A Homily for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Grace and peace to you from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who calls us to fish for people. Amen.
Let me tell you about the last time I went fishing. It was in 2002. My family was stationed at Ft. Stewart, down on the coast; the ponds on base were renowned for their massive channel catfish – weighing in around forty pounds, on the small end.
My grandpa, an avid fisherman, had just died, and we had taken a few of his rods and tackleboxes with us after the funeral. Mom and I decided to see if we could reel in one of these legendary fish – what an appropriate way to honor grandpa Ben’s memory. We loaded put the dog in the car alongside our gear, stopped by to get a fishing license, and headed out to one of the dozens of fishing ponds in the vast expanse of the training area.
We pulled up to the dock jutting out into the water and noticed something odd: about halfway down the pier, a large piece of iron grating stretched across the walkway, hanging off each side by about a foot, and stood at over six feet tall.
Now there are two things you need to know:
1) Fort Stewart, sitting on more than four hundred square miles of coastal swamp, is home to giant catfish yes, but also to large alligators. And,
2) Our dog, Molly, was normally very calm but hated walking on any elevated surface she could see through. You know, like a wooden dock over an alligator-infested pond.
So, we get out of the car and remark on how strange it is to have a metal gate on the dock. We drag the poor dog out onto the dock, and the entire time she’s planting her back feet, pulling at the leash, howling and barking, trying to get back to the car.
We set our stuff down and start to bait our lines, and the entire time Molly barked and barked and barked and howled and howled.
And on the opposite side of the pond, up pop two sets of eyes. One on the left. One on the right.
And Molly barked and barked and barked.
And the eyes started moving towards us.
And Molly howled and howled and howled.
And the eyes are halfway across the pond now.
And Molly just kept barking.
I looked at the metal fencing and said, “Huh. I wonder if that’s so you can lock yourself in if an alligator gets up on the dock.”
My mom looked at it. Looked at me. Looked at the dog (still barking). And mom, Molly, and I looked at the eyes moving steadily towards us.
I don’t remember who said it first, but we pretty quickly realized we should leave before we found out how reliable that gate was.
I’m not sure if we even cast our lines before giving up and fleeing to safety.
When Christ tells the disciples they will fish for people, we tend to think of it in cutesy little ways; we tame the imagery, the same way we do with his repeated references to being a shepherd. Fishing for people? You mean reclining on the edge of a pond, relaxing under the shade of a tree, while the bobber floats lazily on the surface? Sounds like a great way to spend a Sunday, Jesus.
But he ain’t talking about Andy and Opie wandering out of Mayberry on a sunny day, rods casually tossed over their shoulders. He’s describing about something that more closely resembles The Deadliest Catch than Andy Griffith. He’s describing difficult, dangerous work – long nights out at sea, casting heavy nets and wrestling fish out of the water into the boat. And then there’s the cleaning and gutting and preparing the fish for market. And, after a hard night’s work, the crew has to prep for the next day, mending whatever damage the nets may have endured and keeping the boat in good repair.
To go fishing, you have to go where the fish are – and it’s not always pleasant or pretty. Sometimes, yeah, it’s a relaxing stroll to the local fishing hole. But sometimes – most times – it means going out to a gator-infested pond or braving areas known snakes. It means hiking over rocks and through thorns to find the right spot. Or braving a storm-tossed sea to seek out the deep water. You want to fish for people? Best case scenario, you’re going to get wet and smell like fish.
Consider the example our Lord set in his own incarnation: stepping down from heaven, Jesus took on the entirety of the human existence – not just the lovely parts but the painful and agonizing parts as well. He didn’t seek out a place of safety but went out among the predators of his day, challenging the powerful and staring down the demonic. Just last week, the crowd in his hometown tried to throw him off a cliff. His ministry was not safe – indeed, it cost him his life.
And Simon, who was called to fish for people? Peter, whose spiritual heirs, the popes, to this day wear a “Fisherman’s ring”? He made his way to Rome, where he was crucified.
Indeed, we, like Simon Peter have been sent out into ministry. We are the successors of the apostles – not just bishops and clergy but all Christians. This ministry isn’t about what we do, to earn our salvation, but who we are, living as the justified sinners, the saints, that God has always intended us to be.
We have been given glorious news of the forgiveness of sins, of life everlasting, of the coming Kingdom of God already erupting in this world. And God has made us the messengers of this Gospel.
We have all been called into ministry and sent out into the world to fish for people.
Which means we are going to have to ask, where are the people we are trying to reach? Mind you, not just the people we like or the people we want to reach or the ones who look like us, but the people we are called to minister to.
Fishing for people is not a safe vocation. We can’t do it safe from this beautiful shoreline of our little building.
No, to fish for people means we are going have to listen to the voice sending us out beyond our bounds – to the ponds where predators prowl, to the lakes where evil lurks. Fishing for people means we are going to encounter some of the nastier parts of this world – to seek out the oppressed and tell them of one who came to liberate them; to seek out oppressors and call them to repentance; to seek out the suffering and proclaim one who has come to heal them. To seek out the poor, the destitute, the hungry, and to provide for them. To visit the sick and the imprisoned.
So no, this is not a safe vocation. Who ever said that it was? But it’s good. Good not because it earns us our salvation but because we, saved by grace through faith, have been given the blessed opportunity to proclaim Good News to a world in need of a savior! We know the glory of what God has done! We witness it first-hand every week, when we hear again the stories of God’s saving work throughout history. We taste and see that the Lord is good when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ at the Altar!
Go, beloved, and fish for people. And when the alligators and the snakes rear their heads, when the winds howl and the waves crash, remember that we worship the God who has overcome the predatory powers, who bids the storm be still, and who blesses us with miraculous abundance.