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In the American Presbyterian Church, the observance of Lent is relatively new (so if you wonder what it is all about, you are not alone). As I mentioned at our Ash Wednesday service this week, in my own early years, my only contact with the period came through my Roman Catholic playmates - I learned that Lent involved some sort of self-denial; my pals were supposed to "give up" this or that "for Lent."
A Catholic Priest working in the inner city was walking down an alley one evening on his way home. Suddenly a young man jumped out of the shadows and poked a knife against his back. "Give me your money," the young man said. The priest opened his jacket and reached into an inner pocket to remove his wallet, exposing his clerical collar. "Oh, I'm sorry, Father," said the young man, "I didn't see your collar. I don't want YOUR money."
Trembling from the scare, the priest removed a cigar from his shirt pocket and offered it to the young man. "Here," he said. "Have a cigar."
"Oh, no, I can't do that," the young man replied. "I gave them up for Lent." Uh-huh.
A few notes on the lesson. This first Sunday in Lent always recounts the Temptation of Jesus. Interesting. Temptation is all around, isn't it? Oscar Wilde is quoted as saying, "I can resist everything -- except temptation!" Humorist Robert Orben has observed, "Most people want to be delivered from temptation but would like to keep in touch." Perhaps, as we begin this unique period in the church year during which we are called to a rigorous self-examination, the church reads again the story as a reminder that temptation can engulf us all.
Mark's account is not nearly so detailed as Matthew's or Luke's. This gospel writer jumps almost immediately from Jesus' baptism - his "commissioning" service - to the forty days in the wilderness, to the recruitment of his followers. We meet Simon, Andrew, James, and John - names with which the world has become familiar over two millennia of Christian history - but, in their own day, were just average folk. It was Abraham Lincoln who said, "God must love the common people - He made so many of them." (2) 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 presently.
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. Jesus had a task for them. "I will make you FISH FOR PEOPLE! 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.
Now, I freely admit that I know a lot more about many 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 to not "fish for people" - they say they do not know anyone who is not already "caught," already a part of Christ's church. Perhaps. At least at some time in the past, perhaps. But the sad truth is that, even here in the Bible belt, half the people you and I know are effectively unchurched. That means that they have not attended worship, other than a Christmas or an Easter, a wedding or funeral, at any time in the past six months. 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. 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, or these days, 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. (3)Good lesson for those who "fish for people" 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. If you want to be successful as you "fish for people" you 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."
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! God can and does use the strangest witnesses to accomplish the kingdom's purpose.
I love this story. This man was not well educated and his manner was somewhat rough and crude, but he became a Christian and took his commitment seriously. He kept pestering his pastor to put him to work. Finally, the minister handed him a list of ten names with this explanation: "These are all members of the church, but they seldom attend. Some of them are prominent people in the community. Contact them about being more faithful. Here is some church stationary to write letters. Get them back in church."
The man accepted the challenge with rugged determination and enthusiasm. About three weeks later a letter from a prominent physician whose name had been on the list arrived at the church office. Inside was a large check and a brief note: "Dear Pastor, Enclosed is my check for $1,000 to help make up for my missing church so much, but be assured that I will be present this Lord's Day and each Lord's Day following. I will not by choice miss services again. Sincerely... P.S. Would you please tell your secretary that there is only one `T' in dirty and no `C' in Skunk."
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. Fishing requires 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," says Jesus, "and I will make you fish for people." 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, LET'S GO FISHING.
We live in an exceedingly mobile society...nothing is nailed down, change is a constant, it is SCARY out there. But if times of transition and change are good moments to extend our nets in the name of Jesus, what might we do? LET'S GO FISHING!
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, so LET'S GO FISHING.
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, let's just do it. LET'S GO FISHING.
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 it. Get up. Get on with it. LET'S GO FISHING.
One day, long ago, Jesus said to some friends, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." They dropped what they were doing and came along. Now Jesus says to 21st century friends as we come to the Table at the beginning of a Lenten journey, "Follow me and I will make YOU fish for people." Our response? How about, "OK, Lord. Let's do it. LET'S GO FISHING."
1. Fred A. Grissom, "Lent," Holman Bible Dictionary, Electronic Edition (Parsons Technologies, 1994)
2. Quoted by William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, Daily Study Bible Series, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956), p. 19
3. G. Duane Baun via Ecunet, "Gospel Notes for Next Sunday," #2946, 1/24/97