"Plenty of Fish in the Sea"
A Sermon Preached at the Closing Worship for
The Convocation on the Rural Church 2009:
“The Power of Partnership”
August 10th-12th, Myrtle Beach, SC
Luke 5: 1-11
“Jesus said to Simon, ‘Push out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so (according to your word), I will let down the nets. When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats . . .”
The crowd is pressing in on Jesus, swarming forward in a mass the way a flock of ducks will come running up when you drop bread on the ground, the way a school of fish will crowd the top of the tank or pond when you toss in the feed, the way rural United Methodist pastors crowd around poor Joe Mann and Robb Webb when there’s a grant deadline coming up.
Nearby are two empty boats, by which Simon and his fishing partners are scrubbing their nets. The fishermen are downcast and bleary-eyed. They’ve just come in from a long hard sleepless night shift where they must have cast those nets hundreds of times, but came up only with air. Nothing but nets. Looked like the Endowment’s coffers a few months back. No swarming school of fish had crowded around them. There wasn’t just one that got away; they all got away.
Think of Simon as a younger version of the fisherman Santiago in the first sentences of Earnest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”. Hemingway says of Santiago, “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” The scars on his hands were “as old as erosions in a fishless desert.” “Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.”
Jesus sees Simon and the two boats as he’s teaching. Seeking refuge from the needs of the crowd, he hops into Simon’s boat. Asks Simon to push him out a little ways from shore. Improvises a little floating pulpit, making a natural amphitheater out of the water and rocks behind, getting enough distance between he and the pressing congregation that he can see them in perspective: you know, sometimes you have to step back, get a little distance, maybe go to the beach to see things in greater perspective: a few of you told me you didn’t know how tired you were until you got here. Things look different with a little different perspective. Jesus steps back in order to better share with them the word of God.
Of course, that’s an image as pregnant as my wife is right now. We know that in Scripture often a boat is an image of the church. Jesus just got in the boat, and now watch what happens. Jesus turns from the crowd to face Simon, with another request. “Push out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
With Jesus in the boat, there will be no more swimming at the shallow end of the pool. No more circling within a comfortable distance of a familiar shore-line. No more encounters that just skim the surface.
No more angling in mud puddles.
No, when Jesus hops into the boat, he invites his disciples to push out into “the deep water.”
Deep water is out there. Deep water is a place where, literally, you are out of your depth. You can’t see the bottom. The well is deep and you have no bucket. On deep water, it’s hard to tell exactly where you are, because you’ve left familiar landmarks behind. Deep water is a place of risk. Deep water is a place where you are no longer fully in control, where you feel uncomfortable, where the boat suddenly feels so small, and the sea just suddenly feels so large.
But deep water is also the place where the fish are.
Jesus invites Simon and the others to push out into deep water and there, to cast their nets.
Simon’s first response is my response, our response. “But Master, we have worked all night long and caught nothing.”
Doesn’t ministry feel that way sometimes? You work so hard and you try to do some things, you cast the net, cast the net, cast the net, and it just still comes up empty, seemingly time after time, or maybe it just comes up with a haul the equivalent of an empty beer can, a band aid, and a plastic bag. And we just get tired. And maybe we go to Annual Conference, or another Conference, or a continuing education event, and we hear someone try to inspire us about what the church can be, about all that the church can do, and we appreciate that but some part of inside is saying, “But Master, we have worked all night long and caught nothing. We’ve done what you said, we’ve tried that already, I’ve done that as best I can, and it hasn’t worked like I hoped it would. I tried it and couldn’t catch any fish, or no fish showed up.”
And maybe that mindset just becomes part of the church culture around us, where we come to feel together almost the inevitability of empty nets and declining congregations, that that’s just the way it’s going to be. And this happens to the point where it combines with our own experiences of failure to lead us to reject God’s word of promise.
Will Willimon relates how, in a lecture on "The Renewal of the Inner City Church," Sojourners editor and author Jim Wallis told a group of pastors true stories of declining inner-city churches that had, by the grace of God, rediscovered their mission and begun to thrive. Willimon says that he was inspired, but in the conversation afterwards one pastor after another criticized Wallis’s speech. They accused him of looking at the church through rose-colored glasses. One even implied that he had lied.That evening the Bishop told Wallis that he was surprised by the group’s reaction. "I wasn’t," Wallis said. "That’s the reaction I always get from so many mainline pastors. They’ve been made cynical by the struggle, and now they are amazed when God wins. Scared to death that what we believe about Easter just might, after all, be true."
Jesus knows the kind of night that Simon and the other fishermen have had. He knows the agony of empty nets. Even he wonders at one point, “When the Son of Man comes, will he even find any faith on earth?” But he doesn’t just turn to Simon and put his arm around his shoulder and say, “Well, that’s just the world we live in, it’s a tough lake out there, you gave it your best shot, and that’s all you can do, now you just need to hold on and survive until better days ahead, just take a break for awhile, get a good night’s sleep.”
No, instead Jesus says, “Push out into deep water and let down your nets. Again. Now.”
As if that wasn’t enough of a slap in the face, keep in mind that the reason Simon and the others had fished all night was because night-time was when the fishing was best. At night the water was cool, the fish were a little sluggish, and the darkness hid the nets. Fishin' in the dark. You usually weren’t going to have as much luck in the day-time. But Jesus says, “I know you’re tired. I know it didn’t work before. I know it doesn’t seem like the right or opportune time. But let down your nets. Again. This morning. Now.”
One of the greatest tragedies in life happens when someone gives up just one effort too soon. In every great struggle there comes a moment where just a little extra, one more push will get you over the hump. And it’s tragic to stop climbing when the mountaintop is just over the ridge, to let up just as your about to reach the tape so that another passes you. Simon faces a temptation of that tragedy of giving up just one time too soon. It would be tempting to give up and to say, “Rabbi, how about you keep to the teaching and I’ll look after the fishing, OK?” Or to say, “Jesus, we’ve done that and tried it, if you come up with a better plan, let me know, but I’m going to sleep.” Or maybe to get out of the fishing business altogether.
But there is something else within Simon: something in him like that something in the eyes of the fisherman Santiago, that remains cheerful and undefeated. And that will lead him to go out again. And again. And again. Maybe it was because he had seen Jesus’ power before, had seen Jesus heal his mother-in-law. Maybe it was because he knew that this time he would be consciously taking Jesus with in the boat, that he wasn’t going to do it on his own this time, that this fishing expedition was going to be a “co-mmission”. Maybe he had just learned to trust what Jesus said.
And so Simon says, “Master, we have worked all night long, but we have caught nothing. We have tried all that and come up empty. Yet if you say so, yet if you say so, the translation is “yet upon your word,” yet if you say so, I will push out into the deep water.
It is that little place within us that says, “Yet if you say so, Jesus,” that saves us. That little voice that whispers beneath our loud complaints, “Yet if you say so Lord, I will do it for you, with you. I may not see it, to me the world just looks like a place of horrors, it doesn’t look to me like your justice is coming, I barely believe any of it enough today to roll out of bed, much less wade out into deep unknown uncharted waters, Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets. Again. This morning. Now.”
That response is called, “faith.”
This time, working together with Jesus, with Jesus as his fish radar, with Jesus as his fishing buddy, when Simon lets down the nets he hits the mother lode. All of the sudden Simon’s got way more than he bargained for. There are so many fish you could walk across them on the water. The nets are straining beneath the weight like a child’s fishing pole that just caught a great big catfish.
Many of you heard this story at Annual Conference, but I will never get tired of telling this story about what happened up in North Wilkesboro last year, so you’re going to have to hear it again. Donald Hayes was fishing in a pond with his little granddaughter Alyssa one afternoon when she had to run in and potty, so Donald was left holding her 2 and a ½ foot hot pink Barbie Doll rod and reel. The next thing he knew, he felt a tug, and on the other end was that monster. More than he bargained for. “Shucks,” he thought, “I’ll never hold this.” But something in his eye remained cheerful and undefeated. He struggled with it for 25 minutes: his granddaughter kept yelling at him, “Papa, you’re going to break my fishing rod!” But it would be a shame to give up just one more pull from reeling in a dream, so he kept fighting it, and finally hauled the thing in, Santiago and the Marlin: Donald and a state record 21-pound channel catfish. I love the fact the previous record catfish was caught by a man using deep sea gear, including a 100-pound test line, cut eel as bait, a Shimano 6500 Bait Runner reel, and a Tsunami rod. My guess is it wasn’t hot pink. Afterward, the previous record-holder was quoted as saying, “If you use smaller gear, you’ll never get a big catfish to the boat.”
Nobody told Donald that.
Simon, like Donald, gets more than he bargained for: so much more that he learns another lesson. So much more that he sees there is too much work for his boat alone. There are too many fish to fit into his boat alone. He does not have enough resources, enough capacity, to reel in the catch on his own. Simon needs partners. Thankfully, from the beginning, Simon and his boat had not gone out alone: they had gone out in the company of another boat. We are not alone, we are surrounded by other boats, other pastors, laity, churches, foundations, organizations, conference resources, that are there to help us. Our boat does not have to sink, by itself, under the weight, if we will just seek partners, and stop the lone ranger silo mentality of doing it alone. I hope we’re all thinking, after these days we’ve had: who is with me, who can I ask partner with me, who might I join forces with to more greatly advance the kingdom?
Luke says Simon did this: “So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them.”
Probably not many of you are Carolina basketball fans, but back in the days when Dean Smith was coach (I think that was several national championships ago), one thing that he pioneered was the “raised fist” sign. If a Carolina player became too tired or fatigued on the court, he would raise his fist, and that was a signal for someone else to come in and pick up for them. And Smith also drilled his players in another sign, that they were to point any teammate who had just thrown them a great pass.
I wish sometimes we could do this in the church, especially around other clergy. Give one another the point whenever we’ve seen someone do something that has inspired us. And maybe, sometimes in some of the things we face, that we would signal to our partners: raise the fist, say, “Hey I need help with this. I’m tired.” Or, “Look, this fish that’s coming in is too big for my boat, come over here and help me.”
That’s what Simon does: he signals to the other boat: and then, with the multiplier effect of both their nets together, the two boats haul in so many fish that it nearly swamps both of them. This is the definition of that term the business world uses called “synergy”, of what happens when multiple parties work together and then discover that in some mysterious win-win equation they receive a result greater than the sum of their parts, that two plus two just equaled five. I lamented one time to a colleague that we didn’t have a Christian word for that phenomenon “synergy,” for how the Spirit multiplies our coming together. He told me, “But Jeremy, “synergy” is a Christian word: synergy comes from the Greek word “synergo”, which is the word Paul uses all the time in talking about his co-workers or fellow laborers, Silas and Timothy and Titus and Urbanus and Epaphrus. The world borrowed that term from us.”
The synergy of those two boats working together results in so many fish that BOTH boats are almost swamped. And do you notice this, there are plenty of fish in the sea for both boats. This is not a competition here: there is plenty of work to go around, there are plenty of fish in the sea.
The great catch of fish that Simon reels in makes him feel unworthy of this calling. He doesn’t deserve this. None of us do. And yet Jesus, in the boat with him, tells Simon, We all do. “Do not be afraid; you are going to do something greater: you are going to catch people.”
It’s not an invitation, it’s a pronouncement: you are going to catch people
The exact translation of the term is “catch people alive”, or net people.
Now, that doesn’t mean we trap people, or coerce people or trick people into the kingdom: we don’t catch people on a dangerous hook and then put them on ice.
No, if this is catching, it’s catch and release: to be caught by God is the truest freedom.
The mystic Meister Eckhart wrote once: “God lies in wait for us with nothing so much as love, and that love is like a fisherman’s hook . . . He or she who is caught by (love) is held by the strongest of bonds, and yet the stress is pleasant; he who takes this sweet burden upon himself gets further, and comes nearer to what he aims at, than he would by means of any harsh ordinance ever devised by man or woman. . . When one has found this way, he or looks for no other. To hang on this hook is to be so completely captured that feet and hands, and mouth and eyes, the heart, and all a man is and has, become God’s own.
This is catch, but it’s catch and release: be caught and be released from all that keeps you from being who you were made to be. It’s a wonderful thing to be caught by God. I read somewhere that another way to read Jesus’ pronouncement that we will catch people is that we will “captivate people.” It is to be “captivated,” in the best sense of that word, in the way that a beautiful moment is captivating. You don’t want to leave. That people will be captivated by our lives of love, and swallow it hook, line, and sinker, because that love is the deepest need of the human heart. That we would captivate people.
Half of the rural, the really rural communities I know of have a little store in them, and nearly all of them have a little sign somewhere that reads, “Live Bait.”
When it comes to the kingdom of God and our lives of love, we are live bait.
Simon is going to realize this. When he and his partners come ashore, they leave the boats behind. They’re after bigger fish now, a more meaningful life. They’re on a co-mission.
And in that new mission all of the lessons they learned are going to be repeated: that when the nets are empty, “yet, if you say so,” you go out again.
That this is too big a job to handle alone.
That there are plenty of fish in the sea.
That they have a new partner now, in Jesus.
And that they are about to discover the power of partnership.
Thanks be to God. Amen.