sermon January 25

Where did you catch that one?
A sermon at Ketchikan Presbyterian Church by George R. Pasley
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20

I’m really not much of a fisherman- I can’t catch them.

Oh, I used to catch lots of tasty bluegills in the farm pond when I was growing up, and a nice tasty bass on occasion. But they’d bite about anything.

Here in Alaska I caught one king salmon, after a presbytery meeting up in Juneau, and down here in Ketchikan, one Coho. But I didn’t bait the hook or set the weights or rig the liens or do anything to facilitate the catch other than reel it in, but I supposed that’s something. And I did catch a few pinks from the dock, all by snagging, and I’m sure it was quite illegal for me to keep them.

Now let me say, none of my hosts promised to teach me how to fish- and at least one of them made pains to say we were going fishing, not catching. But I have learned this: Never ask a fisherman where he caught his catch, IF he- or she- caught something.

Never ask, because you know the answer will be, “In the mouth.” Or, “Out there in the ocean.”

I have a friend, no- he’s an acquaintance. He’s in the Coast Guard, and attends the Lutheran Church, and we’re in Toastmasters together. So last week, when I was thinking about fishers of folk, Wes gave a speech on fishing. So let me say this: Everything I know about CATCHING fish, I owe to Wes. And reading this little passage about Jesus reeling these fishermen in from the sea, well, it makes me think of Wes.

Most of the time- every time, as far as I can remember, anybody anywhere preaches on this passage, they preach on those guys leaving their nets. So they left- LEFT- their nets and followed him. We might wonder about that, in a critical sort of way, because after all- a bad day fishing is better than a good day doing anything else at all. But we’ll wonder in a mystical sort of way when WE drop out old way of living, and take up his.

And I did notice, once, my first year in seminary, that Jesus never said he would TEACH them to become fishers for folk.

What he actually said was, he would MAKE them INTO fishers for folk.

Nonetheless we are rational people. When we set out to do something, we try to figure out how it’s done before we do it. And we ca learn a lot by following Jesus, if we watch what he does.

There’s a story about Joe DiMaggio. It was 1949, late in Joe’s career as a baseball player, but he was still Joe DiMaggio, and he knew how to play the game better than anybody alive. So one day, one of the experienced players said to one of the rookies, watch Joe when he runs the bases. Don’t watch his legs, or his feet. Watch his eyes, see where they gaze.

So the rookie watched, and what he saw was that Joe never looked to see where he was going. He kept his eye on the ball, to see where it was, and he ran and ran and ran until he knew he could go no further. But he never needed to watch the base paths, because the bases never moved and he knew where they were.

So let’s watch Jesus, and I’ll share with you Wes’ lessons on how to fish.

Wes’ first rule of fishing is, KEEP YOUR LINE IN THE WATER, because you can’t catch a fish or anything else if the line is not in the water.

You can’t catch fish pulling your boat to and from the boat ramp.

You can’t catch a fish while you’re untangling the line. Actually, my sister DID catch a fish while she was doing that but, you guessed it, her hook was in the water.

So keep your line in the water. And Jesus? Well, notice, he was just passing by where Simon and Andrew were fishing, and he threw his line into that water. And then moments later he just happened to pass by James and John, and he threw his line into the water. And if you read through the book of Mark, you won’t find any place where Jesus was doing anything, and his line wasn’t in the water- except where he was sleeping, or maybe where everybody else was sleeping. But all of the rest of the time, his line was in the water.

Now, it is very important to notice what was ON that line: Good news.

Wherever he went, Jesus proclaimed good news.

A few years ago some of us read a book about two college students who spent six months living as homeless in America. Their first stop was Denver, where they saw that anybody who stayed in a certain homes shelter was required to attend chapel, where they were warned of the dangers of hell.

The two young men thought that those warnings were probably pretty appropriate, but also even more probably were ineffective.

Good news would have been better, such as this little gem from the pen of Jean Calvin: “Faith is a firm & certain knowledge of God’s benevolence towards us.”

Faith is the knowledge that God is on our side! Wow! Folk might react with incredulity at hearing the news, but if they ever become convinced it might change their life in a radically different way than being afraid of God of what God might do.

So does that mean we’re preaching the good news all the time- Yes, to quote John Wesley, and if necessary we’ll even preach it using words.

What we do is remember that we’re following Jesus, because everybody else will remember even if we forget. They’ll remember and say, LOOK- and that look, it will either be a fish nibbling at the bait, or it will be a fish swimming by in scorn because as bait goes, we’re not very appealing.

It’s taken me years to accept this, and more years to begin to be able to live it, but every act of kindness, every word of mercy, every moment of compassion is an act of the Gospel’s proclamation- and every opportunity dropped is worth three, or maybe three dozen, nice fish on the stringer.

Ok, lesson number two from Wes’ speech: GO TO WHERE THE FISH ARE.

Where was Jesus? In Galilee, where people lived and worked and raised their families. In Galilee, where they struggled and argued and suffered and prayed.

For that matter, where was Jonah? In Nineveh, where they were sinning in a god-awful way.

If we want to fish for folk, we need to go where they are, even if we’re introverts like me.

There’s an old way of doing church, in which the church tries to make itself appealing and get folk to come.

But there are new ways of doing church, in which the church goes out to where the people are. One of the things I’m excited about this year is the fact that our presbytery, at its October meeting, will likely have a significant time of 10-15 minute presentations from people and groups and congregations, sharing the ways in which they did exactly that: sharing God news outside of the church, on ways that don’t simply mimic the things we do inside the church.

Keep your line in the water, and go where the fish are.

Now for the third rule: KEEP YOUR HOOKS SHARP.

Boy, when I was a kid I stepped on a fish hook. You could never convince me those things need sharpening. But a fishes mouth is a tough place, and a hook that’s been in the water awhile- or out in the salt air even longer- will just slip right over the toughest part of a mouth,

At least that’s what Wes told me- don’t take MY word on the subject.

So listen, if the gear we’re using is Good News, how do we keep that sharp?

James and John were mending their nets. I imagine that’s a very deliberate process.

All theology begins in some way with remembering- remembering where we’ve been, what it was like, how things changed when we heard the Good News. We share those kinds of stories whenever we have testimony.

But when we start following we see that Good news comes in different ways, and does different things, and challenges us continuously. So to keep it sharp, what we really mean is to keep our minds and our hearts sharp for God.

Where is God working in Ketchikan? In this congregation? In our Presbytery? In Alaska? Where is God telling us to get up and go? Where is God telling us to sit down and listen? Often a dull mind and a lazy heart will miss those messages.

But listen: there will be days when we don’t catch anything. There will be whole seasons when we have to stop for groceries on the way home, and maybe there will be whole decades when the nets come up empty. But you remember, what we said before, about a bad day fishing?

How does it go?

A bad day fishing is better than a good day doing anything else.
Why’s that?

Because it’s not about the catch. It’s about the journey.

But I’m going to tell you two things, and I think they are absolutely critical things for any small congregation to remember;

Number one, the catch belongs to God.

Say that with me: THE CATCH BELONGS TO GOD.

Remember that, especially when you are discouraged.

Now, this is number two, and it’s a story. When I was in seminary I was writing poems a few times every week, and I’d put them on the bulletin board out in the hallway. And my first year, every once in a while I’d print them out on little post-card scraps of paper and send them through the campus mail to my friends.

I’d do that about once a month or so. And every month, my list of friends got a little bit longer. So late in my second year, one of my friends- Jerusha- introduced somebody to me and said, “He’s the one who gives poems to everybody.”

Well, I wasn’t giving them to everybody, because that struck me as pushy. But I figured I’d better, or folk would feel left out. So I did. That was God, sending me to Nineveh.

And sometimes, often times, people would thank me and I appreciated their thanks. That wasn’t why I did it, but I appreciated it anyway. And I’m sure their thank yous were sincere. But still, I didn’t think it mattered all that much.

But one time during the last month of seminary- after I’d been there for three years- I was working the cash register in the dining hall and a foreign student came through the line. I was vaguely aware of who he was, but that was it.

And he said, “Someone told me you are George.”

Yes, I said.

Well, I have been getting your poems and they have meant so much to me. I am VERY grateful.

He was there, all alone, 12,000 miles from home and speaking second language. And he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him. But the good news that I threw out there into the water, well, what it did was CHANGE THE WATER.

So that’s what it does, whether we get anything in the net or not.
Our faithfulness in following.
Our persistence in fishing.
Our practice of going where god sends us.
They change the water
Where it’s too deep for us to go.
And when it does, it’s testimony
To the goodness,
The graciousness,
The benevolence of God
To whomever is there.

In the name of the Father Son and Holy Ghost. Amen

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