario, in his pursuit of truth and his insistence upon blending active intellectual inquiry with hands-on Christian charity and compassion. He attracts those who seek to know the truth and to be set free from cynicism, nihilism and stoicism. My friend, Fr. Dora, Catholic Chaplain at Stamford Hospital, knows Ray.

Jack was a high school science teacher who earned his degree on the GI Bill. He coached baseball and was a sponsor for several clubs. He had grown up on a farm in Western Kansas and was of German and Norwegian stock. Although far from “cool” he drove a ’51 black Mercury coupe. More importantly, he taught the high school Sunday school class. Sometimes there were forty-five of us and other times only five. He was direct, honest, firm and committed. At school he never proselytized, but you always knew that he demanded the highest moral and ethical behavior, while at the same time he was tolerant of adolescent hijinks. Jack believed in the promise of the Gospel, that forgiveness and redemption are possible though Jesus Christ and that there is the hope of living a life that counts. He thought that truth, peace and hope are not mutually exclusive. Hundreds of young people’s lives were shaped by this man’s mature Christian life.

Whether consciously or not, people witness through their lives to their faith. Some people claim to be Christian, but stay home and don’t think much about matters of faith. Others see religion as not a possible solution to life’s problems but the probable cause of many of life’s problems. They are called by Christ to proclaim the Good News and to be fishers of men, and they decline. They squander God’s grace.

Those of us who come to church seek God’s grace and want to hear the Good News. We want more out of life than we have, and we listen to Jesus’ call to proclaim the Gospel and to be fishers of men. In giving we receive. Now most of us fall into one of three categories, and perhaps no one category is necessarily better than another. Some of us, like Alice, bear very heavy physical, psychological, financial or family burdens. Others of us are genuine seekers like Ray. We probe and wonder and consider and explore. We are committed but our faith is an active intellectual pilgrimage. Still others of us are mature Christians. Our faith is deep and grounded. Like Jack we know where we stand and what counts. We understand that to be a Christian is always to be in the state of becoming, and yet we know that for us many things are settled.

In whatever category you may place yourself, heed the call to witness to the Good News and to Jesus as the Christ. Be encouraged in your witness, knowing that you are doing well. At the same time be challenged to do more than “accentuate the positive,” be challenged to use the gifts of memory, reason and imagination to bring others to the Good News, which is the news of truth, hope, peace, promise, immortality and salvation. (1) Individually and corporately you and I, here at St. Andrew’s are challenged to be fishers of men. Like Simon, Andrew, James and John and like my friends Alice, Ray and Jack You and I can with joy and confidence (in the words of today’s collect) “proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works.” (2) When you arise tomorrow, hang a sign on your door. “Gone fishin.” Amen.

1) Barclay, William The Gospel of Mark, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1975. p.25.

2) Book of Common Prayer, p. 215.