A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on the Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 22, 2012
Jonah 3: 1-10 Mark 1: 14-20
The text we’ve heard from the gospel of Mark is a familiar one to say the least. Jesus calls out to men who are fishing and says, “Come follow me.” They leave their nets immediately and follow. Seems clear enough, right? The sermons I’ve heard over the years usually take one of three approaches. Maybe you’ve heard them. I want you to raise your hand if you have heard a sermon about this passage where the point is:
(a) We must put Christ first in our lives; being ready to leave what we’re doing at his call
(b) We are to win people to Christ; we are to invite others to join us in following Jesus
(c) Jesus was truly of God; his presence was compelling, thus demonstrating that he was more than human.
Well it’s not that all those points aren’t important or interesting. And it’s not that we couldn’t use a reminder from a good old passage about our need to uphold the first commandment, spread the gospel and believe in Jesus’ power. It’s just that, have you ever wondered why fishing and fisherfolk were so important to Jesus? And the promise that Jesus gives to these new followers: I will make you fish for people. It’s catchy, but could there be something more? Why all this interest in fishing?
For those of us who fish recreationally, the idea of “goin’ fishin’” is an appealing one. We conjure up tranquil hours on the water, perhaps with friends. Or we remember baiting a hook with our son or daughter and the excitement of the first catch. It’s pleasant, enjoyable – something that takes us away from our everyday lives and the drudgery of work. Plenty of refrigerator magnets and “away signs” on office doors say “gone fishin’.” Like Huck Finn, trolling as he poles his raft down the sleepy Mississippi, fishing is something joyful, leisurely, and restorative.
For those of us who fish for a living, well it’s another matter. Early morning risings, navigating treacherous waters, hard, physical tasks of netting and hauling, days, weeks even months away from family, exposure to the elements – and pay that’s dependant on what you are able to catch and who else you owe a portion of that catch. It’s a rough, exhausting adventure – requiring dependence on your shipmates, allowances for the weather, and a wing and a prayer sometimes to get home safely.
An interesting part of the passage this morning is that Jesus calls real fishermen – poor men who would have engaged in fishing as a matter of survival for their families, who would have had to pay a goodly portion of their catch to middle-men, poor men who knew better than to leave their nets and the valuable catch sitting on the lakeshore.
But the passage turns on how Jesus calls these real fishermen to forswear real fishing for metaphorical fishing. The whole passage turns on the metaphor: I will make you fishers of people.
Sometimes in the church we can focus so much attention upon Jesus that we can miss the context in which Jesus lived and ministered. Jesus doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere. He’s a poor, Jewish man, growing up in Roman occupied Palestine. He would have heard the Torah and the prophets read during worship and to some degree, he may also have studied them in community with other rabbis – other Pharisees or teachers of the law. So it behooves us to ask the question: where do we find the metaphor of fishing used in the Hebrew Bible? And how is it used?
One of the places we find the metaphor of fishing for people used is in the book of Jeremiah. You see, when the prophet Jeremiah looked at his world, he saw the wealthy who thought their possessions would protect them from the growing political disaster and he saw the devastation of the earth itself. And God’s word came to Jeremiah. God said, “I am now sending for many fishers, and they shall catch the people of Israel.” To be caught by God’s fishers is not a good thing. It means to be found where we should not be, doing what we should not do.
Another place we find the metaphor of fishing is in the book of Amos. The prophet Amos looked upon a society that was not only deeply divided by wealth, but also blind to its own responsibilities before God: he saw the righteous sold for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes, and he saw the wealthy and unconcerned women of Bashan (a province? A town?) refuse to care for their neighbors even while calling for their husbands to get them more trinkets and luxuries. And Amos imagined these women as cows grazing in a field. And hurled the following invective, “The time is surely coming upon you when you shall be taken away with fishhooks…” heavy cows carried away like a pile of stinking fish, away from comfort into exile. To be caught by God’s fishers is not a good thing. It means being dragged into exile.
And but fifty years after this, the prophet Ezekiel confronted the Pharaoh of Egypt. For the Pharaoh had arrogantly claimed, “My Nile is my own, I made it for myself.” Because the Pharaoh refused to acknowledge the first principle of stewardship, namely “the earth is God’s and all that is in it,” Ezekiel pronounced the following judgment: “Thus says God: I am against you, Pharaoh King of Egypt . . . I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your channels stick to your scales.” To be caught by God’s fishers is not a good thing; the things you presume are yours by right, will become worthless.
In the Hebrew Bible, fishing is a metaphor for judgment. Fishing is a metaphor for judgment. To go fishing, is not to go have a relaxing time with friends in a lovely place and think about all the blessings God has given you. To go fishing, is not even to work yourself to the bone to provide for your family. To go fishing, means to render judgment in God’s name, upon society and its members. It is to call others and the public at large to account for how far our lives and our world are from God’s intention.
Now before we all hepped up in a righteous lather about pronouncing doom and gloom upon others, we should remember our other story from the Hebrew Bible today. The story of Jonah. In this big fish story, we find that the prophet himself is angry at God for sparing the people of Ninevah. He pitches a fit. After all, it looks like his prophecy was not true because, after a bit of sackcloth and ashes, God lets Ninevah live. God doesn’t wipe them off the face of the earth. God shows mercy. And this, well this really ticks Jonah off. In chapter 4 verse 2, Jonah lets it rip, “Oh Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
God is merciful. And sometimes, frankly we’d rather that God not be so merciful. In fact God is so merciful, that God’s very judgment is mercy. It’s enough to drive us around the bend. It’s cheap, God. It’s not fair. And don’t ask me to be a part of this mercy stuff because people don’t learn if you just keep showing them mercy. Why don’t you wake up God?! After all these years, don’t you know that people will take what they can take and if you offer them a ticket to ride, well they’re sure as heck going to ride for all its worth. And forget about other people God, don’t you know that I’m going to screw it up again? I’ve got a lousy track record – even when I’m trying. Why don’t you just move along, go call somebody else. Go bother somebody else. I’m not worth it.
Who knows what was going through the fishermen’s minds when Jesus ambles by the lakeside. Who knows what they and their families had suffered. Powerless pawns in a time when their lives were determined by the power and opulence of Rome, had they simply resigned themselves to a life of survival? A life of getting by? Had they narrowed their horizons to the borders of their own family and figured, well, I can’t do much about the rest of this crazy world, but I’ll work my hardest to make sure the people I love can survive? Or maybe they were looking, awake, alert for others who were similarly frustrated and uncertain with what to do next. And when they heard this rabbi, in him they heard their hopes and dreams for a world where God’s covenant of love and justice would be known and shown.
Jesus calls poor fishermen by the lakeside. He calls them to come follow him – not simply to pass judgment on the unaccountable wealth, exploitation, and arrogance of first century Rome – but to join him in creating a more just and loving world as God intended. And Jesus calls out to us this morning, inviting us to a challenging adventure; asking us not simply to pass judgment on others or on ourselves but to repent and to invite others to also turn from those ways of living that exploit, degrade or humiliate. To turn from those ways and turn toward the covenant care toward one another and our earth that God intends. Becoming fishers of people is a vocation – it’s not simply something we do with our leisure nor is it simply a profession. It is both a calling and a choice. This day, let’s hang a “gone fishin” sign on the doors of our old lives and start fresh with Jesus to build within our family, our work, our neighborhoods and our nation relationships of love and joy and justice. Amen.