I don’t know if you’ve elected a fisherman or not. I believe your current bishop has done some fishing, but he seems to be more interested in grass farming and cows. I haven’t heard any retirement plans about sheep, unless it’s raising hay.
There is an ancient and proverbial hankering to go fishing when life gets tough. That’s why Peter and his friends are out there on Galilee Lake so early in the morning. They’ve had a rough week – best friend arrested, tortured, executed – and Peter’s response is to go off to drown his sorrows in something he knows well – go down to the seas again, or lose himself simply messing around in boats.
And then things get interesting. After an unproductive night, a word from the beachcomber about where to throw the net generates an enormous haul. Peter realizes who the guy on the beach is. He responds in his usual rocky way – he puts his clothes on before he jumps in to swim ashore. He and his crew are offered breakfast at daybreak, and Jesus asks him if he really does love that friend of his.
We all know this story pretty well, and we tend to skip over the details to get to the three-fold punch line, when Peter is told to ‘feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.’
This story is a profoundly creative account of what it means to be a friend of Jesus and part of his body – what it is to be a fisher of people and a shepherd – as well as a sheep. This holy band of seven disciples catches all nations when it fishes where directed – that’s what 153 fish are all about. The rocky disciple puts on his wedding garment or his baptismal robe before he jumps in with both feet to follow Jesus – and this may be his most important act in the gospels. Peter gets as many opportunities to proclaim his faithfulness as the number of his denials, and in case we don’t get the importance of this encounter, this third appearance of Jesus after the resurrection is the fullness of meeting the one who is Life Abundant. All that water is baptismal anointing for service, which is about tending and feeding every sort of sheep imaginable.
This brief account sums up what it means to follow Jesus, which seems eminently appropriate for what we’re doing here today. We bless bishops not just as shepherds, but as leaders for fishing crews who can build a holy community like the one on that boat, and do it in a way that draws in all the nations. We need leaders, including edgy ones, who can say, ‘time to go fishing’ and variously mean it as ‘get to work,’ ‘try something new,’ and ‘remember you are God’s beloved and this is the most important work there is.’
Isaiah’s imagery underlies much of this – you are light to the nations, chosen and anointed to bring good news, sight to the blind, freedom to prisoners, comfort to the grieving, and justice for all. That is what it means to feed the sheep and tend the lambs – at the banquet on the hillside, loaves and fishes that feed thousands with abundance. It is work addressed to all the nations, to all sorts and conditions of sheep, not just the baptized but the ones in other folds.
Andy, you are named and blessed in this place to feed the sheep and tend the lambs, and to encourage those around you in doing the same. A good deal of your work will deal with the baptized, those already engaged in fishing or shepherding work – and your task is to remind them continually that they too are chosen, beloved, good creation, for they and we cannot love others unless we know ourselves well loved. But some of your work must attend to the sheep not of this fold, and the nations beyond this one, for the great banquet will not be complete until all are invited and gathered in to the wedding feast of the lamb.
Your work must tend to the creatures of this great city, and the sheepfolds of rural New York, as well as the sheep of the nations. Some of the sheep around here will insist you aren’t spending enough time with them. That’s an opportunity to remind the sheep that they are also called to be shepherds, and for you to remember that you are a sheep, in need of rest and good pasture. The current bishop of New York can teach you something about the healing qualities of good grassland.
One of the shepherd’s tasks is to lead the flock to new pasture, even when they are very fond of the old one. It’s not easy work, but it is essential – pastures must be rotated, for the grass to have a chance to grow again and to keep the parasites in check. We live in a season when the pastures we seek are likely to seem strange and unfamiliar – we need new grasses to feed sheep that don’t know this fold. The nutritional value will be much like the old, even if it has a different flavor. Sheep already in this fold may turn up their noses. Don’t worry – they will find the bits of old grass in the corners of the pasture, but health and vitality for all means the new is essential. Justice requires change, for we don’t yet live in an eternal pasture of peace.
When shepherds are ready to throw in the towel, the smart ones go fishing – and learn to fish on the other side of the boat. Keep an eye out for the good shepherd on the beach, grilling fish and sharing fragrant bread. Listen to his urging to try new ways.
The good shepherd tells us elsewhere that he has sheep in other folds. Those other flocks and folds are part of our work as friends of Jesus – tending to other varieties of sheep, as well as the other creatures – actual sheep and fish, and other residents of the garden. The health of the garden is perhaps the biggest challenge facing shepherds today – for even the basic production of food and fish depends on it. Our gluttony for roadsters and consumer tchotchkes is costing cropland in other corners of the garden. The garden is supposed to feed all, but the poorest still have the least access to food, water, education, and employment, even though we have made great progress in the basic MDG work of feeding the hungry and educating children and ensuring access to clean water.
The other folds include sheep some think are intruders – those people – as well as those who think the pasture is for their own exclusive use. Gathering them in isn’t easy, and may take skills learned from other shepherds. Think about the eternal quality of fishing, what others call waiting, the ability to simply be present while the lure or net does its work. It’s the same skill as the listening of indaba. Those other folds hold creatures beloved of God, whom some willfully want to exclude forever, particularly the wolves and thieves and other predators. But there is room in the net for school shooters and child abusers and terrorists. The good shepherd keeps trying to draw them in, even those already in the grave.
The fishers in this story don’t fish to feed their own hunger, and they don’t ultimately go fishing to while away the time. Their fishing is about the joy that comes in gathering the nations to share the feast. The task of fishers and shepherds is to give themselves away for the sake of the world. Andy’s charge is to keep the focus on doing exactly that, and to keep recruiting, for the whole holy fishing crew is needed to net the great haul of nations.
Tend the lambs and feed the sheep and shape them into shepherds who know how to fish. Give this ministry away, so that it can make more of itself, in the same way Love Incarnate makes more abundant life. And hold Paul’s words close to your heart: keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard and seen, and the God of peace will indeed be with you. Andy, be among us as a man of God’s peace – and keep on fishing!