January 27, 2008

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Matthew 4:12-23

When I was a little girl, sometimes on a summer afternoon, we would just drop everything and go fishing. We went to a little fishing hole over in the field with our cane poles and a can of worms that we had dug. Sometimes, we caught some fish but that wasn’t really very important and isn’t what stands out for me. What I remember is the joy of taking off, being together, laughing and having fun in the shade of a big oak tree on a hot summer day.

My childhood fishing trips bear no resemblance to the kind of fishing Peter and Andrew and James and John were doing when Jesus approached them. It was not an escape from the work of a hot summer afternoon – it was the work, hot and smelly and backbreaking. And it mattered a great deal if they caught fish. It was their livelihood. They had to make their catch or their families would not eat. But there were no guarantees of that. Then as now, fishing for a living is unpredictable. Some days the fish are biting and some days they aren’t. All you can do is keep at it, keep fishing, and hope for the best.

There isn’t anything in this story about what made these men drop everything to go with Jesus. We can speculate. Maybe they were bored with their old way of life. The catch was unpredictable but the routine was not. Every day it was the same thing, over and over again. Launch the boat, throw the nets out, haul them in. Throw the nets out, haul them in. Throw the nets out, haul them in. And then at the end of the day, secure the boat, mend the nets, take care of the fish that were caught that day. Every day pretty much like the one before.

It is easy to imagine them being bored. But I don’t think boredom or anything else, like financial uncertainty or the desire for fun and adventure, would have been enough to make them just walk away from it all. I think it must have been something in the way Jesus spoke, or something they had heard about him, or the way he looked at them. I think his presence spoke to them in a way that was so compelling they could do nothing except follow him. And I think there was something in their own souls that rose up to answer. But what?

They left one way of life with an uncertain future to embark on another, with an even more uncertain outcome. “Follow me,” he said, “and I will make you fish for people.” His invitation – or was it a command? – suggested that life with him would a long series of trial and error, like throwing the nets out and hauling them back, sometimes finding fish and sometimes not. It would mean hard work, with no guarantees. It would be an unpredictable life, and maybe it would even be boring at times.

When you look at the life of faith this way, it seems hard to envision why any of us would be willing choose it, especially when there are so many other and easier alternatives. Is that “something” in the souls of the disciples, that something that responded to Jesus with everything they had and everything they were, is that something also in us? And if it is, then how does it look in our lives? How does it work for us? If we believe that Christ still calls women and men to be faithful disciples, to follow him, then what is it like for us to hear that call, to obey that command? And how can we possibly just drop everything and go fishing, as it were?

Let me tell you a story that might help answer some of these questions, a true story but, in this context, really more like a parable. Easter Island is two thousand or more miles away from anything. It is a tiny speck of land, only 64 square miles, in the great Pacific Ocean. The island is known, of course, for its large and ancient stone faces, rising from the earth in some kind of silent worship. Scholars and ordinary people, too, have long been intrigued by how the stones got there. There is also the mystery of how this remote place came to be settled. Most agree that the inhabitants of Easter Island came from Polynesia, from Hawaii. But that is 2500 miles away and the settlers arrived sometime around 400 or 500 AD. How did they do it? How were they able to cross that expanse of ocean in an outrigger canoe and find the only little piece of land in a great watery wilderness? Modern day adventurers have attempted to replicate those voyages, and it can be done. But think of the difference between then and now. Now, we know where we are going; we have detailed knowledge of tides and weather; we understand modern principles of navigation. But think about getting in an open boat and setting out when all you know is what you can see. It is hard to imagine, isn’t it?

And this still begs the question – how did they do it? Well, it seems they steered by the stars at night and by the flow, the color, the feel, of the water by day. But here is the interesting thing. They kept in their minds a picture of land, an image of where they were going. And in this way, they never lost sight of the destination even when there was nothing to see except open water stretched out for a thousand miles.

Would you be able to do what the ancient Polynesians did? Would you be able to do what Peter and Andrew, and James and John did? These are radical acts that seem to cost more than most of us can give. But before you confess that you would not leave everything behind this way, consider this. Everyday when you step outside your entryway, your apartment, your house, that is exactly what you are doing. You are leaving behind what you know best. You are launching yourself into a vast ocean of the unknown.

Following Jesus these days for people like us may not mean walking away from it all. That is so difficult and radical that it is easy to dismiss it out of hand as impractical, impossible. But we don’t get off the hook that easily. Instead, I think, Jesus calls us, as Saint Francis said, always to preach the gospel, using words only when necessary. That means we preach the gospel with our lives, with who we are, even more than where we are and what we say and do.

There are some communities where sharing one’s personal testimony, or witnessing, as we would call it where I grew up, is a way to go about what Jesus calls fishing for people. But for the most part, I don’t think Yale is one of those places. The kind of evangelism some of us were accustomed to in other settings is often not well-accepted here. But that doesn’t mean there is no way to share the good news. Instead of speaking it, we have to live it. We have to show people what it looks like to be Christian. We have to behave in such a way that others want to know what makes us different. And a discipleship like this, a discipleship “in place,” takes as much courage and effort as any other kind.

When Jesus invites us to go fishing with him, he means to assure us that, like a little boat far out in the ocean, our fragile faith will keep us afloat. He means for us to know that we will be able to find our way because we have something to follow – signs of his presence in the world. He also reminds us that some days the fish are biting and some days they aren’t, and even when we feel that we have failed, we have to keep at it, keep fishing, and hope for the best. And maybe he also means that we have to keep always in our minds a picture of God, an image of Love, so that we will not get lost, so that Presence within will guide us as we go.

And here is another thing about this kind of fishing trip. It may not mean walking away from a particular occupation, but as with the afternoon excursions of my childhood, it does mean dropping everything, everything that distracts us from faithfulness, letting go of worry and preoccupation, giving up our own ideas of success and accomplishment. It means heading out together, sitting in the shade of God’s great overspreading love, and finding joy. It is the spiritual equivalent of hanging a sign on your soul that reads “gone fishing.”

Sometimes the net of our faithfulness will gather another into God’s presence, and sometimes it won’t. Either way, we are called to keep at it, to be faithful in what Christ has called us to do, even – especially – when we see no results and all seems lost.

Jesus says, “Follow me.” Go out into the great ocean of the world. And know that the presence of God is within you, guiding, leading, calling. Dear friends, keep that picture in your mind, in your heart, in your soul. We are Easter people, and there is an Easter place for each one of us. We will not get lost. The one who calls, goes before us and goes with us. Remember that, and follow, and you will find your way, you will find your joy. You will find your faith. You will find your calling.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

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