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Gone Fishing by Rev. Richard Hasselbach, Ph.D

Back in 1997, Rosaria Champagne would have described herself as a Marxist, feminist, postmodernist, materialist. A tenured professor at Syracuse University where she taught English, Dr. Champagne rejected traditional religion and thought its adherents “vulgar, in the Marxist sense.” She had a particular disdain for Christianity, which she thought of as “stupid, pointless, and menacing.” Christians elicited both her wrath and pity. Clearly, Rosaria was not “looking for Jesus,” in fact, his name caused her to “recoil in anger.”

Dr. Champagne considered the bible a literarily interesting collection of literature with nothing important to tell her. She was repulsed by the “politics of hatred” emanating from believers who opposed abortion and the gay agenda. So when Promise Keepers came to Syracuse, she wrote a scathing article about them in the local paper.

After its publication she got some fan mail and some hate mail. One letter stuck out, though, it was neither angry nor hostile; instead it was kind, questioning, and challenging. It author, a local pastor, invited Dr. Champagne to join him and his wife at their home for dinner and discussion. She crumpled the letter up and tossed it in the trash. He represented everything she despised.

Somehow she couldn’t get that letter out of her mind, though. Late in the afternoon she fished the letter out of the garbage and left it on her desk, where it sat for a week. It couldn’t hurt to accept Smith’s invitation, she thought: it might even be amusing. When they met for dinner, though, something she didn’t expect happened: Rosaria and Ken Smith became friends. They met for dinner almost every week for more than two years, it became a ritual. No one was more surprised about this development than Dr. Rosaria Champagne!

When he first met Jesus on the shore of Gennesaret Peter was surprised too! Luke tells the story (Luke 5: 1-11): Simon and his partners had been out fishing all night and had caught nothing. Fishing was hard, exhausting work, and at the end of the night the crew was doubtless tired and hungry. His boat ashore, Simon was washing his nets and preparing to go home.

Then Jesus arrived pressed by a large crowd interested in seeing the new prophet who was casting out demons, healing the sick, and speaking with authority about the nearness and love of God. Jesus stepped into into Simon boat and asked him to pull out a little from shore. Simon was tired and discouraged, had there been dentists at the time, he would likely have preferred to go to one than to take his boat back out. Yet he quietly obeyed and sat in his boat as Jesus taught.

Jesus had a more unusual request. When he finished teaching, he told Simon: “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon’s common sense now kicked in: he was out all night and caught nothing; in the daytime, the fishing would be worse because with sunlight the fish could see and avoid the nets. “We’ve been out and caught nothing,” Simon tells the Master, “but if you say so, we’ll do it.”

This one simple act of obedience changed Simon’s life. To his amazement, when he let down his nets they were filled by a huge catch of fish: more than the nets could handle; more than Simon’s boat and that of his partners could safely hold. It was a miracle of abundance revealing God’s glory, there was no other way to explain it and Simon knew it. He was in the presence of The Holy. Falling to his knees he told Jesus: “depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” Indeed he was, but he need not be afraid.

After pulling the boats ashore, the fishermen left everything behind and followed Jesus.

What does that 2000-year-old story have to do with us?

It reminds us that we have to be ready to welcome the Lord at unexpected times and places, and in unusual circumstances. He will come when we’re tired, or hungry, or in a bad mood. The Lord appears in our lives when we’re out of sorts, or out of luck. He comes when we’re in no mood to do anything but finish up our business, go home, and go to bed. We have to be ready to do what he asks of us, no matter how we feel.

He will ask of us what we have little or no inclination or desire to do: go visit those elderly neighbors and maybe bring them dinner; when the phone rings, and it’s someone who wants to tell you their story, or pour out their hearts, listen. If you know someone who is discouraged or upset, pay them a visit or drop them a note. Help a stranger, be more generous to the poor.

Usually the Lord will ask small things, but eventually, he will challenge us to conform our lives to him. Following Jesus ultimately means leaving everything familiar: our habits, our cherished ideas and preconceptions, our assumptions, our lifestyle, and even our self-understanding. Like Simon Peter, our common sense may bristle, but everything hinges on our obedience.

In their weekly dinners, Rosaria and Pastor Smith talked about ideas, they challenged each other, Dr. Champagne began to read the bible - throughout the ensuing two years, she read it cover to cover more than six times. She was surprised by how much it began to speak to her in her innermost being. At a faculty party one of her friends said: “Rosaria, this Bible thing you’re into is changing you.” Rosaria responded: “What if it’s true! What if Jesus is real and risen. We’re all in trouble.”

What followed for Rosaria Champagne was a period of “comprehensive, complicated chaos, as the Word transformed her into a passionate believer. For the sake of the Gospel she “lost everything but the dog:” She lost her friends, her relationships, her lifestyle, her job. What she found was abundant peace: a new life in Christ.

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