A Very Big Fish Story, Matthew 4:12-23
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, January 26, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
There’s a commercial on television right now that portrays a slightly less creepy than other recent commercials of Matthew McConaughey ice-fishing. (I always thought he was pretty cool, but here recently, his commercials in my opinion have been pretty creepy). He sets everything up and then sits in a fancy SUV until a flag triggers that he’s caught something in the fishing hole he’s drilled. It’s all very different from the way my grandpa used to fish.
Grandpa was a man who loved to fish, no matter what it was like outside. He’d go out pretty much every day and he didn’t seek refuge from the elements in a fancy SUV while waiting for a bite. In the summer, he’d put on his hat and sit out in his boat and watch for the bobber to go down. In the winter he’d sit on a bucket (where I think he must have kept the fish he was catching), with a line dropped in a little hole for hours. He’d be coming home from fishing about the time the rest of us were thinking about getting out of bed. And his freezer was always full of bluegills. I just thought that’s what people ate when you went to your grandparent’s house: pan fried bluegills. Oh, man, they were good!
My grandpa was a patient man, sitting there waiting. He was patient with us grandkids, too. Although I was willing—if I really had to—I’d put one of those grungy dirty worms on my hook. Grandpa never minded doing it for me. And he’d take the fish I’d catch off the hook, too, so I’d say I had a pretty cushy job, being his fishing buddy.
I married a man who really loves to fish. But he can’t catch them like my grandpa did, though he truly has tried. When we first got married, I told Scott that if he caught them, I’d clean them. Unfortunately, I’ve never had to regret making that promise. I’m not even sure he still has a fishing pole. Now we buy our fish already fileted in the deli department of the grocery store, or already fried up at a restaurant.
They’re okay, but nothing like the ones my grandpa used to catch and fry up. They were so good.
In this morning’s text, Jesus calls two sets of brothers, all of whom are fishermen. There’s Simon (called Peter), and his brother Andrew, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee. Jesus calls out to them, telling them to leave their boats, their nets, and everything else they’re doing. Just drop it all, he says, and come follow me.
And that’s what they do.
To me, that’s an amazing thing: to so quickly and completely respond. Fishing was something they did to not only put food on the table but also for trade in the marketplace and money in the pocket. It was their job. Not a one of them says they need to go home and pack their bags, kiss their wife or their mother, or to be sure there isn’t something important coming up they can’t miss. No one asks how long, what hours, what the compensation package might include…they simply leave their nets, their boats, their companions, their families—and follow Jesus.
Can you imagine the conversation around the dinner table that evening? “What do you mean the boys aren’t coming home? They’ve followed that wandering rabbi, the one whose cousin is in jail? You’re kidding me, right?”
It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, what these men already know about Jesus, or what they can see in him that causes them to so quickly make themselves available. I can’t really imagine that any one of us would simply padlock our businesses, say adios, and at a moment’s notice turn and follow someone we’ve just met. It doesn’t seem very responsible. I also can’t help but wonder what Jesus saw in these men: these simple fishermen, normal, regular everyday working guys—who he turns to and says, come join me. I’ve got something important for you to do: join me in telling people about God. You already know how to fish; now I’m going to teach you how to fish for people.
And so, from that day on, discipleship, evangelism and fishing have gone together like fish and chips, bait and tackle, fish sticks and tartar sauce (or catsup, if that’s your thing).
Like the disciples whom Jesus called, we are to be fishers for Christ, too—evangelists: people who are invited by God to fish for souls.
It’s important work, challenging work, work that we’re not always convinced we’re able to do. But just like anything else, when you break it down a bit, add a little encouragement and instruction, it is something we can do.
We each have a bit of the fisherman in us. (Not the creepy Matthew McConaughey type of fisherman, but the kind and helpful Grandpa kind of fisherman).
I’ve uncovered some instructions for fly fishing that can perhaps be helpful in instructing us on how to fish for people. Fly fishing doesn’t involve any kind of creepy crawly worms and it’s done in the summertime, rather than in the winter, so perhaps today is a good day to pretend we’re standing in waders, in a clear, flowing mountain stream, with a nice breeze, maybe 72 degrees or so, a bit of sunshine at our backs. I’m more of a cane pole fisherman, and maybe you are too, but today we’ll adjust, because the sound of the flowing stream sounds just about perfect, don’t you think?
When you fly fish, the first thing you need to learn is how to cast. I’ve recruited Ed/Bert to demonstrate for us. The experts say, “To propel a fly line, your forearm and hand move backward and forward. The movement looks like a V with your elbow at the bottom of it. That’s the basic casting stroke. It’s exactly like the motion you’d use to throw a chunk of potato off the tines of a dinner fork. Imagine that.”
Or better yet, let’s try it. (Volunteer recruited!). Never mind what other people might think, forget the neighbors, go outside and try throwing a chunk of potato off a dinner fork. “First,” say those who are in the know, “throw a potato chunk behind you, up and over your shoulder. Still relaxed, but with your wrist rigid, throw another piece of potato forward, up and away from you. When you do this, you will see that the chunk takes off when you SNAP and STOP the stroke. The potato flies where the tip of the fork is pointing at the snap-stop. That’s exactly how the fly casting stroke works: The line flies where the rod tip is pointing when you snap-stop the stroke.”
If you want to do this well, you’re going to have to practice. For some, it will come very naturally, while for others it will take time. (Volunteer sits back down).
Sharing your faith is like that, too. It helps to have in your head an idea of what you might say, should the opportunity present itself. What do you believe? What is it about Jesus, what is it about the church that draws you in? What is important to you? It could help to have a conversation with someone you know well to talk about what you might say—to actually speak what you’re thinking out loud to each other. Another option is to write it down, just to see if it all goes together like you’re wanting it to. Don’t make it complicated. The most important thing, I think, is to speak from your heart and from your own experience. That’s what could be helpful for someone else to hear.
Another important aspect of fly fishing out here in this rolling stream of life is wading. The experts say, “Fish are usually closer than you think; if you cast from the bank, you probably will catch as many or more fish than you will by wading across a stream. If you must wade into flowing water, shuffle into the current sideways so that the water has less surface to push against.”
Well, that’s good to know.
But it makes sense to me in our context. When you’re fishing for people, it makes sense to fish for people where they are—and where you are! And even more specifically, to fish for people with whom you have some kind of a relationship.
I’ve been in a mall where someone has obviously been assigned to stand in a particular area and hand out tracts that describe what salvation means. I’m no more inclined to read that one than I am the one “strategically” placed in the stall of a public restroom. I’ve had complete strangers come to my door and offer to tell me who Jesus is. Mentioning that you’re a pastor doesn’t bring that conversation to a halt—there are of course better ways of thinking about Jesus than whatever I might be thinking (of course, they didn’t ask what I believed). I’ve also been targeted by the person sitting next to me on an airplane. Not something I recommend if you want to make a difference in someone’s life. That’s something I call annoying.
The faith conversations that have been important to me—and that I think are most helpful for someone else—have been with people I know. With people who I’ve watched walking through difficult days, hanging onto their faith, trusting in God. People who know me and know about me and who care about me, these are the folks I’m willing to listen to. These are the folks whose opinions matter. These are the folks whose faith stories and faith questions and whose concern for me and for my eternity matter…
Perhaps there are people who are close to you, too, who don’t know Christ but who know that you do, or who need to know that you do. They watch the way you live, they listen to what you say, and they may very well be interested in hearing why your faith is important to you. They might be ready to hear about God. They might wonder—if it IS important to you, why you haven’t said anything about your faith to them. It might be time—in fishing terms, to present the fly.
In fly fishing, the most important task for success is presenting the fly. The experts say, “to catch fish, you must animate an artificial fly. Sometimes you make a fly appear as though it is swimming or crawling or fleeing. When you’re fishing a floating mayfly imitation, however, it has to behave like all the other mayflies caught in the current, drifting with no unusual moment.” (I’m sorry, but I have a hard time imagining a fish under water looking up at the surface and distinguishing between the bugs floating along the top and thinking, “That one is behaving differently from the rest so it’s obviously attached to a fisherman. I’ll pass.)
When fishing for people, presenting the fly means accepting the opportunity to talk about your faith. It might involve a discussion where you share how you came to know Jesus—the time and situation/what was going on in your life at that moment. Or, it may simply be sharing that your faith is a regular and important part of who you are.
A woman talking with her friends might simply say, “I was reading this morning,” noting whatever it was that caught her attention, or she could add just one word broadening the statement, saying, “in my devotional reading this morning,” that could open the door for further conversation. It’s planting a seed, just in case someone might want to hear more.
Probably one of our biggest problems in being Christ’s fisher-people is that we don’t grasp onto opportunities that present themselves. Or, we think that what we say needs to be deep, profound and memorable, so we don’t say the small things that we consider too insignificant to even mention. To put it in the language of today’s scripture, maybe we’re not convinced we have a “call” to fish.
But we’re out in the waters of human need every day. I’m not suggesting we become more aggressive in sharing our faith. Instead, perhaps our task is to be sensitive to the needs of those who are around us, and willing to respond to the urgings of the Holy Spirit when the opportunity arises. To allow our faith to bless someone with a word of comfort, a word of hope, that they might not hear somewhere else.
The final lesson in fishing for us involves landing and releasing. We’re told that “reacting too quickly is probably the main reason fly fishers lose fish on floating flies. Seeing a trout rise to your dry fly or a bass attack your popper is so exciting that you may lift the rod tip and pull the fly right out of the fish’s mouth.”
Which is not a good thing. (But have you noticed how those expert fishermen know how to turn a phrase?)
I remember my grandpa saying, “It’s okay. Take your time. Make sure he has ahold of it.”
I remember more than once, pulling my fishing pole up fast and hard, at first feeling the weight of the fish, and then it’s gone. All that’s left is a flying hook swinging back toward our heads.
When we’re fishing for people, we don’t want to lose someone who’s nibbling on the faith by responding with more than they need or are ready to receive. Pull them in gradually, sharing from your heart, listening to their needs, answering their questions as best you can, admitting when you don’t know the answers, inviting them to church, to Sunday school, to Bible study…
Fishing takes practice. Whether you’re fishing for fish, or fishing for people. And when we’re talking about people, it’s more of a heart thing than it is a skill thing. There is no one particular way to tell people about Jesus, no right way, no only way. But Christ calls each of us to be disciples, to be fisher-people, to listen for opportunities, to share good news, to take courage and to do it from the heart.