We begin with a story.
There once was a man who loved to fish. Every chance he got, he would pack his favorite lunch, grab his favorite hat, head out to his favorite lake, stop the boat at his favorite spot, take out his favorite fishing rod, and enjoy his favorite hobby. His wife missed him but didn’t mind the long absences so much, especially when he came back with a good-sized catch for dinner (and entertaining recollections of larger ones that got away, as fishermen are prone to telling wild stories).
After one particular trip, a very interesting thing happened. The fisherman came back and told his wife a good story about a 7-pounder that he ALMOST had reeled in before a brief gust of wind took his hat off. Well, thankfully the hat stayed in the boat, but losing it made him lose his biggest catch of the day. He was still miffed about it the next day when he met a friend for coffee and a sausage biscuit at McDonald’s. And, like all good fishermen, this time when he told the story, he told it bigger and better. The 7-pound fish became at least a 9-pounder, and after a 4-minute struggle between them, the wind took his hat two feet up in the air before he caught it like an NFL receiver toeing the sideline. Naturally, his friend was impressed at his quick thinking and sudden display of athleticism.
The next Sunday at church, our fishing friend had a crowd of people mesmerized during the coffee hour with his harrowing tale of the 22-pound fish that drained every ounce of energy from his body before the fierce wind yanked the hat from his head – and miraculously dropped it on the edge of the boat, where our brave hero dove to grab it with one hand while holding onto the fishing rod with the other, the fish tantalizingly close to the water’s surface but just strong enough to snap the line at the last second.
We’re drawn toward big stories, aren’t we? Don’t we usually prefer to hear about a fire fighter who braves numerous dangers to save an entire family over one who switches batteries out of a smoke detector for someone’s grandparents? Or Genesis and Judges over Leviticus and Ecclesiastes?
Our first scripture passage for today is part of the big story of Jonah, and we know at least the first part very well. God tells Jonah to preach to Nineveh, Jonah runs in the opposite direction, hops on a boat, gets thrown overboard by foreigners (who happen to get converted) during a storm, and is swallowed by a fish.
But if we focus on the fish tale, we tend to forget that the Jonah story doesn’t end there. Nineveh, called “that great city”, becomes a side note compared to the sorry state of Jonah’s heart and the extravagant grace and power of God. After Jonah is delivered from the fish’s belly, God says again, “Go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” And Jonah does – barely. He goes just a third of the way into the city, and the message he offers is perhaps the worst sermon ever. There’s almost no content – five words in the Hebrew and less than a dozen in our English translations. At best, Jonah is half-hearted about it. “Forty days more, Nineveh, gone.” There’s judgment without mercy, there is no invitation, no call to repentance, no concern for the welfare of the people, just fear-mongering and doomsday. If Jennifer or I were to preach like that, you’d have every right to call Muriel Johnson and ask, “What were you thinking?” And then she’d have every right to call us and ask, “What were you thinking?”
But then this amazing thing happened in Nineveh – like the sailors who threw Jonah overboard, the people of Nineveh got the message Jonah barely preached. Everyone, great and small, repented; the king called for a national period of fasting and mourning and repentance – even including the animals! And because of their response, God – and this scares most of us – God changed his mind. Literally, in verse 10 (of Jonah 3), “God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” So things kinda worked out in the end. 🙂
Now fast forward to another Bible story about fish and short sermons. When Jesus calls Simon Peter and Andrew, he says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” It’s a great line, first because it comes from Jesus and he’s usually pretty good with words, but also because it spoke directly to who they were and what they were already doing and the task Jesus was calling them to. Jesus can do all of that in just a few words, and unlike Jonah, he means them! He wants these folks, and also James and John, to go share the good news of God with people, that “[t]he time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). Again, a short message, but a good one.
There’s a real, strong temptation we sometimes have to make this story into more than it is. We usually don’t mean to, and sometimes we don’t even notice it. I hope it doesn’t happen here often, but I’ve seen it happen at other places before. “Follow me, and after 17 years of education and a thorough vetting process I can help you begin to fish for people.” “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. You’ll see it come alive at this year’s church drama, accompanied by our award-winning praise band and children’s choirs and interpretive dance team, now with live camels. Tickets on sale after today’s worship service.”
Now, I’m not saying that education or drama or children’s choirs or camels are bad. I think they’re all wonderful, actually, and all but the camels should have a place in most churches. But sometimes, when we don’t have those things, we start to look around and think that they are the answer to our problems.
Some of you have talked to Jennifer and me about the size of this congregation, how it’s smaller than it used to be. You can remember people who used to sit in what are now empty spaces and you miss them, maybe you wonder what happened. Maybe you know what happened. That can be a really hard thing to notice, and it can make you worry and it can make you sad and it can make you scared.
But if you’re scared long enough, you might start to pray. And if you pray long enough, you might start to hear those same simple messages: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news…. Follow me and I will make you fish for people…. Remember the story of the guy who was fish food? I used him, and he was a lousy prophet!” Because the message behind those messages is that God is faithful, whether our own stories are big or small. My friend Keith, who’s a pastor in Kansas City, reminded me this week through Facebook of the truth of the gospel. He posted, “Big dreams are conceived in quiet thoughts, small conversations, prayers in the closet & faith the size of a mustard seed. Such small beginnings, but what power they unleash!”
As always, the questions we need to ask ourselves are about how we remain faithful to what God calls us to. How do we follow the biblical mandate to care for our recent widows, to accompany them through the good grief they will experience over the next months? How do we reach out to the people in our neighborhoods and workplaces and restaurants and businesses to show them God’s love and invite them to recognize their part in it? In this long time of pastoral transition, how can we plan for the future of our church, how do we continue to support the search committee in their work? In the meantime, what do we call these two people who sometimes preach to us in pajamas?
If you’re at all like me and have a tendency to get bogged down with all these questions, I do have good news. You already know some of the answers. This is a good place with good people. In only three weeks, Jennifer and I have had several things to talk about on the way home after Sunday lunch (almost all of them good). You care for one another. You pray for one another. You do the things that churches ought to do. You step up when something needs to be done. You do the little, mustard seed-sized things that give birth to a bigger, God-shaped world. When you do that, big things aren’t necessary. We know this is true because God has always been able to turn small fish into a great feast.