Fishing Tips

Posted by Marilyn Townsend-Smith on March 26, 2018

John 21:1-19

Another week passes after the events of Easter day.  Simon Peter says, “I’m going fishing”.  The other disciples join in, “We will too”.  What else were they supposed to do?  Jesus had risen and had appeared to them twice by now, but they had no idea what was going to happen.  Jesus just seemed to show up every now and then, usually unannounced.  They had no clear direction from him yet as to what they should do next.  “Let’s just wait and see if he is going to drop in today.”

Fishing was their trade.  It wasn’t the kind of vacation fishing that many of us have done.  It was their livelihood, their daily work, before Jesus had called them on a mission.  So it’s back to work and back to fishing.

Little did they realize this would be the parable of a lifetime, a parable of their calling, their future, their mission and a parable of our calling and our mission.

When they had fished all night and caught nothing, they heard a voice from the shore telling them to throw their nets on the other side of the boat, and when they did, they caught more fish than they could handle.

No a person can’t preach a sermon about fishing without telling a fishing story.  Please allow me to tell you one.

It is the story of two brothers who always fished together.  One brother caught fish every time, everywhere, but the other brother had never caught anything.  Not even a sunfish.  They began fishing together as kids; then throughout their adolescent years, college years, and post-college years.  Same story.  One brother caught his limit and the younger brother could never catch anything.  When they got married, the two families vacationed together at adjacent lakeside cottages.  Still, the older brother caught fish, the younger brother caught nothing.

One day, the younger brother said to himself, “Enough of this.”  He got up at 4:00 a.m., quietly put on his brother’s clothes, jacket and even his hat.  He grabbed his brother’s fishing rod and tackle and arrived at the lake as the sun’r rays were sneaking over the tree line.  Walking out on the dock, he cast into the water.  Nothing.  So he cast again.  Still nothing.  Thinking that the third cast would be the charm, he was saddened to feel no tug on the line this time either.  But a good-sized fish did poke his head out of the water, look around, survey the scene and ask, “So where’s your brother?”

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  I wonder if what we are doing in the church could be categorized this way.  We keep doing the same thing over and over and bemoan that attendance is decreasing.  Maybe we should throw our nets on the other side of the boat and see what happens.

Rev. Dr. John Pentland from Hillhurst United Church wrote a book called “Fishing Tips, How Curiosity transformed a Faith Community.”  I have read his book and it does not contain a recipe for all churches to transform, but it worked for his faith community.  His list of nine fishing tips for the church  includes let leaders lead; expand our circles; discern our values; don’t fight the resurrection; pay for what you want, not what you have; pay it forward; connect to culture; say who you are, and worship matters.

I encourage you to read the book if you are interested in his nine fishing tips.  Some of the highlights for me about this community of faith are that they had gone from being a gathering of three hundred people attending each Sunday, and were down to ninety when John arrived.  They sincerely wanted to increase their membership but didn’t know how.  They were not a United Church of Canada by the books community.  They gained a reputation as a community with outspoken opponents to United Church policy.  They were less denominationally-centred and more congregation-centred.  They did not set out to be cutting-edge or makers of social change; rather they wanted to be responsive to immediate needs, their own and the needs of the wider community.  However, while a community may recognize the need for change, it may also actively resist it.

Our mission as Christians is to fish for people. Jesus tells the disciples, after they hauled in their enormous catch of fish and gathered together for breakfast on the beach, was to fish for people.

Let’s consider the number of fish that were caught that day.  153.  There have been biblical scholars and seminary students who continue to study for the doctorates, that focused on that number.  It became the core of their doctoral theses in some cases.  Most of us just read the number and continue on.

I will not take the time to share the various theories about the number other than to say that at that time, Greek zoologists had recorded and catalogued 153 different kinds or species of fish, suggesting that there should be room in the net, or the church, for people of every shape, kind, race, and nation.  This seems to be supported by Matthew 8:47 where a net thrown into the sea gathers fish of every kind.

The Christian church Ioves to slice and dice the acreage of the Kingdom.  Yes, no.  In, out.  Sheep, goats.  Saved, lost.  Lifted up and left behind.  When we confront the passages of scripture that read, “one way, only way, our way”, we should read them in the light of these more inclusive and universal images of the Kingdom.  We talk about who gets to heaven.  Won’t we be surprised when we reach heaven and those we never thought would make it end up standing beside us, not because they or we are good, but because God is good.

So when you look at that net full of 153 fish, the net didn’t rip.  It held firm.  It  could accommodate all the different species of fish, all of us and then some.  This suggests to me that the church of Jesus Christ can hold all the people that enter its doors, no matter how much diversity is involved.

An African American mother of several children was on stage to receive a mother of the year award.  She was asked how she could love all of her children equally. Oh, I don’t love all of them equally.  I love the one who’s down until he’s up.  I love the one who’s weak until she’s strong.  I love the one who’s lost until he’s found.  Our God is equal to the need.  Our net is equal to the growth, assuming that we will be equal to the challenge.

To fish on the other side of the boat means that we have never done things that way before.  We have rules to follow and the fear of being sued by someone if we allow them to use our facilities and they get injured while on our premises.  It breaks my heart that we live in a society that sues each other, yet the costs of medical assistance for those catastrophically injured is unbearable.  Sometimes people sue to get a few dollars for their inconvenience, sometimes they sue out of a desperate, ongoing financial need.

Change is a slippery slope.  Soon we’ll have people fishing out of the stern of the boat and the bow of the boat.  Who knows what we might catch.  Next thing you know, we’ll have women fishing on the boats and all the men will have to put their clothes on.  (Did you notice that before Peter swam to shore, he put his clothes on?  Men fished naked.)  We’re much more comfortable fishing on the left side of the boat.

What would it look like for us to fish on the ride side of the boat, here at London Road West?  Who is your brother, or sister, who has never caught any fish?  Shouldn’t they be here too?  Jesus does say to his disciples at the end of this passage to go out and feed his sheep.   Notice that he says this after asking Peter three times if he loves him.  Not once, not twice, but three times.  Do you love me?  Do you love me?  Do you love me?  I don’t know about you, but I never tire of being told that I’m loved.  So Jesus is asking for that commitment, to love him and once he is reassured that Peter loves him, he tells him to go feed his sheep.

How many people are reaching for Jesus Christ?  The great story-telling Fred Craddock tells the story of Frank, a man he met in Wahita Creek, Oklahoma ,a little town with a population of 450 and four churches, Methodist, Baptist, Nazarene and the church that Craddock pastored.  Each had their share of the population, but the most regular congregation met at the local café .  Pickup trucks parked and the men discussed wheat bugs, the weather and the wind.  At 77 years old, Frank was the patron saint of the group.  Men in the café would say, “Ol Frank will never go to church.”  Craddock says when he met him, Frank gave him his standard line, “I work, I take care of my family, and I mind my own business.  Far as I am concerned, everything else is fluff.”  That is why everyone in the care as well as in church was puzzled when Frank presented himself for baptism one Sunday.  There were lots of rumours in town about why he did it.  Seventy-seven years old, and he had always minded his own business.  Some folks thought he was dying.  Some heard he had heart problems.  Some thought he must be scared to meet his maker.  But Craddock says Frank told him why he did it: “You know how I always said I work hard, take care of my family, and mind my own business?  Said it all the time.  Only thing was, back then, I didn’t know what my business was.  Now I know.”

We know what our business is.  Our business is fishing.  Sometimes we just have to be willing to fish out of the other side of the boat.