1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana . . . our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.”
These words are probably familiar to those of you who have read Norman Maclean or seen the movie A River Runs Through It.
What is it about fishing and proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of God is at hand?
I had reached mid-life before I became acquainted with the sublime pleasures of wading in moving water and presenting a dry fly on the lovely streams of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
Growing up in southwestern Ohio, I was introduced to fishing by our next-door neighbor, George Robards. Mr. Robards was a veteran of the First World War and a retired bricklayer. He and his wife, Minnie, had one child, a son, who was killed in World War II. I don’t think his bitterness over losing his son ever left him.
But he seemed to find happiness in gardening—and fishing. When I was about ten years old—my brother Doug would have been seven—Mr. Robards started bringing us along when he went fishing on Saturday mornings. Perhaps we reminded him of his own boy.
He usually touched base with one of our parents during the week, which meant that Doug and I had several days to start thinking about how much fun we were going to have. Sometimes we leafed through the pages of Boys Life or scanned the magazine rack at Tom’s First Ward Cigar Store, admiring pictures of bluegill, perch, catfish, and small- and largemouth bass.
On Friday nights, we had trouble going to sleep just thinking about all the fish we were going to catch.
When morning finally came, we would meet Mr. Robards in his front yard. I would bring an old baitcasting rod and reel that belonged to my dad when he was a kid. And Mr. Robards loaded three more rigs into the back of his station wagon. He fished with two of them and brought the third, which had a foolproof Zebco spin cast reel, for my little brother.
Acton Lake, which was created by damming Four Mile Creek, was only 15 miles from home, but Doug and I were so excited that it was impossible to sit still for a car ride that seemed to take hours.
When we finally reached the lake, he and I would grab our tackle and run to the water’s edge. Mr. Robards would take his time . . . setting up a wooden stool, pouring coffee from a red plaid thermos, and carefully baiting four hooks. The worms were from a compost heap in his backyard.
Doug and I would cast our lines—just a few yards from the bank—expecting our red and white bobbers to be pulled under the water at any moment.
And then we started getting antsy.
It wasn’t until Linda and I had children of our own that I fully appreciated how difficult it is for a child of ten to sit still at the edge of a lake
. . . or for a nine-inning baseball game . . . or a one-hour worship service.
After my line had been in the water for a few moments, I started to wonder whether a fish had stolen my bait. So, I would pull my line out of the water and then toss it back. Sometimes when the wake of a passing boat made ripples on the surface of the water, the movement of my bobber convinced me that I had a bite. And I would pull my line out of the water again, and toss it back.
All this thrashing about may explain why Mr. Robards was content to fish at some distance from Doug and me. Come to think of it, no one else seemed interested in joining us either.
It might have been more efficient for him to stay a little closer, because I never really got the hang of setting the tension on my baitcasting reel. About every third time I made a cast, I ended up with a backlash. And, of course, it fell to Mr. Robards to help me straighten out the tangled mess.
For a moment, I might be mesmerized by the reflection of the sun on the surface of the water, but then I would try to figure out what was going on across the lake. Or start to pick at the grass . . . or study the movement of the ants across the surface of the rocks or among the blades of grass . . . or construct a small shelter for them with twigs . . . or pick up rocks to look underneath for rollup bugs.
Soon enough, I started to wonder when we were going home.
What I don’t recall is catching any fish.
That Mr. Robards would invite us to go fishing with him the following weekend . . . and the weekend after that . . . and that between each trip we would look forward to the next . . . says a great deal about the triumph of hope over experience.
Our theme in worship for these next few Sundays is “between.” We’re situated between the season of Christmas and the season of Lent.
But we also find ourselves between the inauguration of the kingdom of God—in this morning’s Gospel reading Jesus announced, “Now is the time!”—we’re situated between the inauguration of the kingdom of God and its fulfillment.
God’s kingdom has indeed broken into our world in the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
But in our reading from First Corinthians, the Apostle Paul wrote that the time had drawn short. That the world in its present form was passing away. Paul expected that Christ would return in the lifetime of his readers.
But 2,000 years later, here we are. A glimpse at the morning headlines or the images on our television screens is more than enough to remind us that the kingdom of God has not been fulfilled.
Fishing on Acton Lake was a “between” experience. Like the children of Israel who were waiting for a Messiah, all I could think about all week was how much fun I was going to have fishing with my brother and my next-door neighbor. But when the day finally came, I became impatient and frustrated that I wasn’t catching any fish.
Maybe you’re frustrated this morning. Maybe you’re wondering whether creation is really moving toward the fulfillment of God’s kingdom. Maybe your prayers echo the words of the Psalmist, who cried out, “How long, O Lord? How long?”
Like the Apostle Paul, many of us groan inwardly. Indeed, Paul wrote that the whole creation groans as in the pains of childbirth, as we await the fulfillment of the reign of God. It’s hard to be patient in such troubling times.
And in our impatience, perhaps it would be helpful to think of the triumph of the resurrection—the fulfillment of the kingdom of God—as
working its way through the cosmos the way ripples move out along the surface of the water.
But I think God expects us to do more than sit on a bank while we “wait for the blessed hope.” In this morning’s Gospel reading, after Jesus announced that the kingdom of God is at hand, he told the fishermen Simon and Andrew that he would show them how to fish for people. That’s a rich metaphor.
It may have been inspired by several images in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus—and Simon and Andrew—and James and John—would have been familiar with the words of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Amos. In Jeremiah, the prophet says that God will send a great number of fishermen to bring the unfaithful to judgment. Ezekiel depicts Pharaoh as a monstrous crocodile of the Nile and says God will put hooks in his mouth. Amos writes that God will use fishhooks to take away those who oppress the poor.
But Jesus turns these images upside down. When he invited Simon and Andrew to fish for people, it wasn’t to bring people to judgment, it was to join in a ministry of healing. It was to join in a ministry of setting things right. It was to join in proclaiming that the time has come. That God’s kingdom is near. That people should change their lives and trust the Good News.
Jesus invited them to fish for people by:
· Proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, and recovery of sight to the blind;
· Offering food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, offering hospitality to the stranger, offering clothing to those in need, and visiting those who are sick or in prison;
· Breaking down the barriers of gender, status, and ethnicity; and
· Welcoming the prodigal with open arms.
I heard a lot of fishing stories in Tom’s First Ward Cigar Store. No doubt some of them were true. But I also learned early in life that sometimes the facts don’t quite take you where you’re trying to go.
Maybe you’ve heard this story before. Maybe you’ve heard me tell it before. But I remember a story about an old fellow called Emerson Skinner, who always caught his limit, even when no one else was catching any fish.
Well, the game warden became suspicious, so one Saturday he told Emerson that he was going to join him on the lake. They rowed out in a jon boat, and when they found a spot that looked promising, Emerson lit the fuse of a stick of dynamite and tossed it out on the water.
After the explosion, as the fish started floating to the surface, Emerson took out a net and started picking up the fish.
The game warden was horrified, and said to him, “Emerson, you know that dynamiting fish is illegal.”
Emerson didn’t say a word. He just grabbed another stick of dynamite, lit the fuse, handed it to the warden, and finally said, “Are you here to talk or to fish?”
Maybe you’ve heard that story before. But this “between” time is also a time of “alternative facts.” So, this is hardly the time to stop lying about fishing.
Living in a time between the season of Christmas and the season of Lent, living in a time between the inauguration and the fulfillment of the kingdom of God, we have a choice. Are we going to talk or are we going to fish?
Are we going to be paralyzed by our frustration, overwhelmed by our anxiety, defeated by the heartache of a broken world, or are we going to fish for people—
· Proclaiming the good news of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom in the person of Jesus Christ,
o Following his example in breaking down barriers of gender, status, and ethnicity;
· Proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, and recovery of sight to the blind.
o Offering food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, offering hospitality to the stranger, offering clothing to those in need, and visiting those who are sick or in prison.
Our mission field lies just outside these walls. Are we going to talk or are we going to fish?