SERMON: 3 Epiphany B 1 21 18
Jon3:1-5,10; Ps62:6-14; 1Cor7:29-31; Mk1:14-20
I love fish stories. I love the way people thrill to a good story, even when the fish concerned is smaller, or are less numerous, less impressive in reality than in the story. When it comes to the Bible, I love the fish stories because they are so vital, so full of life. Fish was many times more important to people 2000 years ago because it was fresh meat, ready to cook and eat. No lamb or steer had to be killed to provide that meal. That was vitally important because there was no refrigeration.
Today we have the Gospel story of Jesus telling his disciples he would make them fish for people. We also have heard a reading from the Hebrew Bible book of Jonah. Although it's not covered in the reading, doesn't everybody know Jonah lived three days in the belly of a whale?
You will be shocked! shocked! to hear this reminds me of a story I've probably used before. But it's a keeper. Sally was in the third grade and the teacher was explaining about whales. "For such a big animal they don't have a very large stomach," the teacher explained. "But teacher," Sally said, "The Bible says Jonah lived for three days in the belly of a whale." The teacher became curt. "I'm sorry Sally, that's just not factually possible." Sally responded, "Well! When I get to heaven I'm going to check with Jonah and see if it's true." The teacher smugly asked, "What if Jonah isn't in heaven?" Sally quickly replied, "Then you can ask him."
The spiritual associations of water, both fresh and salt water, and fish and God's generosity are very powerful. Water is both life sustaining and dangerous. One needs water. One can drown in water. Fish come from water and can sustain us, but they also can threaten and attack and harm. Benefiting from God's goodness from the sea requires skill and caution as well as profound gratitude.
When Jesus calls the fishermen to be his disciples he was mindful of the disposition of men who made their living on the water. Fishermen are by definition optimistic. Once they reel in their net or their line they think, "No matter how disappointing the last cast, it's ready to go again, so why not?" If they got discouraged after every empty net or hook they wouldn't be fishermen. These are the types of people Jesus needs, who will try and try again to reach people with their faith and their stories of faith rather than reach fish with bait and nets. Really, the comparison between fishing for people and fishing for fish is wonderfully apt. The disciples put out their net of faith, their understanding of Jesus through Biblical understanding and through their experience of him in his earthly ministry, and they wait to see if people take the bait.
When we think of our own connection of God, when we consider how it is that God calls us, we realize that there are events, there have been experiences, which led us to believe in surprising ways. And when we share those stories with others, when we talk about the comforts of faith and how they came to us, people pay attention. Have you had that experience? People say, "What led you to be so involved in your church?" People fairly often ask me what led me to leave behind my maritime career and pursue ministry. People like those stories. When we tell them that we were down (or up) and we felt the comforting presence of the Almighty. When we talk about being forgiven and feeling forgiven, people realize our faith is alive. Often they express admiration, sometimes envy. And occasionally scorn.
Jesus knew this about people, even people in the year 2018.So he picked fishermen who understood that faith, like making a living on the water, can be a dangerous enterprise. It can both excite and disturb. But we keep trying. We reel in our lines or we draw in our nets and try again.
I would like to share with you another analogy between fishing and faith. When we lived in Alaska one year I decided to take a leave from my job and see about becoming a fisherman. I had a friend who had a seine fishing boat and he agreed to put me to work--without pay or share, since I was green --to see if I liked it. I loved it except for one thing. When we motored up to the cannery scow or into the cannery itself to offload our catch, these beautiful fish, shiny and fat, were not worth much. As hard as we worked, and as short as the season was, I couldn't imagine how someone could make a living, much less pay off a boat.
But the image I want to leave with you about fishing is from pulling in a seine net full of salmon. A seine net is drawn off the stern of a boat by a small skiff that takes the net in a large circle, usually a thousand feet or 1500 feet in diameter. Slowly the net is drawn back in until the seine is a small circle at the stern of the boat, ready to be lifted aboard.
If the seine is set in the right place, the net is full of perhaps five hundred fish, writhing and squirming because they can tell the net is not their friend. Looking over the stern of the boat into that closely drawn seine I felt something like I had never felt before, something so visceral and fully charged, so potent, so full of life.
On reflection I think I felt like the disciples who were fishing and striking out when Jesus told them to throw the net over the other side of the boat and they brought in a catch that almost broke the net. That experience certainly showed them he knew what he was talking about!
But the actual analogy I'm trying to make, to line up with my staring into this net full of life, is what I experience in church, here with you. We're alive in faith, we are invigorated by one another, we recognize this in each other and, sometimes, even in ourselves. That's why showing up in church is so important. If you weren't here and I wasn't here, who would reveal the faith to those in a quandary, those unsure or uncomfortable? It is our job, just like it was the job, or calling, of the disciples.
In addition to fish, however, our readings this morning concern the seriousness of God's calling. God calls us to do God's will and, in case you dozed through the Jonah reading, God isn't kidding. God called Jonah to set straight the people of Ninevah. Jonah gave them the message and they cleaned up their act. They donned sackcloth and ashes and stopped their evil ways.
That's as far as today's lesson goes. But if you would like some serious Biblical delight, read the book of Jonah, all two and a half pages of it, including footnotes. If you're interested in God's calling, check out God's call to Jonah to go to Ninevah. First Jonah said no. He went the opposite of where God asked him to go. Jonah skipped out on a boat and God sent a huge storm to nearly sink the boat. The crew figured out Jonah was the cause of their catastrophic situation, so they threw Jonah overboard, only for him to be gobbled up by a big fish--supposedly not a whale. The big fish delivered Jonah to the shore three days later. God asked Jonah again to go to Ninevah. That's where today's lesson starts.
After the people of Ninevah shape up because Jonah warned them so well of God's displeasure, Jonah pouted. He wanted God's punishment to rain down on Ninevah, rather than God's mercy because they had repented. God tried to make Jonah see that God's will was not his to distribute, it was God's. Jonah didn't buy it, so God gave him a little lecture at the end of the chapter.
The point is that God calls us to do as God wants us to do, not as we choose to interpret what God wants us to do. For us, as Christians, this becomes a fairly simple matter. We know God wants us to love God and love our neighbor. That's the point. God isn't kidding. When we deviate it is simple enough to understand that we are not pleasing God. So we step back for a minute, and, as Jonah failed to do, we imagine that perhaps God is pleased that the people of Ninevah took Jonah's advice, so God chose not to punish them for what they did beforehand.
When we take responsibility to fish for people on behalf of Jesus we live into our true place in life. We share our understandings and our confidence in the Almighty. We can talk about our relationship with Jesus because we sought it and furthered it by regular communication in prayer. We give others the hope of faith, starting with the hope they can attain it, then the hope that comes from knowing God loves them, is not bent on punishing, and wants no more from us than to spread the Good News. Amen
A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY, Jan. 21, 2018 by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector