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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Start! Fishing for Friends

Sermon – Start! Fishing for Friends
 Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Mark 1:14-20

Kristen and I have so many awesome memories of Evergreen from when we were newly married children.
We made lifelong friends here.
But you don't make lifelong friends preaching and listening to sermons.
You make true friends by doing things like eating supper together, spending days at the beach together, sitting at kitchen tables having sweet tea together and spilling the tea together, if you know what I mean.
And sometimes, if you're very lucky, you make dear friends… going fishing.

Some of you remember the late, great Jack Persch. (Thank you Linda)
Jack took early retirement so he could concentrate all his energy on the one true avocational passion in his life: fishing.
It was an indication of just how much fishing Jack had done since his retirement that in only a couple of months, he'd made it far enough down his list of fishing buddies to be calling me.

One afternoon, I answered the phone and heard Jack say, "Hey preacher, you wanna meet me at 4:30 Friday morning and we'll go up to the lake and do some fishing?"
And you know, I was just born to fish.
Are the fish awake that early, I thought?

Now, I had been fishing before, many times.
My dad and I used to go fishing all the time when I was a kid.
Still, I hadn't held a fishing stick in my hands for nearly 20 years.
But I do believe that life ought to be lived as an adventure, and this had adventure written all over it.

Friday morning, I got the full tour of the lake.
Jack took the boat around all the nooks and crannies of the shoreline.
He explained the fish-catching potential of each one.

Here's where you go in the spring.  
Here's where you use this kind of lure.  
Here's where this kind of fish are.  
Here's where that kind go.

Jack treated fishing like a science.
This was serious stuff.
He started me out easy.
After we had warmed up in a couple of "pretty-good" fishing holes, Jack took a deep breath, got this stern look on his face, and announced that now, now, we were going to go to THE fishing place.
And the way he said it, I had this vision of the fish just jumping out of the water, straight into the live well.
Biblical amounts of fish, nearly sinking the boat.
We'd be legends of Lake Eufaula.

We pulled up, way on the far side of the lake, next to an old, abandoned boat house with rickety wooden sides and a rusty metal roof.
Jack cut the motor early and we drifted in in stealth mode.
Those fish would never know what hit them.

Jack handed me one of his primo lures, a big, silver-painted fish with deadly hooks all over it.
Called it a "rattle-trap.
He whispered to me:
"Cast right over there, next to the abandoned boathouse.
"That's where they'll be."  
And to demonstrate, just like the guys on TV, he cast his line within inches of the boathouse and it dropped with a delicate, "Ploop!"

Now, I'm sure that each fisherman has his own style of casting.
Mine tend to be high, arcing casts with plenty of hang time.
I decided I'd cast right beside where Jack's had landed.
I threw my line and up it went, up, up toward heaven, and then back down.

Except my cast didn't hit the water with a delicate, "Ploop!"
Instead, it landed on the metal roof of the boathouse with a, "Blam!"
and then it bounced — "Blam!  Blam!  Blam!"
By now, every fish (and quite a few fishermen) had been alerted to our presence.  

I didn't even look at Jack.
I think I said something like, "Oops."

Jack said, "Well I'll be, James. You caught a boathouse."

I reeled the rattle trap down off the roof and it rattled every inch of the way:
"Screeeeeech. Tick tick tick. Screech."
And then, finally, "Ploop."

That might not have been so bad, except that a few minutes later, I did it again.  
And the Bad Fisherman alarm was sounded throughout the deep once more.

To his credit, Jack was very patient.
He didn't say a thing. Out loud.
After a few minutes, he began looking toward another spot.

"Why don't we try over there," he suggested, "next to that grassy bank."

As the morning wore on, I increased in my ability to throw low, fairly accurate casts.
As the morning turned to day,
as the lake itself awakened with its sights and sounds,
as the cicadas began to buzz,
as a flock of geese flew past us in formation,
as our conversation rolled from high, laughing tales to quiet personal thoughts,
as we bathed in the fullness of the land, water, and sky that seemed to hold us in the palm of its hand,
I began to understand that our fishing (however skilled it may have been) was only a tiny fraction of all that was going on that day.

Now, I'm not going to tell you that Jack and I both caught up to the limit of fish that day, because it's a sin to lie.
Even fishermen won't stretch a story that far.
But as for myself, I think something more than fish, something else entirely was caught out on the lake that morning.  
Since that day, Jack and I went on to become close friends.
By the grace of God, we were good fishermen that day;
and we didn't catch a single fish.

I have no idea if Simon and Andrew, and James and John were GOOD fishermen, or even if they liked it.
I mean, they DID drop their nets and immediately walk away from their jobs at the first offer they got.
And when they did go fishing after that, Jesus always had to tell them which side of the boat to use.
And he was a carpenter.
Actually, by that time, he was just a preacher, which is just one step below Career Politician in terms of people who talk constantly while knowing nothing.

All this leads me to believe that fishing, in the Bible, isn't really about fishing at all.
Fishing – in this scripture – is a metaphor.
A metaphor for (among other things) being stuck in a job you don't like and might not be particularly good at but it puts food on the table and maybe a little money in the bank so you keep slogging.
Fishing – in this case – is symbolic for doing something – a job, a hobby, a pastime, a chore – that does one thing, but accomplishes something much deeper, and more abundant, when you're doing it WITH someone, or doing it FOR someone you love.
Like Jesus.

Whatever it is you do, even if you're bad at it, if you're doing it at Jesus's calling, if you're doing it for a greater cause, you'll find the deeper waters.
Or, the deeper waters will wash over you.
Simon and Andrew and James and John found out that day, after they quit their jobs and dropped their nets and left their boats:
They found out traipsing along the shore on a path to God knows where – is a productive use of precious time, especially, when you're traipsing, or fishing, or just being still – with a friend, and Jesus.

Now. Switch gears with me back to the Old Testament lesson and Jonah.

Everybody remembers Jonah because of the whale.
It's a whale of a tale. LOL.
It's not about the tail part of the whale, but the belly.
Which reminds me of that show, "The Summer I Turned Pretty."
My daughters made me watch it with them as punishment for something I must have done when they were teenagers.
The lead character in the show is a girl nicknamed "Belly."
Short for Isabel and used because, I guess, another girl in her class was called, "Izzy."
Do any of you know a teenage girl called, "Belly?"
I hope not. For her sake. So much therapy.

But. I digress.
You'll get used to that.

The book of Jonah takes about 15 minutes to read.
It's short, confusing, and absurd.
The belly is just there to show how ridiculous of a human being Jonah is.
The Book of Jonah isn't about the whale.
It's really not even about Jonah.
Jonah's a big jerk.
Jonah is the WORST fisherman, ever.
He doesn't catch a fish. The fish catches HIM.

(And yes, I know whales are technically mammals. Tomatoes are fruit and potatoes are vegetables until you fry them what's your point?)

Not only a bad fisherman, Jonah is the worst prophet in the whole Bible.
Jonah hates his job.
He tries to run away from it.
Eventually he does a solid half-way job.
He has to.
Because his boss, God, won't be scuttled by his nonsense.

God tells Jonah to go tol Sin City – Nineveh – and to tell them that unless they repent of being horrible they'll be terminated.
 Jonah likes the idea of Nineveh being terminated. Nineveh's nasty.
So, Jonah tries to run and hide from God's calling.
But after ships, storms, and 3 days in a whale belly, he gets the message that God means business.
So Jonah shuffles barely into the suburbs, and with all the enthusiasm of a teenage Taco Bell employee, announces,
"Repent, repent. Y'all repent, or God's gonna get you."

The point is NOT that Jonah works hard and becomes a superhero.
He's not good at his job.
He's not a good person.
The point is that GOD is so good, GOD is SO good, even when we're the worst.
Even when we're lazy, incompetent, insubordinate at our jobs.
Even when we screw up.
Even if we might totally hate our vocation, avocation, or calling – even then – GOD does God's work, in spite of us.

So, if Jack Persch were here today, I'm pretty sure he'd agree I'm about the worst fisherman ever to step foot in his beautiful, expensive fishing boat.
Jonah was so sour even the fish spit him out.
Simon, Andrew, James, and John may or may not have been good at their jobs, we don't know.
But the evidence (in the BIBLE) appears to work against them.

It's taken me about 30 years at this job to realize that it's not about whether people remember my sermons.
It's nice, and I'm glad when it happens.
I mean, I try to do it well, but I understand that's not the point.

The point of church – in general – the point of church isn't getting it right.
The point of church isn't whether we have teeth like Joel Osteen, or set attendance records, or have the biggest budget.
Those are all wonderful, and good for us if that happens.
The point of church is doing what God tells us, together.
That's it.

Maybe we're good at it.
Maybe we aren't.
Maybe we don't know what to say when someone dies.
Maybe we don't know how to pray to open a meeting.
Maybe we forget a kid at Six Flags.
(I don't think that's happened but if it does, maybe chaperoning isn't your spiritual gift.)

The point – of church – the point – of faith – isn't our skill or lack thereof.
The point is whether we agree to follow Jesus, agree to follow God, agree to try to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, and to do it together, as well as we can, with what we have, and who we are.
That's what we're here for.
That's what I'm here for.
God help us if we pull it off.
God's will be done even if we don't.
God will get stuff done in spite of us.
God will get it done, in spite of our stupidity, in spite of our refusal, in spite of our clumsiness.
Because God can use us at our worst, AND our best.
God can work miracles with even one bad fisherman.


Rev. Dr. James McTyre
Transitional Pastor, Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL