This morning our Gospel reading is a fishing story. Do you know someone well who loves to fish? If so, you have undoubtedly been subjected to a fishing story. I am sorry. I imagine you thought that the story went on way too long, and you probably found yourself amazed that anyone could find fish so exciting.
Fishing stories can be a lot like golfing stories: very often they are only interesting to the people who tell them. Those who are passionate about fishing are a lot like those who are passionate about golf: the clothes they wear in pursuit of these passions are not very fashionable; fishing and golfing fanatics never tire of talking about the minutiae of every conceivable technique involved in their respective sports; they are always buying the latest high-tech gadgetry “guaranteed” to bring them success; and they spend far too many hours away from loved ones chasing their dreams of the perfect fish or the perfect score.
Now having said all that, I want to tell you a fishing story. It’s a fishing story that explains why I chose to pick up golf as my recreational passion. The first time I went fishing I was about five years old. With my new little green rod and reel in hand, I walked down to the end of the pier on the Rappahannock River where I grew up. I attached a small yellow spinner to the end of the fishing line and cast it out over the sleepy river into the summer afternoon haze.
Earlier that Saturday afternoon, I had watched ABC’s Wide World of Sports with Jim McKay. They ran a feature on deep sea fishing, and I recall that the fishermen on the show were catching some sort of enormous fish – marlin, I think – that must have weighed four or five hundred pounds. I was really quite impressed by this, so I decided to head on down to the river and haul in some of those famous Rappahannock River marlin of similar stature.
I cast and recast my line into the river. But this day, the marlin were not biting. Tiny waves lapped at the pilings underneath me. It was a hot, languid summer afternoon, and hopeful though I had been, I was beginning to lose interest. I had been at it for at least five minutes. Then, suddenly and without warning, I felt a nibble on the end of the line, then a bite. Then, almost instantaneously, I found myself in the fight of my young life. Suddenly, after a hard, upward jerk of my rod, my Leviathan nemesis of the deep shot up out of the water like a missile, seemed to arch in slow motion over my head, and landed on the pier behind me, writhing in the sun, hook firmly implanted in its mouth. To my horror, I had caught about a twelve inch eel that I mistook for a snake. I ran for the house and have never really cared much for fishing since, although I love golf.
In many ways, my fishing story is like many fishing stories: a story beginning in boundless hope bumping up against growing discouragement, finally turning to momentous surprise. Fishing, as with life itself, is lot like Forest Gump’s box of chocolates, “you never know what you’re gonna get.”
It is the same being a disciple of Jesus. Jesus bids us to take up the call. But he does not promise that we will be able to predict precisely how it will all turn out for us. It’s true: as Jesus’ disciple, you never know what you’re gonna get; you never know what surprises Jesus has in store for you. Maybe there will be times you will despair that the fish just aren’t biting, when your faith doesn’t seem to make much sense to you. Or maybe there will be a time when you catch the very thing you least expected – a new passion, a new understanding, a new relationship. Or maybe like Peter, James and John in our gospel reading this morning, you’ll catch more fish than you could ever imagine. Or perhaps also like these first of Jesus’ disciples, you will find yourself at times feeling as if your are sinking in dangerous waters when your faith forces you to confront the hurt or the evil or the injustices in your life and in the world around you. Over time it is very likely you will experience all of the above.
So why bother? Why say “yes” to Jesus’ invitation to become fisher of people when fishing is so unpredictable? Isn’t it safer just to avoid getting our feet wet, to remain on dry terra firma? Why risk it?
The message of today’s gospel reading seems to be that the promises of discipleship are greater than the dangers, more profitable than the risks, and certainly more rewarding than giving up in despair. As he does so often, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” And the reason we should not be afraid is because, in being called forth to follow Jesus, we have been called to nothing that we are not able to do. Jesus does not call people of prodigious gifts or super-human faith. Jesus calls ordinary people, fisherman like Peter, ordinary people like you and me.
But even without this reassurance, I still think we might find ourselves lured into following Jesus because it is a way of life so much more compelling than a life of utter safety, certainty and predictability. I don’t think we find it terribly attractive to follow God out of blind obedience and submissiveness; there has to be some hope – some promise – that we might find genuine fulfillment in life by following. God has made us to be seekers of hope and promise. And in our struggle to be faithful, we all share the avid angler’s persistent hope that, no matter how many fish we have caught in our day, there is always the possibility that the really big one is still lurking out there just waiting to be reeled in. Bigger stories are yet to be told.
A fisherman once wrote that “the charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.” Discipleship, like fishing, is “a perpetual series of occasions for hope.”
Jesus calls us to fish out the hope in our hearts that maybe there really is more to life than we have allowed, the promise that there is something within us calling us forth out there, something calling us out of our comfort zone into a life more rich and full and real than anything they have known before.
It can be a surprising and dangerous thing, this new life of discipleship. You never know what your gonna get; you never know where you will be led, what abundant surprises await you, or what tough decisions will confront you. But Jesus assures us that he will be with us and that the promise itself – the eternal hope swimming in our hearts that our true destiny has yet to be reached – will leave our boats overflowing with blessing. Amen.