A Big Fish Story -- A Sermon for Epiphany 3B (2009)

Note: Since we have a guest preacher today, and therefore not in the pulpit, I thought I might share a previous sermon for today. This comes from January 25, 2009. 

Mark 1:14-20

I know that some of you here today, could tell some really good fish stories. You could talk about dragging a shed out onto the ice and doing some really fun ice fishing; or maybe you could tell us about going out on Lake Huron and catching a really big bass. Something like that. Alas I can’t join you in telling such tales. I’ve lived my life near rivers and streams and lakes and oceans, but I’ve only caught one small fish, and that was when I was but a child. Since I can’t tell a good fish story, I’m going to rely on a famous author.

In The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway told the story of Santiago the fisherman. Santiago was an old and experienced fisherman, but at one point he’d gone out to sea eighty-four straight times without catching a thing. He would have given up, except this young boy kept cajoling him and encouraging him to keep going in the hope of making that last big catch. Yes, it was that boy’s faith in his fishing abilities that pushed him further out to sea, far beyond the usual boundaries, in the hope of success. As the story goes, one day Santiago’s luck changed. He hooked a great and mighty marlin, but when he tried to reel the great fish in the Marlin had other ideas. It didn’t jump or dive, it just headed further out to sea, with Santiago’s boat in tow. But, after what seemed like days, that marlin decided it was time to dislodge the hook and its baggage. That’s when the great battle between man and fish began. That marlin began to jump and dive and attack the line. But as it circled the boat, Santiago patiently reeled it in. It took a lot of time to reel it in, but finally the marlin gave up, having earned the respect of its opponent.

Unfortunately the prize marlin was bigger than the boat, and so Santiago lashed it to the side of the boat, hoping to get it into port before the sharks got to it. That was not to be, and so all that remained of his catch was the head, the skeleton, and a magnificent tail. Though the struggle sapped his strength, Santiago didn’t have time to mourn the loss of his fish. That’s because the boy said to him: "You must get well fast for there is much that I can learn and you can teach me everything."1

1. The Calling

Mark tells a different kind of fish story. He tells us that after Jesus was baptized by John and had experienced the temptations in the wilderness, Jesus went back to Galilee and began to preach the good news: “Repent,” he declared, because the kingdom is at hand. In the course of his travels, Jesus encountered two sets of brothers sitting along the Sea of Galilee, mending their nets. Jesus said to Peter, Andrew, James, and John: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” I’m not sure why they would want to do such a thing, but they obeyed, dropped their nets, and began following this wandering preacher in search of human fish. It makes no economic sense – fishing was after all a really lucrative business – but they went with him anyway.

Jesus has come into our lives, preaching the good news that God’s reign is near at hand. He says to us: Drop your nets and join me on a fishing trip. You may be wondering why you should do this, but Mark offers no clear answers – only that Peter, Andrew, James, and John heard the call and followed. They didn’t seem to know why or where they’re going, but they heard and followed. When we hear Jesus calling us to follow him, we don’t always know where that will lead. Often there are no firm guarantees. Santiago went out time after time, seeking a catch, but returned home empty. Still, he persisted, and eventually, after going well beyond the borders of his fishing comfort zone he found his catch.

2. The Uncertain Places

We preachers often use this passage to encourage our congregations to engage in evangelism. Jesus, we’re told, wants us to save souls, to reel in the fish, and to grow the church. Something like that. Now I believe in evangelism – after all we’re about to undertake a major evangelism emphasis in the coming months – and I also believe this text speaks of evangelism. But, I also believe that it speaks to more than simply the need to reel in the catch. More than that, I believe that through this text Jesus is calling us to move outside our comfort zones and move into uncertain and perhaps inconvenient places. That is, I think what Santiago did when he went far out to sea in search of his fish, and that’s what the four disciples did when they followed Jesus and began preaching the good news of God’s reign.

One of the reasons why I’ve not been very successful in my fishing ventures is that I’ve not done much fishing. If you don’t cast a line, you’re not going to catch anything. That’s my story, but there are other stories to be told. Some of us keep returning to the same fishing hole, even though we don’t find anything there anymore. Apparently, this hole has been over fished, but we’ve not paid attention.  Sometimes it’s our methodology. We keep doing the same thing, hoping that it will eventually work. After all, it used to work just fine. The problem is, the fish have caught on to our act and won’t bite! When it comes to evangelism, it’s not that our neighbors aren’t spiritually hungry, it’s that they simply don’t think that we have much to offer.

Ultimately evangelism isn’t about tracts or heavy-handed tactics. It’s not about programs or brochures. Fishing for people, if we want to use that image, involves relationships. It requires us to get involved in the lives of our neighbors, and to begin living with them a life of grace and peace. We Disciples have embraced a new motto: “A movement of wholeness in a fragmented.” I like that message, but how will we live out that message?

I’m reading a book by Gary Nelson called Borderland Churches. It’s a book about missional living, and it talks about living our faith in the neighborhood, of moving beyond the walls of our churches and our houses to becoming part of the community. In a sense, we’re to become leaven in the community. A borderland church, which is what I believe God is calling us to become, understands that it’s called to live “a life of virtue together” while being “willing to pour themselves out to the world. As borderland churches we recognize that there is no boundary between sacred and secular, because “all territories are sacred places where God is at work.”2

3. Bringing in the Fish

That old man needed a lot of patience to reel in his prize marlin, and the same is true of our fishing responsibilities. People will test us. They’ll want to know if our faith is true and if our love is enduring. Many of our neighbors have been hurt by churches, so they’re wary of what they’ll find here.

So, what’s the message of these fish stories? I think the message is this: Jesus is calling us to leave behind the safety and convenience of our lives up to this point, and embrace a new adventure. I don’t think that Jesus is calling us to leave our jobs and become traveling evangelists. It doesn’t mean that religious vocations are more important or holier than nonreligious ones.

But Jesus is calling us to go somewhere with him, and as we do this we will leave behind the old model of evangelism and church life, which can be described in two words: “Come to.” For centuries, really, we’ve followed the adage: "If you build it they will come." So we built buildings and created attractive programs, and then we waited for the people to come to us. And for many years they did just that. In fact, they came from miles around to share in the life of the congregation. That day, however, is gone. That “Come To” model no longer works.

What we hear Jesus saying to us today is this: Drop your nets and follow me on an adventure. Let’s cross the river and live our lives in the borderlands and share life with our neighbors. Let’s invest in them. It’s not enough to get to know them, but we have to build relationships with them. And to do that, we will have to leave behind the comfort of our favorite fishing holes and start casting the line where the fish are living!

As we follow Jesus out into our neighborhoods, we’ll encounter people who are afraid and uncertain, people with questions and concerns. But, as we live out our faith in our neighborhoods, we’ll carry with us a love that comes from the heart of God. It’s not a panacea, but it offers wholeness to a fractured world. Jesus says to us today: Come, join me, in a new fishing venture!

1. Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, (Scribner Paperbacks, 1995), passim.

2. Gary V. Nelson, Borderland Churches: A Congregation’s Introduction to Missional Living(Chalice Press, 2008), p. 59.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
January 25, 2009
3rd Sunday after Epiphany


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