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Fishing for People
January 22, 2017
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana

Text: Matthew 4:12-22

Back when I used to work with the homeless, the first thing we did when the homeless came in off the streets was let them sleep for three days.  Then, on the fourth day, we sent them back into the streets on the outreach truck.  Working alongside staff and volunteers, the now rested men would go back to the very same streets and parks they’d called home only a few days before.  Only now, instead of receiving sandwiches they served them, instead of taking blankets, they distributed them, instead of sharing their stories they listened to the stories of others.

When I first learned of this, it seemed counter intuitive.  These men’s lives were in pieces.  They had personal problems galore: addiction, mental illness, family dysfunction, illiteracy and more.  Wouldn’t it be better to shelter them in a regime of counseling and education, to help them work on their problems, to get their stuff in order, before having them focus on others? 

Yet to be homeless is to be isolated, to live in a dog eat dog world where the only person you can depend upon is yourself.  To live on the streets is to be willing to do anything to ensure your survival, to protect your personal space and boundaries, to get what you need. To be homeless is to become hard and callus, unable to feel hurt and pain, unable to feel love, or grace or hope, unable to heal.  Only when that isolation begins to break down can healing happen.  Only when those off the streets begin to care for others, to reach beyond their self erected walls, can they experience the grace of God, the help of counselors, the hope of a new life.  Any hope for personal renewal had to begin by serving others.

Jesus, walking along the sea of Galilee, sees Peter and Andrew, James and John casting their nets, preparing their boats.  I’ve always assumed – although the Bible offers no evidence – that Jesus knew this pair of brothers before he called them.  Capernaum was not a very large place and, as a carpenter, Jesus may have found work building and repairing boats.  In my mind, I see these young men grabbing a drink after work, talking about the world, about the hurt and the pain, the need for change, the need for community, for a new way of life.  They’ve heard of the preaching of John the Baptist.  Jesus, and possibly Andrew, have gone into the desert, to the Jordan, and listened to this prophet. 

Jesus has a particularly intense desert experience.  He receives baptism from John, and is called out and named by the Holy Spirit.  He is driven into the wilderness by Satan and finds his identity both challenged and confirmed.  He hears of John’s arrest and heads home.  Its time to stop talking about change and start being change, its time to stop fishing for fish and start fishing for men.  He finds his friends in their boats and on the beach. Come, he says, follow me.  I will make you fishers of men.  They leave their boats and follow.

What an interesting pitch.  What an interesting invitation.  Think about all the successful pitches you’ve heard, all the great television commercials.  Buy the right beer and you’ll be attractive, popular and your team will win.  Buy the right car and you’ll conquer mountains and all traffic will bow down before you.  Shop at the right store and your life will be stylish, fun, fabulous.  Herbert Hoover won the presidency promising a chicken in every pot; Donald Trump won the presidency promising a living wage manufacturing job in every backyard; preachers fill stadiums and build multi-media empires promising that God will make us rich or that he’ll enable us to achieve our best life now.  Its a dog eat dog world, the pitchmen remind us.  In the end its up to us and about us.  Nothing else matters.

Yet Jesus never promises Peter and Andrew, James and John that they will become rich.  He doesn’t promise them a life of safety or security.  He doesn’t promise them a job at Jesus inc.  He doesn’t promise to improve their marriages, calm their fears, lengthen their lives, bring them personal peace or even make them happy.  In fact, a few years later, when James and John begin wondering what their real world reward will be for following Jesus across the hills of Galilee and through the streets of Jerusalem, Jesus rebukes them.  “The rulers of the Gentiles,” he preaches, “lord it over them and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But I have called you to a different life; I have called you to follow me, to fish for people.  Whoever wishes to be great among you  must be your servant, whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave, just as I came not to be served but to serve, not to have others sing my praises but to die as a ransom for many.”

Follow me, Jesus says, and I will make you fishers of people.  Follow me as we leave our jobs, our security, our families to live and walk among the poor, the hurting, the suffering, the persecuted, the lame, the unclean, the disenfranchised.  Follow me as we reach outside ourselves and work harder than we’ve ever worked, serve harder than we’ve ever served, love harder than we’ve ever loved.  Live this life with me and I will make you whole. 

Years ago my commute passed a church whose sign proudly declared: “The church that puts its faith in you.”  Even today, over a decade later, my spirit still shudders when I consider that great, but seductive lie perpetuated in the name of holiness.  We may want it to be about us. We may want to feel like God is our personal genie who makes our wishes come true and fulfills our selfish desires – whether that’s good health, economic prosperity or an elusive Steeler’s win.  We may think that by focusing exclusively on our selves – or on those in our circle of connections; by investing exclusively in our selves – or on those in our circle of connections; by caring exclusively for our selves – or on those in our immediate circle of connections – we will prosper; we will be the dog who eats the dog; the dog who rules the world.

Every year, my former employer would welcome hundreds of homeless who wished to come in off the streets.  They would offer counseling to battle addictions, classes to improve employability and lessons to learn basic life skills.  Of those hundreds, only a few dozen would achieve healthy relationships, long term employment and stable housing.  The reasons for failure were many, but the primary indicator of success was constant.  Those who achieve healing were the same as those who learned to be healers.  Those who received blessing were those who learned to bless.  Those who found open doors and new opportunities were those who opened doors and created opportunities for others.  Salvation came from outside, not from within, from a God who saves and from passing that salvation on to others.

Follow me, Jesus said, and I will make you a fisher of people.  Follow me, and I will lead you beyond family and clan, beyond comfort and security and into community with the blind and the lame, the unclean and the dead, the poor and the suffering.  Follow me into the lives of our neighbors.  Only then will you become whole.