The gospels are full of great fishing stories.
Like the one when Jesus is having church down at a place where every pastor in land-locked Arkansas dreams of having some church, right on the beach. Luke tells us that the congregation gathered that day is so large (the dream of every pastor), they keep “pressing in on him to hear the word of God,” almost pushing Jesus into the water.
Jesus sees two boats belonging to some fishermen who are out washing their nets. He climbs into one of the boats belonging to a fella named Simon and asks him to put it out a little way from the shore so he could teach the crowds on the beach from the boat, setting up a little pulpit on the water.
After the Benediction is pronounced and church is over, Jesus says to Simon, “Let’s move the boat to some deeper waters and go fishing.” And this is when, for Simon and all of us, that church really begins.
Simon says, “Jesus, we’ve been fishing all night long and haven’t caught a thing. But, if you say so, I’ll cast my net one more time.”
It is then that Luke tells us that they catch so many fish that they had to call in re-enforcements and a second boat. Filled with so many fish, the nets almost break.
Do you remember Simon’s reaction to this glorious catch?
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow for this miraculous catch of fish!”
Nope, not even close.
Scared to death, Simon says the almost unthinkable: “Go away from me Lord!”
Then, as it usually is with the stories of Jesus, we learn there is much more going on here than a few folks going fishing. As our scripture lesson in Mark reminds us, this is story in Luke is not a story about catching fish. It is a story about catching people. It is a story about bringing new people aboard.
And like Simon, this scares us to death.
Growing up in Northeastern North Carolina surrounded by water, I quickly learned that there are basically two types of fishermen.[i] First, there’s the fisherman who really doesn’t care if he catches anything at all. He’s perfectly content sitting in his boat with a line in the water. He couldn’t care less if he gets a nibble all day long. Enjoying the sunshine and fresh air, brim of his hat pulled down over his eyes, he’s so comfortable, he is so at peace, so at home, he might even doze off and take a little nap. He’s just happy to be in the boat. He’s got a bag lunch, some snacks and a few cold beverages, and a bumper sticker on his truck that reads: “A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work.”
And besides, if he did catch anything, which by the way would be by sheer accident or dumb luck since he’s not paying any attention whatsoever to his pole, that would just mean for some work for him to do when he got back to shore. And one thing that fishing is not supposed to be is work!
I am afraid this describes many in the church today. We’re perfectly content just to have one line in the water, not really caring if we ever bring anyone else aboard. Because bringing aboard others always involves work. It involves sacrifice. Because you know about others? They are just so “other.”
So, our faith is reduced to making sure that everyone who is already in the boat is happy, peaceful, and comfortable. If we catch something, that’s well and good. But if we don’t catch anything, well, that might even be better.
Then, there’s the fishermen who are really intentional about catching fish. My Nana and Granddaddy were definitely of this type.
On the water with Nana and Granddaddy, I didn’t know whether to call what we were doing out there “fishing” or “moving.” Because oftentimes, as soon as I could get some bait on my hooks and drop it in the water, I’d hear Granddaddy say, “Alright, let’s reel ‘em in. We’re going to this place over there where the fish are more hungry.” I remember spending as much time watching the bait and tackle on the end of my line fly in the wind as we moved from place to place as I did watching it in the water. But guess what? With Nana and Granddaddy, we moved a lot, but we always caught a lot of fish!
To be the church that God is calling us to be, we have to be a people on the move. The danger with many churches, is that we can get in a rut of staying too long in some comfortable and contented place, like, let’s say, 1955.
In the 1950’s, we as the church grew accustomed to people coming to us. We didn’t have to move. For variety of social and cultural reasons, all churches had to do to attract a big crowd was to open their doors and turn on the lights. There was a great church construction boom in the 1950’s, as the prevailing church growth mentality was “if you build it, they will come.” And people came. Some came because they had nowhere else to go. Most people stayed home on the weekends. Going to church and maybe to Grandma’s house afterwards for Sunday dinner was the highlight of their weekend, if not their entire week.
However, here in the 21st century, hardly anyone stays home. People are constantly on the move, on the go. So, in order to share the good news of Jesus with others today, we have to be on the move.
We have to constantly reel in our lines to go to meet people exactly where they are, not where we might want them to be, but where they are, especially in those deep, dark places where people are hungry for love and starving for grace; where they are thirsting for liberty, justice and equality.
The problem is that too many churches today are sitting back, half asleep, with one pole in the water. They are not moving, not going out. They not only could not care less if anyone comes to them, but if by sheer accident or dumb luck someone new does happen to come aboard, churches expect them to come aboard in a manner that measures up to their own expectations. That is, they expect people to come aboard who look like them, behave like them, and believe like them. Many churches claim their doors are opened for all; however, they really do not mean “all.”
I will never forget that Nana used to go fishing with this special pocketbook. It was leather. And she must have lined with plastic. Nana always went fishing with this pocketbook, because when Nana was about the business of catching flounder, Nana did not discriminate. What I mean by this is that Nana very graciously welcomed all flounders aboard the boat, even if they did not measure up to the expectations of the North Carolina Wildlife Commission.
I remember measuring a flounder: “O no! This flounder is an inch too short, I guess I need to throw him back.”
“Oh, you will do no such thing!” Nana would say, “He’s ‘pocket-book size!’”
Here’s what you don’t know, Nana’s son, my uncle, my mama’s brother, at the time, was a North Carolina Game Warden. Nana risked getting into trouble not only with the state, but with her own family.
I have heard it said, “If following Jesus does not get you into some trouble, you’re probably are not doing right.”
The reality is that as a pastor I am constantly getting into trouble. And what’s crazy to me is that I get into the most trouble when I preach sermons on unconditional love, when I preach against hate and discrimination and for loving and including people who do not measure up to our cultural, societal, or religious expectations.
I once heard a member of one of the churches I pastored say that he was downright ashamed and embarrassed to be a member of our church, “because it was becoming a haven for those people.”
This person truly believes that the sole purpose of the church is about making sure that everyone who is already in the boat is contented, comfortable and happy. He does not have a clue that Jesus calls us all to fish for people, Jesus calls us to bring others aboard without discrimination, leading them to make the life-giving, world-changing confession that “Jesus is Lord.”
And God help us when the church is embarrassed to stand up to our friends and family and shout with the Apostle Paul: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation!” What’s the rest of that verse? “For everyone…Jew and Gentile. (Romans 1:16). Everyone.
I am afraid that there are people in every church who remind me of fearful ol’ Simon, who upon looking at all those different fish in the boat, responded to Jesus with those unthinkable words: “Lord, go away from me.”
As the church, as the body of Christ in this world, we are called to only exclude those Jesus excluded, and that is no one, even if it gets us into some trouble.
Late Disciples of Christ pastor Fred Craddock loved to tell the story of one local church. Although their sign out front read, “A church that serves all people,” when all people would show up to be served, the grumbling became so intense that it continually drove the newcomers away.
“Would you look at how long his hair is? Do you see all of those piercings! Oh my word, how those children are dressed! He sure is odd. She’s certainly strange. Don’t tell me we are now going to be a church for those people!
About ten years went by. When, one day, Craddock was driving down the road where that church was located when he saw that the building that once housed that church had been converted into a restaurant.
Curious, he stopped and went inside. In the place where they used to be pews, there were now tables and chairs. The choir loft and baptistery was now the kitchen. And the area which once contained the pulpit and communion table now had an all-you-can-eat salad bar. And the restaurant was full of patrons—every age, color and creed.
Upon seeing the sad, but very intriguing transformation, Craddock thought to himself, “At last, God finally got that church to serve all people.”
O God, help us to be fishers of people, without conditions, without limitations, without judgment, without embarrassment, but always with the grace of Christ. Amen.
Invitation to Communion
No matter your size, color or lack of color, beliefs or lack of beliefs you are welcome here. Because here, around this table the only ones who are excluded are the ones Jesus excluded. No one.
Now as we depart this blessed place to be a blessing to every place we go, let me leave you with these words of commissioning and benediction:
Let’s go fishing
by loving all of our neighbors— Actively, Intentionally, unconditionally,
And may the One who is faithful to all
be with us all as we depart this blessed place,
And help us to be a blessing to every place we go,
until we gather again. Amen.
[i] I heard Rev. Jesse Jackson allude to these “2 types of fishermen” at the Oklahoma Regional Men’s Retreat at Camp Christian, Guthrie, Oklahoma, 2016.