Presiding Bishop's Sermon at Southwestern Virginia's Annual Council

Presiding Bishop's Sermon at Southwestern Virginia's Annual Council

January 27, 2008

I spent much of my early adult life towing nets around behind different kinds of ships. It was fishing in the interest of basic science. Sometimes, the intent was to catch a particular kind of fish ' like the summer I spent studying the food habits of flatfish in Yaquina Bay, Oregon. Another student and I did a lot of trawling behind a dinghy with an outboard ' he took the ear bones out of the fish, I took the stomachs, and we split the fillets. We ate well, but it was a very limited diet!

Much of my later fishing was intended to catch rockfish and Pollock off the west coast of North America. Other people took the fish, but I got the squids and octopuses, and still others took the jellyfish, shrimp and other kinds of sea life, and almost nothing went to waste in the cause of advancing scientific knowledge. Fishing with big nets is very effective at catching everything in the path of the net, except the fastest swimmers, but it is also potentially very destructive. Think about the dolphins caught in purse seines when the real intent is to catch tuna. Or the long-line fisheries in the North Pacific that focus on swordfish, tuna, and halibut, but also catch and kill sharks, turtles, dolphins, birds, and many other kinds of fish for which there is no market.

A few years ago I bought a small, light fishing pole to take on backpacking trips. I haven't had anyone to teach me, and I still haven't caught a single trout. It's a vastly different environment and kind of fishing. This kind uses lures or bait, and focuses on just one fish at a time. It needs just as much patience as towing a net, and the outcome is just as unpredictable, but the art is in finding the right attraction for your prey.

What kind of fishing did the first disciples do? What did Jesus mean when he said, 'I'll make you fish for people? My only trip to Israel included an hour or so on the Sea of Galilee, and a memorable meal of very bony fish. We got to see one kind of fishing that would have gone on in Jesus' day ' using a small hand cast-net. It's a lot more like trout fishing, because the one who's fishing tosses out a net in an area where you've seen fish, and then the same person can pull the net back in to see if you've caught anything. But Peter and Andrew would have known another kind of fishing as well ' the one they were using when Jesus told them to put their nets down again in deep water. That kind of fishing is a lot more like indiscriminate trawling ' put the net out, more like a big purse seine, and gather the ends up and pull it to shore. It takes several people to work, and the net can potentially capture an entire, large school of fish ' even enough to sink the boat, if you remember that gospel story.

There's a similar kind of comparison going on in Paul's rant to the Corinthians. He's accusing them of being caught by different baits or lures (I belong to Cephas, I belong to Apollos, I to Paul, and so on), instead of recognizing that they've all been caught by the great net of God in Christ. And in a fascinating statement, he says, 'Christ did not send me to baptize, but to proclaim the gospel, or as we might translate it today, 'Jesus didn't call me simply to throw people in the water, but to teach them to fish.

Now, what are we supposed to be doing? How are we supposed to respond to Jesus' command, 'follow me, and I will make you fish for people? What did Jesus do after that invitation? He went throughout Galilee, teaching, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing people. That's what fishing for people looks like, and each part is important.

He went throughout Galilee. Now Galilee, as a Hebrew word, has a history and connotation that doesn't come through in translation. The word itself means 'surrounded or 'encircled. It was a place where Jews and Gentiles lived in close proximity, and other Jews looked down on those Jews who lived so close to unclean persons ' they were almost as bad as Samaritans, but not quite. Galilee was not a 1st century status address. It's not unlike the way some people today see inner cities, or Appalachia, but Jesus goes there, everywhere in that kind of prison, and brings hope, light, and healing. The kingdom of God is at hand ' not just here in this place you think is walled off, but maybe even with the people you disdain, with 'those people, with foreigners and strangers, and aliens.

Even in this society under threat of global warming, and consumerism, and party spirit, and war, even here the reign of God is coming. Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near ' it's come here already. Repent, turn around, get a new mindset (that is what repent really means) ' repent and see what God is already up to. God already loves you, and loves you more than you can imagine, even if the world around you looks pretty dismal and deadly.

Fishing for people is about healing disease, or better, dis-ease. It's about feeding people who are hungry (maybe even with fish ' but only from sustainably managed fisheries, please). It's about liberating people from that sense of being surrounded ' delivering them from prisons both literal and psychic. It's about adequate medical care and education for everyone in that surrounded place. It's about catching people for life.

The MDGs, and working to end global poverty, are in the deepest sense about catching people for more abundant life. You and I work toward that end because of the abundant life we know in Jesus, in the evidence he gives us for the overwhelming love of God for us and for the whole world.

Catching people for life requires several methods of fishing. We are going to need big nets, the ones that are represented by everyone in this place holding hands with our neighbors right here and across the globe ' big nets that proclaim and make real God's love for the whole world.

Catching people for life also requires using the lure of telling your story to a very specific individual ' being a witness to the power of God in your life. Or the lure of something like the Mark Nikkel school in Sudan, or training alcohol counselors in Kenya, or the Boys Home in Covington, or Phoebe Needles Center, or Grace House. Each of these says to an individual, you are God's beloved, and we're here to share that love in the way that's most important for you right now.

And catching people for life needs little, one-person nets like this Net for Life:

It's a long-lasting, insecticide-treated bed net to prevent malaria, even though it looks a whole lot like one of those cast nets that Andrew and Peter would have used. ERD is working with Nets for Life to distribute and teach people how to use these nets. Part of what they have to teach people is that this is not a fish net (even if you and I know otherwise). It's already making a significant difference in the lives of people in sub-Saharan Africa. When children and pregnant women are protected from malaria, their lives are changed ' they are less vulnerable to other diseases, including HIV infection, their overall health and nutritional status goes up. One net at a time, people are being caught for life.

So, what does your fishing gear look like? What kind of fishing are you going to do?

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