Occasions for Hope

Matthew 4:12-23  – The Third Sunday after the Epiphany – for Sunday, January 26, 2014

“’Follow me, and I will make you fish for people…’” (Matthew 4:19)

Pepperidge GoldfishMy wife, loving life partner that she is, does laundry.

I, her self-sacrificing spouse, shop for groceries. I am so thankful she handles the cold-water-only and take-it-to-the-dry-cleaner decisions. Apparently she is equally grateful that I, like a primeval hunter-gatherer, wander supermarkets for our daily bread.

We each have our tasks.

The other day, my task meant I saw a kid, tucked inside a shopping cart with the milk and lettuce, head for the checkout as his Mom steered the cart. The kid’s hand pawed inside an open bag of Pepperidge Farm goldfish crackers.

Maybe three or four, he was seriously fishing. His Mom was smiling. The clerk was making small talk as he scanned items. I was next in line like a plane waiting to land. I understood what was happening. There have been times, with a cold drink on a hot day, when I handed an empty container to the check-out guy. Yep, scan it, let me pay for it, and then, please, recycle it immediately. I had to have it then.

It was time to scan the cheesy, fish-shaped crackers.

No way. The kid hunkered low in the cart, a bear in a cave, a cat in a corner. There was more to eat. No one was getting his fish.

I smiled. The clerk smiled. Mom wasn’t smiling anymore.

Nothing like a fish story . . .

What did Jesus promise near the start of his ministry? “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

He said this to Peter and Andrew, brothers and fellow fishers. He said this to James and John, brothers and fellow fishers. That invitation has been part of Christian tradition ever since the first disciples. Let’s go fish . . . for people!

I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if the Nazarene talked with Matthew (the tax collector of Matthew 10:3 and not the unknown writer of the Gospel) before Andrew or James. Would he have said, “Follow me and I will make you tax the people?” Or maybe, under other circumstances, “Follow me and I will make you bake the people.”

Frankly, I’m glad Jesus first met a few guys out fishing, rather than a tax collector, bread baker or, say, a gravedigger.

Let’s go fish . . . for people!

Christians have, rightly and wrongly, used that call and image to proclaim the good news. It’s one of our tasks. I suppose the Crusaders thought they were reclaiming the “fishing hole” as they journeyed toward the Holy Land. (I wish they’d carried fly rods instead of swords.)

Still, I like the notion of fishing as a way of understanding faith and my truest tasks in life. Norman Maclean (in his “A River Runs Through It”) said of fishing: “. . . all good things, trout as well as eternal salvation, come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.” In Maclean’s story of a Montana family, with a father who was preacher and fly-fisher, both the joy and the pain of life were revealed. I believe, like Maclean, that we are already saved. All of us: Christian and non-Christian, believer and doubter, fool and hero. We don’t earn God’s love. God’s grace has blessed us already. And yet to live with, and to live out, the grace can be extraordinary difficult. We so often choose selfishness, fear or complacency.

Henry David Thoreau challenged, “Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” Was Jesus asking his followers to force people into faith? I hope not. First, and maybe even last, going fishing must be about me. How will I live my life in the midst of others with different views and beliefs? When I “fish,” shouldn’t I seek to reveal more about me (and my values), than the mere hooking of a trophy?

In the literal sense, I’m not a fisherman. Sometimes that surprises folks who know I’ve spent hundreds of days on backpacks. Don’t all people tramping by alpine lakes and snow-fed streams tuck a rod and reel alongside the other gear? Not me. But I have watched friends try Norman Maclean’s “art” in pursuit of trout.

Day’s end. The final cast. Dusk mingled with optimism . . .
Day’s end. The final cast. Dusk mingled with optimism . . .

Once I observed a fellow hiker on a church backpack launch his line into a high country lake as the sun’s light faded. Day’s end. The final cast. Dusk mingled with optimism. Whoa . . . he snagged a trout. After long minutes, punctuated by shouts of joy and serene silence, he nursed the trout close to shore. Kneeling by the darkening water, he cradled the fish, admiring it . . . and then he let it go.

Later he said it was the largest fish he’d ever caught. Though we all know and tell jokes about how fish keep getting bigger long after they were hooked, I believed him.

He enjoyed the moment. He let it go. Catch and release.

The kid in the cart let the bag of crackers go. The clerk was kind, and promised he’d return the bag right away. Mom was gracious, patiently helping her son understand he could trust the clerk. In that moment, as far as I was concerned, we were all fishing. Scottish novelist John Buchan said, “The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.”

I love the moments when hope is cast, discovered, and shared.

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  1. Dear Mr. Patten,

    I enjoyed reading this, especially because of the angling references. A gentle correction: A River Runs Through It was written by Norman Maclean (not MacLaren).

    1. Boy did I need a gentle correction. Thanks, Bryan . . . for correcting and for reading.

      (And for any future readers, yeah, I did use MacLaren and not Maclean. My bad . . . but corrected through the “magic” of digital updating!)

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