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A Shell Ridge Sermon by Gregory H. Ledbetter
A Surprising Catch … I love that phrase and its evocativeness … in the quiet of your mind, what might it evoke?
1982 … Candlestick Park … 49ers vs. the Dallas Cowboys … NFC Championship game the 9ers are down and practically out … Joe Montana to Dwight Clark … it was the catch that turned around the long dismal fortunes of the
McMinnville … 1979 … meeting Jan while applying for a job … it was a “catch” that would change my life forever …
Alaska … 1981 … “casting” the net … pulling the “sock” out of the water, nearly tipping the boat over it was so full … we made about a fifth of our season’s income in that one day
We’ve heard another “fish story” this morning … it is a story from the early days of Jesus’ ministry when he was just calling his disciples out of the crowds that clamored around him.
The background of Luke’s story of the early ministry of Jesus goes like this: … in short order … Jesus goes into the wilderness and demonstrates his utter dependence on God alone (temptation in the wilderness) … then Jesus returns to his home community and announces his ministry and its shape … he also notes that people will always try to turn that the power that animates him to their advantage and it shakes up the community, so much so that they try to throw him off a cliff (welcome home, Jesus!) … Jesus survives this attempt on his life and takes his power and his message on the road (it’s a traveling salvation show) … he heals people and frees them from spirits that possessed them … entrapped them … and then he seeks solitude by the lake … but the crowds follow him … so Jesus borrows the fishing boat of a man whose mother-in-law Jesus had healed.
The people then, as now, were possessed by so many things … be it “demons” … evil spirits … or the spirit of the age … or even “self-possession.” It seems that Jesus’ message was to offer people an alternative … a chance to be “God-possessed” … to be enfolded in God’s care … to be snared by the love of the Creator … to be held close to the heart of the universe. In offering people a chance to be possessed by God rather than anything else, he was offering to them a wholeness and an integrity and a power that cannot come from human strength alone.
After the sermon, Jesus takes Simon fishing … with astounding results … to say that it’s a “surprising catch” is an understatement. Two boats can’t even hold all that the net has caught in one single cast. Something is brewing out on the lake and Simon isn’t sure that he wants in on it.
You see, Simon seems to “get” that such a display of power is not going to happen without something being demanded of him … like so many of God’s servants before him, he declares his utter unworthiness. Jesus tells him to fear neither the power … nor his sense of unworthiness … nor the road of ministry ahead: “Don’t be afraid … no longer will you fish for creatures of the sea, now you will fish for people.”
Fishing for people … for many years, Christians have put a strong “missional” slant on this fishing story … Many of us learned to sing: “I will make you fishers of men” … but if we push the “fish for people” analogy too far, we end up with certain difficulties … among other things, the fish are unwilling occupants of the net … they are “rounded up” … caught against their will … and we know what becomes of them at the end of the story.
Unhappy historical events like the crusades are, in part, a result of taking the story of the surprising catch a little too far. To suggest that it is God’s desire that we make the whole world Christian at all costs is a misunderstanding of the “Good News” … a misunderstanding of what it was that Jesus saw as his mission and the mission of those who followed him.
When Jesus told a story or enacted the message, such as in the story of the surprising catch … neither the story nor the enactment on the water were meant to taken to its absolute extreme …
If we wish to continue to use the story and use the metaphor of net-fishing and our being “caught” in those nets, it might better for us to say that we are “caught by God’s mercy and grace” … surrounded by God’s mercy and grace … enfolded in God’s mercy and grace. Might it be that the net of entrapment and endangerment can be transformed into a safety net of compassion?
There are many ways in which I think we get this. [MLK … single garment of destiny] Largely, we do not see the human beings us around as lost, hell-deserving sinners who need to be tied up and beaten with the gospel. We most of us look around and see a common humanity who, in so many ways are like us … who share our hopes and dreams of a world where individuals are healthy, loved and loving and societies and cultures and nations that create and protect these opportunities.
The Good News is that the Shalom of God that has been promised for every person and throughout the earth is not a “fish story” … it is not a wild exaggeration to say that in many ways this is being fulfilled in our time, in our lives, in our world. The Good News is that the energies of hope that poured out of Jesus’ mouth and ministry were then … and are now … ALIVE! They are real. Even the horrific reality of market bombings in Baghdad cannot destroy the other truth of loving, compassionate sacrificial goodness that has been loosed in the world. Jesus’ own horrific death on a cross was not enough to kill God’s love … as Bill Coffin has said, and I have repeated: “You can kill love, but you can’t keep it buried!”
So … that’s a part of our pedigree … that’s a part of the message that we have witnessed and are called in our lives and words and ministries to bear witness to. Every one of the roughly 6000 days that I have been privileged to walk and work with you, the members of this congregation have, in manifold ways, lived out the good news of Jesus to the world around us. As Jesus said:
Yet … yet sometimes we can grow weary … even with some of the surprising catches that hint at the power of God that is present, we can still grow tired … we can still despair … we can still ponder giving it all up.
Simon Peter speaks for the church, which, in the New Testament, is often symbolized by the boat … after Jesus has used Simon’s boat as a floating pulpit, he tells Simon to row out to where the water is deeper and to let down his nets for a catch. And Simon says: “Jesus … we are tired … our work has exhausted us and we don’t see the fruits of our efforts … we have toiled long and hard in the darkness of our times … and when we pull up our nets from the water, they are empty.
It’s not easy being the church. It’s not easy trying to bring salve and bandages and hope to the world’s hurt. It’s not easy to stay on the path of peace, following the footsteps of the Prince of Peace.
I think of ABCUSA … a good denomination with an influence far beyond its size in our world … the incredible work of its missionaries in all corners of this globe … sat and listened to our general secretary, Roy Medley …
I think of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America … painfully small and fragile … yet with an enormous heart full of enormous hopes for peace with justice for all the people of this world … I had lunch with one of its board members last week and we commiserated over how difficult the work of peacemaking is …
I think of Shell Ridge Community Church … a modestly sized community of faith with a uncommonly large heart. As we talk about the future and the challenges that congregations like ours face as we look ahead … it is tempting to just sit down on our “blessed assurances.”
I think of many individuals I know … common people … humble people … people with big hearts and willing spirits … I think of parents … and partners in love … and teachers and nurses and managers and accountants and laborers …
Simon is a stand-in for all of us in the church and in our real lives who are “weary and heavy laden” by it all: “Jesus … we are tired … our work has exhausted us and we don’t see the fruits of our efforts … we have toiled long and hard in the darkness of our times … and when we pull up our nets from the water, they are empty. I don’t know if I have the strength or the hope to throw my nets into the water another time. “
And what is Jesus’ response to us? To our weariness? To our despair? To our desire to turn back?
Be not afraid. Go … go out to where the water is deeper … and let down your nets.
I talked with my Dad last night … he’s just back from New Orleans … Habitat for Humanity is building 82 houses … he said, “I’d go back immediately if I could.” I said: “So there’s a couple more weeks worth of work to be done?” “A couple of WEEKS? They estimate it will take TEN YEARS.” Mentally, I staggered under that figure … just one broken spot on this earth amidst many dozens … perhaps many hundreds that need rebuilding and healing … TEN YEARS.
And we in the church … and we in communities that seek to wage peace with justice near and fear … we are huddled in our little boat and Jesus, the prince of peace speaks again to us: “Be not afraid. I AM WITH YOU. Go … go out to where the water is deeper … and let down your nets.”
Bill Coffin said of this long, tiring journey … what is asked of us is not that we be successful as much as we are asked to be faithful. BE not afraid, I am with you.
We prepare to come to the Table of the Lord. Here we will take into ourselves, not only bread and wine, but the promises of hope and love that they represent. I like to think of the bread and wine as food for the journey … nourishment for the LONG journey that is ahead. What we take into ourselves may not be enough to sustain us all the way … and so we come back to the table again and again. To be faithful in the journey, we not only need food to sustain us along the way … we need perspective.
Martyred El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero speaks to our weariness and the long journey that is ahead and our need to engage in that journey with some perspective:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
My dad said something else last night … he said that his faith in Americans … in humanity was being restored … day after day he witnessed new volunteers pouring into that broken, but building city … people who, like himself, have heard Jesus’ call to go out to where it’s deep … and to let down the net of their lives … the safety net of compassion and mercy and grace.
Paul, once a persecutor of the church and maybe not even a very nice guy, told the Christians in Corinth: … by the grace of God I am what I am, and God’s grace toward me has not been in vain. (I Corinthians 15:10a)
When you brushed your teeth … did the person looking back at you in the mirror look like someone through whom God could do something GREAT?
People of God’s loving and blessing: By the grace of God, you are what you are … and God’s grace toward you has not been in vain.
Meanwhile, I urge you to get your nets mended and ready for a surprising catch.