Sunday, February 04, 2007

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 5
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Fishing is about quantity and quality. Catch your angler at the end of the day and you will inevitably have two questions: how many and how big. Most anglers, of course, will ignore the first question (I guess anyone can catch a fish) and focus instead on the more interesting second question.

It is a bit of a cliché to talk about the “big one that got away,” code for the exaggeration that comes when you have ended your day in frustration. ‘No, the boat is empty. But you should have seen the one that got away.”

Out of sheer curiosity, I googled some of the fish that didn’t get away, namely Canadian fishing records, and will happily share what I found. Some records are rather under-whelming: The largest White Bass ever caught in Canada, on our very own Lake Ontario, was a mere 3 lbs. Come on, people, we can do better than that. To prove that some have, the national record for Brown Trout, again in the lake at the end of the street, is 34 lbs. Now that is impressive. That would make a lovely meal (except for women of child-bearing age and children under 15 according to the Ontario Government).

Of course, we are provincial losers when it comes to the arena of truly big fish. In British Columbia, where presumably everything grows bigger (and taller), the record for the largest Sturgeon is an incredible 800 lbs. Now, never one to fall for any old fish story I regoogled it (I coined the word “regoogled,” but you are free to use it) and discovered that indeed an 800 lb. White Sturgeon was caught in the Fraser River. And, hold on to your fishing hats, the White Sturgeon is reported to grow to 2000 lbs and nearly 25 feet long. So far, it is the one that got away.

My own experience with fishing is rather limited. When Isaac was just a baby I went on a fishing trip to Frontenac Park and caught a trout that must have been (insert hand gesture here) this big. Puffed with manly pride I set about to prepare my catch for eating and was so traumatized by the experience I’ve never fished again. I guess I was only meant to be a fisher of people.


The purpose of the boat trip was crowd control. They had spent a frustrating night on the water, and only welcomed Jesus into the boat in an effort to get some distance from the crowd that was pressing in on them. And it worked. He taught the crowd and eventually was done. But rather than end their time together, Jesus said to a very tired Peter “head to the deep water, and cast your nets.” But Peter, fatigue showing, said “if you insist, Master, but you need to know we fished all night to no avail.”

The catch, of course, was extraordinary. The men strained at the catch, nets near tearing, and both boats were soon full to overflowing. Some imagined they might sink. Amid this, fish-filled and wide-eyed amazement, Peter makes his confession: he is a sinful man. Jesus doesn’t respond, except to say, “fear not, for now on you will be catching people.

But I’m leaping ahead. Let’s go back a wee bit and listen once more as Jesus suggests they head out, and listen to Peter’s response: “we tried that once—and it didn’t work.” Sounds vaguely familiar: “we tried that once—and it didn’t work.” Every hear that before? Where? Hmmm. Back in Chicago, when I was doing all that book-learnin’ we would call that “recontextualization.” Take something Peter said on the shore of Lake Gennesaret and translate it to today by the shore of your own lake.

The curious part, to my mind, is how can a congregation with a history best measured in months rather than years have enough history that someone could say “we tried that once—and it didn’t work”? The truth is, they can’t. And without becoming annoying among your peers, I suggest every time someone tries to say “we tried that” you can remind them that unless it happened in the very short history of Birchcliff Bluffs, it didn’t happen at all.

At the risk of sounding petulant, we are entering one of the most critical moments in the life of this congregation. The novelty of amalgamation is wearing off, the polite goodwill that comes with working with strangers is gone, and now you are left with a congregation with lots to do and very little historical experience to draw on. And so the temptation comes. “I remember one time…stop! If it didn’t happen here (and it didn’t happen after 2003), it didn’t happen. It didn’t exist. It was like a dream.


What happened that day on the water, was the first lesson of “abundance school.” Jesus was the first citizen of the Kingdom of God, and as such, it fell to Jesus to take something that lived in the abstract and make it real for his followers. This is how God operates. Like leaven, the Kingdom does not come with power or a show of force, but quietly, and abundantly, like nets filling with fish or nets strained to breaking. It didn’t rain fish, there were no 800 lb. fish to overwhelm the boat, only the bountiful catch that would wake the crew to understand that this was no ordinary day and Jesus was no ordinary man.

The invitation, in various forms throughout the gospels, from “come and see” to “follow me,” each stress that something is going to be revealed, something hidden (the Kingdom) will be made plain. And sometimes the new reality is hidden in the words themselves. Our invitation, from Luke 5, seems simple enough: “Have no fear…from now on you will catch people.” But underneath, within the original Greek, the verb translated “catch” really means “to take alive.” This actually gave me a bit of a chuckle, thinking of the dusty outlaw who says “you’ll never take me alive.” Well, in fact we will. Because Jesus says our whole purpose is to catch people, meaning take them alive.

Now Fred Craddock, our commentator on this passage, goes a step further, and suggests that the word “catch” means “to take alive in the sense of rescuing from death.” Now the stakes are getting higher. Peter and his friends are no longer looking simply for new followers, they are engaged in a life and death struggle where following Jesus is the most important thing that can happen for anyone. This is no mere “catch and release,” but the struggle to reacquaint people with the living God, to bring them life, and ultimately, to save them from death.

Now, how often do you perceive church as a matter of life and death? Sure, church is important: we do good things in the community, we care for one another, we echo important statements that come from mother church, but how often do we imagine that church is a matter of life and death? Do we even take the interim step of reminding people that without a relationship with God through Jesus Christ your life will be diminished? Can we say that much? Dare we?

When you approach the table this morning, and you enjoy ‘communion’ with the living Christ and all his saints here gathered, I want you to imagine that it is a matter of life and death. I want you to imagine that a body broken and blood spilled was more than a long-ago-event in the founding of our religion but a very personal sacrifice by someone who only understood faith as a matter of life and death. I want you to recall the joy you find in others and the abundance that surrounds you and I want you to imagine that finding others to join you on this journey is a matter of life and death. And I wish for you courage: courage to follow the disciples’ way, courage to live the message of new life, and courage to share this message with others. Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home