How long has it been since you heard a good fish story? Well I have two. It seems that a man went fishing but after a short time I ran out of worms. Looking around for an alternative he saw a little crocodile with a frog in his mouth. Frogs are good bass bait, he thought, so he decided get the frog.
You see he knew a thing or two about crocodiles. He knew that the croc couldn’t bite him if it had that frog in its mouth. So, the fisherman grabbed the croc right behind the head, took the frog, and put it in his bait bucket. But now the dilemma was how to release the crocodile without getting bit. So, being the clever man that he was, the fisherman grabbed his bottle of Jack Daniels and poured a little whiskey in its mouth. The croc’s eyes rolled back and he went limp. The man released him into the lake without incident and carried on fishing using the frog. A little later, however, the fisherman felt a nudge on his foot. And there was that same crocodile with two frogs in his mouth.[i]
The second story is a personal experience. A couple of years ago, we rented a cabin on a trout stream in Northeast Iowa. Bear Creek. Anyway, on the first morning of fishing Manny went with me but I soon figured out that this type of fishing wasn’t for a four-year-old. He was way too noisy and moved around so much that he chased all the fish away. So it wasn’t until our final day there that he was allowed to come along again. This time I put a pole in the water and gave it to him while I prepared my “real” pole for fishing. But as soon as my back was turned, Manny shouted I got one! And sure enough he pulled in the biggest trout of the trip. You never know when they’ll bit, do you? But here’s the funny part. A few weeks ago, Manny was trying to remind us of that fishing experience by describing his catch. And believe me, it must be a miracle, because in only two years that fish has grown about a foot. That trout is a big as a musky in Manny’s memory.
Well today, in our text, we have the greatest fishing story of all. No crocs or record trout, just an image of how to go about fishing for people. It’s an image however, that we sometimes struggle to put into its proper context. Jesus was walking along the Sea of Galilee when he came upon two brothers, Peter and Andrew, who, the text tells us, “were throwing their nets into the sea, because they were fisherman.” And later on he encounters James and John the sons of Zebedee who were also fisherman and again, turning to the text, it says they were, “repairing their nets.”
These are the first two contextual clues to the meaning of this text. They were casting nets and repairing nets. Far too often, I think, we have a mistaken image in our minds when it comes to fishing for people. We have the image of fishing with a single line. Our context. Fishing means going out and casting a single line into the water to see what’s going to bite. And this image can be problematic. It’s can be problematic because this entire passage is about evangelism. The dreaded “e” word.
Now, I call this the dreaded “e” word because too often it has been used as a weapon rather than a tool. Consider the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition. And lest you think that was then and this is now, I have had several brushes with this kind of – what I’m going to call – “single-line” evangelism.
I was seven, maybe eight years old and I was invited by a friend to attend a youth program at his church. And it was fun. We played games and I suppose we did some sort of craft; we ate. Like I said, it was fun. Until… until I was taken off into a room, by myself, by one of the leaders and basically scolded until I agreed to be saved. Now, I had no idea what was going on. I just know I wanted to get out of that room and as far away from that church as I could so I would have professed a faith in Micky Mouse if I had to. This type of evangelism uses fear and guilt in one-on-one situations with sole purpose of getting people “saved.” Single-line evangelism.
But there’s another way. Dare I say a better way. We can cast a wide net. What I’m going to call the “wide net of invitation.” Remember, the fisherman that Jesus encountered on the lakeshore that day were fishing with nets. So contextually, when he says, “fish for people,” he’s thinking about casting a net into the sea rather than a single line. Jesus is talking about casting a net over a whole bunch of people at a time. So with this image in mind, casting a wide net becomes more about offering hospitality and grace and compassion and love to others because we ourselves have received hospitality and grace and compassion and love.
This concept became clear to me a number of years ago when I was working in a hardware store. I was in my final semester of seminary. I had left my student pastorate and was in the search process for my first call. So the trusty old hardware store provided me with an income. Anyway, one day a fellow employee, who knew that I was a pastor, was lamenting the fact that she had, in her words, “fallen away from the faith” and was hoping to reconnect with her Pentecostal church. Then of course, the question we progressive Christians always dread, “When were you saved?” Now, I always found it difficult, in a reasonable amount of time anyway, to explain the process of salvation as I understand it. For me, salvation is an on-going process and it asks far more of us than just a day and a time. But something happened next that I cannot fully explain. Instead of a long-winded theological explanation, I simply said, “I was saved two-thousand years ago, on a cross.” That was a divine moment. One of those moments when the Spirit put the words in my mouth.
And as I stand here today, I still believe that answer was correct. Jesus cast a very wide net from the cross. A net that fell over the heads of the outcast and the insider, the rich and the poor, the sinner, the saint, men, women, children; you and me. The wide net that Jesus cast is for all humanity; all people; all we have to do is realize it and understand that God is Still-Speaking in our lives and in the world today and then attempt to “live-into” this gracious invitation.
And as we look forward to where the church is headed, this “casting a wide net” approach, this inclusive invitation, will become the standard. But here’s the thing. This approach isn’t all that different than it was in Jesus time.
My friends, as we continue to walk in the footsteps of Peter and Andrew, of James and John; Jesus says to us “follow me and I will teach you how to fish for people.” And guess what? That’s exactly what he did! His lessons included eating with sinners, standing up of the oppressed, living in harmony with other religions, and challenging the systems that perpetuated poverty. Jesus also honored and valued women, children, and those who were disabled. He taught us difficult but important lessons about loving our enemy and praying for our persecutors. But above all, Jesus wanted us to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus cast a very wide net and today we are challenged to do the same.
One final thought this morning. I know that inviting someone to church can be uncomfortable. We might as well address the elephant in the room. But if you’re excited about what’s going on here; if you’re enthusiastic about the warmth and depth of community that we have here in our church; if you’re passionate about the multitude of outreach and mission and educational opportunities available through both our local congregation and the United Church of Christ; then… why not share the experience with others. Yes, invitation means taking a risk. But it’s a risk that well worth it. So, invite, invite, invite, cast a wide net, and above all remember to tell those fish stories… My friends, let’s go fish’in.
Amen and Amen.