Before they split for good, my parents gave their disintegrating marriage one final go. My mother joined my father in Louisville, Georgia. As a result, the first portion of my elementary school years was spent in a small town surrounded by farmland, forests, and fishing holes.
My father supervised a shirt factory in Louisville. Eventually, he owned and operated a series of apparel-making plants around Central Georgia. None of them thrived for long.
Manufacturing shirts and pants and shoes was what my father did to make a living. But that’s all it was. A way to pay the bills. He had no passion for the business. Fishing was his passion. When he looked in the mirror, Sam Owensby saw a fisherman.
My father spent the better part of his life on Kelly’s Lake. Before the Civil War, the Kelly family had formed a small body of black swamp water by erecting an earthen dam across the Ogeechee River.
Bass fishing was what my father loved best. Before the days of sonar fish finders, he knew every inch of Kelly’s Lake: the river current’s course through the lake; every fallen tree and submerged stump; sudden drop-offs, unexpected shallows, and creek feeds.
Most importantly, he seemed to understand the fish themselves. He knew where they would be at different times of day and in different seasons of the year. He selected bait and lures to appeal to their shifting tastes. And, as his work schedule allowed, he planned his time on the water to coordinate with what he believed to be mealtime for bass.
He never said it this way, but my father followed his own fisherman’s creed. Know your lake. Know your fish. Go to where your fish are, don’t expect them to come to you. You’re not going to catch many fish waiting for them to jump in the boat with you.
Jesus’ first disciples were fishermen. It was their livelihood. The Bible tells us nothing about their skills. We do know that on a bad fishing day Jesus showed them where to get an enormous haul. But it’s likely that they had more good days than bad days on the lake. They were, after all, professionals.
So when Jesus called these fishermen to follow him, he realized that he was inviting them to do something that seemed completely alien to them. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus is restoring all things, reconciling the creation to God, and reconciling all people to one another. Or, to use Jesus’ words, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)
Jesus is engaging God’s mission of restoration and reconciliation. In gathering these fishermen, Jesus is laying the foundations of the Church. God has a mission, and God is building a Church to engage that mission. These disciples are to be at its very foundation.
That’s a long way from fishing. Or is it?
In some very important respects, fishing skills carry over remarkably well to what it means to be the Church. That’s why Jesus says, “I will make you fish for people.” (Matthew 4:18-22)
Many of us assume that Jesus meant simply this. Convince people to go to church. Reel them in. We sit in our churches and work out strategies for getting people into our doors. We craft beautiful worship services and develop attractive programs all in the hope that more people will join us.
One wag characterized our usual approach to fishing for people this way. We’re like the person who decided to catch some fish. He bought an aquarium and outfitted it with with a little sunken ship, a bit of seaweed, and an aerator that looked like a deep sea diver. Then he took the aquarium to the shore and set it down at the water’s edge waiting for the fish to jump in.
That’s certainly not how the disciples went about catching fish. And our pattern of going to church is probably not what they imagined when Jesus said that he would lead them to fish for people. My guess is that Jesus’ words resonated with their own fisherman’s creed. A creed very similar to my father’s:
Know your lake. Know your fish. Go to where your fish are. Don’t expect them to come to you. You’re not going to catch many fish waiting for them to jump in the boat with you.
Or, to translate that into fishing for people, let’s consider how to be Church:
Know your ministry context. Know your neighbors. Go to where they are instead of waiting for them to come to you.
Walk twenty minutes in each direction from your church. Who lives there? Are they young? Old? Do they live alone or in extended families? Do they worry what to do with their children after school or how to care for their aging parents while they’re at work?
Is a grocery store readily accessible, or do you worship in the middle of a food desert? Do children play freely in their yards or do they huddle behind locked doors for fear of violence and drugs? Do the schools have the supplies they need and do the children have people to help them with schoolwork after the bell rings? Are children going hungry on weekends and during school vacations? Do those on fixed incomes like the elderly and the handicapped go hungry? Go lonely? Have adequate access to health care services?
Don’t assume that God has been cooling his heels waiting for us to do something. You can bet that God is already working through hands and feet, agencies and organizations, businesses and religious groups. Listen to those already engaged in God’s mission. Humbly ask how you can join them as partners in engaging God’s reconciling work.
Above all, do not wait around for people to make their way into your doors. Go to where the people are. Be the Church in your community. Get out there! And don’t just write a check. Show up. Invest yourself as well as your money.
If anybody asks you what you’re doing, just tell them, “I’ve gone fishing. Why don’t you join me!”
The sermon was preached at the Holy Eucharist for the 35th Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana hosted by the Monroe Convocation.