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The first day they go fishing they don't catch a thing. The same thing happens on the second day, and on the third day. It goes on like this until finally, on the last day of their vacation, one of the men finally catches a fish.
As they drive home, they are both really depressed. One turns to the other and says, "Do you realize that this one lousy fish we caught cost us fifteen hundred dollars?"
"Wow!" says the other, "It's a good thing we didn't catch any more!"
Another one. A man was stopped by a game-warden in a State Park with two buckets of fish leaving a lake well known for its fishing. The game warden asked, "Do you have a license to catch those fish?"
The man replied to the game warden, "No, sir. These are my pet fish."
"Pet fish?" the warden replied.
"Yes, sir. Every night I take these here fish down to the lake and let them swim around for a while. I whistle and they jump back into their buckets, and I take 'em home."
"That's a bunch of hooey! Fish can't do that!"
The man looked at the game warden for a moment, and then said, "Here, I'll show you. It really works."
"OK. I've GOT to see this!" The game warden was curious.
The man poured the fish into the river and stood and waited. After several minutes, the game warden turned to the man and said, "Well?"
"Well, what?" the man responded.
"When are you going to call them back?" the game warden prompted.
"Call who back?" the man asked.
"What fish?" the man asked.
Last one. The Reverend Dr. McStuffedshirt encountered one of his less-than-faithful parishioners returning from a day's fishing and engaged him in conversation. "Ah, Brother Jones," he began in his best preaching tone, "You are a fine fisherman, but I am a fisher of men."
Jones, determined to get home after a long day, replied, "So I have heard. But I was passing your church last Sunday, looked in the window, and noticed you had not caught too many..."
Too true. Too true. Of course, our lesson is the source of that "fisher of men" designation. It too is a "fish story" of sorts. It starts out with Jesus being pursued by the curious crowd, folks who have heard about this amazing young man - his healing miracles, casting out demons. What does he have to say? So they press close, as the text says, "listening to the word of God."
Too close, actually. Closer and closer to the water's edge they come, finally prompting Jesus to impress into service a beached fishing boat belonging to an acquaintance named Simon, whose mother-in-law he had recently healed.
Simon was quick to agree. He had been quietly washing his nets, his head angled to catch the words of Rabbi Jesus. Those words may be all he catches today, he thinks to himself. After all, he and his partners had been out fishing all night and had caught nothing but an occasional nap. So Jesus climbs in, Simon pushes off, and the teaching continues.
We have no clue as to how long the preaching and teaching continues, but for awhile we expect. Finally, it is over. Simon and his mates are ready to get home for some shut-eye in preparation for another night's work - after all, night time, especially the early morning hours before dawn, is best for fishing, even if LAST night was not so good. Instead, Jesus says, "Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch."
"Say what?" Simon thinks to himself. "This is not the time to be fishing, and the fish are not biting today anyway. And besides, this rabbi might be special in SOME things, but he is a carpenter, not a fisherman. Let's go HOME!"
But something about this Jesus overcomes the reluctance. "Master, we've worked hard all night and haven't caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets." He beckons to his partners, James and John, and together they sail the two boats out from shore.
Now the fish story. The catch is humongous. Too big for one boat, and even for the two boats together: so many flopping, slippery fish that the boats are in danger of going under. Simon has never seen anything like it. "WHOA! This rabbi is something!" As the gospel account has it, "he fell at Jesus' knees and said, 'Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!'"
The rabbi only smiles. "Don't be afraid; from now on you will catch people." Or in the words of the old Sunday School ditty that comes from this story, "I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men..." And the conclusion is simple: "So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him."
Which is more the miracle here? The incredible catch of fish? Or the incredible catch of these men? They drop it all, give it all up - their business, their home, their way of life, and, if tradition is correct, their very lives themselves - all to follow Jesus. To "catch people." And down through two millennia of Christian history, that is how every generation of followers of Jesus have understood our calling - to catch people. The word for that is "evangelism," a word that makes good Presbyterians turn pale and start fanning themselves. Paul Harvey has noted, "Too many Christians are no longer fishers of men but keepers of the aquarium."(1)
There are several ways to interpret that phrase, "catch people." We could think of ourselves as the ones casting the nets - we spread the word far and wide in hopes that we will bring in another huge catch like the one that day at Gennesaret. Legitimate. Or we could think of ourselves as the net - we are the instrument the Lord uses to gather them in. Also legitimate. But I wonder whether we might not better think of ourselves in terms of BAIT. Fish bait. Unless they are born into the fellowship, that is, after all, the way new disciples are brought into the life of the church. Something attracts them, and most often it is you and me. Eighty percent of the people who join churches say they do it because someone - a friend or a relative - invited them. For good or ill, we are BAIT.
A rural congregation stood near the intersection of five country roads. When the new pastor stuck red pins in a map to locate where the members lived, he noticed the majority clustered along the north/south road. While visiting an older parish member one day, the pastor asked, "Why do so many of our members live on the north/south road and not east or west?"
"Years ago," she replied, "Joe and Melva Quimley lived up on the north road. Then they bought a farm on the south road and moved down there. The Quimleys were friendly, outgoing, delightful people. They were always inviting people to church. Not everyone they invited came, but some did!"(2) Good bait.
Another old fish story. A cold winter day. An old man walked out onto a frozen lake, cut a hole in the ice, dropped in his fishing line, and waited patiently for a bite. He was there for almost an hour, without even a nibble, when a young boy walked out onto the ice, cut a hole in the ice next to him. The lad dropped his fishing line and minutes later he hooked a Largemouth Bass. The old man could not believe his eyes but chalked it up to plain luck.
Shortly thereafter, the young boy pulled in another large catch. He kept catching fish after fish. Finally, the old man could take it no longer. "Son," he said, "I have been here for over an hour without even a nibble. You have been here only a few minutes and have caught a half dozen fish! How do you do it?"
The boy responded, "Roo raf roo reep ra rums rrarm."
"What was that?" the old man asked.
Again the boy responded, "Roo raf roo reep ra rums rarrm."
"Look," said the old man, "I can't understand a word you're saying."
The boy leaned over, brought his hand to his mouth and spat out a mess of bait. He said again, "You have to keep the worms warm!"
You know, there may well be a lesson in that for us too. If we are going to "catch people" as Jesus said, we had better use attractive bait. What do the people we are trying to catch see in us that would make them want to be here with us? Anything? I hope. But I know all too well that what some out there see from church folks is not very attractive at all. What was in the paper yesterday? Another story about the Episcopal battle over the consecration of a gay bishop, one from a Catholic diocese in the midwest about how they are NOT going to do background checks on staff who deal with children, one about Baptists in North Carolina who are talking about not wanting to work anymore with other Baptists with whom they disagree.(3) Hmm.
This past week I read a fascinating book that has been on my list for a couple of years but I just now got around to it. It was written by a magazine columnist and author, Barbara Ehrenreich, who decided to investigate what it is like trying to survive in this land of plenty on a relatively low or even minimum wage in a job that would be fairly far down on the employment ladder. The book is called Nickel and Dimed: on (not) Getting By in America.(4) She found herself doing a number of jobs: house cleaning, a nursing home aide, a retail clerk, and so on. In Florida she worked for a time as a waitress in a greasy spoon diner. She wrote of her encounters with bosses, co-workers, customers. She brought me up short with this though:
The worst, for some reason, are the Visible Christians, like the ten-person table, all jolly and sanctified after Sunday night service, who run me mercilessly and then leave me $1 on a $92 bill. Or the guy with the crucifixion T-shirt (SOMEONE TO LOOK UP TO) who complains that his baked potato is too hard and his iced tea too icy (I cheerfully fix both) and leaves no tip at all. As a general rule, people wearing crosses or WWJD? ("What Would Jesus Do?") buttons look at us disapprovingly no matter what we do, as if they were confusing waitressing with Mary Magdalene's original profession.(5)I doubt that her description would fit many Presbyterians, but you and I both know folks like that. Talk about your rotten bait!
As her account moves forward, Barbara talks of working for a maid service in Portland, Maine. Not much money, of course, and none for weekend entertainment. One Saturday night, to escape her fleabag accommodations (all she could afford, of course), she went to a Pentecostal tent revival. Lots of singing and clapping, fiery preaching attacking "this wicked city" for not turning out more souls to the revival..."which costs money, you know; this tent didn't just put itself up - We're talking overhead..." She writes,
The preaching goes on, interrupted with dutiful "amens." It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage. But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man...is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.(6)Well, no it is not, Barbara, but your point is well taken.
One day long ago, Jesus came down by the water, followed by a curious crowd. There was an encounter with some fishermen, a huge catch of fish, and finally an invitation to "catch people." And so it has ever been.
Now, please, be careful about the bait.
1. Bible Illustrator for Windows, (Hiawatha, IO: Parsons Technology, 1994)
2. Pastor Bill Mains, Trinity Lutheran Church, South Milwaukee, WI, sermon entitled, "Fishin'", via Ecunet, Sermonshop Sermons, Note #4333, 2/5/04 quoted from "The Parish Paper: A Resource For Congregational Leaders" edited by Herb Miller and Lyle Schaller, vol. 11, no. 7, January 2004
3. Warren Times-Observer, 2/7/04, C 3
4. Henry Holt & Co.: New York, 2002
5. Ehrenreich, p. 36
6. ibid., pp. 68-69