A Homily for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who sends us out to fish for people. Amen.
When I was younger, I loved fishing. Or at least, I thought so.
On summer days, my sister and I would hop in the truck with our grandpa and drive out to a local pond to try our hand. Even in the July Georgia heat, we would beg and beg and beg to go fishing. Mind you, neither my sister nor I were very good at it; my sister recalls that we went fishing more than we went catching. And like any small child at the pond, we were loud, quick to pester each other and unlikely to leave our lines in the water for even a second before re-casting. But my grandpa was never one to scold us for our impatience or being loud enough to scare away every fish within five miles. And growing up, our Gospel reading today connected with those memories of summer days with grandpa, sitting under the tree. Fishing for people? Sounds great.
Later in life, I met people who actually enjoyed the sport – true anglers – and I started to recall working towards my Webelos fishing pin.
The time came to put the worm – the actual, living, wriggling, shiny, slimy worm – on the hook. If I wanted the award, I had to bait the hook myself. And I couldn’t do it. No way I was touching the worm.
Then there was the time after my grandfather’s funeral, when my older cousin took me out to fish a local pond. We caught a few, went back to my grandma’s house, and the time came to clean them. Nope. Nope nope nope. I’ll catch the fish. I’ll reluctantly watch the fish get cleaned. I’ll certainly eat the fish. But no way am I cutting it open.
As it turns out, I like everything about fishing except fishing itself. So…how about y’all go fish for people, and I’ll sit in the shade on the lakeshore and quietly sip sweet tea for people?
I’ve known a few skilled hobbyists – the people who catch and clean their own dinner, who know exactly what time of day and where to cast to catch a certain type of fish. It takes patience and years of experience to get to their level.
I’ve met a few professionals – fly fishing guides for whom fishing is serious business. When I was working at an outfitter in the Smokies, we had this one guide named John. He was younger than me, but he was the quintessential mountain man. When he wasn’t out guiding trips or selling fly rods, he was out practicing and perfecting his craft. Up well before the sun, hiking for miles, wading into the water, and spending hours casting. He would often come in to work an opening shift having already been out on the streams. If a new style of rod came in, John was out in the parking lot during his lunch break learning the intricacies of this new gear. He was always scouting for new spots – some to use for paying customers, but others to share with only a few close friends.
For people like John, fishing isn’t just an excuse to sit outside. It’s a passion, a way of life. It’s a vocation, a calling. It’s early mornings and practicing the perfect cast and learning when and how to use which flies. For them, fishing for people means something entirely different, something more involved than a lazy summer day with grandpa.
But with all due respect, I think even they miss out on the full weight of what Jesus is saying. For Simon Peter and the other early disciples, fishing wasn’t just an excuse to go outside. It wasn’t about time with grandpa or knowing which fly to use. It wasn’t just a life-long art.
Fishing is hard work. It’s dangerous work. It’s foul-smelling work. Just as shepherds tend to smell like the sheep, fishermen tend to smell like the fish.
Fishing, in the ancient world, more closely resembled the industrial fishing operations of today than a day out on the lake or flyfishing in the mountains. Fishing meant going out onto the sea at night, setting out hundreds of feet of netting, and not coming back to shore until morning. (Think “trawler,” but with none of the machinery to lighten the workload.) But it’s also life-sustaining because fish made up a huge part of the economy and diet of the ancient world.
And then, the job was still not done. Once the haul was aboard, it was time to row back to shore. Then the fish had to be prepared for market, cleaned and preserved (without modern refrigeration). The nets had to be washed and mended. Jesus was interrupting Simon Peter and the others as they tried to finish a hard night’s work, keeping them from their beds.
“I will make you fish for people” isn’t the cute metaphor we’ve turned it into.
The type of fishing Christ is calling us to is not done at a distance, at the end of a rod; it requires getting up close and personal with the catch, wrestling them into the boat.
Christ called Simon Peter, James, John, and the others into work that sustains the Kingdom of God. He called them to get their hands dirty, to put in long, hard hours, building up the Kingdom. Christ called the disciples to proclaim, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”
Beloved, God is still calling us to fish for people, that hard work of calling people into the Kingdom. We can’t do it at a distance, at arm’s length. Rather, it requires us to get up close and personal. We have to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty. If we do it right, we’re gonna end up smelling like the fish. Knowing and loving and living alongside the people with whom we are ministering.
Repentance – metanoia, a transformation of heart and mind – is difficult work; it can’t be done at a distance. Repentance is the fruit of faith formation – work that can’t be done by bumper sticker slogans or shouting from a street corner. It can’t be done through Facebook memes or recommending the exact right book because it’s about more than just right knowledge.
Repentance takes place in person, in community. It means wrestling with issues together. That community can’t be confined to an hour on Sunday morning or abandoned over differences of opinion. And it’s work that doesn’t end once we get the “fish” in the boat.
Repentance doesn’t end at the baptismal font or after the kids are confirmed or the altar; instead, that’s where it begins again.
Called by God to proclaim repentance and live as a transformed community, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to lovingly pour ourselves out for our neighbors. As hatred and fear spread, God has called us to be a community rooted in divine love. “Do not be afraid,” Christ says, for God’s love drives out fear.
To be a community that loves the oppressed and care for them, to bring them into a community where they are loved and valued.
To be a community that loves the oppressor and calls them to repent and join the enter the Kingdom, where they will learn to love their fellow humans as Christ loves them.
Beloved, let us love our neighbors – our immigrant neighbors, our impoverished neighbors, our LGBT neighbors – and call them into a place where they are greeted as beloved siblings.
Beloved, let us love our neighbors – the neighbors who turn blind eyes upon racism and hatred – and call them from fear to repentance and newness of life.
Beloved, let us work to build up a repentant community rooted in the love of God and transformed by divine grace.