Sermon for January 21, 2018: Gone fishing (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Updated: Aug 13, 2021
If you Google “How many fishermen are there in the United States,” you get two types of answers. First, you get the number of people who reported “going fishing” in 2017 (approximately 50 million). Such folks are referred to as “anglers” – people who fish as a form of recreation. The second statistic is about the fishing industry, which supported 1.3 million jobs in the same year. That’s a big difference in numbers – and I bet there is a big difference between the people in those two categories. For the first group, fishing is a sport or hobby, something that is relaxing and fun and, as a result, whether or not you do well when you fish is not that important. The people in the second group, however, need to get good results on their expeditions. For them, fishing is probably not fun or relaxing but back breaking and dangerous work - work that feeds and clothes them and their families. For “fishermen,” results are critical.
Which made me wonder: what kind of fishers did Jesus expect us to be? Jesus’s invitation to “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” is one of the most famous phrases in scripture, although it is more famously translated as, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Apparently, in an effort to be less sexist, it was changed which, in this case, is too bad - because the older translation is actually more accurate to the original Greek – and there’s a big difference in the meaning. To me, “Fishing for people” suggests some kind of recreational endeavor – the kind that “anglers” do. On the other hand, becoming a “fisher,” suggests an entire change in identify, one that would make you a lot more invested in how you do with your fishing.
It’s kind of like being a prophet. It is perhaps one thing for God to ask you to deliver a message for him. It’s another thing for God to tell you to prophesy- to proclaim her word to the people – especially if it’s bad news. That’s the position that Jonah found himself in when God ordered him to go to Nineveh – one of the scariest and most dangerous places in his world (and, by the way, in ours. What the scriptures call “Nineveh” is now part of the Mosul region of Iraq). Most people think they know the story of Jonah– that he ran from God, “fell” off a boat (he was actually thrown) and was swallowed by a whale (it wasn’t a “whale.” Scripture simply says, “big fish”)”- but they probably can’t tell you what Jonah was running from. It was God – and his command to go to Nineveh and prophesy its destruction. Jonah’s story is unique among prophetic books because “it is primarily a narrative about a prophet’s adventures rather than a collection of prophetic utterances…The story portrays the human response to the call of God rather than focusing on the causes for the call.” Jonah, like many human beings before and after him, did not want to answer God’s call. He was so resistant to “fishing for people,” that he ended up getting eaten by a fish himself! Speaking as someone who resisted her own call to ordained ministry for 30 years, he’s a guy after my own heart!
I’m not the only one. Answering a call from God is a terrifying thing. First of all, God does not usually ask for small things, although that is often what we offer. God does not ask us to donate the clothing we have grown out of and can’t use anymore. God does not ask us to spend our spare time reading books we enjoy to underprivileged children. God does not ask us to pledge the salary difference we received because we got a raise. God does not ask us to do what we can. God asks us to do what we can’t. God asks us for nothing less than everything we have. God asks us to have faith.
It is common to use the word “faith” as a substitute for “belief,” but many theologians have suggested that “the fundamental question of faith is not ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘Whom do you trust’? In [the psalm we read today] the psalmist confesses and exhorts trust in God as the only sensible way of orienting one’s life…God alone is worthy of absolute trust and the foundation of persistent hope…Every human effort, finite cause, and mortal relationship is an unsuitable object for our absolute trust…There is no resting place for our hearts, no trustworthy object of hope and meaning other than God…Apart from it, family, work, nation, even church” are fleeting, untrustworthy – vanity.
We know this – but it still seems so risky. What does it really mean “to trust God in a risky, precarious world in which such expressions of trust can easily appear out touch with reality”? Among other things, it means living in two times at once – the “here and now” where we exist on this earthly plain, and the world to come, where the kingdom of God has already been accomplished. It’s a tricky task. For some of us, living in the present is so hard that sometimes it feels impossible to continue. For such individuals, pain, sorrow, and despair are constant companions and the arrival of God’s kingdom is devoutly to be wished. But for many others – maybe even for most of us, if we’re honest- the here and now is not so bad. We have people to love, places to go, and things to protect. It seems unreasonable to ask us to risk these sure comforts for the possibility of a world we can’t really imagine.
It is also exactly what Paul asks the people of Corinth to do – to live as if Jesus is returning tomorrow – to give up their “now” for a “then” that will belong to everyone. He asks us to take the same risk - the risk of trusting that when we do what is hard because it is right, we benefit everyone. Clyde Fant suggests that this is because “when we become preoccupied with social work and good deeds merely in the name of our organization, we run several risks. First, we lose the opportunity to transform others – and ourselves – in the name of Christ and become nothing more than a religious Rotary Club… Furthermore, offering all that we do out of love for Jesus…leads other Christians to similar commitment.”
This is what it means to respond to God’s call. “All through Scripture, the key to faithfulness is responsiveness… [to] hear a call and go; [to receive an invitation] and follow.” Unfortunately, we can’t pick and choose which call we would like to answer. We can’t negotiate with God about what we might or might not like to give up. Trusting in God does not happen without risk. When Jesus called Simon and Andrew, and James and John, he was not asking them to go on a weekend fishing trip with him. He was asking them to change who they were – to leave behind their livelihood, their possessions, and their families to answer God’s call for them.
What is God’s call to you? What will it cost you to answer it? Are you willing to do as Jonah and the people of Nineveh and the disciples did and respond to that call? And what will happen if you do? You may never know in this lifetime, but one thing we do know: you will never know if you do not answer. AMEN.
Joseph L. Price, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 266.
Timothy A. Beach-Verhey, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 274.
Allen C. McSween, Jr., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 276.
Clyde Fant (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 283.
Richard Boyce, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 269.