When I was a kid, every summer we spent a week or two camping at the beach in South Carolina. We spent part of each day swimming, played with new friends in the campground, and at least a couple of times while we were there, we went fishing. My brother and I had our own rods and reels we’d brought from home. We’d grab a bucket, stop at the bait store, and walk out onto the pier with our parents early in the morning, with the idea of catching something to cook for supper.
It was a great way to entertain me. I thought it was fun learning how to cast hook, line and sinker out into the water beyond the pier (while everyone around me ducked). I loved leaning over the railing, watching the red float on my fishing line bob in the water. The biggest thrill of all was when I would feel a tug on the line and see the float disappear. Sometimes it just resurfaced, which usually meant that the fish had been smart enough to eat part or all of the bait without taking the hook. But occasionally I’d get a real hit. The float was gone, and the excitement was on. The water wasn’t very clear so it was impossible to tell what was on the hook until I reeled it above the surface of the water. Most often, I had some flounder or other shore-hugging fish, sometimes big enough to put in the bucket.
One of my clearest memories from those fishing experiences was the day my older brother (probably 9 or 10 at the time) hooked an extremely large fish. It was so heavy it bent the rod over almost double. Our dad went over to help him. After several minutes of everyone around us gawking, offering advice, and helping, he finally started making headway in reeling in the line. We all stared as the float broke the surface of the water, then the beast itself. It wasn’t a fish after all; it was a very large stingray. Some more experienced fishermen took over and brought the ray onto the pier to get the hook out of it, shouting to all the children to stay away from the stinger because it was quite dangerous.
When Peter and the others went fishing with Jesus (Luke 5:1-11), they were none too happy about it. They’d been fishing all night and had caught nothing, so they were at the docks cleaning their nets. Jesus had drawn such a crowd that he ran out of room on the shore, and decided he could be seen and heard better from a boat, so he asked Peter to help him out. When the teaching was over, Jesus wanted to go fishing. They weren’t interested. It had been a long and fruitless night. What was the point? Nevertheless, Peter complied, and the haul was so great their boats almost sank from the weight.
It was a tremendous thing: fish to eat and fish to sell. But Peter had an odd reaction. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Jesus told him not to be afraid; soon he’d be fishing for people.
Going fishing with Jesus can be scary.
It sounds so nice, so peaceful. A day at the beach, quite literally. Maybe hanging out in a little boat, just you and Jesus, waiting for a little tug on the line. Just visiting, talking, taking a snooze in the sunshine. A few fish in the bucket.
Then something turns, and your boat is so full it almost sinks, or there is a huge stingray thrashing its tail around at you.
How does that happen? Peter certainly was taken off guard. Maybe he thought fishing for people didn’t sound so bad after his boat was nearly swamped by a big load of fish. I’ll bet he changed his mind about that. Later, he’d learn he would have to help feed huge crowds that he thought should have been sent home for lunch, try to get over his own prejudice and figure how to incorporate Gentiles into the faith, overcome the guilt of betrayal, face his own death as a martyr. Seems he had reason to be afraid.
To be honest, we have reason to fear, too. If we ever thought that having faith would make life a cinch, it doesn’t take long to get over that idea. God calls us to love, and sometimes love ends badly. God calls us to give, and sometimes our gifts are rejected. God calls us to welcome the stranger, and sometimes the stranger is stranger than we expected!
God shows us how to fish for people, to care for them, to nurture them. Sometimes those people leave, or are taken from us, or they hurt us. Fishing for people is no afternoon of drifting on the lake. It is serious business. It is a boat so full of answered prayers it almost sinks. It is the stingray thrashing on the dock.
A church I know wanted to fish for people, and they looked around to see where Jesus was inviting them to throw their nets. They saw that a lot of children in the free lunch program at the public schools didn’t eat well when school wasn’t in session. So the church partnered with a local agency to provide bag lunches five days a week in the summer months. The agency provided much of the funding; the church provided most of the volunteers. At the beginning, things were fine. A few children came in each day; a couple of volunteers were needed to make sandwiches and assemble the bags. Soon the volume increased. Siblings who were too young for school also were hungry. Children started taking home bags for the whole family. More volunteers were needed, and more food. The boat was filling up, stretching the resources.
Then the volunteers began to worry about the quality of the lunches. Baloney sandwiches and chips didn’t seem good enough, so they started purchasing healthy food on their own, because the agency had limited funds. They added milk and fresh fruit, and more children came with their families in tow.
That was when the stingray broke the surface. The agency pulled the plug on the funding, because other sites around the county couldn’t afford the extra items, and the agency didn’t believe it was fair for one site to offer more than the others. The little church was devastated by the news. The cost of the program was too much for them to manage without the agency’s help.
They felt they’d been unsuccessful, and they went back to cleaning the nets. What was the point, if their programs weren’t going to continue.
Over time the church regrouped, faced the reality of the situation and of their own disappointment, and began casting about for where Jesus might be telling them to throw their nets next. Their foray into the area of food ministry emboldened them to try something brand new they’d never heard of. They contacted another agency and the local food pantry. Together, the three of them began offering a regular program where adult food pantry clients came to the church kitchen, received a bag of groceries and a free gift (measuring cups, for example, or a spatula), and had a cooking and nutrition lesson from a dietician, using the items in the bag. They sat down to a meal together, then took the groceries home to replicate the meal for their families.
This wasn’t at all what the church had in mind when they participated in the first food program. Instead of children, they had adults. Instead of summer, it was year-round. Instead of making sandwiches for guests, the guests were learning to cook. Instead of baloney, families were getting healthier foods.
This wasn’t at all what they had in mind.
But when you go fishing with Jesus, you never know what you’ll catch.