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Unruffled, the old man began to move the fishing pole from side to side. Finally, he lifted the line out of the water. Pointing to a minnow wriggling on the end of the line, he said, "Just teaching him how to swim."(1)
Mark Twain once spent a pleasant three weeks in the Maine woods but was now on his way home. As he was making himself comfortable in the train on the way back to New York, a sour-faced New Englander sat down next to him, and the two struck up a conversation. "Been to the woods, have ye?" asked the stranger.
"I have indeed," replied Twain. "And let me tell you something. It may be closed season for fishing up here in Maine, but I have a couple of hundred pounds of the finest rock bass you ever saw iced down in the baggage car. By the way, who are you, sir?"
"I'm the state game warden. Who are you?" was the reply.
Said Twain, "Pleased to meet you. Who am I? Only the biggest liar in these United States."(2)
Two ardent fishermen met on their vacation and began swapping stories about the different places they had fished, the kind of tackle used, the best bait, and finally about some of the fish they had caught. One of them told of a vicious battle he once had with a 300-pound salmon. The other man listened attentively. He frankly admitted he had never caught anything quite that big. However, he told about the time his hook snagged a lantern from the depths of a lake. The lantern carried a tag proving it was lost back in 1912. But the strangest thing of all was the fact that it was a waterproof lantern and the light was still lit.
For a long time the first man said nothing. Then he took one long deep breath. "I'll tell you what I'll do," he said slowly. "I'll take 200 pounds off my fish, if you'll put out the light in your lantern."(3)
Fish stories. Gotta love 'em. What brings them to mind this morning are these lectionary texts - the Gospel lesson with Jesus' call to four fishermen who he says he will make into "fishers of men," and the Old Testament text from the mother of all fish stories, Jonah. I would like to share a few thoughts about the texts and then move on to consider this "fishers of men" phrase and what that might mean for us today.
A few notes on the lesson. First, the players. Simon, Andrew, James, and John - names with which the world has become familiar over two millennia of Christian history - but, in their own day, just average folks. It was Abraham Lincoln who said, "God must love the common people - He made so many of them."(4) And the selection of these first disciples is just one more affirmation that God USES common people - just like you and me - to get the work of the kingdom done. A bit scary for us, perhaps, because we are talking BIG responsibility here. But more on that in a minute.
Where were these folks when Jesus called them? Church? Synagogue? Some spiritual retreat? No. They were at work - catching fish, mending nets - going about their normal routine. Jesus is not limited to church; he can and often does meet us in the midst of our everyday lives.
What did Jesus call them to do? "Follow me." Not worship me...FOLLOW me. Tag along. "Hang" with me. No doubt these men had encountered this fascinating preacher before. "No doubt they had stood in the crowd and listened; no doubt they had stayed to talk long after the rest of the crowd had drifted away. No doubt they already had felt the magic of his presence."(5) Perhaps there is a lesson there in how folks become disciples. Just being around Jesus. Picking up on the things that Jesus thinks are important. Seeing what Jesus cares about...and what he gets upset about. Learning what his priorities are. The more time we spend with Jesus - prayer, Bible study, the fellowship of the body of Christ - the better disciples we become.
One more point to note: Jesus had a task for them. I will make you FISHERS OF MEN! You have some skills already; now put them to work in the service of the Kingdom! And this is the primary task of Christian disciples - cast the nets, bait the hooks, reach OUTSIDE of the boat. I wish I could say that the church through the centuries has taken that task seriously, but we know better. For what it is worth, the story of Jonah offers some perverse comfort in the realization that reluctant witness is nothing new. Perhaps we would improve if we analyzed the problem and then found some ways to do a better job and handle this BIG responsibility we mentioned a moment ago.
Now, most of you are aware that I know a lot more about many more things than fishing, but even one who has spent little time with a rod & reel can see a few basics. For example, you cannot catch any fish if there are none to be caught. Makes sense. And that IS the excuse many folks use for not being "fishers of men" - they say they do not know anyone who is not already "caught," already a part of Christ's church. Want to know the facts? Listen. Since 1991, the adult population in the United States has grown by 15%. During that same period the number of adults who do not attend church has nearly doubled, rising from 39 million to 75 million - a 92% increase! Hmm. These statistics come from The Barna Group, a company that follows trends related to faith, culture and leadership in America. The latest study shows that the percentage of adults that is unchurched - defined as not having attended a Christian church service, other than for a holiday service, such as Christmas or Easter, or for special events such as a wedding or funeral, at any time in the past six months - has risen from 21% in 1991 to 34% today.(6) If you are worried about there being no fish out there, don't. There are gracious plenty.
Another basic: it helps to know when the fish are biting. During warmer months, some TV weathercasters even give the best times of the day for anglers to be out on the water. How about the "fish" that Jesus sends us after? One of the best opportunities is at a moment of transition. Perhaps a birth or a death, new home, new job, NO job. One cyberfriend of mine writes,
The dedicated fishermen in my parish...are ever watchful and sensitive to change - they watch the currents in the water, sniff the air for moisture, aware of changes in weather as lows and highs invade the atmosphere, watch the terrain under the boat looking for habitat that contain the fish. And they change - when the circumstances change going deeper in the water, switching lures when light intensity in the water changes or when they are in clear water vs darker water.(7)Good lesson for "fishers of men" as well. Be sensitive to the changes in people's lives that might make them hungry for a word of good news.
Speaking of hunger, that brings to mind another basic: bait. You have to have something to attract the fish. It might be a flashy lure or some mouthwateringly scrumptious worm (gag), but to expect the fish to just jump in the boat for no reason will not work. Successful "fishers of men" will offer something to attract. For example, an invitation to "Come to church with me sometime" will rarely work. It is too easy to say "Sure" to that and never give it another thought. Instead, invite your friend to something particular: a special event or a distinctive worship service (Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Mothers Day), some outstanding program. Be creative, but be specific. That way someone must actually make a decision, rather than put you off with a meaningless "Sure."
Some time back the Alban Institute published a report called, "Why Some Churches Don't Grow: Factors That Might Motivate Those Not Interested in Growth." It was funded by a Lutheran organization and focused on Lutheran congregations,(8) but their observations cover the mainline spectrum. The report concludes,
How easy it is for us to forget what draws people to congregations in the first place, namely their hunger for an authentic encounter with God, one which has a transformative effect on their lives. The... congregations in our study were much more intent on maintaining their corporate life than they were on offering transformative experiences for either visitors or long-term members...A basic assumption...appeared to be, "If we serve our own people well, outsiders will see this and want to become insiders." [Sound familiar?] Missing completely was any desire to find out about the spiritual needs of outsiders or to see if their congregation had resources to meet those needs. Also missing was any sort of strategy for reaching the unchurched of their area.Somebody want to check the bait box again?
By the way, there is an ancillary bit of advice for those of you reluctant people-fishers who are afraid you might be using the wrong bait; in other words, saying the wrong thing. Worry not! Remember Jonah! There was nothing winsome or attractive about his message to Ninevah, but look what happened - the whole city was converted. My point is that God can and does use the strangest witnesses to accomplish the kingdom's purpose. Let yourself go - bait the hook, cast the net, reach out - in the name of the one who called those first fishermen on the shores of Galilee.
One final bit of fishing advice (and I say final only because of time considerations - whole books of advice for anglers are out there). Be patient. No one can be successful at fishing without perseverance. If you give up after a few minutes, a few casts, without any bites or nibbles, you will never catch any fish. 'Tis the same in fishing for people: you have to keep on casting, keep on extending the invitation, sometimes adjusting the bait. Give your efforts time to make an impact, then let the Holy Spirit do the rest.
"Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men," says Jesus. And Paul Harvey has noted, "Too many Christians are no longer fishers of men but keepers of the aquarium."(9) Sad. Max Lucado has a wonderful story in one of his books (I wish I could remember which one!) about a boy who went fishing with his Dad and his best friend. Torrential rains kept them from doing any fishing for the entire week they had planned to fish. They got on each others nerves and ended up nearly killing each other. His moral was that when those who are called to fish, don't fish, they fight.(10) A word to the wise. Or in biblical language, "Let anyone who has an ear HEAR!"
"Follow me," says Jesus. Tag along. "Hang" with me. A simple, straight-forward invitation which we can echo. And when we DO, it makes all the difference in the world. For all the allure of fancy church buildings, the charm of the world's greatest preacher who pastors the world's friendliest congregation, they pale in comparison to the hand of the person who reaches out to their friend, neighbor, or colleague, and says, "Come with me." Statistics are overwhelming, better than 70%, in the response people gave when asked why they joined a church - they said that someone had asked them.(11)
Are you ready to launch out? The word is that there ARE fish out there, LOTS of them...lots more than we might suspect. What are we going to do about it? How about, with the help of God, GOIN' FISHIN'?
We live in an exceedingly mobile society...nothing is nailed down, change is a constant. But if times of transition and change are good moments to extend our nets in the name of Jesus, what might we do? How about GOIN' FISHIN'?
What makes fish want to swim our way? The bait. And how do the fish get hold of the bait? They get it when we bring it to them, when we are GOIN' FISHIN'.
But suppose we are not very good at preparing our hook, or heaven forbid, our bait is bad? No problem. The witness of both scripture and history is that God can use some strange bait to get the fishing done. Not knowing how or being afraid of doing it incorrectly is no excuse to keep us from GOIN' FISHIN'.
Finally, remember patience. God does not work according to our Timex, even in getting fish to respond to our efforts. Stick with the program. Do not let discouragement keep you from GOIN' FISHIN'.
One day, long ago, Jesus said to some friends, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." They dropped what they were doing and came along. Now Jesus says to 21st century friends, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." Our response? How about, "OK, Lord. Let's do it. We're GOIN' FISHIN'."
1. Jacob M. Braude, Braude's Treasury of Humor, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964), p. 78
2. James C. Humes, Podium Humor, (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), pp. 189-190
3. Braude, ibid.
4. Quoted by William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, Daily Study Bible Series, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956), p. 19
5. Barclay, p.20
6. "Number of Unchurched Adults Has Nearly Doubled Since 1991," 5/4/04, http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdateNarrow&BarnaUpdateID=163
7. G. Duane Baun via Ecunet, "Gospel Notes for Next Sunday," #2946, 1/24/97
8. Brian Stoffregen, Rock Springs, WY via Ecunet, "Gospel Notes for Next Sunday, #2918, 1/20/97
9. Bible Illustrator for Windows, (Hiawatha, IO: Parsons Technology, 1994)
10. Charlie Ellis via Ecunet, "Sermonshop Discussion," #1613, 1/22/97
11. Jim Boldman via Ecunet, "Gospel Notes for Next Sunday, #2937 ,1/23 /97