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Fishing for People

Epiphany 3A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Matthew 4:19)

Christians have been listening to Jesus’ invitation to go fishing for over two thousand years. We know fishing for human hearts and minds is a learned skill. Just like normal fishing it takes practice, persistence, and patience. It’s not easy—even though Jesus made it as simple possible. There’s only one Divine Lure in our tackle box: the good news.

Good news begins in the heart of God, in God’s determination to have a family. God shows a relentless resolve not to leave the world to its own devices. The 66 books of the Bible could be described as the long story of God’s refusal to leave us to ourselves. For Christians, Jesus is the supreme act of God’s eternal self communication, God’s determination to have a family at all costs.   (William Willimon, “Fishing with Jesus,” 1/24/99)

The word “evangel” means “good news.” Evangelism is fishing for people by telling the story of what God has done in our lives, our families, and our community. Like the first disciples we reach out to others in the name of Christ because in Christ, God has reached to us. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Cast it out there. Let God do the rest.

We cast the good news as far as we can into the dark, turbulent waters of the world to join the master fisherman, the Holy Spirit, in the work of pulling people out of hatred, despair, enmity, poverty, consumerism, racism, sexism, and any other thing that degrades, devalues and dehumanizes human life.

As with most acquired skills, to become a good fisher for people, it helps to have a good teacher. The booklet and slide presentation lovingly prepared by our self-appointed historian Richard Anderson, each given later today, honors seven founders of Immanuel who left us great examples of how fishing for people is done.

One of them is Emmy Evald (1857-1946). Emmy was the daughter of Immanuel’s first pastor and the second wife of the second pastor. In a church run exclusively by men she outshined them all. The windows of Immanuel give a hint. Emmy is the only person depicted in color. She was a teacher, scholar, suffragette and champion of women’s rights, advocate for Christian missions, skillful organizer of local and national societies, long time friend of Jane Addams and Susan B. Anthony. Emmy Evald may have been the most outstanding woman of Swedish descent of her generation. Not surprisingly male clergy did not always love her.

I couldn’t help but think of Emmy while walking down the middle of Michigan Avenue yesterday morning with friends, family, and 250,000 other people at the women’s march. Emmy epitomized the founding fishers of this church. Richard writes about them, “…they were not merely creating congregations and buildings…they were building a Church…community that cared for the health and well-being of all people, that affirmed the value of education, that struggled against the evils of poverty and neglect, that sang songs of faith in languages old and new, that nurtured spiritual insight and expression, that sought in humble ways to carry out the commands of its Lord and Savior.” (Founders, p. 24)

To become good fishers for people, we must tell the good news in both words and deeds. We stand with Jesus fishing both for souls and bodies; hearts and minds. We stand with Jesus for justice. Little by little and all at once, by the grace of God, our very lives become the divine lure for adding to God’s family.

Our gospel comes from the fourth chapter of Matthew. Already we’ve followed Jesus to Bethlehem, to Egypt, to Nazareth, and now to a small fishing village of about 1,000 people called Capernaum beside the Sea of Galilee. From his earliest days in ministry—God’s Messiah—Jesus will be a wandering, homeless preacher.  His place is among those who suffer.

Where we find him today, Jesus has rejected the comforts of nearby cities like Tiberius or Sepphoris –places you’d expect a young talented Rabbi of his day to go—and has instead embraced God’s call to seek those in need of a word of grace wherever they might live.

The village of Capernaum is in the back-water territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. This was the “wild west” of Palestine, a rough, unruly place with bandits and revolutionaries wandering among a population considered by the religious elites in Jerusalem to be uncivilized, semi-literate, and infected by paganism.

For centuries, these northern regions had been vassal states to a series of Assyrian kings. At the crossroads of international trade routes, these regions were familiar to foreign armies who at various times, marched through, or stopped in to occupy these lands.

It was a land familiar with brutality, poverty and hunger, a land unaccustomed to hope. It was the land of a frequently conquered people, subject to the whims and demands of overlords. Imagine—a place where security and safety are stripped away. Every asset may be claimed by the conquerors. Every child born can be taken by the more powerful into slavery. Every harvest in a field planted with crops could be seized by the mighty. Every hope for the future might be stolen by masters who have the final say.” This is “the land of deep darkness” into which Jesus journeyed. (Amy Oden, Dean and Professor of History of Christianity, Wesley Theological Seminary)

That is the place Jesus called the disciples. These were certainly not among the best and the brightest of his time. To them Jesus declared the fabulous, preposterous news: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” First he called Peter and Andrew, two brothers whom he encountered beside the sea mending their nets. Next two more brothers, James and John, whom he found sitting in the boat with their father Zebedee. He called them and they also left their nets and their father and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22)

The divine lure works to draw people without any work or help from us but faith. Jesus has shown us where we belong.   You belong with me, Jesus says. Come and follow me, Jesus says, let me introduce you to your many thousands of brothers and sisters. Come and follow, Jesus says, let me show you the truth and the life to which you are called, which is your birthright. Let me show you how you have become a precious part of that which is so much greater, the undying life and work of God. Let me show you the divine lure of God that is already within you—the light to drive away darkness and fear. Come and see.

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