Rev. Rebecca Messman
Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA
January 22, 2023 – Bible Sunday
12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles —
16 the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”
17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets (same word as forgive) and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
Let us pray. Oh Lord uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.
The Bible sometimes makes me scratch my head. Other times it makes me cry or flinch or gasp or melt into a smile or litigate or sing in my head. But this week it made me laugh.
Jesus walks by the sea, where Peter and Andrew are casting a net into the sea and the Bible feels it necessary to state the obvious – for they were fishermen. Yes, Matthew, we kind of gathered that. Even without a title like Lake Monsters of Galilee or a sponsorship by Bass Masters or someone yelling like they do on fishing shows “Woo baby, just look at those fish,” we had figured that much out. But Matthew really wants us to know this was their job, their context, their culture, their family business – for they were fishermen.
Why did Jesus start with fishermen? Have you ever wondered that? John Steinbeck said, “It has always been my private conviction that any man who pits his intelligence against a fish and loses has it coming.”
Jesus came from Nazareth, a community of farmers and evidently carpenters. When he heard about the imprisonment of his friend, John, he left his rural homeland to go to Galilee and there he called people to follow him. He could’ve summoned disciples at any point during his life, but he chose these. Fishermen. Why fishermen? Why not carpenters who know home building? They can build things. Why not farmers? They know what it is to sew, to plant a seed and wait and watch? He eventually chose people of other professions, like tax collectors, but why did he start with fishermen?
Maybe because it is so ordinary. I doubt anyone in Galilee would be that surprised to meet a fisherman. It’s like meeting a federal employee in DC. Based on where they are, based on where they live, it’s a common thing to do. They prove to us that God calls people when they are thinking about work and what’s for lunch, rather than contemplating the Almighty.
But, because God is never generic – always sees a person’s past and future as part of the same calling – there is something about fishing that shaped these four guys to be Jesus’ first disciples. And Matthew deviates from Mark’s account of this exact same story to highlight that it had to be Galilee, not other places, in order to fulfill the scriptures.
I am no fisherman, but I am a fishing enthusiast, which is why Dave and I went fishing three times on our honeymoon in Belize. A small skiff would pick us up around 7 in the morning, and our guide, without a navigational system, would settle upon a place in the ocean where he knew there were fish. Without warning, the boat would slow and our guide would say, “We’ll fish here.” In one place, my job seemed to be losing one piece of bait after the other. Every time I dropped in my line, I would feel the familiar nibbles, reel hopefully, and as the line became easier and easier to reel, I’d produce nothing but a bare hook or some colorful seaweed. Every time Dave dropped in his line, I’d hear the guide say, “Reel now. Reel. Reel.” And then, “Oh, that’s a red snapper. That one, he’s a yellow tail snapper.” I triumphantly brought up a small striped fish that made snorting noises. The guide said, “We’ll use that one for bait. It’s called a grunt.” Then, suddenly the roles reversed, and I seemed to be master angler. One snapper after another, while Dave’s side of the boat was silent. “She’s getting all your fish,” the guide laughed. We surged with excitement as Dave’s line leaped low, “reel, reel, reel” the guide called. But the line slackened as quickly as it had tightened, and fishing line blew in the breeze without hook or sinker. After that, it was as if all the fish below the surface had received a warning call “Beware!” So, we baked silently in the skiff above, moving only to reapply sunscreen, for the better part of an hour, or so it seemed. “Reel ‘em in,” our guide said, and the motor began to purr again.
The boat seemed even smaller as we bumped our way beyond the barrier reef where the water was dark and deep. There, the boat nodded along with the colossal rollers. We were instructed to troll the line over a hundred feet behind the boat, which seemed about the length of the whale sharks I suspected were watching us from the depths. I called to our guide over the motor, wind and waves, “How we will know if we have a fish?” “You’ll know,” our guide said. “That was less than helpful,” I thought, with no idea what to expect and skeptical that we would catch anything but a tan. But our reverence for what was below the surface kept our hands firm on those rods. Nearly dozing off to sleep as the sun beat down on us, I felt myself nearly jerked out of the boat. “See, you’ll know,” I hear from the guide. As I reeled, I saw something leap silver out of the water and surge below again. “Reel, reel, reel” – though it didn’t matter, because for every inch I reeled, the fish pulled away another yard. Had I caught him or had he caught me? It was indefinable at that point because we were linked to each other. My rod would rise and bend low again, as if it were motioning the fish to pull further away so that I’d give up. After twenty minutes of this back and forth, I was feeling like the old man and the sea when finally we saw the long silvery body of the barracuda next the boat. The guide dodged his teeth and removed the hook. The fish moved the cooler around as he leapt inside. I imagine he was frustrated to spend his final moments beside snappers and the grunts rather than chasing them down. After that fish, we were exhausted and covered in sea salt and turned the boat back toward the distant shore, heading home.
Why fishermen? I remember closing my eyes into the wind as we returned in silence. I could imagine being in the boat with Simon Peter, James, Andrew and John. After many days of casting out and reeling in, they knew as well as I did the difference between fishing and catching. It is more mystery than formula, more faith that this time will work better than the last time rather than a perfect recipe you can follow over and over again. It is knowing when to remain in a place and when to move on. They were not fixed to one place, like their farming friends. They didn’t start the day with a blueprint, like their building friends, but they were drawn by mysterious and plentiful fish themselves to deep waters. They did not aim to stay dry and keep their hands clean, and I imagine to some they looked like fools and drifters, and in some ways they were. But fishing had taught them things… that fear and trust and boredom could exist in the same boat. Taught them to hone their attention to landscape and wind and what the fish liked if they wanted anything besides empty hooks. Taught them a lesson some people never learn, that when it is time to go you go. Taught them what Thoreau would famously share centuries later, “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” Maybe that’s why, when the defining moment came that day on the shore of Galilee, when a stranger said to them, “Follow Me,” they knew, they felt what was tugging on them to follow. For they were fishermen.
An important caveat: I am relieved that Jesus never treats people like trophy catches and certainly not glassy-eyed victories bound for some holy cooler, though the language of some Christians can sound transactional like that.
No, Jesus is using the language of these people’s actual livelihood to summon them to something that will take them beyond the breakers, change them and change the world. Long before there were Jesus-fish magnets on SUVs, the early church would use the sign of a fish carved in the sand to indicate to one another that they were followers of the Way.
Imagine if the church took this kind of work-a-day call seriously, rather than assuming burning bushes were required for it to count?
Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrated Monday, said this, “My call to the ministry was neither dramatic nor spectacular. It came neither by some miraculous vision nor by some blinding light experience on the road of life. Moreover, it did not come as a sudden realization. Rather, it was a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me. This urge expressed itself in a desire to serve God and humanity, and the feeling that my talent and my commitment could best be expressed through the ministry.”
Perhaps your sense of call is similarly tidal in nature, something new washing up on the shore day by day, rather than some parting of the waters. A tug here, a nibble there, an unmissable yank to startle you from complacency or burnout, and occasionally the flash of silver on the horizon reminding you that whatever you have brought with you or inside you – your job, your quirks, even your deep wounds, all that makes you you – that is enough to connect you to depths of the soul of another, to a Christ-given mission in this life that wilt not let you go. Listen to that.
Listen to your life. Your normal networking – and yes, I mean that Biblically and metaphorically – is very likely the headwaters of Christ’s audacious call. We’ve already heard about Simon Peter, James, Andrew, John, and Martin. Fred Rogers who angled to make television into a vessel for love for children, Oscar Romero who angled to make the church in El Salvador a voice for the poor, Rigoberta Menchu who floated on her fluency in Mayan languages to share the truth of the oppression in Guatemala. But my life has been touched by Anne Marie who started an immigrant ministry at her church – for she was an immigrant herself. Or Ray who spoke up for public school children – for he was a principal. Or Jim who volunteered tirelessly until he was 93 years old – for he was retired, and once said to me, “you know, there is no theology of retirement.”
Listen to your life, oh people of the baptismal waters and a messiah of living water. You are called and you are enough to answer that call. Often amidst the baking boredom, it comes in a silver flash and you’ll know.