22 January 2012

Trying to catch the ones that get away

Fishing boats and tourist boats by night in the harbour in Fethiye, south-west Turkey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin,

Sunday 22 January 2012,

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany

11 .a.m., Solemn Eucharist

Jonah 3: 1-5, 10;
Psalm 62: 5-12;
I Corinthians 7: 29-31;
Mark 1: 14-20.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

This morning’s Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading may offer little comfort in Glandore, Union Hall and those parts of west Cork where people are mourning the loss of the lives of those fishermen – at sea and yet so close to land within the past week.

The mere mention of Jonah, who everybody associates with a shipwreck and a big fish, or the story of fishermen being called away for an even-more demanding task, are hardly going to sound like good news to the ears of those who have lost loved ones so tragically in this past week.

Or where shall they find comfort in the Epistle reading (I Corinthians 7: 29-31), where Saint Paul tells the Christians of Corinth that “the time we live in will not last long,” or that “the present time is passing away.”

Yet, Saint Mark begins telling his Gospel story with the promise that this is “the good news of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.” And again this morning, in verse 15, we hear repeated the promise of that Good News: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (verse 15).

I wonder whether those fishermen by the Sea of Galilee in our Gospel reading this morning were prosperous businessmen, or people on the margins of society?

On the one hand, these fishermen could be compared with the Shepherds in Saint Luke’s Gospel who first hear the Good News. They work at night, they work away from everyone else, they work in small teams and clusters, and they face grave dangers. Fishing was carried out at night so that the freshly caught fish could be sold as soon as possible in the morning. So, being out at night – and smelling of fish – might have made fishing a disreputable occupation.

On the other hand, these disciples owned nets (verse 19), and they had employees or “hired men” (verse 20), so they may well have been people of rank. If so, they are giving up security, job opportunities, the chance to clinch the next big deal, the opportunity to pay the mortgage and save for the children’s education, to follow Christ and to devote themselves to his mission.

I wonder whether those fishermen by the Sea of Galilee who are called to follow Christ put up any resistance, even unspoken resistance, to answering that call? After all ... Jonah resisted God’s call, not just once, but twice.

But no, we are told this morning that when the first four disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John, are called they immediately leave their previous occupations, and follow Christ.

One of the first things Christ does is to recruit followers. We could say that proclaiming the Good News, and proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is near, is not a one-man show. Instead, it involves building up communities, and creating relationships that embody the Good News.

Christ sees Simon and Andrew at night, or just before dawn, while they are actively fishing. He then sees James and John after dawn – they have finished their night’s work and are in their boat, mending their nets.

Mediterranean boats in R├ęthymnon’s charming Venetian harbour in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford 2010)

How do you think it must have appeared in those days that Christ was out alone at night and that the first four people he calls are engaged in a dirty and demanding occupation, and that all four leave their families to follow him?

Their friends and neighbours must have reacted with alarm and suspicion, and probably talked about how their response was breaking up their families and breaking down the social fabric of their community.

Do you find your calling to follow Christ difficult when it comes to family relationships and maintaining your relationship with your community, with those you work with or those who are your neighbours?

Sometimes, like Jonah, do you feel like taking another journey, or just going half-way? Nineveh, we are told this morning, was such a big city that after a full day’s walk Jonah had only managed to get half-way towards the city centre.

It was hardly such a big city, but it may have appeared that way to Jonah because he was half-hearted in his response to God’s call. On the way, he must have stopped at every barrow and stall, at every falafel take-away and every coffee shop, taken every opportunity for a smoke or a drink, rather than getting on with God’s call for him to proclaim God’s demands.

But God is not happy with half-measures and half-hearted responses to his call. He demands our all.

I do not know which was a more difficult and demanding task: being a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee, or answering the call to be a Disciple of Christ. But, either way, the four first disciples were going to have no lazy days by the shore or the river bank, or as followers of Christ.

Becoming “fishers of men,” “fishing for people,” is going to bring these Galilean fishers into new relationships, not only with Christ, but with their families and their neighbours, with the tax collectors, with Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots, with the powers of this world, with Gentiles, with the people who sat in darkness and in the region of the shadow of death.

Sometimes, in the Church, we do not cast our nets out far enough or deep enough. Is it any wonder then that most of the time, when we pull in those nets, we find them half-empty, we find our churches half-empty?

There is a saying that fish come in three sizes – small ones, medium ones and the ones that get away. Too often, those of us who are in ordained ministry know about the small ones, and we are good with the medium ones. But we pay little attention to going after the ones that get away.

Many years ago, while I was hitchhiking and youth-hostelling in the peaks on the borders of Staffordshire and Derbyshire in my late teens, and staying in Ilam Hall, I came across the work of that great Anglican writer, Izaak Walton (1593-1683), known not only for his biographies of John Donne, George Herbert and Richard Hooker, but also known as the author of The Compleat Angler.

In The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton points out that fishing can teach us patience and discipline. Fishing takes practice, preparation and discipline. Like discipleship, it has to be learned, and learning requires practice before there are any results. And sometimes, whether it is fishing in a river or fishing in the sea, the best results can come from going against the current.

Fishermen taking care of their nets in the fishing harbour at Pythagoreio on the island of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Walking along the pier in a small Greek fishing village recently, as I watched the careful, early-morning work of the crews in the trawlers and fishing boats, I realised good fishing does not come about by accident. It also requires paying attention to the nets, moving them carefully, mending them, cleaning them after each and every use, hanging them out to dry.

And fishing is also about noticing the weather, watching the wind and the clouds. Good fishing takes account of contexts … it is incarnational.

And all of these apply to the work of proclaiming the Good News, announcing that the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Time and again in the Gospels, the Kingdom of God is compared to a huge net cast over different numbers of people and species. We are the ones called to cast that net, but to do so we need to attend to our own discipline, endurance, and patience.

Discipleship is not passive following of Christ. As the Church, we cannot hang any sign outside on our office doors saying: “Gone Fishin’.”

Nor can we passively stand by the banks or on the shores, content with two sizes of fish. We are called to go after the ones that others let get away, not just those who come to Church regularly, but their families, their neighbours, the tax collectors, the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Zealots of our age, the powers of this world, the Gentiles, and especially with the people who sit in darkness and in the region of the shadow of death.

Christ says there is Good News for them too, Christ calls them too into the Kingdom of God. They are not small fish, or medium-sized fish; they are simply the ones we let get away.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The interior of Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)


Almighty God,
whose Son revealed in signs and miracles
the wonder of your saving presence:
Renew your people with your heavenly grace,
and in all our weakness
sustain us by your mighty power;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Almighty Father,
your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ is the light of the world.
May your people,
illumined by your word and sacraments,
shine with the radiance of his glory,
that he may be known, worshipped,
and obeyed to the ends of the earth;
for he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Solemn Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin, on Sunday 22 January 2012.

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