January 21, 2018
Exactly 17 years ago, on Sunday, January 21, 2001, I began my work as pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church. It was a cold day, and the heat to the Sanctuary was broken. We had to move the worship services to Fellowship Hall.
Now, 17 years later, we are having the 2020 VISION Capital Campaign. One of our goals is the replace the heating system. In the life of the church, some things take time!
To celebrate my anniversary, I’d like to play a game of cards with Yena. You all don’t mind, do you?
Let’s play the game “Go Fish.” The goal, as you probably know, is to win by assembling the most sets of four-of-a-kind, such as four kings or four aces.
Let me give us each five cards. I’ll put the rest of the deck face down. Now, I’ll begin by saying, “Give me your kings.” If you have a king, you have to give it up. If not, you say, “Go fish!” Then I have to take a card from the deck, and it becomes your turn.
You know, I think the congregation is getting bored with this game. We can finish it later. Clearly, the fun of the game is being able to tell the other player, “Go fish!” We all want to be able to hold on to our cards and force the other person to take a card from the deck.
Fishing for people
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers casting a net into the water. They were fishermen named Simon and Andrew, and they were good at pulling fish out of the deep waters of this enormous lake. Most days, when they said to the sea, “Give me your fish,” the water gave its treasures to them. The two of them were successful members of the community, prosperous enough to own a house in the town of Capernaum.
Then Jesus surprised them by saying, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17). Not for fish, but for people. This was not what they wanted to hear — it was as though Jesus was forcing them to move in a completely different direction by saying, “Go fish!” His words challenged them to enter territory that was completely unfamiliar and unexpected. But we have to give them credit, because “immediately they left their nets and followed him” (v. 18).
Walking a little farther, Jesus saw James and John, the sons of Zebedee. They were in their boat, mending their nets. Jesus called them and “they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men” (v. 20). In this case, the father Zebedee must have been the one who was upset to hear the words, “Go fish!” After all, his family fishing business was being turned completely upside down by the loss of his two sons. He had a good business on the Sea of Galilee, and was prosperous enough to be able to afford hired help.
Seeing a new world
In the world of card games, no one wants to hear the words, “Go fish.” No one wants to have their request for a card denied, forcing them to take a card from the deck. The same was probably true for fishermen around the Sea of Galilee. Go ahead and imagine yourself a fisherman, working your net along the shore. A stranger walks up to you and says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
You would be startled, wouldn’t you? Maybe even shocked. After all, the fishing business is good, and you’ve always thought of yourself as a fisher of fish. Fish are what you put on the table and sell in the market. Fish are what define you as a worker, and what give you status in the community. Fish are what enable to you buy a house for your family, and maybe even hire other people. Fish are “job creators,” to use the current lingo.
But now a man walks up to you and says, “Go fish … for people!” If you are like most fishermen, you are going to reply with a shake of the head and a polite, “No thanks. I’ll stick with fish.” But if you are like Simon and his brother Andrew, you see Almighty God at work in these words, calling you to look beyond human categories and familiar frameworks.
As a disciple of Jesus, you look at the deck of unknown cards on the table and see the possibility of a new world — a world defined not by the price of fish oil, but by the value of the kingdom of God. If you are like Simon and Andrew, you immediately drop your nets and follow Jesus. You begin to fish for people, and you discover that the people around you are anxious to hear the good news of God.
Dipping into the great unknown
The future was uncertain for the first disciples of Jesus, and it is uncertain for us. They did not know if their fishing for people would be a success or a failure, and we do not know what will result from our actions as individuals or as a church community. When we welcome a newcomer to the neighborhood, we do not know if they will become friends or not. When we launch a capital campaign to renovate our church building and expand our mission activity, we do not know if we will achieve our goals or not. The future is in God’s hands, not ours. The challenge for us is to trust that God is working for good in our lives, now and in the days to come, and to respond positively when Jesus says, “Go fish.”
“Go fish.” That’s a funny command for Jesus to give us, isn’t it? In the card game, you don’t know what you’ll get when you draw from the deck of cards on the table. In real-life fishing, the same is true — you don’t know what you’ll hook. You dip into the great unknown and pull up all kinds of surprises. Fishing takes patience, skill, and a certain amount of faith. You are challenged to believe that your efforts will be rewarded, and that all of your working and waiting will yield good results.
Jesus was choosing his words carefully when he said, “I will make you fish for people.” He didn’t say that he would make them hunt for people or trap people or even gather people. Instead, he said, “fish for people.” He invited his disciples to cast their nets widely and catch a wide range of men and women to serve the kingdom of God. Jesus wanted them to draw together a community of people who saw the value of the kingdom of God, and who would work for human dignity, peace, justice and freedom.
Casting the net of prayer
When Jesus tells us to “Go fish,” our first response should be to pray. Our challenge is to cast the net of prayer over all of God’s people, our enemies as well as our friends. “Love your enemies,” says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45). If we love only those who love us, and pray only for those people who pray for us, we are not showing the courage that Jesus demands of his disciples. We are not seeing the world and its people from the perspective of Jesus.
The problem is, praying for our persecutors is tough. I have a hard time with this. It difficult for me to pray for people who have hurt me, or who oppose me, or who take actions that are destructive to me and other people. There are a lot of political leaders today that I really don’t want to pray for!
I can learn something from a little girl named Ruby, who was one of the four black children who pioneered desegregation in 1960s New Orleans. The child psychiatrist Robert Coles tells the story of how six-year-old Ruby had to pass through angry mobs, escorted by federal marshals, to go to first grade. She was called every profanity imaginable, heckled, insulted, threatened, and attacked. Yet every evening she would pray for those who were abusing her, and she even prayed for them while walking to school and suffering their indignities. She did this, she said, because when Jesus was on the cross he prayed, “Forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.” If Ruby could pray for those who opposed her, surely we can do the same.
Fishing through action
We can also go fishing by the way we choose to act. Here in Fairfax, a group of us were very concerned last spring. Our community was becoming fractured along religious and cultural lines, and distrust was growing. Anti-Semitic graffiti appeared on the walls of the Jewish Community Center, and anti-Muslim messages were painted on the Little River United Church of Christ, a congregation that had tried to practice Christian hospitality. A group of us decided that we had to do something, so we organized the Fairfax Interfaith Friendship Walk.
On a Sunday afternoon in May, over 200 of us gathered at Fairfax United Methodist Church and began a 3.5-mile walk through the city. Eight different faith communities were visited, Christian and Muslim, Protestant and Catholic. At each congregation, we stopped and learned a little bit about the particular community of faith. Best of all, walkers were encouraged to form interfaith groups along the route, instead of talking only with friends from their own congregations.
At the end of the walk, we all enjoyed a buffet put out by the Dolce Vita restaurant. New friendships had developed on the walk, across the lines of theology, history and culture. The walk did not create complete unity, since important differences still exist between Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Christians. But it did build friendships, which is the basis for interfaith efforts to work for the good of the community. The act of walking together for 3.5 miles helped everyone to grow in love and respect for their neighbors.
We Christians today can “Go fish” through prayer and action, casting nets of love and concern over all people — not just people like us. The time has come for us to stop looking at the world through human categories and familiar frameworks, and begin to see it through the eyes of Jesus.
The key is to pray and to act. As we follow Jesus, we can pray for all people, even our enemies. And we can take actions that promote human dignity, peace, justice and freedom, in line with the values of the kingdom of God. Amen.
“How to Play ‘Go Fish,’” Bicycle Products, http://www.bicyclecards.com/how-to-play/go-fish/5
Toby Mac and Michael Tait, “Under God,” Black History, http://www.cbn.com/special/BlackHistory/UnderGod_RubyBridges.aspx