A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 22, 2017
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 4: 12-23
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
So at this point in the Gospel of Matthew, the wise men have come and left, Joseph and Mary ran away to Egypt to avoid Herod, and then they returned to Nazareth, Jesus came to age and was Baptized by John in the Jordan river, and then directly from his baptism he headed out into the wilderness to fast, faced the devil and his temptations, and now has wasted no time, beginning his ministry by calling his disciples to follow him. So out on the sea of Galilee Jesus walk is walking by, and he calls to some fishermen, Simon and Andrew. . . and he says follow me, I will make you fishers of men, and then it was born. The idea of discipleship and then this metaphor about fishing for people. What does it mean that as disciples we are to be fishing for people. Is it that we are to lure people into the church? Is that what it is all about? I’ve seen the church signs, and I’m sure you have, too, the ones that say, ‘gone fishing, we hook’em and Jesus cleans’ em” which is based on that simple idea. . . or as I’ve had conversation with many church people about using this very verse to describe the basis of discipleship, as evangelism, going out and finding people and bringing them into the church. . . and the definition of success then for a church is to be a vibrant, growing, healthy enterprise. . . but is that what is going on here? Because that seems to be an easy understanding of the metaphor, and the one most commonly accepted, but I can’t help but think that there is more to fishing than just catching fish because my Dad has said that to me before. . . well do you like to fish, or do you like to catch fish, because there is a difference. . . could it be that some of the best days of fishing don’t feature a single bite, or that fish are caught, but none are cleaned and fried up for breakfast, or that there was a fish, and a fight, and that fight didn’t result in a trophy, but instead a broken line. . . let’s look at fishing a little bit, this morning, and seek to send our hook into the deeper waters and see what turns up. . . Let me start here, listen to this:
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.
The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.
Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.
~ from The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
How old are we? How long have we been fishing? Almost 2000 years, right being, fishers of men? Or us here, in Gordonsville, since 1845, that’s 172 years of fishing. . . are there connections between this Old Man, Santiago, from Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and ourselves? Are we old and wrinkled, with great lines of experience, great cancers of year being out in the sun, thin and gaunt, blistered and scarred, and above all unlucky? Do we sometimes feel our age, and has the world given us up for past our prime, sent their kids instead to the newer models of church, simple and easy, new equipment, updated simplified messages, starbucks and guitars and drums, because they seem to have all the luck. . . Hemingway tells us that everything about Santiago is old, that is except his eyes which were the same color as the sea, cheerful and undefeated. . . everything about this church is old, except for our hearts which are the same color as the blood of Christ on which our foundation lies, leaving us forever cheerful and undefeated, too. Undefeated, for we are still fishing. . .
And he says. . . man is not made for defeat, a man can be destroyed but not defeated. . .
Do we like to catch fish or do we like to fish? Because there is much about fishing that is not catching fish, and to some extent has nothing to do with catching fish. . . and many of the stories about fishing have to do with the great draughts of fishing. . . like the disciples whose nets are empty, and Jesus comes by and fills them. . . fish on the other side of the boat. . . this wouldn’t resonate so much with us unless we knew what it was like to fish on the wrong side of the boat and not catch anything. . . or remember the movie, “The Perfect Storm” where George Clooney is a captain who used to be able to bring in the fish, but lately hasn’t had the luck. . . but this is going to be the difference. . . so they head out, earlier than they had planned, for the big score, going further than they have before, further than is safe, and of course out farther, deeper, beyond the normal waters, find the fish, but then the ice machine breaks and they need to head back or risk losing all the fish, but then the storm, the perfect storm, is directly between them and home. . . they don’t make it. . . it is such a part about fishing to have periods of no luck. . . there is another story, this one from the 1001 Arabian Nights, called the “Fisherman and the Jinni” the fisherman, like Santiago, the Old man, and like the captain in the Perfect Storm hasn’t caught fish in many days. . . he prays to Allah, fishes once, nothing, prays again, fishes again, nothing, prays a third time, casts that final third time, this time saying it will be his last, that he will quit, and he feels something, and hauls it in, but it is not a fish, but rather a lamp, he rubs it and out pops the Jinni, saying “There is no God but Allah and Solomon is his prophet,” which of course is the main pillar of Islam, except Solomon is in the place of Mohammad, you see the Jinni and the lamp is like a time capsule, and the story is claiming that Islam is not a new religion, but a new understanding of an older one, that if the Jinni was put in the bottle at another time, the Jinni would have come out saying, “there is no God but Allah and David is his prophet, or Moses, or Abraham, or even Jesus. . . but you can see that this idea of the unlucky fishermen transcends culture. . . there are even superstitions around it. . . . I remember being out fishing and having no luck, and dad telling me that I must not be holding my mouth right, or that I was letting my hind foot slip. . . Fishing is a pastime fraught with failure. Is discipleship as well. . . are there times of plenty and times when it doesn’t matter what you do, what bait you use, how you hold your mouth or how slippery the footing is under your so called hind foot. . . are there times when the disciples of the Bible are told to “shake the dust off their feet” and move on? Depressing, but again, do you like to fish or do you like to catch fish? What is it all about?
Another fishing book has to do with this connection between fishing and life, and may just give us another insight. . .
In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ's disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.
It is true that one day a week was given over wholly to religion. On Sunday mornings my brother, Paul, and I went to Sunday school and then to "morning services" to hear our father preach and in the evenings to Christian Endeavor and afterwards to "evening services" to hear our father preach again. In between on Sunday afternoons we had to study The Westminster Shorter Catechism for an hour and then recite before we could walk the hills with him while he unwound between services. But he never asked us more than the first question in the catechism, "What is the chief end of man?" And we answered together so one of us could carry on if the other forgot, "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever." This always seemed to satisfy him, as indeed such a beautiful answer should have, and besides he was anxious to be on the hills where he could restore his soul and be filled again to overflowing for the evening sermon. His chief way of recharging himself was to recite to us from the sermon that was coming, enriched here and there with selections from the most successful passages of his morning sermon.
Even so, in a typical week of our childhood Paul and I probably received as many hours of instruction in fly fishing as we did in all other spiritual matters.
After my brother and I became good fishermen, we realized that our father was not a great fly caster, but he was accurate and stylish and wore a glove on his casting hand. As he buttoned his glove in preparation to giving us a lesson, he would say, "It is an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o'clock."
As a Scot and a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a mess and had fallen from an original state of grace. Somehow, I early developed the notion that he had done this by falling from a tree. As for my father, I never knew whether he believed God was a mathematician but he certainly believed God could count and that only by picking up God's rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty. Unlike many Presbyterians, he often used the word "beautiful." . . .
Well, until man is redeemed he will always take a fly rod too far back, just as natural man always overswings with an ax or golf club and loses all his power somewhere in the air: only with a rod it's worse, because the fly often comes so far back it gets caught behind in a bush or rock. When my father said it was an art that ended at two o'clock, he often added, "closer to ten than to two," meaning that the rod should be taken back only slightly farther than overhead (straight overhead being twelve o'clock). . . .
The four-count rhythm, of course, is functional. The one count takes the line, leader, and fly off the water; the two count tosses them seemingly straight into the sky; the three count was my father's way of saying that at the top the leader and fly have to be given a little beat of time to get behind the line as it is starting forward; the four count means put on the power and throw the line into the rod until you reach ten o'clock—then check-cast, let the fly and leader get ahead of the line, and coast to a soft and perfect landing. Power comes not from power everywhere, but from knowing where to put it on. "Remember," as my father kept saying, "it is an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o'clock."
My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.
~ from Norman MacLean's A River Runs through It
Now in that description theology and fishing are wrapped around each other so beautifully that there are many entrances and exits, and points of interest you could point to, but I am drawn to the end. . . “grace comes by art and art does not come easy” and he says that after describing a process of becoming connected to the “rhythms” the natural god made rhythms of the universe. . . and also man’s own state of being a complete mess. . . I’ve fly fished, and I’ve turned the line into a rats nest, and I’ve caught the tree branches behind me, and I’ve spent more time untangling knots then fishing, but then again, I wouldn’t trade any of it. . . If the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, there may be more to this fishers of men stuff than just bringing in folks to church. . .
There is a oneness and a connectedness between the person and the stream, the rod and the fish, the connectedness of it all. . . . and of course one cannot really hope to catch much fish standing on the shore. . . at least not as a fly fisher. . . wading out in the stream is a part of it all. . . and of course that fits the metaphor for entering into the living waters, the Jordan river, to Wade in the Water, children, waiting for God to trouble that water. . . I think of this story:
He stepped into the stream. It was a shock. His trousers clung tight to his legs. His shoes felt the gravel. The water was a rising cold shock.
Rushing, the current sucked against his legs. Where he stepped in, the water was over his knees. He waded with the current. The gravel slipt under his shoes. He looked down at the swirl of water below each leg and tipped up the bottle to get a grasshopper. The first grasshopper gave a jump in the neck of the bottle and went out into the water. He was sucked under in the whirl by Nick's right leg and came to the surface a little way down stream. He floated rapidly, kicking. In a quick circle, breaking the smooth surface of the water, he disappeared. A trout had taken him.
Another hopper poked his face out of the bottle. His antennas wavered. He was getting his front legs out of the bottle to jump. Nick took him by the head and held him while he threaded the slim hook under his chin, down through his thorax and into the last segments of his abdomen. The grasshopper took hold of the hook with his front feet, spitting tobacco juice on it. Nick dropped him into the water.
Holding the rod in his right hand he let out line against the pull of the grasshopper in the current. He stripped off line from the reel with his left hand and let it run free. He could see the hopper in the little waves of the current. It went out of sight.
There was a tug on the line. Nick pulled against the taut line. It was his first strike. Holding the now living rod across the current, he hauled in the line with his left hand. The rod bent in jerks, the trout pulling against the current. Nick knew it was a small one. He lifted the rod straight up in the air. It bowed with the pull.
He saw the trout in the water jerking with his head and body against the shifting tangent of the line in the stream.
Nick took the line in his left hand and pulled the trout, thumping tiredly against the current, to the surface. His back was mottled the clear, water-over- gravel color, his side flashing in the sun. The rod under his right arm, Nick stooped, dipping his right hand into the current. He held the trout, never still, with his moist right hand, while he unhooked the barb from his mouth, then dropped him back into the stream. - from Hemingway;s "Big Two-Hearted River, part 2"
That story of course being Hemingway’s “Two-Hearted River” about the power of fishing to calm the unnamed pain of his post war world. . . there is a healing piece to fishing as well. , Could the fishing of men business be about the disciples themselves as much as those men who are to be caught?
I have my own fishing story as well, a poem that I wrote last summer that has found its way into my latest collection of Poem’s Life Matters, this poem entitled “Three Old Fishermen” describes a pelican fishing out on the eastern horizon as the sun sets behind us, and the second fishermen is a man, seated by the shore with his rod stationary in the sand. . . and then the third fishermen is only suggested. Let me read that: “Three Old Fishermen”
They were both fishing in the evening as the sun set to my back,
And I watched, trying to figure out for myself who was the more
Successful, that is if the definition of fishing success is actually
Catching fish because from my experience it may not be the case.
I never saw either catch any fish, though the pelican could have,
Being so far away, certainly been packing them away in his beak,
For it was made for him special to hold more than his belly can,
But I couldn’t see, and so, set my mind imagining his failure in
Tandem with the man to my right. I watched him for hours, sitting,
Beer in hand, line extended out into the surf, waiting, so patiently
For exactly zero bites. Though I didn’t know for sure, I imagine,
He was so patient because the rest of the world moved so fast,
This extended moment was a break from it all, to sit, with nothing
More to do, than to get to sit and wait, and that somehow the reel
And rod made it active enough to be considered doing something.
He couldn’t simply say, “Hey Honey, I’m going to the beach to do
Nothing,” and it had been years since heading to the beach to drink
Beer (as the only attraction) was an acceptable pastime, and fishing,
Therefore, was somehow something enough, and so there he was
Sitting and waiting. In the time I watched him, I never saw him cast,
Nor did I ever see him reel. In fact, I never saw him raise the rod,
Jiggle the line, or bring in the slack enough to check for a bite. No,
He just sat, and waited, taking occasional sips. He didn’t even drink
Aggressively, but rather seemed to wait for that, too, with no need
To rush the buzz. Like an Old Bull, sauntering slowly down a shady
Hill, knowing that what he sought awaited, so he must seek other fruit
Than fish. I wonder if the pelican shares such silly notions, for his
Fishing ritual, is at least as ancient as ours, if not more. Could he,
This avian symbol of insentient freedom, fish to escape, to pass time,
To rewind, to clear his mind, to seek and find, something sublime,
Like we do? His inherited ritual is much more active, gliding, this way,
Then that, just above surface of the water, when something flashing
Beneath, catches his eye, just enough, and he rises up, just enough.
He gets that perfect angle, and dives, disappearing for a moment,
A fish for a split second, before emerging back to the surface, floating,
Wings tucked, like a duck, perfectly still. Is there something to turning
Into what you want to catch, for a moment? We don’t do that, instead
We send our surrogate to lure our prey, a little wiggly worm, or squid,
Or some plastic fish replica, shiny and bright enough to hide a hook.
I wish I could have seen whether he hid some fish in his beak because
Then I would prove my preconceptions about birds, like other animal
Species, that they do not fish for fun, but for food. As fun as it looks,
The flying and the diving, alone and part of a V, it’s necessary to life,
And tied directly to surviving. Do we feel that when we fish, despite
The sport, the escape, or is the escape just that, an escape from life’s
Imposters, for a moment of the real? I don’t think my fisherman, beer
In hand, was seeking such things, but I was—when I headed to the beach
As the sun was sinking behind me, facing my shadow stretching ahead,
Watching a bird and a man fish, seeing with much more than my eyes,
Allowing my imagination to soar, to sit, to dive and to ponder—seeking
A sense of the sublime, and found it in a connected empathetic moment
Of place in my mind, and I will take it with me the next time I go fishing.
The first two fishermen are obvious, the pelican and the man on the beach, and you may have guessed that I, the poet, the voice of the poem, am the third, and that I was seeking a sense of the sublime, a sense of truth, an insight into the world, God, the way it all comes together, and I found it in what I call an “empathetic moment,” in other words a moment when I look outside of my own pain, struggle, point of view, and think, feel, notice, and seek to understand someone else’s. . . . and I found in the Pelican’s fishing, an insight into our call to be “Fishers of Men,” and how it is connected to this idea of empathy. The pelican dives into the water, and becomes a fish, if only for a moment, rather than sending out his surrogate to lure, instead he goes into the water, becomes like a fish, tries to be fish, feel what it is like to be a fish, before catching a fish, and that his fishing is necessary for our survival. . . is it possible that our call to be fishers of men is also necessary to our survival, not because we catch fish, but that the idea of fishing sustains us, and is connected uniquely to what it means to be human. . . is this what Santiago knows regardless of the results? Is this what the unique 4 count rhythm between 10 and 2 is, the art that does not come easy but is inextricable connected to grace? Is this what the healing action of the “Big Two Hearted River” points to. . . and if so, fishing is connected in this way to life, and that fishing requires becoming the other, rather than merely sending a surrogate to lure in your stead, isn’t this exactly what Jesus does, by becoming one of us to save us. . . it would then stand to reason that the work of his disciples would be no different. . . may we never seek a cheaper definition. . . amen.