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Sermon: Follow Me

This sermon was delivered at Cobleskill United Methodist Church on January 24, 2021.

Mark 1:14-20

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news[a] of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

My grandfather loved to fish and I have some vague memories of going down to the lake near his house and holding a bamboo fishing pole alongside him. I don’t actually remember catching any fish, but I do remember sitting close to his side and feeling special that I was with him. When my grandfather died last year, we inherited a few of those very bamboo fishing poles that had been around since I was a kid as well as a kid-size pole that had a little reel on it. June, our daughter, was completely taken with the idea of fishing, although I’m pretty sure she had no concept of what it actually entailed. When the fishpoles came home from my grandfather’s funeral, June was determined that we would be going fishing.

It just so happened that Fran and Bill Sossei mentioned to me that I should bring June over sometime to their pond where the fishing was good. So June and I headed out one evening as the sun was setting. All I had were the fishing poles I’d just inherited and the old hooks that had come on them. Thinking June’s 5-year-old curiosity would be appeased by just holding the poles in the water for a few minutes I didn’t even consider trying to find a worm somewhere. I got her set up with the child-sized pole; told her to hold the handle and to put the hook end in the water. I should say, this was the extent of my fishing knowledge. I then started to get the other bamboo pole I had brought untangled.

I kid you not, in the five seconds it took me to turn around and pick up my fishing pole, June started yelling. “Mama!!! Look!!!” The red ball at the end of the line was being pulled under very quickly and June and her fishing pole were all about to go into the pond with it. I grabbed the pole with her to help steady it but I wasn’t exactly sure what came next. So we both just started running backward as fast as we could pulling the fishing pole away from the pond.

We looked back at the pond and lo and behold there on the bank was a flopping fish about five inches long. We could not believe our eyes!! Five seconds and no bait and we who had never done this before suddenly had a fish on our hook. Now I’ll spare you the details of how we managed to get the fish off the hook and back into the pond with nothing but our hands. But the short story is that part was less than pleasant and I’m pretty sure after that part of the fishing experience, June and I were both pretty sure we never wanted to do it again.

I’ve had fishing stories on my mind this week as our worship series “Follow Me” has been building toward the famous Gospel lesson we heard today from Terry and Noelle. In this story we hear Jesus calling some of his first disciples, Simon and Andrew, with an unusual invitation:

“As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake- for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Mark 1:16-18).

You’ve probably heard this passage before. The more traditional language is “I will make you fishers of men.” This is one of those passages that you can hear as a young child and it will stay lodged in your memory forever because it sounds so weird! “Fishers of men?”“I will make you fish for people?” What does it mean to fish for people? If this is Jesus’ way of asking Simon and Andrew if they want to join him in his mission of bringing the kingdom of God to earth, it’s always been difficult to shake the less-than-pleasant images of fish being caught on hooks from my mind. Does Jesus’ vision of making followers involve entrapment!?

I’ve been to churches that seem to think this is what Jesus meant. Where each unchurched person is a prize to be won or a catch to be hooked. That the Gospel of Christ can be likened to a piece of bait that will rescue the sinner and bring them to the altar. Sometimes I’ve been talked to as if my own salvation depended on me taking a very specific piece of bait; a very narrow opening to Jesus that felt more stifling than it did liberating.

These approaches to “fishing for people” make me feel the way my daughter felt when she actually realized what “fishing” meant as she saw the fish hooked by its lip, squirming on the bank and unable to breathe out of the water. Uncomfortable with the process and uncomfortable with the results.

This might leave us tempted to abandon this fishing metaphor completely. In fact, for some, evangelism has become so tainted by the proselytizing fishermen approach that we steer clear of talking about our faith publicly at all, afraid of coming across as a coercive or disrespectful. But I don’t think that’s the answer either.

I read another story this week about fishing, a much different story than I was expecting. On an island off the Korean peninsula called Jeju the fishing is done by the women and they are called the haenyeo. These women fish by diving underwater to collect mollusks and shellfish by hand and they do it without any breathing machines or oxygen tanks. From a very young age the girls of this island are taught by their matriarchs to hold their breath for long periods of time while they dive under water, sometimes for as long as three minutes. The haenyeo women are so good at their fishing that they have been for centuries the main providers in their families with the men staying home and caring for the children.

Here’s a modern-day picture of the haenyeo women. As amazing and really different as this haenyeo fishing culture is, what I found even more captivating was that community is an essential part of the whole thing. They don’t fish alone. They always go out together and dive underwater as group. Each time one of them comes up from the water she whistles to let the others know where she is. They call their group of divers a collective and through the strenuous and demanding work they all do together they form really deep bonds. They gather together at the end of each day to talk about how the fishing that day went and how they can support one another better for the next day.

What if the “fishing for people” Jesus tells his first disciples about is more like what the haenyeo do than what we often imagine fishing to be like, with its pointy hook on a solitary line. What if the kind of fishing Jesus was talking about was less about ensnaring and trapping those around us in an effort to force some sort of conversion and more about building the kinds of relationships with one another that build each other up and support collective flourishing. What if Jesus’ goal was about starting a movement that brought people together into relationships so deep and so loving that others around them couldn’t resist being attracted into that community.

I mean, it’s striking isn’t it, that Jesus’ first action as he embarked to start his ministry by the Sea of Galilee was to gather people around him? What can we learn from this breezy story by the sea so many centuries later? We can learn that evangelism doesn’t have to be a calculated one-size fits-all lure. We’re called to be members of a Jesus-led movement in which our actions are life-giving, respectful, and mutually supportive. This kind of community grows a natural kind of evangelism. Because anyone who witnesses it cannot help but want to be part of it and those who are in it, experiencing it cannot help but want to draw the circle even wider to bring more people in.

As I remember back to that fishing story with June months later, I remember feeling excited that we had caught the fish, but I remember feeling MORE excited to share the hilarious story with Fran and Bill, whose pond it was. I knew they would get a good laugh at how unprepared we ended up being and how quickly that little fish caughtus off guard. Someday I’ll probably forget about the less-than pleasant details of hooking and unhooking that fish, but I won’t ever forget how we all—me, June and the Sosseis—all of us laughed about it for days to come. I won’t ever forget that the way they immediately volunteered to teach us how to fish better the next time. The real catch wasn’t the fish at all. It was the pure joy of us all sharing a memory together.

When Jesus says “follow me,” he’s asking us to join a community in which love for our brothers and sisters is the good news; a community founded on friendship and support and accountability; a community where we look out for one another, listening for each other’s whistle to know we’re okay; rooting for one another’s salvation and wholeness. Jesus asks us to follow him into a life of community where our power rests not in our own individual strength or powers of persuasion but in God’s sustaining love that lifts us all up together, and is constantly seeking to draw the circle wider.

When Jesus calls your name, will you be ready to join this kind of fishing adventure? My prayer is that when we answer yes, we’ll be out there diving into the ocean together as a group letting our overwhelming love for one another and for God be the only hook we need.

Grace and Peace,

Pastor Anna

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