The Songs of the Fishermen

A reading from Mark 1:16-20:

16 As Jesus passed alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” 18 Right away, they left their nets and followed him. 19 After going a little farther, he saw James and John, Zebedee’s sons, in their boat repairing the fishing nets. 20 At that very moment he called them. They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers.

This is a story about 4 fishermen, Simon, Andrew, James and John. It’s a normal morning at the docks. Each one of them is going about business as usual. They arrived at dawn, bundled up in the cool morning air and started work without much conversation. Simon and Andrew are working on one fishing boat and see the Teacher approaching. “Hey. There he is,” says Andrew. Jesus from Nazareth. You can’t go anywhere without hearing about him lately. What’s he doing down here?” They paddle back to shore, not wanting to miss any trouble this Jesus fellow might stir up. Simon and Andrew get the beach and Jesus comes over to talk to them. It’s like he had come there that morning just to find these two guys. Jesus didn’t say much, “Come and follow me.” Jesus invited these 2 fishermen to be his disciples, to follow after him, to walk behind him, tracing his every step.

Further down the beach, the same scene repeats. This time, Jesus walks directly up to James and John who are focused on repairing their fishing net. Jesus says the same thing to them and now all four fishermen walk behind their rabbi with no idea of what’s ahead of them.

It’s a big deal! The four normal guys, working a normal job, on a normal morning, decide to follow Jesus. Maybe you’ve wondered like I have, how is it that Simon, Andrew, James and John do it? How do they drop everything to follow Jesus? What were they thinking? How did they feel?

It’s interesting. The story doesn’t tell us. There’s nothing about how they felt. It doesn’t say they were excited, or moved, or scared, or joyful or resistant. This story about four fisherman gives us only verbs.  Jesus passed alongside the Galilee Sea.  He saw two brothers. He said, Come, follow.  Then, Simon and Andrew left and followed.  Jesus saw James and John.  Jesus called them.  They followed him.

We are left pondering their actions only, not their feelings. They decided to follow Jesus. That’s what Mark wants us to notice.  There’s a old song about this:

I have decided to follow Jesus. I have decided to follow Jesus. I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back, no turning back.

This is a story about four fisherman who decided to follow Jesus.

This is also a story about fishing. I’ve been fishing been fishing three or four times. Once I realized that fishing was primarily a crack of dawn activity, I knew it wasn’t really for me. Jesus uses a kind of puzzling image about fishing. He says, “Come, follow me, and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” I don’t know about you, but this I find this to be very strange. I realized this week why his image is so confusing to me. What do you imagine when someone talks about fishing? What I imagine when I hear the word “fish” or “fishing” is a fishing pole, the rod, reel, bait, tackle box, worms, that kind of fishing. So I’ve always interpreted what Jesus said this way.

To confirm my association of rod/reel fishing with this story, there’s the silly song and the yellow boat. The church I grew up in had wall-to-wall blue carpet, a deep sea blue. In one of the Sunday School classroom at my church, there was a yellow wooden boat that sailed the blue carpet sea. It was a legitimate play boat, way bigger than all the other toys. The base was like the legs on a giant rocking chair. It had two benches, big enough for three little kids each, and perfect for acting out all the different sea venture bible stories. You could throw a kid you didn’t like off the boat and blame it on Jonah. You could see Jesus off in the distance walking on the blue-carpet water towards you.  And, of course, pretend you were fishing while singing another song that goes with this story.  Perhaps you know this one too:

I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men. I will make you fishers of men, if you follow me.

I’ve always imagined Jesus inviting the disciples to fish for people with a fishing pole, a kind of selective fishing where you cast out a line and get one fish if you’re lucky. But they weren’t using poles to fish–they were using nets. They cast their nets into the sea, into a broad expanse of water. Jesus is inviting these four fishermen to join him in casting, not individual fishing poles, but a massive net. Jesus’ net is huge! In the book of Ephesians, Paul prays for the believers and describes this net of God’s love—“May you have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.”

The road Jesus invites these four fishermen to follow him on will mean casting a net of love and welcome to people that they do not anticipate. Jesus will cast his net into the sea of a broken world, filled with sinners, people who have messed up, people who are outsiders, who don’t belong. Jesus will stay in the homes of poor, be guilty of associating prostitutes and touching the hands of people with communicable diseases. Jesus will throw his net into the sea and invite everyone in. Jesus will eventually be arrested and executed because those in power decided his fishing net included a few too many of the wrong people. This is a story about fishing.

This isnt only a story about four fisherman, or only a story about fishing. Its also, and perhaps, most importantly, a story about God.

If this is only a story about four fisherman who decide to follow Jesus, the pressures on you and me! After all, aren’t we too called to follow Jesus? Called to be his disciples? Wasn’t that the invitation you first heard when you first heard about Jesus? God has called us and we must decide. Jesus wants us all to follow him, to be like him, to walk in his footsteps, to do what he does. Of course this story is about that! And they do it, don’t they? Simon, Andrew, James, John, they do it! They decide and they do follow Jesus, imperfectly at that. Still, it’s a lot of pressure, a lot of responsibility. If life becomes all about what we do for Jesus, something is missing.

If this is only a story about fishing, have some of us failed? Is it too late for us? Some of us might not be the best at fishing, not all the great about casting Jesus’ loving net to our brothers and sisters.   His net is sometimes, or maybe more than sometimes, a bit more expansive than we might be comfortable with. He calls us to be like him and fish for people, and yet, sometimes we can barely get the net into the water. Perhaps for others, we aren’t even convinced that Jesus would include us in the net at all, no matter how deep into the water he goes. He can really mean me? Would his net really reach me? There’s still more to the story.

This is a story about God, who God is, how God acts, what God does. Before Andrew, Simon, James and John follow Jesus, Jesus finds them. Before they follow Jesus, Jesus comes to them! They don’t have to go searching, they have been found. Jesus saw. Jesus spoke. Jesus called. Jesus said, “Come. We don’t follow Jesus in order to find him, to prove our worthiness with what we do, or even by showing Jesus how big our nets are. We follow Jesus because he first came to us. He came down to the beach to meet these four fishermen. He came specifically for Simon and for Andrew, for James and for John, for you and me.

God will stop at nothing to come to each of us.  God comes to Moses in a burning bush, to Hannah after her sleepless nights of despair, to Elijah in silence, and to Mary through an angel sitting on the stone that was rolled away.  God comes to us while we’re working a normal job on a normal morning when we least expect it.  God comes to us with love so unconditional and welcoming that we finally find ourselves at home for the first time.  God comes to us through the voice of a friend.  God comes to us in our lowest moments and in our shame.  God comes to us when we’re tired, when we’ve had enough.  God comes to us when we are all alone, when there is no left at our side.  This is who God is. God comes to us first, before we ever go searching. Jesus saw. Jesus spoke. Jesus called. Jesus said, Come.

It reminds me of another song, the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard. This song is more profound, more moving; it’s hard to describe it. It doesn’t have a simple chorus like our first song or the silly motions of the second. It’s the song that never ends, the song of the mountains and hills, the beat to which trees of the field clap their hands. The choir that sings it…I have no words. See, without an audition, without ever finding out if we can carry a tune, read music, or tell the difference between a C minor and G major, God reaches out a hand and invites us to join this choir, to sing this song. God comes to us and asks, “Will you sing with me?”


This blog post was adapted from Pastor Megan’s sermon at Butner Federal Prison on January 25, 2015.

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