The kind of fishers God calls us to become, 5 Epiphany (C) – 2010

February 7, 2010

Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

Although there have been many technological developments, fishing hasn’t really changed much in the last 2,000 years. In spite of all our diesel-powered boats, radar, detailed and accurate charts of the sea, satellite-assisted navigation, and the like, fishing is still pretty much the same kind of activity it was in Jesus’ time.

Fishing is about setting out on the water, about leaving the safety of the dry land and trusting the laws of physics and the goodness of God. It’s about hoping and praying for a good, bountiful catch – but not really being able to do a whole lot to make that happen.

Compare this to farming. Farmers assure a good harvest mostly through hard work – careful preparation of the soil, proper nutrition and moisture, freedom from pests. The weather plays a part, of course, but it is only one of a very complex set of factors. And make no mistake, fishing is hard work, too: maintaining a boat, studying charts, baiting hooks, and repairing nets, just for a start. But in fishing, whether there are fish or whether there are none, whether the wind blows enough to move your sailboat or so much that your boat is capsized – these kinds of things are totally out of the control of the men and women fishing, aren’t they? And most of the factors in fishing are like that.

In fact, in spite of all the technology, all the training, all the experience – fishing is still pretty much putting all your hope in God.

The message is clear: just put your trust in God, and God will provide everything. We don’t have to cultivate the soil, or sew seed, or dig in fertilizer, or irrigate the crops, or spray for insects – we just have to trust.

So, today’s gospel passage is a simple story with a clear message, right? It’s a metaphor that by extension is as much about us as it is about James and John and Simon Peter and Andrew. Just trust in God, who provides everything we need, and we will find the power and the strength to go and catch people, to make disciples of all nations, and to build up the church through our efforts.

Of course, that’s the way we’d like it to be: all neat and clean, and wrapped up so nicely. We trust and God provides. What more could we ask for?

But fishing, well, it’s more than just a plentiful catch isn’t it? Sometimes, there are no fish at all. Frequently, there are tremendous risks and great danger. And always there is a great deal of pain and suffering.

A few years back, there was a movie called “The Perfect Storm,” based on a novel by the same name. Did any of you see it or read the book? It’s about a small New England fishing town, and the relentless efforts of the fishing community to remain economically viable. It’s about facing amazing challenges, and about the unfairness of life – why did they catch so many fish while we caught so few? It’s about women and children waiting on land for news of loved ones still out at sea during rough weather. It’s a poignant depiction of the human drama – of love and loss, of work and struggle, of success and challenge and joy.

The movie depicts modern-day, deep-sea fishing in graphic detail. We see large, elegant, graceful swordfish – not caught in a net and quietly surrendering to their fate, but impaled on large and painful hooks; painfully dragged aboard ship; beaten, stabbed, and even shot by the crew in a frenzied and violent struggle.

And being gentle doesn’t help: then they are attacked by sharks – on the very deck of their boat – hit by the boom, thrown overboard, and even caught in the worst net of all: the pain suffered at the hands of a fellow human being.

The movie, which is well worth seeing, ends with the amazing and defiant actions of one captain and a brave crew, who seek swift passage home with an abundant catch of swordfish – more than they could ask or imagine – and instead confront a storm of unbelievable proportion. Intent on offering their abundant harvest to the people on land, and reveling in their amazing bounty, the crew instead give their lives to the majesty of the sea, never returning from their valiant journey.

Let’s face it, fishing is cruel – both to the fish and to those who do the fishing. Fishing is not a pretty story about evangelism or a miracle about feeding thousands; it’s about struggle and pain, challenge and hope, success and failure, life and death, sacrifice and joy, magnificent beauty and unimaginable ugliness.

And if this gospel passage is about us and our efforts to build up Christ’s body the church – is this who God wants us to be? Is this who we want to be?

Do we really want to lay out bait for people – not enough to sustain them, but just enough to get them painfully caught on a hook? Is it our vocation to pull them in, kicking and screaming – and to beat them into submission? And are we to revel in this catch? – tallying the number of fish we’ve managed to drag in, disemboweled, and put on ice, and then thanking God for this manifest blessing?

Plus, aren’t we all just like that kind of “fish,” as well? Are we somehow different from those we seek to bring to Christ? Are we to terrify them by wielding our weapons until they believe? Now, there’s a revelation to be truly afraid of! There are doubtless some Christians who would say “yes” to all that. But are we Anglicans called to do this?

Many of our fellow Christians think that we are called by God almighty to become fishers of men, to lay out our nets and haul in as many people as we can get, and to thank God for the abundance of the harvest – measured not in pounds of fish but in numbers of people.

But in most of Anglicanism, we offer another vision of the church. Oh, we are truly glad when the church grows, and we thank God for that. We believe and proclaim that our dependence is on God alone. And we recognize that our life’s journey is not always one of hopeful expectation; that sometimes we come across times of struggle and even insurmountable odds.

We hear this morning’s gospel passage and consider the frightening implications of those words: “From now on you will be catching people.” The pain that we may suffer or that may be inflicted at our hands, the tremendous risk ahead of us, the hard work that is ours – and ours alone – to do: we must face these are challenges. Because from now on we will be catching people.

And yet we remember that we rely on God and God alone for the many good things we know in this life – indeed for life itself. And we pledge to work hard, to do the best we can – not because it will gain for us any reward, but in thanksgiving for our many blessings.

We remember that Peter, when he experienced the miracle of the presence of God in Christ, when he saw his boat sinking from a catch of so many fish, fell down at Jesus’ feet and said, “Go away from me, for I am sinful.” We remember that we are like Peter.

And we remember that this story reveals the miraculous power of Jesus Christ – a power as available and present and real to you and me, at this holy table, as to simple fishermen on the Sea of Gennesaret some two thousand years ago. We remember the power of God.

And so we fear that we, like Peter, are sinful and unworthy of God’s love. But we also remember that Jesus replies to Peter’s fear and trembling – as indeed to ours – with these most comforting words: “Do not be afraid.” This comfort is ours, here and now, no less than it was theirs, out on that lake so very long ago.

This insight does not assure us success; it reminds us of our salvation. This teaching does not give us license to abuse others in Christ’s name; it calls us to repent from the pain we inflict. This power does not scare us into submission; it invites us, gently and lovingly, to give up our fears and trust in God.

This power comes to us from God – by our very life, through our baptism, and again and again in this our simple ritual meal.

This power comes to us every day, in ways we have not yet begun to understand or imagine.

This power comes to us in our joy and in our pain, when we struggle and when we succeed. This power allows us to become more and more what God created us to be.

This power is love.

And with the power of love, we are able to withstand pain and torment, and we are able to revel in joy and bliss.

With love, we can endure great trials, face new challenges, and even overcome death.

With love, we can help to heal the world that suffers and hurts greatly.

With love, we can trust that God will provide all that we truly need.

With love, we can invite people to join with us in revealing more and more of the miraculous power that is God.

 

— The Rev. J. Barrington Bates holds a Ph.D. in liturgical studies from Drew University and currently serves as rector of the Church of the Annunciation in Oradell, N.J.

Letting our nets down in faith, 5 Epiphany (C) – 2007

February 4, 2007

Isaiah 6:1-8, (9-13); Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

“The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said, ‘Woe is me!’”

“Woe is me” seems to be an understatement. The prophet is having a vision that’s not only very vivid, but also frightening. Everything is immense. The hem of the Lord’s robe fills the temple. There are seraphs with multiple wings. There’s shouting and trembling and shaking and fire. In all this, the prophet realizes that not only is he privy to amazing sights and sounds, but he has also seen the King, the Lord of hosts. The prophet knows that to see the face of God invites death. To make matters worse, the prophet is a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips. He feels afraid and hopeless.

We can feel that fear and hopelessness.

That’s because the Bible – in addition to being God’s word to us, the story of our salvation, theology, literature – the Bible is also very good theater. Imagine what a movie director would do with this story. The special effects would be spectacular – so spectacular perhaps that we’d lose the real point of the story. The prophet is indeed living among people with unclean lips. They have become so unfaithful, so far from being a people of God, that God has almost despaired.

The conversation between the prophet and the seraph and then between the prophet and God is wonderful theater, too. The prophet moans, “I am lost!” The Seraph, instead of just telling him that he’s wrong, takes a live coal from the altar and touches the prophet’s mouth cleansing it from guilt and sin. A little more exciting than our usual absolution for sin, isn’t it? Then we hear from God. God asks, it seems, a rhetorical question: “Whom shall I send (to these difficult people)?”

Can’t we imagine saying, “Please, please send me – just keep those seraphs away from me!” And if we had stopped our first reading there as if it were the first act, the main character would come off as a real hero – very brave and confident. “Here am I,” as if God didn’t notice him, “send me!”

Good for him! We hear that sentiment many times in the scriptures, sometimes in different words – Samuel, David, Mary, eventually the disciples of Jesus. It’s a beautiful thing to say, a selfless and loving thing to say, and we can rejoice with that throng of seraphs crying, holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.

But the lectionary offers us the chance to go further in this passage. We can get a taste of what happens when God’s people say, “Send me.”

In the second act, so to speak, the prophet finds out that he must take what will be a very unpopular message from God to the people. “Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand. … Make the mind of the people dull so that they will not understand and be healed.”

That seems very harsh unless we understand that the people have ignored every message God has sent so far. Until they hit bottom, they won’t repent. Our brave and selfless prophet has a difficult mission, but he has been anointed and he will be supported by God.

It’s the same in today’s gospel.

In this passage from Luke, we have one of the “great catch of fish” stories. Jesus is beginning his ministry. He’d been baptized. He too had been “anointed” for a ministry. He spent forty days in the wilderness praying and preparing, and now he has come to preach and teach. But he hasn’t started in the court of the king or the temple with the high priest. He’s begun his ministry among the common folk – fishermen, farmers, women, and children. This might make some interesting theater, too. Imagine how a bunch of professional fishermen felt when Jesus, a carpenter by trade, told them to put their nets out again for a catch. Can’t we hear the incredulity in Peter’s voice: “We’ve worked all night and caught nothing. But if you say so…” We can imagine the eye rolling the fishermen did – maybe even the quiet but pointed snickers. But of course, they bring in a boatload, and they are amazed.

But the boatload of fish isn’t the point of the story. It really doesn’t matter how Jesus managed that miracle. The same goes for the vision of Isaiah: it really doesn’t matter how the Lord’s hem filled the temple or the prophet got his lips singed and didn’t die. The point of both passages is that God expects each of us to take a part in building the kingdom of God.

By our baptism we are anointed as Isaiah was – as Jesus was – and as Peter was in today’s passage. It doesn’t matter that we aren’t among the mighty of the land. It doesn’t matter if we’re not even among the mighty in the church.

Notice that neither Isaiah nor Peter – nor many of the other great people of the Old and New Testaments: David, Mary, Joseph, Anna, Simeon – were numbered among the high priests or important government leaders. Both these readings can be a real inspiration to all people who are called to make a difference where they are.

We find the same message in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. He talks about his own call – reminding the Corinthians that it was by the grace of God that he became an apostle. With God’s grace he had the strength to continue spreading the good news of Christ – the same thing we’re supposed to do. In this passage, he tells us what that good news is for him in words that we now say every time we pray the Creed. “Of first importance,” he says, is that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day.” If we would continue reading to the end of Chapter 15, we’d hear Paul remind the Corinthians that they, too will be raised from the dead and that Christ would come again – that what happened to Jesus would also happen to them.

The Corinthians thought Christ’s second coming was imminent, but here we are, 2000 years later still striving to live a godly life. We live a life of faith in the promises of God. Each time we say the Creed, we remember Paul’s words and believe even though we’ve never seen Jesus.

We also believe, as the Corinthians did, that what happened to Jesus will also happen to us. We too will share in the resurrection. This story we share with others is a life-giving story. The more we read the scriptures, the more we try to model our lives on Christ’s, and the more we realize that no matter what happens to us – good or bad – we are part of God’s family and God will be with us.

Like Isaiah, Peter, and Paul, we’ve been anointed and are full of the Holy Spirit. Each one of us has a work to do in proclaiming the kingdom of God, whether it’s by working for the church or being a witness to a godly life among our co-workers or in our homes. And each one of us has the same promise that was given to them: Do not be afraid – be at peace.

God is with us every step of the way. We are nourished and strengthened right here at the altar. We have the ability to bring others along with us – to be fishermen – even when it means going out again and letting the nets down another time, letting our nets down in faith that the Lord will fill them.

One of our hymns says it well: “Jesus calls us! By thy mercies, Savior, may we hear thy call, give our hearts to thine obedience, serve and love thee best of all.”

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is the executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tenn., and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.