Matthew 4:17-23, November 17th 2013
Sermon by Rev. Tim Woodard
Fishing is a sport that I was introduced to when I was just a boy. My brother Fred was a master at it. He is a few years older than I am so he got started a few years early then I. Reflecting back, I remember that he would get up before the sun had barely begun cresting over the horizon. He always collected his can of worms the night before; that was an adventure unto itself. With his bait and fishing gear in hand he would set out. He never returned home empty handed. He always caught his limit, except when he was once forced to take me with him.
No, Fred was not exactly excited about taking me, fishing.
I remember the occasion well. He made me get my own worms. Digging them out of the ground was bad enough, but he insisted we chase for night crawlers before we went to bed that night as well. Yuck! The next morning, as I reflected how I didn’t really want to go fishing, I think it was my father’s idea Fred had us up at the crack of dawn. It was cold out and the dew was still heavy on the grass. By the time we got to the brook my feet were wet and my hands were cold.
As the morning progressed I watched my brother catch a couple of trout. They were beautiful rainbow trout. He was a good fisherman. When I had lost most of my bait to the nibbling of fish, Fred reluctantly realized that I did not know how to attach a worm to the hock. He finally, while pointing out my inadequacies, gave me a lesson on the art of properly baiting ones hock. Soon after, I had my first trout tugging away at the line. The adrenaline flowed through my veins. I was told I did everything wrong yet in the end that trout went home with me that day. It was the only one I caught that season. But, the thrill of that caught was one I’ll never forget.
Our scripture lesson this morning, from the gospel of Matthew is about the calling of Jesus’ first disciples. They were fishermen. Simon who was called Peter and his brother Andrew, were casting their nets into the lake when Jesus came to them. Jesus said, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Fishing was very much a part of that early call. Fishing was what they knew and fishing is what Jesus invited them to do.
It is quite evident that the fishing that Jesus referred to would be to catch men and women as fellow disciples, disciples who would follow the teachings of Jesus and help to build his church. The calling of the disciples was to be only the beginning. Jesus was to take these men on a fishing trip that would surpass any fishing they had ever done. It was to be more than simply an adventure. It would change their lives and the lives of all those that their journey touched.
Accepting an invitation to go fishing is not something to be taken lightly. I remember when I had just barely begun my ministry back up in New York fifteen years ago two gentlemen asked me if I could fish. I told them I enjoyed it, but hardly ever caught any fish. They laughed and said I was their kind of fisherman, so we did some fishing together, just as Jesus intended.
My Uncle Rolland, my father’s brother, was a great fisherman. Not only did he know how to catch the trout and bass during fishing season, he also knew how to fish through the ice. It was from my uncle that I learned about the true art of fishing. The lake was in the middle of town, just behind my grandfather’s church. It was no more than a mile across from the old parsonage to the far corner. That is where my uncle liked to set up camp. I would often walk across the ice to where he was fishing. His good natured personality always made me feel welcomed.
He always had a shelter constructed to protect us from the severe weather and he always had an extra set of fishing lines so that I could learn how to cast my line along side of his. He taught me the art of chipping a hole in the ice, and the importance of having the right tool to pull the ice chips out of the hole. There was always time for hot chocolate, which he seemed never to forget to bring, although he drank coffee. I loved ice fishing with my uncle. It is one of my fondest memories.
No, I never caught even one single fish from that frozen pond. But I don’t recall ever being disappointed. I don’t even remember if he caught anything when I was with him. Although he always brought home a string of fish for my Aunt Mildred to cook. No, those times were about learning and sharing. Fishing was only the gathering point. I learned how to stay dry and warm while sitting on an ice and snow covered lake. I learned that a cup of hot chocolate tastes better when served with someone who wants you to be with them. I learned that ice fishing has nothing to do with fish.
I don’t remember when my uncle invited me to go ice fishing. I don’t even know how I knew he was there. Perhaps he decided to choose me before I ever chose him. Perhaps he knew I never would catch any fish so he decided to teach me more about life. He taught me how to love and care for someone. He taught me more than I ever knew. My father was twenty years younger than his closest brother was. My Uncle Rolland was older than my maternal grandfather, who preached each Sunday morning. They both died before I got out of high school. They each, in their own way, taught me everything they could.
By the time I was ready to enter seminary, in 1990, the lessons my uncle had taught me were burned into my heart. When Jesus said to me“come follow me and I will made you a fisher of men,” I knew we were not going fishing for trout. I knew we were going ice fishing, like my uncle had taught. I knew there would be time for work and time for play. I knew that there would be time to love and share. I knew that the master fisherman had chosen me.
I had been chosen to fish with the master. I had been instructed to chop a hole in the ice and cast out the line. The rest I have done like my uncle taught me.
Each of us has been chosen to become disciples of our Lord. Listen to the sound of the master’s voice as you have been summoned to be part of his fishing party. I believe that each one of us have been called to journey with Christ. If it were not so, why are you here this morning? If you have come because someone dragged you here, ask yourself why did they want you here? If you have come because you knew not where to turn then stay awhile and get comfortable. Perhaps someone will offer you a nice cup of hot chocolate.
Fishing can be easy or it can be hard. We can fish with unwilling teachers who make our lives miserable or we can chose to fish with those that love us. Look for companions that want you at their side. The rules of fishing speak only of catching the fish, but life is so much more than that. Of course fishing is only a metaphor. Bringing lost souls to the saving grace of God is what we are talking about. Grace is that place where we find mercy and kindness, not critical remarks and harshness.
Grace is a mystery and can not be numbered or inventoried. Grace is not measurable and will not fill the pages of a book, nor fill the empty chairs that are scattered around you. Grace is many things. It is more than a prayer we say at mealtime Grace is so much more than all that.
Grace is the bait that is placed upon the hock. It is the warm glow that flows before and after the organ strikes a note. With grace on the line, who can refuse just one tiny nibble or bite? Once hooked on its soothing embrace no mortal can resist her heavenly charm. To be wanted and welcomed is something we all long for. To be chosen before we open the door. That is what we all long for. God’s grace does all that!
Ice fishing is a sport, but becoming a fisher of humankind is not. Christ calls to me and to you. Come follow Christ and together you will pass to others the gift of grace that has brought you here. Do not waste time looking for the right spot or the right moment. The one from above secures the bait. The one from above asks you to simple throw out the line. You have been called, by God, so it is up to you ‘to set an example’ to be sure others – see by your lives – that grace is about devotion and love.
Invite someone to go fishing with you. Invite someone to come here with you on Sunday morning, or bring them to an event of the church, so that they can learn more about how we Christians cast out our nets. Be the example others will long to follow. Allow your devotion and love for each other to cause others to be drawn to the grace of the God we worship and trust. Let them come to know the greatest fisherman of them all, and when they do come tell them that you were expecting them. Put out a warm handshake and welcome them in. Share with them what ever you have to offer. Be kind in your instruction and generous with your love. Learn from the master. Call to your friends, your neighbors, your brothers and sisters, even that long lost cousin, invite them to come with you and show them the way. Just tell them of the God of Grace who called out to you.
As you each go on from here, be reminded that there is much chopping of ice and casting of fishing lines yet to do. Each of you are invited to be part of the camp, set not on a lake, but in a church called Riviera United Church of Christ. Your shelter, this beautiful church, was built with the hope that many would come to know of God’s Grace and Mercy. They had high hopes that all sorts of folks would come, young & old, black & white, gay & straight, rich & poor, they hoped they and many others would come, worshipping together and learning about the life and message of Jesus and that then ‘they too’ – would pass this on to still other! The early members gathered as this church first began thus answering their ‘call’ to go fishing with the master. Now you have been called to throw out the line, to reel in the next generation of eager Disciples. Remember, that the God of our understand, the God of Grace, Mercy and Love, exemplified in the life of Jesus, supplies the bait; and the lure of Grace once tasted… is impossible to resist.