Why I Stopped Fishing in a Parking Lot
By Pastor Steven Molin
Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Every parent has a story, or stories, about their children when they were young, and my dad had a story about me. He would tell it when I was in grade school, and I sort of liked the attention. When he told the story during my junior high years, it embarrassed me. By the time I got to high school and he started the story, I just left the room. But when I became an adult, when I became a parent myself, the story became funny again. Still embarrassing, but funny.
I was about five years old, and my dad, who was a construction worker, had a job in Park Rapids, Minnesota one summer, and he brought me along. The deal was, he would work all day, while I sat in the truck, or threw dirt clods at the construction site, but we would go fishing every night. That was the highlight for me; fishing with my dad for five straight nights.
Well apparently I couldn’t wait, because the first afternoon, my dad looked down from the roof of the building he was working on, and I was sitting on a bucket, fishing in a puddle in the parking lot. I’m sure it was great entertainment for all the workers on that site, and of course, over the years the story got better each time my dad told it. But what I recall from my dad telling that story is that he got me to stop fishing in that puddle by explaining that there were no fish there. He didn’t criticize me for fishing in a parking lot. He didn’t humiliate me for casting my line into muddy water that was probably only five inches deep. He told me that there were no fish there, and that later that day, we would go to a place where there were fish. And that made total sense to a five year old boy; to only cast our lines in places where we knew there were fish. I want you to set that story aside for a few minutes, while I remind you of the story from today’s gospel lesson. Don’t discard the story of the five year old boy; just set it aside for a few moment.
Now, it must have been just after dawn on the shores of the Sea of Galilee that Jesus began to teach the crowds that had assembled. Early in the morning, miles away from the city, the people must have been searching for something that was missing in their lives; searching for acceptance, perhaps, or love, or for a purpose for their lives. Whatever the people were looking for, they must have found it in Jesus’ words, so they followed him wherever he went, and listened to his teaching.
People are very much the same today, you know. All week long, we are fed a steady diet of political rhetoric, grim war news and financial scandal. Surely there must be a place where we can go to have our spirits fed and our hopes renewed with Jesus’ words. Seven days without encouragement can make one weak — W-E-A-K! This is one reason why people come to church.
So Jesus was there on the shore, speaking to hurting folks just like us. And because the crowd was so large, and the people were pressing in on him, he jumped into Simon Peter’s boat. How bold of Jesus! Peter knew who Jesus was, but they were not yet friends, and you don’t just jump into a guys fishing boat. Not then, not now. But Jesus needed Peter’s boat, so he simply got in and continued to preach.
When the sermon ended and the crowd began to dissipate, Jesus said to Peter “Push out into deeper water and let’s fish!” Deeper water. Jesus called Peter into the deeper water. Have you ever been called into deeper water? You get a promotion at work, but the job is a lot more difficult, and you’re not certain you can cut it. That’s deeper water. Or you are playing sports at a higher level than ever before, and all the other athletes seem better than you. That’s deeper water. You’re involved in a relationship and it’s getting serious; maybe headed toward marriage, and it scares you. That’s deeper water. You see, in this life, every time we make a change, take a step, move in a new direction, that’s deeper water. It’s always risky. It’s never a sure thing. And this is when the excuses begin to fly.
Master, I’ve been up all night and I haven’t caught a thing.
Master, the deeper water is colder.
Master, the deeper water has bigger waves.
The deeper water is far from the security of shore.
BUT THAT’S WHERE THE FISH ARE!
When Jesus suggested deeper water, Peter’s mind was full of excuses as to why he could not or should not go. But Jesus is a persuasive friend, is he not? He led Peter to the place where the fish were plentiful, and there, in the deep water, they caught a boat load.
It was then that Peter recognized that he was in the presence of someone special. This was no ordinary fisherman. This was God in the flesh. Peter, who was not a particularly religious man, felt embarrassed. “Get away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” And in between the lines, Jesus said to Peter “You’re right! You are a sinful man. But you are just the sort of person I want on my side.” The story concludes with a most wonderful promise from Jesus to Peter: “Follow me and I will teach you to fish for people.” And that promise has been spoken to believers of every generation since Peter: “Go out to the deeper water…and I will show you how to fish for people.”
Have you ever wondered how people find their way to church? Have you ever wondered how people first come? Several years ago, The National Council of Churches conducted a study to answer that question. The results surprised me.
2% of people come to church for the first time because they have a specific need. Someone has died, or they have plans to get married, or perhaps they are interested in having their children baptized. I was once told that Lutherans gravitate back to church at three pivotal times in their lives: when someone is matched, hatched or dispatched. Maybe that’s how you found your way to Our Savior’s, and you liked it here so you stayed.
3% come to a church because they just walked in. Maybe the new building was inviting, or the sign was funny, or they got lost and needed directions. Whatever.
A whopping 6% come and stay because of the sermon. Just 6%. I’m sure that number is MUCH higher here, but in spite of all the attention and advertising we preachers give to our sermons, only a small fraction are drawn to the church because of us.
5% come because of Sunday School. 1% come because of door-to-door evangelism. One half of one per cent are the result of crusade evangelism; Billy Graham, or Franklin Graham, or anybody else.
But overwhelmingly, the most common reason for people coming to church is because someone invited them. 79% begin attending a local congregation because someone whom they know and trust has said “Why don’t you come to church with me this Sunday? I go to this church and I know you’re going to love it.” And they come. Let me ask, why did you first come? Who invited you? Who was the first one to mention to you that there is a God who loves you very much? Your answer will likely affirm that you were invited or you were dragged to church by someone who loves you much.
Now here is an observation that I have made, and it relates to the story of a five year old boy fishing in a parking lot puddle. I have observed that the more active we become in our churches, and the more serious we become in our faith, the fewer unchurched friends we have. We sing in the choir, we fellowship in a small group, we serve on the Property Committee, and pretty soon, all of our friends are church friends. It’s comfortable in the shallow water. It’s predictable there. But that’s not where the fish are!
Now, please; I’m not suggesting that you start spending your Sunday mornings at Meister’s Bar! What I am suggesting is that we open up our eyes to the deeper water that surrounds us. Who are the neighbors whose drapes are closed when you come to church, and they’re still closed when you come home from church. Those are the fish. Who is the workmate that struggles to make sense of the crazy things that have happened in her life? There is the fish. Who is the teammate who is in conflict with a mom or a dad and has little encouragement or support? That’s the fish. Who is the elderly person you see at the same restaurant every week, and he brightens when you say “Hi” and walk by — but you walk by? That’s the fish.
I know that these are stereotypes, but you know some of the lost people in your circle of influence. But you feel that to share your faith with them or to invite them to church is water way too deep for you. I’ve got a secret; it’s too deep for me, too, and it scares me. Isn’t that odd? 53 years old and a minister, and yet it is intimidating for me to share my faith with another person. I guess deep water is deep water, no matter who is rowing the boat.
But how silly is it to fish where the fish aren’t? How fruitless is it to spend our faith on those who are already in the Kingdom. How narrow is it to always be preaching to the choir? And now we are the little boy, sitting on a bucket, fishing in a parking lot. How silly.
This is a sermon without a conclusion. No tidy way to wrap this one up. No words of wisdom to send you on your way…except for this: You will write the conclusion, as Peter wrote the conclusion, by rowing into the deeper water and risking. With whom will you dare share your faith in the coming days? And how do you know they would not come to church if someone invited them? You did. May God give us courage to fish where the fish are. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Copyright 2004 Steven Molin. Used by permission.