January 25, 2015 – Fishing with My Dad
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One of my most precious memories from childhood is a morning I spent with my Dad when I was nine or ten years old. Our family sometimes rented a cabin in Meramec State Park for a weekend getaway when we kids were little; my parents weren’t really the camping type, but we all enjoyed the woods and the quiet, and my Dad loved fishing. Fishing was the special thing I did with my Dad, because my Mom and my sister didn’t really like fishing and my brother was still a baby back then. I was just as happy about that – it gave me that just-me time that middle children don’t get a whole lot of.
On the morning I remember so well, we had gotten up super early – that’s what you have to do if you’re a real fisherman – so early that it was barely light, and when we got to the river the mist was curling up off the surface of the water like magic. We set ourselves up beside an old metal bridge that spanned the river, and baited our hooks, and prepared to wait. And then one of us saw that there was a kingfisher sitting on the top span of the bridge, and as we watched him, he dived down and caught a fish for his breakfast. I don’t even remember now if we caught any fish at all that morning, but I will never forget standing there with my Dad, watching awestruck as that kingfisher dived into the river. It was the best time ever.
I loved everything about fishing with my Dad: I loved the sound of the reel spinning out the line when I cast it out and the little red and white plastic bobber that showed where my hook landed. I loved the excitement when the bobber disappeared and I thought I felt the tug of a fish on the line. Lots of times it was a false alarm and I just ended up reeling in a hunk of slimy weeds or a branch, but I was super excited every time just the same. I loved being awake when the whole human world seemed to be sound asleep. I loved all the cool and mysterious things in my Dad’s red tackle box, and the smell of his cigarette smoke mixed with the damp fishy smell of the river bank, and the fog and the chill of the air and the early-morning songs of frogs and birds. But more than anything else, on those rare and precious mornings, I just loved being with my Dad.
I learned some important truths from my Dad about fishing. I learned that you have to know where the fish like to hang out, and when, and what they like to eat. And you have to be very quiet, and not splash around, and not chatter a lot and not yell. Hardest of all, but very important: you have to be very patient, because if you aren’t patient 1) you probably won’t catch anything and 2) you won’t have any fun anyway even if you do catch something. Patience is definitely part of the gig. And that’s pretty much the rules of fishing as I remember it.
Of course, back in Jesus’ time fishing wasn’t a holiday pastime for accountants and their little girls; it was a way of life. In fishing villages, like Capernaum and Bethsaida, the occupation of fishing wasn’t something you decided to do when you grew up; it was passed down from generation to generation. Men like Peter and Andrew and James and John grew up on the sea, cleaning the nets and tending to the boats side by side with their fathers practically from the time they were able to walk and talk. When Jesus called Peter and Andrew and James and John to follow him; when he told them they were going to learn to be a new kind of fishermen, he was calling them into a new apprenticeship, into a lifetime of learning-by-watching-and-doing like the life they knew as sons of fishermen.
The kind of “church-y” word “disciple” that we use, that sounds kind of technical and theological, really just means a person that tags along after someone and learns from them by watching and listening and working alongside them. James and John were disciples of their father Zebedee long before they were disciples of Jesus, because they grew up learning all about weather and boats and nets as they worked alongside their dad; the little Amish boys you see in the fields leading teams of enormous Belgian horses or helping their dads load hay into the barn, and the little Amish girls you see caring for baby sisters and brothers or tending the garden with their mothers, they are disciples; I was a sort of disciple of my dad when we went fishing together. And we are all disciples of Jesus Christ, not because we go to church and know things about God and obey the Ten Commandments, but because we walk in his footsteps every day. We are his disciples when we work hard to make our hearts and our hands move like his, when we focus all our mind and heart and strength on learning from him what is important, and what is good, and what is right.
We’re going to be reading through the gospel of Mark this year, because we are in the second year of the 3-year cycle of our lectionary. And as we read about the life and ministry of Jesus, we are going to also be reading about the apprenticeship of his friends, how they learned from Jesus to be “fishers of men,” which just means becoming people who are so much like Jesus that we draw people in to the kingdom of God like he did. Everywhere Jesus went people came running because there was something about him, some delicious scent of the kingdom of God, that drew them in like the smell of new bread, hot and fresh out of the oven, something that made them hunger and thirst for the new abundant life he had come to offer them. And the disciples were learning to have the same wonderful scent, to draw people just like Jesus did.
As we read through Mark week by week this year, I would like us to try to keep our eyes on Jesus with the kind of attention that we give to something we really want to learn. It’s so easy to read the same stories over and over until they become a part of our mental furniture that we don’t notice very much anymore. But if we would follow Jesus’s footsteps the way we watch someone doing a new knitting stitch we really need to learn for the sweater we’re knitting or the way we watch someone making a strong and useful kind of joint that will make us much better carpenters – that’s the sort of careful, close attention we want to give to Mark’s gospel. You won’t get to read the whole gospel if you just hear the passages we read on Sundays, but Mark’s is a pretty short gospel, and I’d encourage you to read it through from beginning to end this year, once or twice or even many times, as we go through it bit by bit, Sunday by Sunday.
There was so much for the disciples to learn from Jesus. Mark tells how the disciples watched Jesus reach out to touch a man with leprosy, how they could see he was not disgusted by him or afraid of his horrible disease, and then suddenly they saw that the man was well. And they saw how Jesus condemned the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of the day, who cared more about rules and regulations than about compassion and mercy. And Mark tells how Jesus talked with people his disciples thought he had no business talking to, like women, and Samaritans – and Samaritan women. Mark tells how the disciples saw Jesus bring the dead back to life and tell a violent storm to calm down and cast demons out of a wild man. They saw him give sight to the blind, and hug the little children who came to him, and they got to help him feed thousands of people with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.
And there’s so much more for us to see in Mark’s gospel alone – it was all part of the disciples’ training, the fishers-of-men apprenticeship program, because it was only by walking side by side with Jesus, watching and listening and learning and growing, that Peter and Andrew and James and John and the rest became the men they became – men who drew people from all over the known world into the kingdom, like a great net cast into the sea, to become the beginnings of the world-wide Church of God of which we are now a part. And by reading these stories and putting the words and teachings of Jesus into practice in our own lives, not all on our own, but always in company with his Spirit, we too are growing fully into the people we were created to be, disciples of Jesus Christ, fishers of men – and women and children – in our own times and places.
When our kids were little, their Sunday School teacher used to have a fishing game that was their absolute favorite thing. She had a quilt that was the “pond” and a little stick fishing pole with a magnet on it, and little paper fish with paper clips taped on to them. The kids loved that game, because magnets are so cool and mysterious: you pick up one paper clip with the magnet, and then the next paper clip is drawn to the first paper clip, and on and on until you have a long chain of paper clips, all held by the power of the one magnet. Discipleship is a little bit like that: as you follow the Son, the love of the Father flows through you and draws your brother or your sister or your neighbor – maybe even your enemy – toward the one who loves us best of all.
But the best and most important part of discipleship is this: we get to hang out with our Dad. Because to follow Jesus is first and foremost living and moving and having our being in the Father. The very first verse of Mark is this: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And as we go on learning to be disciples of Jesus Christ, we can’t help but notice that everything Jesus did flowed from his relationship with the Father. From beginning to end, the life of Jesus Christ was all about serving the Father, and doing the work of the Father and making the Father known to all of his children: bringing the love of the Father right down into our midst and drawing us up into his heart. Discipleship is neither more nor less than growing up – and we are never done growing up, no matter how old we are – growing up by the side of the Father, who knows and loves us best of all.