The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – Epiphany 3, Year B: Mark 1:14-20
So the gospel passage we just heard is one of those passages that I both love and struggle with all at the same time. It’s beautiful in so many ways and it’s certainly inspirational. The scene was lovely. There they were down by the Lakeshore. Jesus strolling. Guys fishing. Waves lapping up on the sand. Nets were being mended . . . If you listen closely you can even hear the gentle music that was playing in the background. And as Jesus was walking the shores, he invited those guys to follow him. First Simon and Andrew and then James and John. With three simple words, Jesus broke their world wide open. He tapped into their hopes, offered new opportunities and apparently in that one moment revealed to them something of salvation. And so those guys literally dropped everything and followed right in that very moment.
And so part of me admires the spontaneity of that. Not something, by the way that Episcopalians are particularly known for. And I’m struck by the passion and the ease of it all because if there’s something that we as church folk can do, it’s complicate the faith. We aren’t always known for our ease! But right here at almost the very beginning of the gospel of Mark there is this very simple story: There was Jesus. He invited some people to walk with him. And they followed. The end – and also their beginning. Nice. Those are the parts that I love.
But then there are the pieces I struggle with. First, what about Zebedee? Every time I hear this story my heart breaks a little for him. There he was having begun to hand off the family business to his sons, mending one net a day instead of two, beginning to vision afternoons sitting on the dock with his buddies letting go of the (until now) sun-up to sun-down demanding labor of what it meant to be a professional fisherman. And then Zebedee just got left holding the nets and others who happened to be around that day probably had to kick in a little extra and hold onto him.
The second thing I wrestle with, and this is where I’m going to focus this morning is the whole fishing metaphor as applied to the work of evangelism. Because that’s how this story gets applied right? We hear this lesson and then the sermon goes on to say that we should be out there fishing for people. Fill those nets! Everybody go out there now and do it! Fish on!
Now some of my hesitancy here might be my Episcopal roots. There’s a joke that the Episcopalians approach this whole topic of evangelism and fish like this: we build little aquariums and plant them about twenty yards back on the beach. The aquariums are of course, beautiful and not only that they’re tasteful. But after building them, we expect the fish to come find us and when they do, we expect them to navigate the walls and jump in. And there’s some truth to that. It’s not as if “gone fishing” is a phrase that tends to fit most of our denominational approaches to sharing the good news of Christ. And so we, like everyone, have something learn here.
But I’m not sure the fishing metaphor is a great fit. Truth of it is is that getting caught is never good news for the fish. I have yet to hear the story of a fish who in the process of getting caught believes they are experiencing salvation or freedom or healing. They are very simply trapped by something larger than themselves. Dragged out of their natural habitat purely for the sake of those who catch them. And very soon after the catch, the fish can’t breathe any more.
(Which is not an argument against actual fishing. I eat fish and I’m glad people are willing to go get them for me. I’m just saying that if we’re talking evangelism – which we need to be – I think we can do better than this if for no other reason, than breathing matters.)
And so I want to be honest about our Episcopal shortcomings, allow for a little wrestle and also run with some of what’s going on here in the gospel. That’s not too much to ask is it?
So let’s back up and start with the basic assumption that we are supposed to be inviting others to experience Christ. Even Episcopalians are supposed to be inviting people into this experience we call God’s grace (small ‘g’ grace – and capital ‘G’ too.) And we’re supposed to do this not because God can’t find these people him or herself. Not because we have a handle on the absolute truth and others should too. Not even because their or our salvation absolutely depends on this. God is bigger than all of that.
We should invite people in or over or out with us because we have gifts of God to share with them. Period. Good news, and things like love, forgiveness and food; things like grace and mercy and hope are what people need to be able to able to thrive; it’s what everyone needs to be fully alive and we have some of all of that to offer. Now there’s more to say here, to get more specific in all of these areas, but one of my Episcopal limitations is that I’ve got about fifteen minutes max to get this all in – so let this piece stand for today as a simple, very basic assumption and starting point that is this: we need to be sharing and inviting and proclaiming because through us, Christ has something to offer this hurting world.
But I’m not into surprising people with nets or dragging them out of their natural habitats no matter what you all say you want me to do. So let’s take another step and adapt all of this a little bit.
What if we simply moved our aquariums closer to the water? And then what if we just sort of threw all caution to the wind and moved our aquariums out into the sea? And then what if, in one big Episcopal moment of letting go, we broke down the walls of our aquariums and swam around for a while with the other fish? Just a thought.
And what if we noticed the incredible diversity swimming around out there. The beauty. The possibility. We might even notice out there that some of the other fish are hungry too, or lonely or just searching for a place to be.
Note that most of these fish I’m talking about are fish who don’t have anything to do with other little aquariums or even large mega-pools. These are just all those other fish who are still out there in the water. They’re resistant to getting caught many of them – but in all likelihood, they are hoping to get fed or companioned or maybe they just want us aquarium-prone types to notice how at certain times of the day the sun hits the water and puts on a show! A show that is for all intents and purposes a miracle that reveals something of God grace too.
These are the fish who have probably managed to avoid nets most of their lives but still hunger on some level to be gathered with others– as long as they can still breathe when that happens. These are the fish who may have never let their fins touch sand, who swim as fast as they can away from approaching boats, but who know that their habitat is in danger too. They know that the sea is a tough place for a lot of fish who are just trying to make it. And they know as well as we do that it will take other fish, and a holiness greater then us all to bring about an ocean-wide process of redemption.
And so we have good news to share, Episcopalians! Episcopal fish that we are. And not sharing is not an option, even for us.
Gone fishing? Maybe that’s not quite it. Gone swimming? Absolutely. Willing take the dive? Sure. Immersed in water. Aware of creation. Looking for the sun to reach into the depths, sharing food that comes from above and below too, and following in ways that bring the gospel to places it has yet to reach.
Now, let’s get to it. Swim on!