St. Philip Lutheran Church
24 January 2021 + Epiphany 3B
Jonah 3.1-5, 10; Mark 1.14-20
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
Fishing is dangerous work. I’m not talking about hazardous weather conditions at sea for people who make their living catching fish. No, I’m talking about when I was little, and my grandpa taught me how to fish in the pond in his backyard. On one particular fishing excursion, I distinctly remember casting off… and that’s when my grandpa let out a scream and I learned a whole bunch of new words my young ears had never heard before… when the hook on my line went backwards and hooked my grandpa squarely in the seat of his pants. Like I said, dangerous.
I tell that story for really no other reason than (1) it’s amusing and (2) because of the clever maritime connection to our readings from Jonah and Mark today. And also, maybe, my ineptitude as a fisherman puts me in good company with the ineptitude of our characters in these stories.
Only three verses into the book that bears his name, Jonah actively runs from God and goes the exact opposite direction and as far away as possible to avoid what God is calling him to do. After the incident with the big fish, still he reluctantly ends up going – walking only a third of the way through the city and uttering a mere five words as recorded in the original Hebrew.
And in this story from Mark’s gospel, Jesus calls fishermen – not exactly the upper echelon of society – but smelly, day-laboring fishermen without any formal education or social standing. People the world would just as easily cast aside.
That’s the first amazing thing about these two stories today: These are stories for those who think they have nothing to offer or those who don’t think they can rise to the challenge or those who even actively run away from it. These are stories that remind us that God can accomplish God’s purposes, even through our failures and shortcomings and hesitancy.
But here’s where things get interesting: Our gospel text is such a familiar Sunday School story that most of us don’t fully realize what it’s saying. “Fishing for people” isn’t some clever way of saying “inviting our friends to church.” First of all, there was no “church” to invite people to at that time. But think about it: If the people in Jesus’s metaphor represent the fish, what happens to fish when they get caught? It’s usually not very good news for the fish.
This metaphor is actually steeped in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets who use it in a vastly different context none of us probably ever heard in Sunday School. For the Hebrew prophets, catching fish means divine judgment on the powerful and those who exploit their power to oppress the poor and marginalized. I imagine Jesus was well-acquainted with this Jewish scriptural heritage he was raised in.
Maybe Jesus is using this fishing metaphor to show his followers just how dangerous the work he’s calling them to be a part of is. It seems like fishing for people has little to do with invitation and evangelism and everything to do with proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God here and now, rooted in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, the very tradition Jesus emerges from.
The work of the kingdom of God is dangerous – the work of dismantling the status quo of power, privilege, exploitation, and domination. After all, Mark’s gospel rushes on with unusual speed to get to the account of Jesus’s suffering and death, where it significantly slows down to tell that story with uncharacteristic detail. It’s almost like Mark is saying this is the point. This work of building the kingdom of God on earth is dangerous, so dangerous in fact that it’s going to get Jesus killed.
And as the late theologian James Cone once said, “If you are going to worship somebody that was nailed to a tree, you must know that the life of a disciple of that person is not going to be easy.”
But the gospel news is that on the other side of death is resurrection. New life. A reimagining of the world as God yearns for it to be.
This week, along with so many others, I was struck by the words of poet Amanda Gorman who spoke at the presidential inauguration. Her poem so aptly and profoundly captures the moment we collectively find ourselves in.
It’s undeniable that we’ve been through a lot in the past year: racial protests, a divisive election, increasing polarization, a pandemic that has now claimed over 410,000 lives in the U.S. alone, the storming of the same Capitol building Gorman stood in front of as she read her poem, just two weeks later:
We’ve braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,
and the norms and notions
of what just is
isn’t always just-ice.
That’s the call of discipleship. To call out “what just is” and to demand justice. To root out systems of oppression and injustice that deny the full humanity of our siblings.
That kind of fishing is dangerous work. And I have to admit, the characters God chooses aren’t exactly the ones you’d think are up to the challenge. Jonah? Ordinary fishermen? Us?
The disciples who Jesus calls, who immediately leap at the invitation, are the same ones who will ultimately doubt, deny, and abandon Jesus. Meanwhile, Jonah’s fallibility is perhaps even more obvious, resisting God’s call from the very beginning.
But that makes the rest of the story even more profound. In some ways, it’s a miracle story. It reminds us this is not about what Jonah does, not about what the disciples do, not about anything we do, but about what God does in and through us.
This is about God’s power to resurrect from the dead, to bring new life out of places of despair, to transform what just is into justice.
God beckons us to follow, to get swept up into that work, to imagine the world as it can be, to bring God’s reign to life.
Gorman’s inauguration poem captures this very vision, as she continues:
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all…
One thing is certain:
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy…
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it,
if only we’re brave enough to be it.
“Follow me,” Jesus says, “and I will make you fish for people. I will make you into disciples who can do hard and dangerous work. I will make you.”
God calls us to bear witness to God’s extravagant love and mercy for the people of our Nineveh, for the people of a hurting world. God call us now. Not when we think we’re ready. Not when we can feel better equipped or more qualified or better prepared. But now.
Will you come and follow?