St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 5th Sunday after Trinity, July 21, 2019
“Simon said unto him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net. And when they had this done, they enclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake.”
IN THE BEGINNING, God made fish. Oh, He made a whole lot of other things first, I know, and the waters were certainly there. But He opened a new day with fish, and then so that the fish wouldn’t have it all their way, He made birds. That’s all for Day Five, I believe, but look what that meant to the world. The great oceans, rivers and lakes were filled with life as the skies burst forth with bird song. Some of the birds discovered the fish, and the sport of fishing began. Day number Five.
On Day Six, the Lord made all the other animals and living creatures and creeping things and us. And He made us to fish. He did. “God said, Let us make man in our image, like us: and let him have rule over the fish of the sea…” Gn 1:26 To rule over the fish was not to hold a meeting of salmon to discuss fish ladders, spawning rights or their choice in bugs. To rule meant to catch those slippery fish and to eat them. It’s been our passion ever since.
Now, fishermen tell tales of their fishing exploits. My fishing history began at my highest point and has descended gradually over the years. I had never seriously gone fishing at all until my father took me with some of his friends and their sons in a cabin cruiser far out over the inland sea of Lake Mead, a vastness of water created by the Hoover Dam. I had only played at fishing once before. A restaurant called Sportsman’s Lodge in Studio City had a fake trout stream where kids could rent a little rod and reel to bob salmon eggs or Velveeta cheese before the starving silver forms of fish and ‘catch’ them. If you succeeded, they cleaned them and fried them up for you right there. It was shooting fish in a barrel, and I scorned the obvious trickery from the start.
Out on Lake Mead, however, the sun and spray and bobbing dingy meant we humans were at a distinct disadvantage. The lake, 120 miles long, hundreds of feet deep, dark blue, could hide billions of fish from us forever. If they chose to resist our God-given rulership and defy His created order, they need only go about their business and we’d never know they were there. But I already knew that God was on my side.
We set out on a large boat complete with several cabins, a galley, heads and other nautical spaces. We powered far over the blueness of the great lake to moor ourselves against a sandy shoreline. The men sang, drank and told stories. The boys made fun of the smallest and youngest boy among them. That happened to be me, I’m afraid. I was just 7. On the second night, I figured out how to get even with them, but that first night was pretty hard.
Next morning, before dawn, we were wakened with the prospect of fishing. I got dressed, but the warm cabin air fooled me into putting too little on. We climbed down into a smaller fishing boat. It sat probably eight of us. Its outboard motor roared into life as we sped across the lake while the rosy fingers of dawn crept across the sky. There was a morning wind setting a chop on the waters over that vast sea, and it seemed that every wave was destined to break on our little craft’s bow to send a frosty spray out over us. I was getting soaked, and very cold, and my teeth set to chattering. I wished that I had brought a jacket, but too late now.
Something brought a thought to my head. I wish God would stop the wind. The idea of God had been presented to me, as my family had visited churches on occasion. But I didn’t know there was a God, not really. It would have been handy to have Him answer my need at that moment. And so I fashioned a prayer of sorts, and a test. I asked silently in my mind, “If you can hear this prayer, Lord, please stop the wind!”
Lake Mead’s waters cover 250 square miles, four times the size of the Sea of Galilee. The entire lake was choppy that morning, that is, until I gave my silent prayer. In one moment, the wind dropped to nothing as the vast, ruffled waters of the lake sat back down and stretched out: the smoothest glass imaginable. Not a ripple anywhere to see. My prayer had been answered as far as the horizon. The boat sat down on those still waters and we streaked toward our chosen fishing spot.
I knew there was a God, and I knew He heard the prayers of my mind. And He cared about me. Still pretty cold outside, a warmth spread over my inner boy and something assured me that all would be right.
We fished. Way out there on the water, it was determined by some experienced fisher-mind that this was the place “they” were. My father helped me load my hook and line with our chosen bait: mudpuppies. Mudpuppies, or water dogs, are salamanders of a particularly ugly appearance, lest we take pity on them. Instead we impale them with large hooks and with heavy weights toss them splashing into the cruel dark waters. My dog sank helplessly down, though I could feel him wriggling enticingly. We waited.
Hundreds of feet of line went out. This was a deep lake, I hope I told you. Waiting some minutes for anything to happen, I got a strike. It was a strong pull. Something was eating my water dog and I was told to pull up sharply to set the hook. It set. Then, while everybody was telling me what to do, I began to fight that fish. It felt big, and strong. Somebody set the drag on my reel so the fish could take out line and tire itself. When it quit for a rest, I reeled in fifty feet, then it ran again. “Let him run a little,” said the older fishermen. They were sons of Adam, God-gifted to rule the fruits of the sea. So I let him run a little.
The boy fought the fish for quite a time, but as it was the only thing happening in that boat, everyone watched and cheered me on. Finally, the monster surfaced and my father reached it with the net and brought it aboard. I was a five-pound large mouth bass. It would be the largest fish I would ever catch in this lifetime. It was also the largest fish caught on the trip by anyone, man or boy. It emboldened me to even the score with the older boys that night as I stealthily set up a wolf-howl in the night from my bunk in the bow. Howwwwllll! It scared the pants off them. They may have wet their beds. I hope so.
Humans were created to catch fish. One time, however, a fish caught a man. The prophet, Jonah, had an assignment from God that he didn’t want to fulfill, so he also got on a boat. He too suffered the ravages of a violent wind, and the prayers offered to save that ship did not avail. Only by tossing the man into the waters would the boat be saved, so the sailors pitched Jonah overboard. “They took Jonah up and put him into the sea: and the sea was no longer angry... And the Lord made ready a great fish to take Jonah into its mouth; and Jonah was inside the fish for three days and three nights.” Jonah 1 This is not supposed to be the way to fish. You don’t use yourself as bait. Mudpuppies are better, but the purposes of God will not be thwarted, not by seven-year-old boys, nor wooly-headed prophets who hate Assyrians. And like the boy, the prophet was saved.
Jesus liked Galilee. Only 64 square miles, it still could sink a ship. He calmed its waters once and saved the apostles’ boat. He walked on its waters as though on land. And He took the fisherman, Peter, fishing. He taught the fisherman to fish, in fact. For He still held the original rulership over all fish. Peter’s boat sank under the weight of the great catch.
Who is fishing for whom? Jonah was made into bait because he’d refused to go fishing. Go fishing? you may say. Fishing wasn’t part of the story. Yes it was. Jonah was to go fishing in Nineveh. There were many people, not to mention much cattle, there. They were about to perish. The prophet was sent to fish for men, in the same way our Lord redirected Peter, away from H2O, toward dusty trails, to set himself as the bait and to catch men.
You may or may not like fishing. At a later age, I learned the art of fly-fishing. It’s too much to tell here, but a high mountain stream, the tricky currents, the shadows of boulders, the glorious surroundings, the hand-tied flies and floating tapered line, with a whip-like feathered cast just kissing the surface and not alarming the hidden trout, makes any day of fly-fishing a wonder, even if you don’t catch a thing. It has caught you, and that’s all you need. Some prefer deep-sea fishing, hunting for giant monsters of the deep. Others, like my seven-year-old self, get in boats and find lake fish, using lures or live bait.
You might go fishing for souls. It’s really the best fishing. The carpenter redirected the fishing fleet of Capernaum to go out two by two and tell their stories, give their testimony, witness for God above, and seek and save those that are lost. And they caught men.
On Lake Mead, you didn’t fish from the cabin cruiser—not seriously. But as we were moored at the shoreline, someone pointed out the fish under our cruiser’s stern. Crappie, they called them, and I was told they’re no good for food. But you can practice on them by forming a ball of cheese around a hook and dropping it in. I caught and threw back some crappie, but saw no sport in it. I only fished for large mouth bass.
Jesus once caught a man named Zacchaeus, a rich publican. Jesus invited Himself to dinner, and as the man gladly scampered off to set it up, people criticized Jesus for having fellowship with such a scoundrel. He responded, “This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Jesus was always fishing, and no one was below His standards. No person was a mere crappie to our Lord.
Near the end of His sojourn on earth, our Lord was in His resurrected state, appearing occasionally to the apostles. Lost for something to do, Peter suggested they return to fishing. As before, fishing all night, they caught nothing. As before, Jesus, now on shore, told them where to cast their nets. And as before, they found He was the ruler of the denizens of the deep. They caught a prodigious number in one cast. But this time, they found He had fish already, plenty of them, cooked and ready for their breakfast. God doesn’t need us to go fishing, but He made us for it, and it’s our calling.
Don’t be Jonah. You are the bait, and much prettier than mudpuppies – I assure you. Bait your hook and start with love. You can’t catch fish with a sour expression or anger or loathing. You must first love them, find them where they are, and seek to bring them into our Father’s kingdom. Unlike fish, they are not our prey: they are future brothers and sisters in the faith, a new family. Where are they this morning? Still out in the waters, I reckon. The waters of Butte County are teeming with fish, and this vessel here should be heavy with a new catch. Where is your bait? What are you using? Where’s your rod, your reel, your tackle? What is your most successful technique?
Me, I always let them run a little.