Year A, Epiphany 3
The summer after I graduated college I interned in this tiny church in a tiny town in Pennsylvania. There was not a whole lot going on in the town, but it was a beautiful place. Adjacent to the town was a state park with miles of trails and a small lake. It was a difficult time for me having just finished college and being unsure of where to go next. I struggled with insomnia. I slept for a couple of hours and then waited for the dawn. When I saw the first signs of light, I drove to the state park and walked for miles. There was one morning in particular when the sun was rising and there was mist on the lake, I noticed a few fishermen in a small boat. This was not an unusual occurrence, but it struck me at that moment. It seemed so serene. For the first time in my life, I saw the appeal of fishing…not enough to actually do it, but while waiting for the sun to rise and bemoaning my sad existence, I thought, that looks like a good way to spend a morning.
|Little Buffalo State Park by David Owen|
Since that summer, I have never had a desire to fish, possibly because I don’t eat fish. However, when I think of fishing, I still have that image in my head…a couple of men drinking coffee in the early morning with their lines dangling in a calm lake. When I imagine the disciples fishing, there they are with their poles and whatever they drank in the morning. I see Jesus walking up to them and saying something like, “Hey do you want to fish for people?” while he made the universal fishing motion of whipping the line into the water and they would think, “We know how to fish, why not?” I have always assumed that the request made sense to these 1st century fishermen, while it would make absolutely no sense to most of us unless we were familiar with this story.
Usually I do not have problems adjusting to Jesus’ metaphors, but I had to think of it a little more concretely when planning my children’s sermon. What’s the primary purpose of fishing? To catch fish. Why do you catch fish? To eat them. That is where the metaphor kind of breaks down. Over the years the fishing metaphor has evolved, and not in a helpful way for our context. Consider the phrase, “hook, line and sinker.” That means you have tricked someone and manipulated them. That’s not what happened with Jesus followers. He was honest from the very beginning. Or just consider the word hook. Getting hooked on something never comes out well. Why are we still using his metaphor?? You may be relieved to know that the disciples were not using poles. This was their occupation. They were not just out there trying to catch a few fish. They were trying to make a living. They were using massive, heavy nets. That changes the metaphor.
Net fishing is different than pole fishing. The fishermen would drop these weighted nets into the water and then lug them onto the boat, then sort through the smelly fish. It was a hard job. It required long hours, often working through the night. The labor was intense and the outcome was unpredictable. You did not know if you were going to catch anything and if you did, it might not be what you needed. This was the kind of fishing that Jesus was talking about. Jesus was asking these men to follow him and create a community of believers. It would be long hours, grueling labor and there was no guarantee they would be successful. Why are we still using this metaphor?? I am not sure this is any better than the hook and the pole.
Just because it is not a convenient metaphor does not mean it’s not true. Living is hard work. We all know that. Some of us might be in denial, but deep down we know that living a life that is productive and worthwhile requires work. Being a disciple of Jesus is challenging at times and sometimes being a disciple with other people who (perish the thought) might not always agree with you—is even more challenging. That said, there is something reassuring about these words of Jesus. They were honest. He was not selling these men something. He was straight with them from the very beginning. As the church, we strive for that same authenticity.
Yet…there is almost always a yet in my sermons. Yet…let’s consider the metaphor from another perspective. There had to be more to Jesus’ appeal than just, come with me so I can tire you out. I keep coming back to the net. You see, not being someone familiar with fishing nets, when I think of nets, I think of things like safety nets. Safety nets are there when we need them. They allow us to take risks that we would not normally take. They give us courage. They make us brave. What if Jesus was not just the man who was asking them for their hard work and loyalty? What if he was also saying, “I am always here to catch you when you fall. I am with you always. I will give you the confidence to do the hard things.”
It makes a little more sense… doesn’t it? No wonder they followed him. Perhaps he did not say these words, but they could sense a power and compassion in this man and they witnessed that power and compassion almost as soon as they dropped those heavy nets. As soon as he called his disciples, he started teaching people and healing every sickness and every disease. If they were not convinced before, they certainly were now.
Here is the other thing about nets. They bend and stretch when we need them to. They accommodate all different people, sometimes many people at once. That is the church. Now you might look around and think, well this building appears pretty solid, not net like at all. That is the church building. I am talking about the church, the community of believers, the people of St. John’s. At our best, we are like Jesus in that we support one another through the difficult times. Not only that, we give one another strength to do the challenging things that are required as humans, but also as Christians who are trying to follow Jesus! We also welcome all kinds of different people. With each new person, we change a little, we adapt. We are better for it.
Maybe being a Christian, following Jesus, isn’t at all like sitting in a boat with a warm beverage and a line in the water. We all need those moments in our lives, but we don’t want our entire lives like that. So instead, we fish with nets. Jesus is not on this earth with us, not in bodily form. Therefore, Jesus has asked us to wield his net down here on earth. We are the ones carrying around these heavy nets, but we are doing it together. Not only that, we have an everlasting promise from Jesus. We might be carrying heavy loads here on earth, but his net is always stronger. When we fall, because we will fall, he will catch us and we will get back up again and fish some more.