People of all sorts ask me about how I left oceanography and came into this line of work. I tell them I’m still fishing. Some of them get it. But people have been moving from one kind of fishing to another for a very long time.
I don’t think I ever made the connection before, but that’s what happened to Jonah. Most of us know the story about Jonah and the whale – or the big fish. Jonah gets swallowed up by a large sea creature and spends three days in its belly. It’s an image that captivates the child in all of us, but it’s also a way of talking about dying. Those three days and three nights are long enough to be well and truly dead in the understanding of the ancient world. Bystanders would have thought about Jonah in the same way as Lazarus: he’s dead and gone, and beginning to stink.
Leaving oceanography was a kind of dying for me – it’s the kind of dying that anybody who’s been unemployed knows about. It’s a loss of identity and meaning and it means suddenly feeling pretty useless. Jonah has been eaten up by trying to avoid his real life, the one God has called him to live. He knows why the storm has endangered his shipmates, and he offers to be part of the cargo the sailors jettison to lighten the ship’s load. It solves the immediate problem of a sinking ship – and riding a ship that isn’t using your best gifts feels like that! The storm calms, Jonah exits to the belly of the fish, and gets some solid contemplation time about what’s next. He begins to give thanks for being recalled from the wrong fork in the road.
After his near-death experience, Jonah gets unceremoniously vomited up onto a new shore. He’s returned to life, and restored to the life he’s meant to live and love. We meet him in this morning’s story at the beginning of that new and different life. He is once again being sent to a city of foreigners to tell them that time is short so they’d better clean up their act. Wonder of wonders, he succeeds – they pay attention. We don’t get the rest of the story this morning, and it is a very interesting story, but thus far he has fished for people, and caught a whole city.
What happened with Simon, Andrew, and the Zebedee boys of this morning’s gospel? What was going on in their lives that let them respond so quickly? Had the fishing been atrocious all season? Did Zebedee have too many hired workers? Notice what they left behind – the first two left their nets, the tools of their trade, probably the only way of making a living they knew. James and John left their father and his employees – they walked away from the family business. We hear the same theme echoed quite a few more times in the gospels – leave all that stuff, come and follow me; turn around and travel a new road, filled with good news, possibility – and risk. We hear Jonah’s version as a bit grimmer – this city is on the demolition list; 40 days, no more – shape up, time’s short. But it’s fundamentally the same word – come join the journey toward a new life. This new life doesn’t need all the stuff you’re used to depending on, just bring yourselves.
Bring yourselves to fish for people. Bring all you are and the goodness of your own creation, and when we join together as God’s fishing people, we can make a net that will fish through the world’s sea of humanity.
St. Martin’s net is catching people far beyond this place. That net has many different shapes and uses. It’s a safety net through Room in the Inn, it’s a hammock for the children in their atria, learning about the Good Shepherd – and those children may need somebody willing to teach them about Jesus’ other names, like Fishing Boat Captain, or Expedition Leader. This net of relationship called the body of Christ makes more of each one of us, strengthened and connected to others with both similar and different gifts. It’s a net that makes more of itself by sending malaria nets out across sub-Saharan Africa. One of the reasons that Nets for Life has been so successful is because it teaches people about where malaria comes from and how to use those nets. When people don’t understand what they’re for, those malaria nets often get used for fishing. They’re not worth much when used for that purpose – like Jonah off to visit Tarshish instead of Nineveh.
The Jesus net makes more of others and us through transformation and finding a new life. That may be the most important part of the story of the Galilee fishermen – and Jonah. Each was lured out of old ways of living into new lives, to use their gifts differently. That transformation made more of each one of them and it made more out of the communities they traveled into. That’s how abundant life works – and it usually surprises us.
Most of Jesus’ fishing stories are about abundance. His first followers know something about fruitless fishing and about net hauls that are frightening because they’re overwhelming. Both those results ask for new behavior from those who are fishing.
If your nets are empty, and you’re not getting any results, you have to change your methods, location, timing, or something else. Often, communicating with other boats in the area, or watching the birds or the whales, will tell you where the fish are. Nobody who goes out fishing can rely on his or her own efforts alone. You have to be persistent, creative, and connected.
On the other hand, if you get a haul of fish that’s too big, you’re in danger of sinking your boat, if you think you have to land all of them – in this context being selfish is deadly. The abundance is meant for all – and you’re going to need other boats to bring in the harvest. Room at the Inn works because there are so many people sharing the work. Radical abundance may confront us with remarkable urgency and even danger – but we can’t let it push us into responses that destroy the fish. We could house everybody in Charlotte right now if we built really cheap barracks and just opened the door. But people aren’t frozen fish fillets – they don’t just need temperature controlled storage space. Human dignity requires hospitality, and community, and an appreciation of the unique image of God in each person.
The St. Martin’s net started catching fish more than 125 years ago. You started with fry, youngsters in a Sunday school that helped them grow and mature into faithful members of the body. Your net is still catching fish because it reaches out into the community with invitation rather than compulsion. It connects unique human beings and helps them make more life for each and every person. The kingdom of God is indeed coming near. This net is a living organism that will continue to grow, expand, and draw others in, as long as it keeps fishing out there, in that Sea of Galilee. If it ever gets put away in a closet here, the net will dry up and turn to dust. Your task is to keep it wet – and alive! If you do that, you’ll still be here in another 125 years. There will be challenges in the years ahead, as there always are. When all else fails, go fishing!