A pious man explained to his followers, “It is evil to take lives and noble to save them. Each day I pledge to save a hundred lives. I drop my net in the lake and scoop out a hundred fishes. I place the fishes on the bank where they flop and twirl. ‘Don’t be scared,’ I tell those fishes. ‘I am saving you from drowning.’ Soon enough, the fishes grow calm and lie still. Yet, sad to say, I am always too late. The fishes expire. And because it is evil to waste anything, I take those dead fishes to market and sell them for a good price. With the money I receive, I buy more nets so I can save more fishes.”
This story stuck with me, and not in a good way.
A friend passed on a copy of Amy Tan’s “Saving Fish From Drowning.”I started reading it the week after the lectionary reading where Jesus calls the first disciples to be “fishers of men.” I didn’t make it very far. There were two quotes on the first page of the first chapter. I read the story above and immediately thought of the call to be “fishers of men.” When I held the two stories together, it perturbed me.
I have read a number of fine sermons – and preached some not-so-bad ones – about this passage and about Christ’s calling of the first disciples. But never has it ever crossed my mind that when we are talking about fishing, the fish are gathered… to die.
I had to read this “anonymous” story a number of times before it even made sense. At first, I wondered if it was a slick man telling the story to his followers to get away with making a living off fishing in light of their belief that taking lives is evil…. It wouldn’t be the first or last time that has happened. But the author coupled it with this quote from the French philosopher, Albert Camus, “the evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”
Now, I don’t agree with everything Camus has written, but that quote rang true to me. And when it clicked, when I realized that this “pious man” truly thought he was doing good to those fishes, I just sat there… a little confused, a little horrified, a little more confused, and a little… convicted? I began to search my memory for instances when I may have unwillingly done harm in my ministry. Faces popped up, and then questions:
Should I have…? Why wasn’t I more…? I could have just…?
We Christians can be some of the most self-righteous sons (and daughters) of guns. And the more people tell us what good people we are, the greater our temptation to believe it. We think we’ve got God figured out and that we know what God wants our politicians to do, our churches to do, our children’s schools to do, the neighbor across the street, your cousin and that new young mom that just joined the church.
But, we all stand in need of a little humility. Just like we all stand in need of a lot of grace. I’m always a little uncomfortable with songs and prayers asking that we be “made worthy” because we will never be worthy. We will never be worthy of the invitation to be a part of Christ’s redemptive work in the world, but that’s OK because we don’t have to be. Christ invites us anyways. The Holy Spirit works through us, in spite of us.
And maybe, just like God uses you and me, God may also use those whom we would deem unlikeable, unlikely and unworthy to work with and to work through. As disciples, we don’t always have to have the right answer, but we may want to work on having the right attitude as the oceans we are called to fish in become bigger and more diverse.
I didn’t get out the hair shirt or the sackcloth and ashes, but I did pray. I prayed for forgiveness for things I knew about, things I could remember and things I couldn’t. I prayed for those people whom I have harmed – that in God’s infinite mercy and providence, God saw to it that any hurt I have caused was healed and mended. I prayed for my ministry, for the wisdom, the humility, the courage and the love required to truly be righteous. And I thanked God for continuing to wash me with his grace, to wipe me down with his love, and for continuing to use me as God’s instrument.
Gracious God, have mercy on us sinners. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)
Lolimarta Ros Reiter, or as most of her friends know her, Loli, ministers alongside the fine folks at The Presbyterian Church of Seffner outside of Tampa, FL. She was born in Puerto Rico but has lived on the mainland since she was 9. Her daughter Isabel (9 years old) wants you to know her mom is funny; Olivia (6 years old) wants you to know she likes to talk about God…a lot; and John, her husband, wants you to know that she is the best wife, ever…Such a smart man! She looks forward to being in cyber-community with you.