Kevin Strickland: Fishing in Unusual Places, Finding Faithful Fish

I remember, as a small child, waking up super early, in the darkness, jumping in my dad’s truck with his boat in tow. We always stopped at the same gas station because you could buy a fried egg and bologna sandwich, all at the same time of picking up your container of worms and other supplies for the day’s catch.

We would get in my dad’s boat and go a little way off the shore. He would always tell me to be really quiet because we didn’t want to scare the fish. Little did he know I was more afraid to be out there than the fish. My least favorite part of the fishing trip was having to put the worm on the hook. I just hated the thought of having to touch that slimy thing and kill it. Then we would wait and wait and wait - and not a single bite. I caught more tree limbs on that fishing trip than I did fish.

I learned that day that fishing is not my thing. There is a lot of preparation, waiting, and disappointment in fishing. I also learned years later in reflecting about that day that it really wasn’t about what I was catching; it was about me being caught in time with my dad. That was one of those rare moments where being with him was more important than what we were doing.

And maybe that is why those fisher folk from long ago left their nets to follow Jesus and try fishing for something different. Who knows? But they did. No questions asked. I have always been struck by that tidbit. The fact that these vocationally focused fisher folk left their livelihoods and just followed Jesus and never asked a question. Maybe, it’s because they spent the rest of their time with Jesus doing nothing but asking questions.

Jesus didn’t seem to worry about any of it. When he said, “Follow me,” he apparently wasn’t concerned that these followers might not turn out to be model disciples. Indeed, they were often dense and hard to teach, and on the rare occasions when they did understand him, they would usually try to talk him out of his ideas.

They squabbled about who was the greatest. One of them betrayed him. And no one stuck around when the going got tough.

Jesus simply said, “Follow me,” and something in the way he said it pointed to God so clearly that two, then four, then twelve decided that whatever Jesus had to offer was worth leaving their old lives for. And as far as Jesus was concerned, their willingness to get up and follow was credentials enough. He would make his community out of this diverse, contentious dozen.

Of course, Jesus had to live with this makeshift community of disciples for only three years. And whenever they wandered off course, he was right there to set them straight. The real problems began when he was gone and they had to make decisions for the long haul.

I have always been a little struck by this gospel story. Jesus chose to live in the land near the sea of the “Galilee of the Gentiles.” Jesus chose to be with people who weren’t just like him and, even more so, he chose to be and live among people who were ostracized and alienated by many. Then if that were not enough for one story, Jesus recruits uneducated, hard-working, middle to lower middle-class fishermen. He invited them to come and follow and share God’s good news to the whole world.

But there they were, those hard-working fishermen, confronted by the commanding presence of an itinerant preacher and precious few other facts to go on. Had they heard of him? Had they heard of his baptism in the River Jordan and the dove from heaven and the voice proclaiming him the beloved son and messiah? Maybe. Maybe not. We don’t know.

All we know is that Jesus came out of the wilderness a changed man. He had wrestled with the devil and his own vocation for forty days and he came out of there sure of who he was and what he was left to do. He came out of the wilderness and into the world ready to teach in the synagogues and proclaim the good news of the kingdom; he came out prepared and eager to cure diseases and sicknesses among the people. He came out ready to get to work, and he came out ready to pick some people to work with him.

And so, he strode down the beach. He looked these people in the eye and said, “You, you, you, and you. Yes, you. Come with me. We have work to do.” And they came. For us today it matters not why these men chose to follow Jesus that day. It matters to us that they did, for it was through them, and others like them, that the gospel has come to us.

The Greek word “to follow” literally means “to come behind.” So, when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he is literally saying, “Come behind me.” The command of “come behind me” may be a way of saying, “Make Jesus the most important thing in your life.” Even one’s own self comes in second behind Jesus.

One seminary professor recalls this story. She says, “A student of mine was told by his supervising pastor, while out knocking on doors during an evangelism campaign, ‘Mike, you look like a man knocking on doors, hoping and praying no one answers the door.’ That’s how many of us act at times when Jesus calls us to be disciples and to cast our nets again and again for the catch Jesus calls us to attempt. The disciples did as Jesus suggested, while we say, ‘Please let no one be home’ or ‘Oh wow, I hope no one asks me about my faith.’” [The Rev. Dr. Karen Wiseman of United Lutheran Seminary]

Sharing the message that Jesus did so long ago is our call today as those who have been called to fish. We are called to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is near. We are called to proclaim that love will conquer evil. We are called to remind the world that God isn’t through with us yet. We are called to remind all that the prodigal, lavish, expansive call of God is for all people, even if they feel like the least likely of worthy suspects.

What’s important for us today is that Jesus has issued to us the same invitation, the same call, the same imperial demand to follow, that he issued to them. And you know what? We deserve it as little as they did and understand it even less.

The message is that God in Christ has chosen us, every last one of us, to be his disciples, his followers, his fishers of folk. And God has not chosen us because we are the smartest, or the prettiest, or the richest, or the most popular, or the most likely to succeed. No, God has chosen us because God is God and God is love and God has graciously loved us in spite of ourselves. And when that overwhelming reality suddenly becomes clear to us, all of us then have a moment of epiphany and revelation and realization and find ourselves in the midst of a great light that has pushed back all our darkness and all our night.

And the only rational thing any of us can do at that moment is to lay aside whatever it was we were doing that we thought was so important and give it and ourselves over to God and the Kingdom.

And the strange thing is, when we do that, God turns us around and sends us right back out to do the same thing in the world that we were doing before. But now, we do it differently. We do it knowing we do it not for ourselves, for our own pleasure, or improvement, or material gain; we do it for God. We do it knowing that we are in the world as ambassadors for Christ, as citizens of the Kingdom of God. We do our work and live our lives knowing that the most important things we do are things that help others know that they too are chosen by God, loved by God, wanted by God.

This is fishy-faithful business. So, let’s get fishing, Church! Amen.

Let us pray.

God who calls, summon in us the faith to go out with good courage and follow you. In that following, may our lives summon others into your light, and direct our steps into the way of your love. In the name of your son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.