Letting down the nets

(Sermon for February 7, 2010 || Epiphany 5, Year C, RCL || Luke 5:1-11)

I wrote this sermon before a blizzard dumped three feet of snow of my town, so I never got to preach it. Accordingly, here’s a recording of the sermon as it would have sounded. Use the audio player below or download it here.

Imagine with me the Apostle Peter, who is in Rome near the end of his life, thinking back on that day when he met Jesus by the lake of Gennesaret.

“He sounds like my kind of fellow,” I remember saying to the traveler at my stall, just days before I met Jesus in the flesh. The traveler was gossiping with the rest of my customers about the goings-on in his hometown of Nazareth. According to him, an angry mob nearly threw Jesus off a cliff for something he said in the synagogue. That was the first thing I heard about him. Like I said, my kind of fellow.

At the end of the next Sabbath day, I was getting my gear ready to go out on the water, when my brother Andrew burst through the door. He stumbled into the room and panted, “He’s coming here.”

I stared at him, both eyebrows arched. He kept talking: “Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is coming here.” Then he grabbed me by both shoulders. “I need to tell you, I just saw the most incredible thing: there was a man in the synagogue with a demon that was screaming at Jesus, but he told it to be silent and go, and it did, and the man’s not even hurt.”

He said it all in one breath. I don’t think I’d ever seen Andrew so excited. “He’s coming here?” I said it as a question, and then realization dawned. “He’s coming here.” I looked around the house. I hadn’t realized how dirty my home had become since my wife started taking care of her mother. “Why?” I asked.

His reply came all in one breath again: “Your mother-in-law: I told him about her fever, and how she was getting sicker and sicker, and he wants to help, and I ran ahead, so he should be here any time now.” Right on cue, I heard a knock on the door. I barely remember what happened next. Jesus shook my hand, and ten minutes later, my wife’s mother was cooking dinner like she had never even been sick.

A month later, I met Jesus again, and I remember that second meeting like it were yesterday. We’d just finished arguably our worst night ever. Not a single fish. And we weren’t out there with bait and tackle. We were using trawling nets, and we still didn’t catch anything. To make matters worse, a crowd of people was surging onto the docks, which creaked and groaned under the weight. I looked up from my net and saw Jesus at the front of the crowd, backing slowly toward the end of the dock. I thought about the cliff in Nazareth. Was this crowd trying to drown him? I couldn’t reach him from where I was, so I dived into the water and swam a diagonal to the other side of the pier. He and I reached the end of the dock at the same time. “Simon,” he called, and laughing, he hoisted me from the water.

I could tell by the way he said my name that he wasn’t in immediate danger of being tossed from the pier. “You remember me?” I said.

“Yes, and I also remember you have a boat. It doesn’t happen to be one of these, does it? My friends want to hear me speak, but I’m afraid they might knock me into the water by accident.” He gestured to a pair of boats moored to either side of the jetty and then out to the crowd still pressing onto the docks. “Here,” I said, untying the lines to my boat. We embarked, and I pushed a few yards into the bay.

Then Jesus sat on the gunwale, his legs dangling over the side of the boat, and he began to speak. His tone was casual, like he was speaking just to me, though I expect everyone thought the same thing. I can’t quite remember what he said that morning, but I can remember the feeling. His words got inside me somehow. They got inside me and found a hole that I didn’t even know was there. And they filled the hole. I wish I could explain it better than that, but I’m not an educated man. I just know that those little gnawing fears and disappointments that I always have and my frustration with the night’s fishing mattered less while he was speaking.

When he was finished, he swung his legs back into the boat. “Put out in the deep water and let down your nets for a catch,” he said.

I stared at him. I’m sure my mouth hung open. I was tired and sore and hungry and I just wanted to go home and flop onto my bed and sleep. Or at least I should have been tired and sore and hungry. I was always tired and sore and hungry after a night’s fishing. But that morning, I wasn’t. His words had invigorated me and soothed me and fed me. Of course, nothing Jesus ever said purged me of my natural cynicism, so my response came out with a hint of sarcasm: “We’ve worked all night long but haven’t caught anything. Yet if you say so, I’ll let down the nets.”

I steered the boat to where Andrew sat scrubbing the nets, and he dragged them aboard. We tacked for the middle of the lake and let down the nets. Within minutes, the boat began to list to starboard, groaning under the weight of so many fish. Through my bare feet on the deck, I could feel the small tremors of lines breaking underwater. Frantically, I signaled to James and John in the other boat. Andrew and I began hauling in the nets, and Jesus lent a hand, all the while shaking with unrestrained glee.

My boat started taking on water because of the added weight of so great a catch. I splashed to my knees in front of Jesus. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” I said. Again, Jesus hoisted me up, saying, “That’s precisely why I’m staying with you.” Then he looked at all of us. We stood there, on sinking boats with torn nets in our hands, looking back at him. “Do not be afraid,” he said, “From now on you will be catching people.”

That day was longer ago than I care to remember, and still I feel ashamed for not understanding those final words until years later: “From now on you will be catching people.” Jesus had cast out the demon from the man in the synagogue and healed my mother-in-law. He had spoken to everyone while making me feel like he was talking to me alone. He was so personal. He healed and loved and encouraged and admonished each individual person he encountered. For years, I thought his personal approach meant he was being selective, like an angler casting for one kind of fish. But I was mistaken.

He told us to catch people – not to fish for them. No selectivity. No specificity. No discrimination. He told us to catch people like we caught fish: throw the nets in the water and trawl for everyone.

Years later, I finally understood this call. I was living at Joppa when I had a vision: I saw a sheet descending from heaven loaded with all kinds of food that I’d never eaten before. The food was unclean according to the law, but a voice called to me: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” That same day, a group came and took me to Ceasarea to meet Cornelius the centurion. Cornelius told me about his own vision of a man in dazzling clothes who told him he was remembered before God. At that moment, I remembered Jesus’ words: “From now on you will be catching people.” I looked at Cornelius and all his friends, and I said, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.”

That day on the lake of Gennesaret, I met Jesus for the second time. He taught a crowd with his legs dangling over the side of my boat. I heard his words, and he filled a hole I didn’t even knew I had. All those years later, his words continued to teach me. God shows no partiality. Jesus told us to throw our nets into the deep water and catch everyone: not just a select few, but everyone.

Like I said, my kind of fellow.


Special thanks to my friend Steve for unlocking the ideas in this sermon. He writes the blog draughting theology.

Nets and new creations

(Sermon for January 25, 2009 || Epiphany 3, Year B, RCL || Mark 1:14-20)

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is out for a stroll along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. As he walks along, he notices the fishing boats tacking for deeper waters and trawling the shallows. He sees Simon and Andrew casting a net into the water. He sees James and John mending their nets in their boat. He calls out to them, “Follow me.” “And immediately,” says Mark, “they left their nets and followed him.” Immediately, they left their nets and followed him.

Now, I tend not to read the Bible metaphorically. Adding layers of interpretation to the words on the page usually serves to obfuscate rather than enlighten. This morning, however, I pray you indulge me one teeny-tiny metaphor. The four disciples Jesus calls in the Gospel leave their nets to follow him. They were fishermen, so working with nets came naturally to them. But, in landlocked West Virginia, we have little cause to handle fishing nets. So, I ask you, what are the “nets” to which we cling that prevent us from following Jesus? Put another way, what would be different about our lives if we left our nets and followed Jesus?

We could go into all the normal “nets” that ensnare us: grubbing for more stuff, distracting ourselves with the superficial glamour of the world, entering the wrong relationships. These certainly are nets, and they do trap us. But there is another, more insidious net that excels at holding us back from following Jesus.

This insidious net keeps us from practicing discipleship. The net entangles us when we confuse following Jesus with following the “idea of Jesus.” This is a strange turn of phrase, so let me unpack it. The “idea of Jesus” infiltrates our consciences when we forget that the events of the Gospel continue to play out today. The “idea of Jesus” disguises the person of the living Christ beneath layers of doctrine, history, and popular misconception, until he becomes a farcical shadow of himself, more akin to the Easter Bunny than the one true God. The “idea of Jesus” is so much easier to follow than the real Jesus because the “idea” makes far fewer demands on our lives and never asks us to become disciples. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “Discipleship is commitment to Christ. Because Christ exists, he must be followed. An idea about Christ, a doctrinal system, a general religious recognition of grace or forgiveness of sins does not require discipleship.”*

Think of it this way: A good portion of Americans love the “idea of soccer.”**  They love that there is a sport that the world plays together. They love seeing small foreign children running after a ball in the dust on TV. They love the big leg muscles and celebrity status of David Beckham. But very few Americans ever actually want to play soccer. There’s way too much running and way too little scoring for most of us.

In the same way, we often find ourselves taken with the “idea of Jesus.” There was once this cool guy who said some great stuff about love and acceptance. He collected a lot of enemies because he made friends with outsiders. He kept the wine flowing at this wild party. This “idea of Jesus” looks great on paper. But, like paper, the “idea” is flimsy and two-dimensional. The real Jesus, the living Christ, springs from the page, full of three-dimensional vigor, and he calls us to a life of true discipleship.

This is where the net comes in. If we are deluding ourselves into thinking we are following Jesus while we go about our lives as if nothing has or will change, then we are following the “idea of Jesus” instead. Following the Jesus who calls his disciples away from their nets necessitates change. Again, Bonhoeffer says, “Following Christ means taking certain steps. The first step, which responds to the call, separates the followers from their previous existence. A call to discipleship thus immediately creates a new situation. Staying in the old situation and following Christ mutually exclude each other.”**

We run back to our nets because this newness frightens us. When I moved to Alabama at age 12, no one could understand my thick Rhode Island accent, I called the water fountain a “bubbler,” a dusting of snow was a blizzard, the Red Sox weren’t on TV, and I didn’t know that saying “sir” and “ma’am” was integral to my survival. My life was different and uncomfortable and humid. I just wanted to go home. But, in the slow march of years, Alabama became home.

When we leave our nets and follow Jesus, we give up the trappings of the illusory homes we have built for ourselves. We step out of our comfort zones, and hopefully we never get too comfortable ever again. As we strive to follow Jesus, we may wonder why we never reach a new normal, why that initial feeling of discomfort persists. Then we realize that following Christ means continual renewal, constant reshaping. Paul says that if “anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). As new creations, we are not new a single, solitary time, but every hour of every day. This newness keeps us from becoming complacent, keeps us from sitting in our boats as Jesus passes by. The discomfort propels us forward like dissonance in a Beethoven sonata. Indeed, a piece of music comprised of pleasing, consonant chords would be exceedingly boring. Likewise, following Jesus means dragging our comfort zones along behind us as we constantly step out of them.

Following Jesus is necessarily a nomadic existence. Our home is not a place, you see. Our home is a person. When we follow Jesus, we give up the trappings of our illusory homes for a true home by his side.

The flimsy “idea of Jesus” can only provide us a home built on the sand, which collapses whenever the winds and rains come. The “idea of Jesus” may bring us to church one day a week, but it will not instill in us the desire to seek Christ the other six. It will not demand that we encounter Christ in every person we meet. It will not motivate us to interrupt our net-mending to serve the poor or pray for guidance or praise God for the simple fact that we are marvelously made.

Because it makes no demands on us, the “idea of Jesus” causes us to mistake self-satisfaction for discipleship and comfort for salvation. But the real Jesus does not call us to be comfortable. He calls us to be free and invites us to use our freedom to choose a life of service in his name. If we do not actively seek to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, if we do not take seriously our role as disciples, then we will be complicit in allowing our Lord and Savior to drift into the obscurity of legend or tall tale. As Søren Kierkegaard puts it, “Discipleship…really provides the guarantee that Christianity does not become poetry, mythology, and abstract idea.”****  Following Jesus means offering ourselves as conduits for turning the abstract into the concrete. Put another way, as the Letter of James says, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (Jas. 2:15-16)

Jesus, the true Jesus, calls to us. He is not an idea or a design on a T-shirt or a cool guy who said some nice stuff once. Jesus, the living Christ, walks up to each one of us and invites us to a new life of hope and love and tears and pain and joy and freedom. He looks each one of us in the eye, says, “Follow me,” and radiates the abundant grace that allows us to do so. Join me in praying that each one of us will meet his gaze, leave our nets, and follow him.


* Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Discipleship. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2001. p 59. (Italics mine)

** I borrowed this idea from the hilarious blog Stuff White People Like.

*** Ibid. 61-62

**** Ibid. 59 (in footnote)