Eccentric fisher folk

It is ordination season, and the last of my seminary classmates are being ordained to the priesthood before Lent. I went down yesterday to Maryland for an ordination, the first where I got to lay hands upon one of my friends as a priest in the Church.

To say that this ordination was different from my own, here at St. Mark’s, would be an understatement. The church was built in 1989, rather than 1849. The choir was not as talented as our own choir (I will leave it at that). The ordinand was wearing Ferrari red three inch stiletto heels. There was a praise band in addition to the choir, and all the children had red ribbons to wave to symbolize the Holy Spirit that we were going to call down upon the ordinand. The procession was led in with a big Dove kite, and I haven’t seen that used here yet, but Pentecost is coming...

There were other little idiosyncrasies that I found amusing.After we processed in, I sat down in one of the front pews and realized that a child had left a ping-pong ball on the kneeler at the communion rail which he proceeded to retreive in the middle of the bishop's sermon.  After the clergy in my row went to the altar to receive communion, we returned to our row and I was greeted with the amusing sight of a dryer sheet lying on the ground in our pew. I’m sure that it had been inside someone’s robe and during the energetic singing (dare I say dancing) had worked its way down to the floor.“At least,” I thought, “we know that someone in this pew is wearing a clean robe.”

There were all sorts of little moments and gems of strangeness that kept hitting me, and I thought, how wonderful, how glorious that God calls us all, despite the little idiosyncrasies that we carry around with us: genuflecting and ping-pong balls, Dove kites and monstrances, praise bands and Aeolian-Skinner organs.

The first disciples were equally as eccentric, I have no doubt. They were fishermen and fishermen, then as now are a strange breed. Modern day fishing is a bit like a religion and a bit like a mania, and in some people can be both. But somehow I never imagine those disciples as modern fishermen – slightly obsessed and with poor fashion sense, I’ve always thought that fishing in Galilee during the time of the Gospels was less like fishing as we know it now, and more like working construction: manly men’s work – not for the faint of heart or body. And I have always imagined that some of the roughness from the long hours of physical labor remained with the disciples throughout their lives and comes out of the Gospels in little strange places. Think of some of the inane sentences that come out of Peter mouth, or his knee-jerk response in chopping off the high priest’s servant’s ear, or John rushing off to escape arrest with Jesus, having someone grab his robe, and streaking off through the garden, naked as the day he was born.

They were tough men, those fishermen, rough, brawny, full of laughter and slightly off-color jokes.They are the kind of men that you would like on your side in a bar fight, and perhaps they were in a few scrapes together, before they met Jesus. And what must they have thought when Jesus came up to them, and called them to follow him?What must Zebedee, that old tough fisherman have thought, or perhaps said and perhaps punctuated with some pretty choice words when his two sons dropped the nets they were fixing and rushed off to follow that Messiah and left him standing there?

There are several lessons in the Gospel this morning. The first is that, even though Jesus begins his ministry alone, almost immediately he begins to assemble a group of disciples. Fishing for people which is ministry, mission, the growth and spread of the Gospel, is communal work, rather like net fishing from a boat. It isn’t something that you can do very well, or very safely by yourself. You might, in point of fact, end up in deep water. Jesus begins to call his disciples, and he calls some interesting characters. Rough fisherman, a tax collector, a couple of fellows with some pretty radical, even revolutionary political views, women with dubious backgrounds, later even the zealously anti-Christian Saul; they all come to join the Rabbi as he trolled the alleys and plains of Palestine for people to reel in.

The second lesson that comes from the Gospel this morning has to do with the goal and purpose of fishing for people: the point is to catch more people. It isn’t to join the select few, the club of like-minded, homogenous people, but to find yourself in the pew next to the wildly idiosyncratic, the strange, the crazy. I always think about the story, still told, of the poet W. H. Auden, who was very faithful in going to mass in New York, at a church rather similar to St. Mark’s. I don’t know if he regularly didn’t get up in time, or if in some bohemian way he just preferred not to dress in a suit, but Auden would to mass in his dressing gown. As far as I know, no one ever said anything about his garb. Perhaps some of you will be inspired to try the same some Sunday...

Can you imagine those first gatherings of the followers of Jesus and the conversations around the fires that these “catches” of Jesus must have had? The tax collector, the sign and symbol of Roman oppression and the Zealots, anxious to cast off the Roman oppressors, eyeing each other from opposite sides of the ring of people. The sons of Zebedee, wondering how their aging father was making out on his own. The women who followed Jesus, risking disgrace or worse because they had left the protection of male family members and followed this Messiah.Strange and idiosyncratic. God’s rag-tag army of fisher-folk. The pews here are no different. They are filled with the incongruous and the slightly eccentric.

The third lesson is that Jesus, in calling his disciples is also calling his successors. He is calling those who will carry on the work, who will carry the nets to the far corners of the known world, will cast their nets into the ponds of the powerful, and poverty stricken, into the synagogues and into the land of Samaria; they will snare emperors and kings, courtesans and ladies-in-waiting, farmers, ironsmiths, stockbrokers, professors, the homeless, the needy, those who mourn. All of them will wiggle like fish out of the water, caught in a net of divine craftiness, and those caught will themselves go out, to cast nets into the pools of all the world.

It is not just the first disciples that Jesus calls and lands. We ourselves have been hooked. And the instructions of Jesus, to catch people, are not just for Peter and Andrew, James and John, they are words for us today.

For to be caught in that net is also to know that our calling, our journey has at its heart the need to speak about how we have been trapped. How the Divine fisherman has caught and snared us, how we have been brought to bay in the rapids after a long fight, or hauled up sharply by a wide net; and how, having been trapped, we seek also to ensnare those whom we encounter with that sweet knowledge that God actively hunts and pursues us, that divine nets are constantly set to catch us and that the Hound of Heaven is bellowing on our trail.

For the last lesson is equally good news. The work of “fishing for people” is something that Jesus teaches us to do. “I will teach you to fish for people.” “I will teach you.”This is not something that we do on our own, or with any special talents.It is not work that we need to flog ourselves into doing, or feel guilty about being unable to do. It is not work that we can aspire to do unless the great fisherman traps us. But trap us he does, and he traps us in all our glorious foibles and idiosyncrasies. He traps us, women and men of dubious faith, he traps burly fishermen and rough construction workers, poets in bathrobes, bankers, doctors, lawyers, and revolutionaries. He catches us in nets of long history, of family, of culture, of intellect and of emotion.

He catches and looks at us gasping there upon the beach, out of our element, straining to breath in this rarified air, and says simply“Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

Go therefore, and fish for people. Tell them how you have been landed, stranded, hooked. And may our casts be wide and varied, may we haul in many a fish of all different shapes and sizes, and may we never lose sight of the glorious eccentric body, those of us who are the followers of the Way, who gather around altars everywhere to praise the One who has caught us in his divine net.

Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft
25 January 2009
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on January 25, 2009 .