January 24, 2021 - Third Sunday after Epiphany
Where is God calling you to cast your net?
Well, it’s a fishy kind of day in today’s lectionary! We’ve got a reading from Jonah, who you may remember was involved with a big fish. And we’ve got Jesus with some disciples who were fishermen.
I am reminded of a famous parable: There once was a fishing village on the shore of a great lake stocked full of fish. The fishermen of the village diligently debated and discussed what fishing is, how best to do it, which equipment to use. They invested millions in boats and gear and a fishing headquarters, hired a staff, and sent delegates around the world to search other lakes and rivers for fish. But one day, a little child stood up in their meeting and asked, “You all claim to be great fishermen—how come you’ve never caught a fish?” Indeed, no one in the village had ever actually caught one. They had never even been fishing.
Sadly, I believe many churches and many Christians go for years without bringing a single soul to Christ. We Episcopalians are really bad at this - we even talk of the evil “E” word: Evangelism. We are not called to be keepers of the aquarium— Jesus calls us to be “fishers of people,” to catch folk up in God’s grace, love, and salvation.
To be clear, we are not the first to have had reluctance to share our faith with strangers. The book of Jonah, one of the oldest books in the Bible, tells the familiar story of a reluctant evangelist. Rather than heeding God’s call to reach out to the strangers in Nineveh, Jonah fled in the other direction. Ironically, in his reluctance to be a “fisherman” for God, he became fish bait! Even after the great fish spewed Jonah back onto shore, even after Jonah went and converted the people of Nineveh, he still had no compassion for them.
I don’t think that our problem is a lack of compassion or a lack of desire. I truly believe that we want to be “fishers” for Jesus but we need some specific direction for the task.
Now let’s be clear: I am not a good fisherman. I find nothing relaxing in the act of fishing itself. I do enjoy the company and being in nature, and perhaps indulging in some adult beverages during it. And I love being on and near the water. But I do know that fishing requires an immense amount of patience. As children, most of us have little patience. I remember fishing with my dad… and if I didn’t get a nibble within five seconds of putting my line in the water, I would pull my bait out of the water and cast to another spot. It had to be a quick fish to get on my hook!
The unconverted may have no experience of God’s love or may even have had a negative experience with religion. They may be highly resistant to an invitation to hear the gospel. Great patience is required to convey Christ’s love to a person whose only exposure to church was fire and brimstone sermons or abuse or judgment.
There is a right time to fish. There are certain times of the day when the tides and temperatures are conducive to fishing. Likewise, there are right and wrong times to evangelize. Right now is not always an appropriate time to talk about our faith with others. If we embarrass someone, they will not be receptive to the gospel. We are wise and polite to wait for a suitable opportunity when our message will meet open ears.
If we listen, people will give us hints about when the time is right. They may ask our advice about a problem or for our opinion about world events, whereupon we can then say, “You know, my belief in God gives me strength in facing that sort of thing.”
There is a right place to fish. You cannot catch fish in a baptismal font. You must leave the church building and go where the fish are. Jesus did. He didn’t hide out in the synagogue. Jesus went into the streets and marketplace, into the villages and homes of the common people. Likewise, we must develop friendships with those who are not Christians. We must reach out to people in need wherever they are.
Just as fishing requires the right lure, so does fishing for believers. My dad had a whole tackle box full of shiny colored lures. But he also almost always used live bait. The world offers all kinds of glitzy lures, but they are often artificial. People are sometimes lured by money, success, and popularity, or by the pleasures of drugs and alcohol. Addiction to drugs is appropriately referred to as “being hooked.” It is easy to get hooked by attractive artificial lures.
Christ alone has the real thing. Jesus is not artificial; he is living, he is real. Jesus offers us true and lasting love, joy, and peace. Authentic faith is what the world is hungry for, and this is what we need to offer others. If you know God as a real and genuine power in your life, share that with others. In a world full of artificiality, people respond to a sincere word about your experience with God.
Finally, serious fishermen mourn over the loss of a fish. They regret having one get away. But even if they come home without fish, the true fishermen are glad they tried. Moreover, they will try again.
People really do want to hear about salvation and hope, about life and love given through Jesus. We need not be timid with our valuable message. The most selfish thing in the world is to discover the joy and peace of God’s love and then refuse to share it with others.
Sharing the good news of God’s love means offering a word of hope, a word of forgiveness, a word of love, a gospel of grace to people beyond our church walls. We must cast beyond the gunwales of our own boat. When Jesus called his disciples, they had to leave their boats and their fishing village and journey to new places. When God called Jonah, he had to reach out to strangers in Nineveh. My friends, where is God calling you to cast your net?