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Epiphany 3B Sermon
Mark 1: 14-20
21, 2018


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May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us, in the name of his risen son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.

When I was at Sawmill Creek Lodge in Huron this week for our annual all-Ohio Lutheran Pastor’s gathering, I was reminded of what life was like living for nine years on the shores of Lake Erie. Life is very much tied to the lake up there, from the weather to the various tourist activities. Of course chief among those activities is fishing. Charter and head boats go out twice a day during the fishing seasons, filled with people who want to catch some of the delicious perch or walleye that reside in those waters.
Of course when there are people fishing so much you get a lot of fishing stories. I personally have a story of the one that didn’t get away. We had been there for about a month when a couple from our first congregation outside of Springfield came up to visit. The man, Don, an avid fisherman himself, brought up his boat, and one Saturday he and my father in law went out on the lake to try our luck. After motoring out a ways from shore, they gave me some instructions on what to do – I have fished in my life, but never on Lake Erie, and never for Walleye. I took to rod in my hand and flung the lure out into the water. I then started to reel in the line. Suddenly I felt a hard tug at the hook. I pulled it and started steadily reeling. Eventually we discovered that on the other end was a 21 inch steelhead trout – extremely rare for these waters. On my first cast of my first ever fishing trip on Lake Erie, I had caught a nice, big – and delicious, I might add – fish.

When I told an avid outdoorsman this story, he said, “That is akin to someone deciding to take up hunting, grab his gun, step outside his back door in northern Ohio and immediately shoots a black bear!” Now, I fished many other times over the years with various degrees of success, but I can say that it was never that easy to get a fish.

My ministry partner, Bill, loved to ice fish, and he has a pretty incredible fishing story as well. Once he and his buddy, Jim, were in an ice fishing shanty with a couple of lines through the hole in the ice. Suddenly Jim’s pole bent downward – he had a nice one on his line. Bill forgot about his own line and focused on Jim’s. They didn’t have a net, so Bill was going to pull the line with a hook when the fish got close to the top. As it struggled to get free, Bill put the hook closer to bring it to the surface. Suddenly the fish lunged, the sharp side of the hook caught the line and it snapped – the fish got away.
But just as the two men were commiserating about this lost catch, Bill’s pole starts to go toward the hole. He grabbed it, battled it and pulled it up. This time Jim was able to hook it and bring it to the surface of the ice. Not only did they see Bill’s hook in the fish’s mouth, but there was also Jim’s cut line, lure and hook as well. They caught the same beauty twice!

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus likens discipleship to fishing. It seems natural since the four men he calls in Mark 1 are all fishermen! Andrew, Simon, James and John all make their living from catching and selling fish. Jesus’ message, as he goes around Galilee, is that the kingdom of God has come near – that is, the rule of God is close and here and possible, so you can believe the good news that God’s love is defeating evil. The four fishermen probably knew that fishing isn’t always easy, but the promise of this good news is enough to lure them away from their lives and into new ones.

Fishing isn’t always easy. Part of what affects it is the conditions of the water. On Lake Erie, the daily limit on Walleye used to be much higher than it is now. If you were to fish there today, you could not legally take more than 4 walleye out per day. And you cannot take more than 30 perch in a day. That may sound like a lot, but a short time ago there was no limit – people would regularly catch a hundred or more perch per day, pulling them into the boats two at a time.

Part of the problem is the introduction of a species of life called the zebra mussel, which eats micro-organisms critical to the food chain of the local fish. With those nutrients out of the water, the zooplankton eaten by the fish are more and more scarce, so the fish population declines. As a result, the fish can be more difficult to find and they are protected from the casual fisherman’s hook.
Fishing for people used to be a lot easier too. Discipleship and evangelism in the years following World War II was … well … like shooting fish in a barrel! If you built a church, people would come. It was evangelism by procreation because Christian folks put a priority on belonging to a community of faith and raising their kids there. They were loyal to a denomination so that when they moved into a new community, they found that denomination’s congregation and joined in. Fishing for people was easy in those days.

Like dealing with zebra mussels and other factors, we Christian disciples have a lot more challenges today that make fishing for people more difficult. Competition and lower denominational loyalty has forced churches to change their worship styles and to look more like the outside world than a place set apart. With young people attending churches and Christian Education less frequently, it becomes less important in their lives. Biblical literacy is way down, and with other activities like sports, music, etc. vying for our attention, faith and church participation is not that important. There are a lot of other fishermen and women using much more attractive lures for people of all ages today.

Does that mean that we just stop casting our nets into the lake? By no means. It is important to remember that it hasn’t always been that easy for God. Think about the story from Jonah that we heard this morning. Even though Jonah didn’t have to do much except proclaim, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown,” still God had to get Jonah’s attention a couple of times to get him to make that proclamation. Pharaoh kept hardening his heart instead of letting God’s people go; the people of Israel kept grumbling against God in the wilderness; heck even the disciples themselves would doubt and question and do the wrong thing all of the time. Meanwhile, it is God who remains steadfast in his mission to love people … even if it means that he must change his mind about things, like he does in the Jonah story!

But the key point is that just as committed as God is to bringing his kingdom near to us, we are to be persistent in our fishing for people. It begins with getting out into the boat. Our challenge is to realize that it is no longer a, “build it and they will come” reality when it comes to church. We are called to go out with the message of God’s Kingdom come near to us, and in so doing, to be present in places where people might not think that God is present so they experience God’s goodness.

People don’t expect to hear the news that God’s Kingdom has come near to them in the ordinary places of life. As I have shared my story of being a pastor and have lived out my gratitude toward God, many people have said things like, “I’d go to your church!” The problem has been, few if any have followed through on that claim! We have the tools. We have the equivalent of the lures, rods, reels, and everything that we need to fish for people. The question is, do we have what it takes to actually finish the task and claim others as disciples and believers in the Kingdom of God like us?

Unfortunately, it takes a little more work than it used to as we fish for people. Maybe we actually have to go to the house of someone who says they would attend our church and pick them up. Maybe we have to share some of our personal story with them, or even to be with them during difficult times, or even lend them a helping hand when they are struggling with something in life. The heart of the message is that the Kingdom of God has come near, and that the Kingdom of God brings with it the possibility of new life and joy in God’s presence. Really trusting that promise, God assures us that we will have many, many wonderful fishing stories to share as we practice our discipleship in the ordinary places of our lives. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.