The Rev. Noah Van Niel
St. John the Evangelist
January 21st, 2018
Epiphany 3: Jonah 3:1-5; Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Cor 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
I’m not a good fisherman. I wish I was. I find it an appealing skill. My favorite book is The Old Man and the Sea. But alas, whenever we go fishing, I’m always the one who doesn’t catch anything. The only plus side to my ineptitude with a rod and reel is that I can remember vividly the few, rare occasions I have actually landed something on my line and it is thrilling. The quiet calm of the ocean abruptly jerked to attention; that mysterious unseen world below the surface suddenly coming to life. And then the struggle to reel in the prize. I would get so excited by the whole thing that when I finally got the darn fish in the boat I would stand there like Poseidon himself, master of the great deep, even though I had some floppy little minnow dangling from my hook. It’s a rush.
Which is why I can understand a little bit, why Peter and Andrew, and then James and John, might be so eager to drop their nets and follow Jesus when he told them that he would help them use their fishing skills to reel in people. Here was a new challenge, a trickier trade. No longer would they float around casting nets and lures into the lake, but would float through the countryside collecting souls, people, who were hungry for something to believe in, something to hope for. In many ways, this metaphor of discipleship—that of the fisherman—is perfect on so many levels. The bait is the bit of Good News that they have to share: that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. Some people, like some fish, swim on by the bait taking no notice. Some nibble on it but don’t commit fully. And then there are others, those hungry souls longing for a morsel of good news in their lives, who swallow it hook line and sinker and are changed forever.
As people who have received and believed the gospel that Jesus came proclaiming we get to play the role of fisherman or fisherwoman in our world. We get to cast about with the proclamation that in Jesus Christ we have proof that God loves us and loves this world. Some may pass us by unchanged by our testimony. Some may nibble on it before refusing. But others will see us and hear what we have to say and their lives will be changed.
The danger, however, with being a fisher of men, or women, lies in the dynamic between fisherman and fish. It feels, as the fisherman, like you are the one in power. You have what the fish want and they come to us, and boy aren’t we proud. This kind of thinking can, if unchecked, lead us to a path of spiritual arrogance and superiority. “I believe in Jesus, therefore I am better than those who do not—all those fish out there that need to be caught” But be on guard against those attitudes. Because the best fishermen I know will tell you fishing is a continual exercise in humility and humiliation. Just when you think you have them all figured out, you’re reeling in nothing. Because sometimes you catch the fish and sometimes the fish catch you.
Jonah wasn’t a fisherman, but he did have an up close and personal encounter with a fish. You probably remember the story of Jonah from Sunday School, though it was probably taught to you that Jonah was swallowed by a whale when in fact the Hebrew translates more closely to “a big fish.” You may remember less clearly how he got there. Well God told Jonah to go to Nineveh the great city of the Assyrians—the enemies of Israel—and tell them to change their ways because God was going to smite them if they didn’t. Now this was like God asking Jonah to walk through the streets of the Bronx wearing a Sox cap and Pedroia jersey and proclaim that the Red Sox were going to win the World Series. He was not likely to make many friends and was liable to get beat up. So Jonah’s response to this divine commission was to jump on a ship and flee to the other end of the known world. But the ship encounters some stormy weather, the crew discover Jonah is fleeing from God, thus making him the source of their trouble, and he volunteers to be thrown overboard. Soon after he hits the water he is swallowed up by a large fish and vomited up three days later on a beach. At which point God comes to him a second time and says, “Let’s try this again. Go to Nineveh and do what I told you before.” This time Jonah goes, and something remarkable happens: it works! The people of Nineveh hear what he has to say, they immediately believe him, they repent, turn away from whatever they were doing that was so wicked and God says, “Huh, go figure, that never works. Well, guess we’re all done here then.” Jonah meanwhile, is livid. The Assyrians are the enemy of his people. Gentiles who have many times over fought with and conquered the people of Israel. God was supposed to be merciful to his people, but those guys, the enemy? No way. Jonah sulks and says he wishes he were dead, wishes that fish had never caught him and kept him alive, for this was profoundly unfair.
And it is only then that God is able to teach Jonah the lesson he needs to learn which is that God’s mercy is boundless. Our mercy, very often is bounded. And it can feel frustrating or unjust when others receive God’s mercy, especially people we don’t like. But it took one big fish, and a bunch of little fish—those Assyrian gentiles, or non-believers—to teach Jonah this lesson. He thought he was the fisherman; that he was in full possession of the knowledge of the Most High, and all the others were doomed little fishies. But they too had a lesson to teach. And therein lies the warning for all of us fishermen and fisherwomen. The good news we have to share is indeed wonderful, those life-giving promises of God made flesh in Jesus Christ are to be treasured and shared broadly. But when we start thinking our group has all the answers to the fullness of God’s reality, we forget that those fish out there, may have something to teach us about the nature of our God.
This past Monday was a remarkable day at St. John’s. Together with people from around the community, people of faith and not, old people, young people and in between people, we worked together to package over 50,000 meals for the hungry. And as I looked around at the hundreds of people lending a hand to the effort, I saw more clearly the vision that my God, the God of the Trinity, the Father of Jesus Christ, longs for: a vision of common effort on behalf of those in need. I felt more clearly the urgency of the divine command to feed the hungry. And if you squinted through the chaos you could just make out the blurry outline of the Kingdom of God, a little closer than it was before. I didn’t know most of the people who came through that day to help out, but whoever they were—all those fish out there who don’t profess the same creed I do, who don’t honor the same sacraments I do, who may even find my belief in God foolish—they taught me the lesson that to God it’s more important that we work together than worship together. This is, in essence, what really good interfaith work should do. It shouldn’t aspire to make us all the same religion, but to give us new and greater understanding of the wonders of the God we do profess our faith in. Interfaith work works when the fishermen are humble enough to know that the fish still have something to teach us; when our interactions enhance and deepen our own relationship with God. It wasn’t lost on me that we did this massive act of service in commemoration of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose own work of non-violent resistance and racial justice was deeply indebted to the concept of Satyagraha, or “soul force” professed and actualized by Mahatma Gandhi. If Dr. King can be credited with saving the soul of this country—and I think he did, at least for a time—we would do well to remember that this “Christian nation” owes a deep debt of gratitude to a Hindu ascetic.
It’s not just because of our efforts on Monday that I have the value of interfaith work on my mind. This month both our Middle School Youth Group and our Confirmation Class have been learning about other faiths and other Christian denominations, the thought being that the more we learn about them, the better we understand and appreciate our own tradition. It’s an approach marked by humility and openness. And if I teach our youth anything in their time in our programs I hope it is to approach God, and most of the things in their lives, with humility and openness. For now, more than ever, it is essential to cultivate a desire to turn to those different from us and ask what it is we have to learn from them, how our understanding of ourselves, our religious faith and our values can be enriched by them. We need examples of fish teaching the fishermen so we can be forever reminded that through you, who are different from me, I learn more about myself, my God, and my world.
So by all means go be fishers of men, and of women. Cast your nets broadly and your lines far. Share and proclaim the good news that in Christ God has come near to us and showed us the way to a peaceable Kingdom and eternal life. But don’t be too proud about it. Because in so doing we can close ourselves off to a greater understanding and appreciation for our God and for our world that comes from those fish who may not share all our same beliefs, but who may have something to teach us about the heart of the God we are proclaiming and may just be the ones to save us from ourselves.