Smells Fishy

A Homily for the Third Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Saint Mark 1:14-20


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who calls us into ministry and sends us out into the world. Amen.

Something kind of weird happened last week on the internet – yes, weird even by internet standards. For a few days, everyone was very into sea shanties, those nineteenth century rhythmic work songs sung by sailors. They’re designed to be sung in a group, with a sort of call-and-response style between verse and chorus; with the advent of smartphone-based recording and editing apps, people across the world were able to easily sing together even in the midst of a pandemic, singing songs about friendship (“Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate”), the connection between crew and ship (“Leave Her, Johnny”), and the urge to go home (“Row, Me Bully Boys”).

The sudden interest in sea shanties came about when people started sending around videos of the song “Soon May the Wellerman Come”, and the best version is a nurse riding in the car as his brother blasts the shanty over the stereo, singing along.  The song plays a few times as the video goes, and with each pass, the man goes from casting side-eyed, annoyed glances at his sibling to digging the song to singing along to adding his own harmonies. (Watch the original TikTok video here.)

And yeah, it’s a pretty great song. (It’s been stuck in my head for about a week now.)  It tells of an epic struggle of a whaling ship, the Billy of Tea, off the coast of New Zealand as they harpoon a right whale, intending to tow it back to land – but the whale has different plans, pulling the ship and several smaller boats along:

For forty days and even more,
The line went slack, then tight once more.
The boats were lost, there were only four,
And still that whale did go

The refrain tells of the Wellerman, a company that would deliver supplies to ships at sea, coming to refresh the whalers as they battle the beast: “Soon may the Wellerman come, to bring us sugar and tea and rum,” and the song ends with the battle still underway:

….As far as I’ve heard, the fight’s still on
The line’s not cut, and the whale’s not gone
The Wellerman makes his regular call
To encourage the captain, crew and all.

The shanties paint a picture of resiliency, of long voyages through dangerous waters full of grueling labor, of working hard to pull catch fish and whales, of life in a tightknit community far from home.

If you’re like me, the term “fishing” probably conjures up images of something completely different. If you tell me I’m going to fishing,

I imagine sitting on a dock or a lakeshore, lazily casting for a small bream or catfish, probably not paying much attention to what I’m doing, not caring that I haven’t really caught anything. It’s been over fifteen years since I’ve actually gone fishing, but I’m willing to bet that not much has changed; it’s more like I enjoy the tranquility of the lake while other people fish.

If there’s a song I associate with “fishing for people”, it’s the modern Spanish hymn “Lord, You have Come to the Lakeshore”

Lord, you have come to the lakeshore
looking neither for wealthy nor wise ones;
you only asked me to follow humbly.

O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me,
and while smiling have spoken my name;
now my boat’s left on the shoreline behind me;
by your side I will seek other seas.

For most of us, the image of “fishing” isn’t really what Simon Peter and Andrew have in mind when Jesus invites them to fish for people.

No, to really understand what they’re being called to do, you would need to go down to the coast, to talk to the folks who work the trawlers, or maybe watch one of those reality shows about crabbers fighting against the foul weather and crashing waves.

It’s that – but without the benefit of heavy machinery, a motor, or any form of refrigeration. The job that today we think of as thankless, laborious, and dangerous was only the more rigorous two millennia ago.

For Simon and Andrew, James and John, fishing means going out on the boat through the night, hauling heavy nets into the boat by hand, getting back to shore, cleaning the fish to get them to market, mending the nets throughout the day, and going back out to do it again. It’s more “The Wellerman” and hard work than sitting under the shade of a tree on quaint lakeshores, more sea shanty than hymn.

There’s a phrase that Pope Francis likes to use to describe pastoral ministry – that bishops and priests should be shepherds who smell like the sheep. He means that ministry is done up close and personal, that it’s situated in the context of the flock.

It’s the same with being a fisherman: it means getting into the boat and going out to where the fish are when they are there, getting up close and personal with them, wrestling them into the boat.           To be a fisherman is to smell fishy. Day after day. Night after night.

Kindred, our Lord has commissioned us to proclaim the good news of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and the coming Kingdom of God. We are an apostolic church – evangelists sent out in ministry. We have been sent out to fish for people, and that means being where the people are. Yes, right now, that means at home and in our cars, but the time is coming – and will hopefully soon be here – when things can begin to reopen.

Now is the time to ask:
-Have we been going to where the people are to proclaim the Good News?
-What does it look like in this city, in this region, to proclaim the Gospel to the people?
-If we faithfully reach out to our neighbors down the street and across the city, what will Redeemer look like?

Now is the time not to wish we could recover some long-lost better day but to envision what we will look like in the future, to discern who God is calling us to be, to listen to where God is calling us to be.

It’s not easy work; we’ve been called to fish for people, not to nap on the lakeshore for people. It might mean going to places we don’t like – as the prophet Jonah was sent to Nineveh – or weathering the storms, as we see the disciples do elsewhere in the Gospels.

 It will mean getting up close and personal with people, good and bad, rich and poor, black and white, immigrant and native-born, and loving them the way that God loves them.

This sort of evangelism isn’t something that happens in a single day like Jonah’s preaching in Nineveh or even, per the old shanty, “for forty days and even more” but is based around relationships – sustained, long-term relationships.

It means that we’re going to spend so much time around the people we’re trying to reach that we’ll end up smelling like them – to be situated in the context of Macon and middle Georgia.

It’s going to mean that as we reach out in ministry to this community, our budget and our priorities smell fishier – focusing less on our building, less on what we do on these grounds, and more on what we’re doing with our neighbors.

Our ministry isn’t confined to the bounds of this property. To fish for people, to reach them with the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ, we have to leave this, our lakeshore, and to venture out to where the fish are.

Amen.

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