Fishing Lessons and Refugees

I preached versions of this sermon at Trinity Lutheran Church in Palmer, Alaska, and at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Anchorage, Alaska. Luke 5:1-11 is the Gospel reading, the story of Jesus leading a group of fishermen to a net-bursting catch of fish, and telling them “from now on, you will be catching people.”

There are a lot of stories involving Jesus and fish. And I feel like I should admit to you that while I’ve lived in Alaska for more than 16 years now, it took me 13 years to go fishing. Actually, I think it took me 13 years to date someone who was willing to take me fishing. And I hope that wasn’t the reason the relationship didn’t work out … You know how when you’re out dipnetting (or any other kind of fishing), there are times when no one’s catching anything, except that one person? Well, the woman that taught me about fishing was that person who’d be bringing in salmon when nobody else was catching anything. I, on the other hand, am that person who when EVERYONE is catching fish, would still be standing out in the river with an empty net.

I did catch SOME fish…

Jesus, however, clearly knew how to fill a net with fish. And while I am clearly not Jesus or very good at catching fish, a couple summers of dipnetting taught me some valuable lessons about fishing, that I suspect are also relevant to “catching people.”

The first important thing is that you have to know the place you’re fishing. My friend knew how to read the river, knew where the currents were and what they meant, could read the tides and the shoreline. And the second thing is that you have to go to where the fish are. You can’t just step into any spot in the river.

Those things are true when you’re seeking people as well. Know where you are. Know the needs and the concerns. And go to the people. Four walls and a cross, a font and a table might be important, but they aren’t much if we aren’t bringing God’s good news to where people are, to where it is desperately needed. And I think especially right now, we need to remember the many ways Jesus went to the people. He went to the people who were suffering. People who were sick in need of healing. People who were outcast, who were untouchable. He provided food for the hungry. Good news for the poor. Setting the oppressed free. If we are to take seriously what it means to be Christian, to follow Christ, we need to take these words very seriously.

My heart aches for the refugees who have been turned away. People even with green cards have been kept from returning their homes, their schools, their work, their families. For centuries the United States has been, as we just heard from Isaiah, a place of light for people who have walked in darkness, a place of new possibility and hope for those who have known violence, oppression, poverty, death.

The time is now to take Jesus’ words and actions and example very seriously.

Which brings me to the other two important things I learned about fishing. One is patience. To catch fish takes time, and means enduring through the times of empty nets. With people, it takes time to build trust, to build relationships, to learn about each other, time for healing to take place. Building community and creating lasting, sustainable change takes time.

But whether you are out to catch fish or people, it also requires sacrifice. I learned dipnetting that if the high tide was at 6 a.m., we were out in the water an hour or two before and after the tide. It can be cold, hungry work. Uncomfortable. As is the work we are called to now. It requires the ability to keep paying attention, to be able to adapt to change and to respond to new needs and concerns that are before us. It may mean doing the thing that is uncomfortable. Taking a stand, and taking risks. Standing up for truth. Being vulnerable. For some of us, it may mean learning to listen more, and to learn the painful parts of our histories. Letting go of privilege, comfort, security. As history has taught us, the struggle for justice can (and often does) lead to persecution.

And as I reflected on these texts, it especially struck me how quickly everything changed for Simon and James and John and the others. In not much more than a moment, they went from a night of fishing with nothing to show for it, to a morning of nets so heavy with fish that their boats began to sink, and from there, they left everything. EVERYTHING.

And I’m certain that fishing for Simon, James and John was not for sport. It was, as it is for many in Alaska, subsistence. Life. Everything. In Matthew’s version of Jesus telling the new disciples they would fish for people, they respond by leaving their nets. In Luke’s version, they leave everything. Everything.

Think about that for a moment, and the times when our lives have changed, turned completely upside down, even, in an instant.

With the words “Will you marry me?”

Or “We’re eliminating your position at the company.”

Or “We need to talk about your test results.”

Or “You’ve been accepted!”

Or “You’re pregnant!”

In the brief instant of an accident or a phone call, our lives can become completely different. Sometimes in beautiful amazing ways. Sometimes in painful, challenging, overwhelming ways.

For Simon, James and John, I suspect that moment of meeting Jesus, of bursting nets of fish and leaving everything, brought all those feelings over the years that followed. Hope. Healing. Isolation. Pain. Challenge. Wonder.

And I suspect that for them, and for each of us, those particular life-changing moments have in many ways brought us to where we are right here, right now.

As followers of Christ, do we see ourselves in another of those moments right here, right now? What are we being called to leave behind? What are we being called toward? What does it mean today to follow Christ and proclaim healing, freedom from oppression, good news for the poor? To proclaim great light in dark days for people from all nations?

Alaskan Lutheran Clergywomen, marching for justice.

There IS good news. First, recall that encounter between Jesus and Simon. Simon’s response to the miracle of so many fish that the nets were bursting and the boats sinking, was to fall on his knees before Jesus and say “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Simon could sense already what he was being called to, the holy presence he had just encountered. And how did Jesus respond? He didn’t tell Simon to “shape up.” Didn’t judge him. He simply said “Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

This story comes to us in the 5th chapter of Luke’s gospel and already it is the fourth time the words “Do not be afraid” are spoken.

In Luke 1:13, an angel comes to Zechariah, who is terrified, and tells him “Do not be afraid, for your prayer has been heard.”

In Luke 1:30, and angel comes to Mary, who is perplexed, and tells her “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”

And in Luke 2:10, an angel comes to the shepherds, who are terrified, and tells them “Do not be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

It is normal, to be expected, to be perplexed, and even terrified. But we are reminded do not be afraid. Jesus comes bringing good news. Do not be afraid.

But here’s the other thing. Those fishing lesson? God knows them better than any of us.

God knows this place. God knows our needs, our fears, our concerns. God knows the sicknesses, the violence, the poverty, the fear, the needs.

God is patient with us.

And God knows to come to us. Comes to us in flesh. Immanuel, God with us. Comes to us vulnerable. Comes to us with love.

And finally, God is willing to sacrifice. Jesus came, in flesh, patiently, teaching. Healing the sick, the blind. Proclaiming good news to the poor. Welcoming the strangers and the outcasts. Feeding the hungry. And, eventually, being killed. Sacrificing his life. And in that sacrifice, we have seen that life is stronger than death. God’s love and promises are stronger than all evil, all that robs us of life. God has already caught us. We are free. We live secure in that hope, in those promises.

May those promises sustain us as we set out. As we find new ways to proclaim hope, to bring good news to the poor, to welcome the stranger. We each bring different gifts to those tasks. I work in a hospital. Every day I see people in need of healing, and often in need of access to affordable health care. I work with and care for people from Sudan, and from Somalia, people who are now facing a much more uncertain future.

The will require much of us. Courage To know this place. To go to these people. To act and to be patient. To sacrifice.

But be not afraid. We are a people of hope, a people of promise, and a people of good news. Thanks be to God.

We closed the service singing “This Is My Song” (Finlandia). I love this version by the Indigo Girls.


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