Fishing for people

RCL Year A, 3 Epiphany

When I was a kid, our family owned a 23-foot powerboat that we would take out for trips around the San Juan and Gulf Islands. Every now and then, we would pack along fishing rods and reels and fish off the back of the boat. I always did this with some trepidation. Because as great as it was to sit in the warm sun, dangling my feet in the water, as fun as it was to feel that tug on the line, I knew what it would result in for me: three dogfish. Every time I fished, I landed three dogfish. Even the time I tried reeling in to give up after the second dogfish, the third dogfish grabbed hold of the hook just as it was about to break the surface of the water. Dogfish are ugly, dogfish are inedible, and dogfish get you no points in the family fishing tournament – excitement was reserved only for real fish like salmon. But somehow, dogfish, three of them, were all I could ever catch.

Some of you, I think, are fisherfolk, or have done some fishing in the past – right? I imagine I’m not the only one to learn that when you fish, you don’t always catch what you’re hoping to catch. Sometimes, of course, you don’t catch anything at all. But despite that, there’s something appealing about it. For a certain kind of fishing at least, you do it not because you’ll probably catch something, but because you get a chance to be quiet in a beautiful place without really doing much of anything at all. Having a rod and reel gives you an excuse to sit still and be quiet. In other words, fishing is something done for the experience of fishing – not for the outcome it will lead to.

Fishing, of course, is central to the Christian life. The gospel today tells us of Jesus’ call to the disciples: Follow me and I’ll make you fish for people. It’s similar to the charge Jesus gives them at the very end of the gospel, to go out and make disciples. Go reel them in, in other words. You could read these commands as jobs with measurable outcomes: to be followers of Jesus means we have work to do, a certain number of people to bring into the fold, adding to the growth of the church in tangible and quantifiable ways. But you could also see this as a description of what it is like to follow Jesus: when we follow Jesus, we bring others along. When we follow Jesus, what we do is care for others around us. And when we do this, God uses us to care for them too. The net is spread through the relationships we have, the love we share.

Over the last year we have been exploring relationships in a number of ways. We began pursuing community organizing in the beginning of the year, first imagining this as a way of connecting in relationship to people outside of our church. Then we realized that to do that, first we needed to build the relationships within our church. So we set up a series of house meetings to bring people together, to talk and listen to one another about things that mattered. It was a chance for conversation on a different level. Some of you who’ve known each other for years learned new things about one another, heard things you’d never heard each other say. Although it was aimed at the ideas of outreach, it deepened our relationships a little bit in the process.

We deepened relationships between us by sharing our own needs, too. We saw members go through health crises and life changes this year and reach out to others here for help. A little bit more chipping away at the self-reliance that so many of you pride yourself on. And of course help was readily at hand when it was asked for.

We began relationships with new people too, as new members joined our congregation and others came to programs like VBS and the Christmas pageant party and shared in our common life. And we began relationships with members of our community in our Lenten series, ‘Who Is My Neighbor?’, learning about cultures in our area and hearing some about what others around us need as well. A reminder that as a church we do more than just care for one another’s needs – we have to get to know others as well and hear their needs in order to live out the gospel in this neighborhood.

Relationship is what we do as church, really – we come together to worship and to get to know each other, to learn and to care for each other. If we didn’t want relationships, we wouldn’t be here. But sometimes it’s hard for us to focus on and value those relationships. We crave knowing and being known, but it is also scary and vulnerable and risky. It’s easier to do something together, share in a task, focus on the outcome. How many people are we serving meals to in our outreach program? How many new people have joined the church this year? How many kids are in the Sunday School? And how’s the budget doing? All of these are important questions, of course. Without knowing numbers and figures it is hard to assess some basic markers of how we’re doing as a congregation.

But sometimes we can forget to lend as much thought to the quality of the relationships we form as we go about our business together. While we cooked and served those meals, what kind of conversations and sharing happened? The Montgomery Meals group is good at this, by the way. At the end of the cooking, as the servers are coming in to pick up the food to take to the shelter, they all sit and share food and a glass of wine and talk – building relationship. Sunday School teachers on their training day, vestry members in their meetings, had mountains of tasks before them. But were they also able to stop and pray together, or to talk together and form bonds as they worked? What did they learn about God and themselves? The finance committee met often to review the budget and the endowment. But was it all about deficits and investments? Or did we think about how those numbers reflect our love and care for others? And so on. Everything we do here is relationship, in the end. Most of all of that doesn’t get reflected in an annual report – but it is the purpose of what we are here for.

So as we head into our annual meeting today, and as our new vestry gets itself underway in the weeks to come, I pray that we will take stock not only of the tasks completed, but of the relationships that we are growing and deepening. In this coming year, there will be countless opportunities to know one another more deeply, to talk together more openly about our journeys with God and others. In this year, we will be shown ways that we can cast our nets wider, reaching out to others to serve their needs and not only our own. If we are looking, we will see ways to serve with our money and our time and our skills, ways that we can be ready to know and love others well.

We are fishers of people – we fish not because we’ll land a big one, but because that’s what it means to follow Jesus. Through us and in us, God acts, sharing God’s love with the world. God uses us to make a difference. And God works through others to change us as well. Loving others – fishing for the sake of fishing – is how we show Jesus to the world. Follow me, Jesus says. Let’s go fishing.