Fishing For People
Let me make this disclaimer at the beginning. I am not a fisherman – at least not much of one. Oh, this doesn’t mean that I don’t like to fish. I do and I have enjoyed crabbing with Matt recently. But fishing is not something I do regularly. I don’t even own my own pole. Now, my father was one of those once-a-year-fishermen who would go to Canada with his buddies for a week in the summer. One year, after his buddies could no longer go with him, he took my mother and me. I was six. We went to a fishing camp on the French River in Canada. I have vivid memories of catching fish and eating shore lunches. A few years ago I was able to locate that very fishing camp online and take Matt there for a few days of fishing. The place hadn’t changed a bit in 54 years. I borrowed a pole from a buddy and we caught small mouth bass, pike, and walleye. We cooked shore lunches. It was a great time to relive old memories and create new ones.
But I did learn just enough about fishing on that trip to preach this sermon. You see, when Jesus started calling disciples at the beginning of his ministry he took a walk by the sea of Galilee. There he saw two brothers – Simon Peter and Andrew. They were fishing. It was the way they made their living. Jesus said to them simply, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. Simon and Andrew, indeed, spent their lives fishing for people and Christianity spread throughout the world.
But it didn’t spread throughout the whole world. Today, about a third of the world’s people are Christian. Here in Reston only about a third of the population is churched. The others may claim to have a religion, but it is in name only. They don’t really have a relation with their creator. And so Jesus invites you and me to do what Simon Peter and Andrew did. He invites us to fish for people.
Periodically we need sermons on how to do that – how to fish for people. So this morning I thought I’d try to apply some of the things I learned about fishing in Canada to fishing for people.
On the first day of our trip we went out with our guide, Red – an old, bearded fellow who still had some of his teeth. First, Red took us to an island where we fished just off the shore. No fish there. So we went to a marshy area where we fished the weeds for a while. No fish there. Finally, we went to a rapids called Five Fingers, got out of the boat, and fished from the shore. Then they started hitting. So we stayed all morning and caught more than enough for our shore lunch.
The lesson there is – if you want to catch fish you have to go where the fish are. You can’t just sit on the dock by the lodge, drop a line, and hope they come to you. That’s true of evangelism as well. If you want to bring the word of God to people, you have to go where the people don’t hear it.
One time our national ELCA bishop went to a rural declining church in Nebraska. When he got there the council said to him, “You just want to shut us down because we’re small.” The bishop asked, “When you go to the grain store, are there people who don’t have a church?” They said, “Yes.” How about the farm implement store?” “Yes,” they said. "The local diner where you gather for coffee?" “Yes.” “Then why,” he asked them, “would I want to close down such a rich mission field? Every day you and I go where the fish are."
Now, you may be asking, just how do we fish? What do we do with the unchurched folks at work, at school, around Hunters Woods Plaza? Well, up on the French River when we got to the spots where the fish usually hang out, Red began to tell us what bait to use. Night crawlers for the small mouth bass. Smelt for the pike and spinning lures for the walleye. Fish are like people. Different kinds hang out in different spots. So, we would fish with the appropriate lure.
Fishing for people works the same way. Many people shy away from evangelism because they think it means walking up to a person on the street and saying, “Do you Jesus as your personal Lord and savior?” That’s the quickest way to drive fish away. Rather, we use different lures for different situations. In one instance you might be called upon t give a faith-filled answer when someone asks of you, “Where is God in this tragedy which just struck in my life?” Witnessing to your own faith is some of the best fishing there is.
In another instance you might see an opportunity when somebody says something like, “I don’t go to church because of all the hypocrites.” You simply tell them that is like complaining that the hospital is full of sick people. That’s why we come here. To get well. Synod has pretty much stopped using the word “evangelism.” Instead, we use the phrase “New Connections.” What kind of new connections can we make with people? We can make new connections when we invite people to church or when we invite them to one of our volunteer opportunities or one of our fellowship opportunities. There are plenty of ways to make new connections, but you and I are the ones to do it. It doesn’t do just to have a good website or a changeable sign we can put outside the church. We need to be making connections. New connections.
When we first got out there in the middle of the French River I was awe struck by the scenery – the vast array of islands, pine trees, and outcropping of rock. I put my line in the water and did a little daydreaming and sun-tanning with my eyes closed. But I wasn’t catching any fish. By the end of the morning I had learned that, to actually get something from the water into the net you had to sit up, alert, eyes open, all senses forcused on any little movement in the water, any little tug on the string, any little nuanced change in anything. It is like Zen fishing. And then the trick was to respond in just the right way. A little patience. A little jerk on the line. A big whip-that-pole-up-into-the-air. Whatever. But you had to be alert and patient all at the same time.
If you want to fish for people you have to do it that way. In education they call it a teachable moment – waiting for that instant when the child shows some curiosity or interest or willingness to learn and then delivering the goods. In making new connections I suppose we could call that a fishing moment. Watching for the right time in someone’s life to be there for them, to say the right words, to issue an invitation. Constantly being alert for changes in someone’s mood or life style. They may something significant to you right out of the blue. If so, that’s a fishing moment. Don’t be daydreaming or catching rays or you’ll miss the moment.
At the fishing camp we had our choice of two kinds of fishing licenses to buy – catch and keep or catch and release. Catch and release is considered more ecologically correct. But I will confess that I bought the catch and keep license. Those shore lunches with freshly caught fish were half the fun of the trip.
Now, when Jesus went fishing for people he didn’t catch and release. When he called Peter and James and John, he kept them. We need to work on catching and keeping, too. One of the perennial problems in churches is when new members come in the front door and, before long, go out the back door. They do this for various reasons. They haven’t bonded with other people in the congregation or they haven’t been given a task to do outside of worship. They haven’t been integrated. Please be aware of that when we receive new members. We don’t stop inviting them just because they have become members. Invite them to activities. Invite them to lunch. Invite them into conversations in the narthex. Catch and keep.
Matt and I are planning a fishing trip this summer. We are accepting Guy Zoller’s invitation to fish with him at their place in the Thousand Islands. When we do, we will let Guy be the guide. I like guides. This sermon has been meant to be a fishing guide. I hope it has been helpful to you. Keep coming here and we will help guide you to become fishers of people.