Fishing for the Fisher – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Matthew 4:12-23

Jesus said, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of people.”

“Fishers of people” – in older translations of the Bible, “fishers of men” – is one of those phrases in the Gospels that I have noticed myself avoiding over the years in my meditation with scripture or when it surfaces in the lectionary. I don’t have much first-hand knowledge of fishing, but that’s not the source of the disconnect, because I don’t have first-hand knowledge of most activities and objects that were common in first century Palestine. When I hear the phrase “fishers of men,” I have mostly tended to think of a certain strategy of Christian mission legitimated by the imperative to “spread our nets” throughout the known world and “catch souls for Jesus” by any means possible. In other words, I think of mission malpractice, tightly interwoven with the history of British and American imperialism. So I have to sink deeper to hear these words from another angle, an angle that will yield the Life and Light I seek in these sacred pages. Thinking of myself or other people as fish is also challenging: fish out of water, hooked, confused, gasping for air and wondering how on earth they got from point A to point B.

But here I realize I’ve gotten ahead of myself. I do, in fact, have some personal acquaintance with fishing, lured up into my conscious mind by the words of today’s gospel reading. For your consideration, I offer you two brief stories from the “gospel of Keith.”

On a hot day in July of 1988 – I was about six years old – my father took me deep sea fishing off the coast of Ocean City, New Jersey. After acquiring my sea legs and learning how to attach squishy white scraps of squid to a fishhook, there came that first exhilarating tug on the fishing line. A couple of hours later, I had caught only a handful of “sea robins” – small, lean, reddish brown fish with wing-like fins. I had thrown them back to sea as I was told to, apologizing to them for their trouble and wondering what secret law determined which fish were edible and which were not and wondering if it was the same law that distinguished weeds from flowers. Just when the cool ocean breeze began to fail and a sultry, disappointing boredom began to take hold, something big erupted from below: a flapping tail, a flashing white underbelly, a sudden commotion of fellow fishermen. A flounder the size of my torso wriggled at the end of my father’s fishing line. Upon inspection, it turned out to be the largest flounder caught on that boat that summer. I proudly watched as my father was invited to record the catch in a very official-looking book in the boat’s cabin. Without saying a word and with only the slightest, conspiratorial wink, my father wrote “Keith Robert Nelson” – my name instead of his own. It was a quiet but very legible expression of his love. I did indeed feel loved – but I also felt confused. He had clearly caught the fish. It was clearly attached to his fishing line. But he had just as clearly written my name! Why? It was like a Zen koan, like, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” I chewed on that mystery the whole day, even as I chewed on that delicious flounder for supper that evening.

For the second story, I fast-forward about twenty-eight years. I am sitting in the American Repertory Theater over on Brattle Street with a good friend, just before a performance of a play called Nice Fish, co-written by Mark Rylance and the poet Louis Jenkins. My friend and I are each poised on the brink of a significant life event. He and his wife are about to have a baby. While he’s overjoyed, he’s riddled with anxiety that he’s not prepared to be a father. I am a couple months away from making my initial vows in monastic life. While I am overjoyed, I too have some anxiety that I’m not ready for this vowed commitment to God and community. We settle into the darkness mulling these thoughts, and are swept into a weird and wonderful kaleidoscope of parallel stories centered upon two men who go ice-fishing on frozen Lake Michigan. The surreal, poetic dialogue points, slowly and urgently, to unconscious motives and primal forces at work: these men are waiting for much more than fish and are hungry for something they can’t catch with their hands. The hole in the ice takes on a symbolic weight and emits a mysterious green glow. As the play comically and poignantly cartwheels through all of life’s major existential questions, thunderous cracks gradually break the ice apart, along with all narrative logic. In the final scene, the two men shed their heavy ice-fishing apparel to become an elderly husband and wife in pajamas. A gigantic fishing lure descends from the ceiling, and the pair gleefully grab hold and ascend into the darkness. My friend and I exit the theater slightly dazed. While we had connected with the play differently, we both walk away with the same impression of that last scene, and with similar versions of its intended message: We can spend a whole life waiting on the ice to catch life on our terms, but maybe what we think we’re fishing for is actually fishing for us – and the only real option, realized sooner or later, is to let ourselves be caught.

Jesus said, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of people.”

Reading the gospel of Christ alongside the gospel of my own life, here are some things I notice about Matthew’s fishing story. Jesus deliberately relocates from Judea to a place where people go fishing, to Capernaum, by the sea, a hub for fisher-folk. He goes out walking by the sea, perhaps a daily habit. He carefully observes two different pairs of fishing partners – the brothers Simon and Andrew, and the brothers James and John. The call of Jesus on the shore seems intensely magnetic, practically irresistible. It is phrased as an imperative rather than as a question or a request. But it is also completely free from compulsion. I hear a voice filled with the direct and unselfconscious authority of genuine love. These first apostles offer their immediate consent. Unlike this scene in Luke’s gospel, which is preceded by a teaching session and a miraculous catch of fish, the motive in the brothers’ consent to Jesus’s call is unexplained.

The call of these two pairs of fishermen is as mysterious and unexpected as that moment in the boat cabin when my father recorded my name instead of his, or that moment at the conclusion of the play when the ice fishermen become the fish. Mystery and paradox lurk in the deep, and erupt to the surface in creativity, in love, in worship. Fishing seems to tap into the collective unconscious of our species and, even deeper, into the soul. The endeavor of sustained waiting at the threshold between two worlds to bring home a hidden creature for supper has inspired all manner of myths and folk stories,sacred scriptures intoned in church and tall tales told in pick-up trucks and around kitchen tables.

But to these brothers in first century Palestine, all that mystery is probably subliminal, and the work of fishing is both commonplace and back-breaking. So Jesus frames his inexplicable call in terms of this familiar activity and meets them where they are. In a sense, Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John remain fishermen, as they have always been. The difference they will discover in their new vocation is that their labors and their love, their strength, their struggle and their waiting now take as their guiding motives the kingdom of heaven and the children of God, rather than the catching and selling of fish and the elaborate and unjust economy of Roman occupation. If they had any clue how utterly different this new path would be, it seems unlikely that they would have swallowed the bait.

Unlike fishing, which involves a certain measure of trickery for the sake of procuring food, there is no duplicity in Jesus. Jesus is the Fisherman who himself became a fish, and has swallowed the hook of death forever for our sake. Jesus is the Fisherman in whose fishing we come to participate by first consenting to be fish – to abandon ourselves to the haul of the net or the piercing hook of our own conversion of life, and to be powerlessly pulled into a new reality. Entrusting ourselves to that net, we might pray with newfound meaning the words of the Psalmist: “My soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.”[i] What, in the end, is the alternative? In the sea of this life, we are bound to be captured sooner or later. The waters are full of other nets, bristling with other hooks. If we don’t give our consent to be caught by Christ, something else will encircle our freedom and determine our choices. We need our attention and more, our affections to be captured by one who longs for our transformation and wholeness, and can meet us right on the seashore. The one who came in the flesh for our sake can do this. St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “I think this is the principle reason why the invisible God willed to be seen in the flesh and to converse with men as a man. He wanted to re-capture the affections of carnal men who were unable to love in any other way, by first drawing them to the salutary love of his own humanity, and then gradually to raise them to a spiritual love.”[ii] Like the arrow through the heart that we have come to associate with romantic love, a painful wound that opens a whole new reality, our consent to the God made flesh in Jesus can feel like the laceration of a fishnet or the sharp puncture of a hook in the soul. But this is a pain we can trust, because through it we are being given hearts of flesh in place of hearts of stone. We are fish on the sure path to becoming fishers of people.

On a hot July day last year, I signed the name “Keith Robert Nelson” in another logbook of sorts, and in the presence of a different crew of fishermen. I signed the Profession book which every brother signs when he takes vows in this community. Rather than “Keith Robert Nelson, Twelve-pound flounder,” I wrote for the first time “Keith Robert Nelson, SSJE.” Robert is my father’s name. When he signed my name in that fishing logbook, I fancifully imagined I had become a fisherman. But on the day I signed my name – and his – in our Profession book, I now realize I became a fish: caught hook, line, and sinker by the love of Jesus.

[i] Psalm 63.

[ii] St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Sermons on the Song of Songs I.

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  1. Marya n Davis on March 3, 2023 at 08:27

    This is absolutely and beautifully amazing Br. Keith!

  2. Tudy Hill on February 5, 2023 at 18:27

    Your storytelling enhances the context and theology so much; thank you, Br Keith!

  3. Gervaye on February 3, 2023 at 11:11

    Oh my goodness! I loved this sermon. thank you thank you thank you.

  4. Suzanne Haraburd on February 3, 2023 at 10:42

    Thank you, Br. Keith. Your words are water to my thirsty soul.

  5. Sandra Casey-Martus on February 3, 2023 at 09:05

    W-how! I am working on sermon for Sunday and read this. I grew up on Long Island Sound….not a cfisherperson, but know the waters. When I signed that book and said, “I will with God’s help” I, too, had no idea of what I had bitten off with such naiveté. Twenty-seven years later and many parish councils under my “slip” I have some sense of what I bit off. The lure is as strong today and the bite too but with O, so much more awareness…..but no less intent to bite. Sandy

  6. Bill Palmer on February 3, 2023 at 08:15

    Bro. Keith,
    You triggered a memory for me today. I was probably only a year or two older than you, fishing with my father off the Canarsie pier in Brooklyn, NY. The very first fish I ever caught was a sea robin. At first, I thought I had caught a bird as it flopped around on the pier. How could I have caught a bird, I wondered, while my hook and bait were submerged in the water? This particular sea robin suffered a worse fate then the ones you caught; it became bait for a fisherman nearby. After this, I never did have much interest in fishing. I much prefer to watch them in an aquarium!

  7. Maryan Davis on February 3, 2023 at 07:42

    Br. Keith, this was a lovely homily as all your homilies are.
    SSJE sermons have become the grounding source of my morning devotions.

  8. Julianne Lindemann on February 3, 2023 at 06:50

    Dear Br Keith,
    Thank you so much for this beautiful, rich description of our true position, our dilemma, God’s gift of choice, and God’s longing for us to make the choice leading to our spiritual transformation. Rejoice that you took God’s nourishing bait at such a young age. Others of us spent so much time floundering among other nets before coming to our senses.
    Bless you!

  9. Ken Meyers on February 8, 2020 at 05:57

    Thank you for giving yourself away in the story about you and your dad. There is power in the story.

  10. Lucia on February 7, 2020 at 18:30

    What wonderful insight you have. I always read your sermons ever since you wrote Reflection – Behold What You Are, Become What You Receive – those wonderful words of St Augustine. Thank you, Br. Keith.

  11. Jeanne DeFazio on February 7, 2020 at 11:01

    Brother Kieth,

    This is wonderful message. Can’t thank you enough. Love if Jesus pierced my heart as I read it.

    God bless

  12. Jim Doran on February 7, 2020 at 10:23

    Dear Brother Keith,
    Like you I have always struggled with that particular bit of Scripture, and others like it where I suspected I detected a whiff of imperialism, colonialism, maybe even racism — in the translation, or the exposition by the Church, rather than by the story itself, and the invitation implicit in it. Raised Roman Catholic, I can recall folding up (and filling up) little cardboard boxes for Lenten alms, to be given to the Missions “to redeem heathen souls,” as if people could be purchased with Green Stamps. Thank you for the insight of understanding that we are the fish as well as the fishermen, in emulation of our Savior, The Fisherman.

  13. Carney S Ivy on February 7, 2020 at 10:08

    Brother Keith,

    Thank you for your beautiful message and metaphor. Frequently I experience an inner anguish in having such difficulty living in the world driven by a confusing set of social norms and being true to living a faithful life. Your metaphor of fishing is quite appropriate. I find it interesting that I have these challenges living in society’s norms in addition to lacking talent as a fisherman. Adds a bit of humor to my situation. Thank you for giving me a nice piece of bait to latch on to today.

  14. Ann Cooper on February 7, 2020 at 09:09

    This is a beautiful message. I will use the metaphor as I plan the upcoming Lenten lunches at my church. Thank you!

  15. Helen on February 7, 2020 at 08:43

    Brother Keith,
    I appreciate your initial pause with this scripture, returning to the scripture, your own experience and your faith with this lively meditation on being caught by the One who wants our freedom and fullness of life.
    Thank you!

  16. SusanMarie on February 7, 2020 at 08:17

    Thank you for sharing with us the “gospel of Keith” which has clearly informed your understanding of this scripture passage as well as your life and vocation. This is a beautifully written sermon and very engaging. Tying together the Gospel and the “gospel” was brilliant and it is very informative and insightful for me as well. I think it’s important for each of us to realize, recognize, and be able to tell or write our own “gospels”; to understand how we have been formed by life and by God, which in the end, are the same thing.

  17. Fr John Harris-White on January 24, 2017 at 03:21

    Brother Keith,

    Thank you I’m reading this at the start of a new day, just after praying morning prayer, and facing a new day.
    Thank you for sharing something of yourself with us. Although I live in the United Kingdom, my prayer link with SSJE goes back many years, and now you are allowing me to get to know each one of you. To be able to pray for the community, and for the individual brothers. Thank you

  18. jon saltzberg on January 23, 2017 at 23:26

    This posting really rocks! What an idea, to let yourself be open to the love of Jesus; thanks for this posting!

  19. Ruth West on January 23, 2017 at 19:26

    Br. Keith, I enjoyed your sermon. Thanks!
    I reread the scripture in Matthew’s Gospel. The thing which stood out to me was that both pairs of brothers did not take time to think about it, run home to get a change of clothes, tell their mother goodbye, or linger to explain their calling to their father. They simply responded to Jesus’ “Come, follow me” immediately. What magnetism there must have been in Him and his invitation!! What an example it is to us today! I am so glad you, along with your brothers in that place, also responded to our Lord Jesus Christ’s call to come and follow Him. What an important decision it, no doubt, was for you! May He bless you richly as you fish for people in His name.

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