Nothing but net.
We’re probably much more familiar with a basketball net than a fishing net, especially the kind they used back in Jesus’ day. Fishing nets play a big part in today’s gospel story. Can you imagine Simon and James and John there by Lake Gennesaret (which Luke calls the Sea of Galilee), glumly cleaning up after their unsuccessful night of fishing? Even though they hadn’t caught anything, there would have been a lot of debris in the nets: dead fish, mud, pebbles, and seaweed from dragging the net through the deep water, the nets had to be kept clean; otherwise, they’d start to stink and attract rats, which would chew big holes in them. So, avoiding this hard work was not an option. Fishing wasn’t a leisure sport; it was part of the fundamental economic system of 1st century Galilee.
If you can imagine this scene of dejection, consider the extraordinariness of what happens next. I don’t mean Jesus telling them to go back and try again. I mean the extraordinary moment in between Simon wearily answering, “We’ve been working hard all night long and have caught nothing” and “But if you say so, we’ll go.”
That moment is a space that most of us have occupied at one time or another – in the gap between weariness and hope, defeat and faith, resignation and obedience – in the doldrums of the same old same old. Even the most faithful, hardworking among us “can land up on shore some mornings with empty, stinking fishing nets tangled in our fingers, wondering what the heck went wrong.” (Debi Thomas in journeywithjesus.net)
The leap of faith Simon makes in that millisecond is the same one we make when we choose to try again, choose to go deep instead of staying in the shallows, choose to cast our empty nets into the water and trust that the presence of Christ with us in the boat is more precious than any guarantee of success. And what do we need for this leap of faith? Nothing but net.
But back to Lake Gennesaret, where Jesus tells the astonished disciples-to-be, “From now on you’ll be catching people.” That sentence is often read as the call to evangelism. But I want to pause here too. Because the moment in between “from now on you’ll be catching people” and “they left everything and followed Jesus” had to be another moment in time filled with swirling reactions.
As I said, fishing was part of the fundamental economic system of 1st century Galilee. However, it was controlled – and exploited – by the Roman Empire. Caesar owned every body of water, and all fishing was state regulated for the benefit of the urban elite. Fishermen couldn’t obtain licenses to fish without joining a syndicate, most of what they caught was exported — leaving local communities impoverished and hungry — and the Romans collected exorbitant taxes, levies, and tolls each time fish were sold. To catch even one fish outside of this exploitative system was considered illegal. This exploitation may have intensified during the reign of Herod, due to his increased commercialization of fishing and his own luxurious living. Laborers sought ways to resist exploitation by hiding goods, lying about the size of their families in order to pay fewer poll taxes, and other covert strategies.
But here in this ginormous catch was abundance beyond their wildest dreams. And somehow they knew that these fish, these miraculous life-sustaining, family-feeding fish were not subject to the laws of Herod or Caesar. It must have been tempting to think that this Jesus could transform their weary labors into a new, independent fishing industry.
It must have felt really good in that moment, sticking a finger into the eye of the empire. But Jesus calls them out from that daydream: “From now on you’ll be catching people.” And they got it. This Jesus was about something bigger than fishing.
In the bounty of the catch, Jesus showed Simon the extravagant nature of God. In God’s realm, there’s enough food for everyone – there are no empty nets, there’s no economic exploitation. The Good News is for everyone. Meaning that if what we profess as Christians isn’t good news for everyone — it’s not good news.
Which brings us back to catching people. I have to admit to some discomfort with that phrase. Even though I’m certain Jesus never meant that we’re supposed to go around nabbing people in order to save their sinful souls. Indeed, metaphors like this one have succeeded in forceful coercion and conversion; justification for forcing belief systems on the unsuspecting and insisting that those without a relationship with Jesus are most definitely not in the net of Jesus’ community. Catching implies a one-way action, and often a coercive one at that.
Even using the language of other translations, like “From now on you’ll be fishing for people” is problematic to my ears. In the dictionary, the meaning of ‘fish for’ is to try to get something in an indirect, and sometimes a deceptive, way. Like fishing for compliments or fishing for answers.
This reminded me of a conversation I had with a young man who had become active in my church’s outreach to the ‘spiritual but not religious’ in our area. I think that in having that conversation, he began to trust me. He asked me why the church was doing this and I explained the idea behind it – and that it was not a ‘bait and switch’ situation where we would, at some point, reel unsuspecting people into church membership. His obvious relief at my answer told me that ‘catching’ him had been a concern and we would need to be clear about our mission, motives, and expectations.
The other incident that comes to mind happened just last week. I was the presenter for the Diversity Circle run by my friend Sridevi Ramanathan. When Sridevi introduced me to the group, she told the story of how we’d met. Both of us are included in the book Birthing God: Women’s Experience of the Divine. When my congregation wanted to invite a practitioner of Hinduism to be part of our Pluralism Summer program, I asked the author if it would be OK to give me Sridevi’s contact information. Which she did and Sridevi was a presenter at least twice in the four years we did the program.
What I didn’t know until last week, though, is the hesitancy she felt before actually showing up that first time. As she said, she didn’t know what to expect. Would it be a set-up, a come-on that would end up as an attempt at conversion, something that she had experienced in the past. Of course, it wasn’t, but I can understand the fear. So I am wary of fishing, catching, reeling in anybody.
But that doesn’t mean I disregard what Jesus is really saying. This story is about how we become disciples – by having a profound experience of Divine abundance and possibility. And it’s about hearing then the words that define the church’s mission: go and tell others.
I can already see some of you backing up a little and thinking, “Uh, oh. Here comes the sign-up sheet for knocking on doors in my neighborhood.” But come on back, I’m not going there.
A lot of the ways we learned to fish in the past just don’t work any longer. The story of Simon and the other fishermen working all night and catching nothing is more like the experience of the church today than letting down the nets and catching so many fish that our nets – or our buildings – can’t hold them all.
Now, I am aware that I’m already on page 3 of this sermon –which is supposed to be bringing you good news – and all I’ve probably done so far is make you realize how much we’re still in that space between “We’ve been working hard all night long and have caught nothing” and “But if you say so, we’ll go.”
So it’s time to get moving. Bruce Epperly, a United Church of Christ pastor and blogger wrote a surprisingly positive post about this week’s readings. Although it shouldn’t be surprising; it is the season of Epiphany after all. He wrote:
Get ready for a wild ride! Strap on your seat belts and put on your helmet! We’re entering the amazing realm of the Twilight Zone, Narnia, and Hogwarts, an enchanted world, wild and wonderful, with mysticism and miracle, signs and wonders, where God shows up and turns our world upside down. Where God asks, and then empowers us to be more than we can imagine!
Wow! Is he reading the same story? But knowing Epperly’s writing, I’d expect him to find a deeper spirituality here and not simply a how-to manual of church growth. Listen to what he says about Isaiah:
Isaiah’s mystical experience in the Temple awakens us to the possibility that there may be “thin places” everywhere, as the Celtic Christians say. Places where the veil between heaven and earth is pierced and we see life as it is – Infinite. Where God’s grandeur abounds, and angels guide our paths. Out of nowhere, God shows up – a theophany that rocks Isaiah’s world. The doors of his perception open and he experiences the majesty and wildness of the world – the mysterious, fascinating, and tremendous. Isaiah receives God’s transforming and healing touch and a blessing beyond belief. He is anointed by fire, and then given a task.
Then he asks: When we hear these words, “Whom shall I send” what will our response be? Surely God calls us each moment of the day with nudges, intuitions, insights, and encounters.
Then he goes on to I Corinthians, saying:
Like Isaiah, Paul’s mystical encounter with the Living Christ turned his world upside down and gave him the vocation of ministry with the Gentiles. This passage gives us confidence in God’s power in the world and invites us to consider our own calling. No one is bereft of God’s grace or power to embody God’s vision and be God’s representatives in the word.
And then to the gospel:
Not expecting anything, and disappointed over an unsuccessful night’s fishing, Peter is welcomed into a world of wonders. Jesus calls him to go further and despite his doubts, Peter follows Jesus’ advice and receives “more than he can ask or imagine.”
Peter’s experience mirrors the experience of many . . . congregations. We have worked hard and sought to be faithful and yet our congregation shrinks in size, budgets are tight, and the demographics are against us. We have tried all the latest church growth programs and the downward trend continues. And yet, God offers one more thing – launch out into the deep, go toward the horizon, awaken to new possibilities. Don’t give up, be faithful and join your imagination with faithful action that goes beyond church survival to healing the world.
Nothing but net.
Now we see that – as we’ve known all along – God is in charge here. And there are epiphanies still to come. The possibility is always there for you, for me to have God show up and rock our world – and our church. And while an epiphany can happen any time and quite unexpectedly, it certainly does not hurt for us to open up space in our souls, to develop our spiritual muscles, to be ready for when a ‘thin place’ opens up and gives us a glimpse into Infinity.
And this isn’t just about a personal encounter with Divine Presence. This is also about re-creating, re-forming the Church with Holy Imagination and Creativity. It’s about launching out into the deep, awakening to new possibilities. No store-bought, cookie-cutter program will do it. It will take creativity and imagination, along with faithful action that will lead us out of despair or survival mode to renewing the Church and healing the world.
I want to tell you a little bit about what your church council has been up to. You might remember at our annual meeting last year, we decided to restructure the council – at least for a year – and try some new ways of leadership. We had a half-day retreat back in December where I introduced the idea of discernment as a way of leading the church. Discernment is different from a decision-making process in that it begins with different assumptions. In decision-making (and this is not a bad process and is appropriate in many situations) we believe that problems are solvable if approached carefully and logically. We have the capacity to understand and solve our problems by gathering and interpreting data, brainstorming options, establishing decision criteria, and selecting an optimal solution.
In discernment, we believe God is not neutral about our mission or our choices and is self-disclosing. We recognize that the Holy Spirit is our indwelling and ongoing guide. Openness of spirit and attitude is required and God’s will is best discerned within community. In this process, we listen for the promptings of the Spirit and explore through imagination, prayer, silence, and scripture.
A good portion of the council’s time together is now being spent in this kind of process, and at some point you will be invited to participate in some way, too. Remember back in Advent, I kept asking the question: what is waiting to be born in our congregation? The question is much the same now: what is God calling Good Shepherd Lutheran Church to be – today?
Discouragement may be tempting, but in light of the gospel, it isn’t a realistic option. Remember how impossible Peter thought another fishing expedition would be that night: “We’ve been working hard all night long and have caught nothing.”
Yet he knew enough about Jesus to say, “OK, if you say so, I’ll lower the nets.” Maybe he didn’t have any expectations; maybe he couldn’t even imagine what might happen. But he did it; he lowered the nets. Like Isaiah, he said, in effect, “Here am I. Send me!”
Here we are, in our boat – the church. We might think we don’t have much to offer, not enough resources, not enough people, not enough time. But as we get our fishing nets cleaned and ready to go, we would do well to remember this prayer from ELW Evening Prayer:
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Savior.
Nothing but net.
One day, Jesus was standing by Lake Gennesaret, and the crowd pressed in on him to hear the word of God. He saw two boats moored by the side of the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets. Jesus stepped into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a short distance from the shore; then, remaining seated, he continued to teach the crowds from the boat. When Jesus had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Pull out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”
Simon answered, “Rabbi, we’ve been working hard all night long and have caught nothing. But if you say so, I will lower the nets.” When they had done this, they caught such a great number of fish that their nets were beginning to break. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and together they filled the two boats until they both nearly sank. After Simon saw what happened, he was filled with awe and fell down before Jesus, saying, “Leave me, Rabbi, for I am a sinner!” For Simon and his shipmates were astonished at the size of the catch they had made, as were James and John, Zebedee’s sons, who were Simon’s partners.
Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” And when they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed Jesus.