5th Sunday after the Epiphany
7 February 2010
It was an interruption that changed everything.
Interruptions have the power to do that, you know. Most interruptions are mere annoyances – the telemarketer who rings you as you sit down for dinner, the co-worker who stops by your desk just as you are making progress on your inbox, the child who talks over the punchline on your favorite show. But some interruptions change our lives. The phone that rings at 2:00 in the morning. The water that breaks four weeks early. The breaking news that interrupts regularly scheduled broadcasts. One moment changes everything.
For Simon, it had been a night like any other night. He and his fishing partners had spent the whole night fishing. But for all their work, they had come back to shore with nothing. They stood there next to their boats, washing their nets, ready for a hot breakfast and a long nap. And up walks this man who just steps into Simon’s boat, sits down, and starts teaching. A crowd is pressing in on him, anxious to hear the word of God, and so he delivers it, sitting in Simon’s fishing boat.
Luke doesn’t tell us whether Jesus asked permission or offered explanation. He doesn’t say how Simon responded to the interruption. He just says that Jesus got in and started teaching. And Simon and his friends didn’t leave. They had worked all night for nothing, and surely felt bone-tired and ready to go. But they didn’t. And when Jesus was done speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
Simon explained, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” In other words, “We’ve already tried that, it didn’t work.” Some people might’ve stopped at that, turned around, and headed home. But Simon’s head was filled with what Jesus had been teaching. It is clear from the crowds who press in that this man offers a compelling word. Simon is compelled too; he doesn’t turn away. He goes on, “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
So they push off from shore and do what Jesus says. They throw their empty nets into the deep water, and pull up a staggering haul. Their nets begin to break. They have to call their partners over from the other boat to help them bring it all up. They struggle to bring up the catch; it fills both boats. And the boats begin to sink.
Can you see it? Can you smell it? Fish flopping everywhere. Nets creaking, straining. Boats tilting, tipping. Tired men groaning, tugging, struggling with their catch. Where there had been nothing, now there is more than they can handle.
It’s the first miracle in Luke that does not involve a healing or an exorcism. Jesus hasn’t commanded the sea or the fish. He has not told the fisherman to do anything unusual. He simply comes to them in the midst of their ordinary work, and tells them to try again, and to go deeper, and they do.(1) What they pull up defies all expectation and brings Simon to his knees.
He knows that what has happened is more than just the best fish tale ever. What he has caught hold of with his nets is a miracle, and he responds to the divine power of it, falling before Jesus and saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” But Jesus won’t have it. “Do not be afraid,” he tells Simon, “from now on you will be catching people.” And they bring their boats to the shore, and leave them there – stinky fish, breaking nets, and all – and follow him.
What a story! Even so, some of us shy away from it. We have heard this story used towards a kind of triumphal evangelism. We have heard it used as part of church growth campaigns. We prefer to relegate it to children’s Vacation Bible School lessons, so that we don’t have to deal with it so much ourselves. It makes us feel guilty, or uncomfortable, or anxious. We do not want to be, in the more familiar words, “fishers of men.” It is unseemly.
But what if we could set that aside? What if we could let Jesus interrupt our preconceived notions and our well-defended habits? What if we just let him come in, enter our ordinary lives, right where we are? Maybe he comes to us after a long day’s work, when we feel like nothing we have done has made a difference. We are ready to be finished for the day. Try again, he urges. Go deeper, he says, calling us into depths we haven’t explored, spiritually, or emotionally, or in some other way we’re unprepared for. Do we resist, and insist that we’ve already tried and failed?
Maybe he comes in the same way, right here into our church. Some here have worked so long, and so hard, for the sake of this church, and for what? Some days it’s hard to see that any of it makes any difference. We worry. We despair. We wonder what we have to show for all our years and all our work and all our faithfulness. And there he comes. Try again. Go deeper. Do we resist? Do we insist that we’ve already tried and failed? Do we give up? His call to put out our nets into the deep water – that’s an invitation to go farther than we have, to move out of safe water and known places, and see what happens when we let him lead.
If we’re willing to respond to such an invitation, we could find ourselves faced with unexpected abundance and blessing. Instead of coming up empty, the fishers’ nets were filled with a stunning wild bounty. Can we believe that God will lavish abundance on us too, if we risk going further and going deeper than we thought we could? Scripture tells us that God can do abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). Do we believe that? Are we willing to risk asking and imagining and seeing where God leads us?
If we really believed in the God we say we trust, then we would know that no net we have is enough. No resource, no ritual, no habit, no tradition, no understanding, is big enough to contain what God means to bring. We can never be prepared for the abundance God means to provide. A boatload of blessing – and more – is available, but it will strain and even break our previous structures.
Maybe that’s what we are afraid of. Maybe we are not afraid of failure, but of success – success in the form of unpredictable abundance and blessing. When Simon confesses his sin, isn’t it interesting that Jesus’ response is, “Do not be afraid”? Jesus knows that this is the way we are. When faced with the possibility of abundance, when challenged by the breakage of our old ways, we are afraid. We want to keep doing things the way we’ve always done, whether they’ve worked or not. Whether they’ve helped us or others, or not.
This past week was the Feast of St. Brigid, one of the patron saints of Ireland. Brigid helped shape Irish Christianity in the middle of the fifth century, when it was still new to Ireland. She was known for her hospitality and generosity. In stories about Brigid’s life, she is remembered as a person who worked miracles of abundance among the poor – abundance of food, or drink, or healing, or justice. She taught that “every guest is Christ,” and though she was not generally known for turning anyone away, she was wise and discerning with how she ministered to those in need.
One day, a man with leprosy approached her saying, “For God’s sake, Brigit, give me a cow.” Brigid told him to leave her alone. Possibly this was not her first time dealing with the man. He persisted. “Give me a cow!” Brigid asks him if she can pray to God to remove the man’s leprosy. “No,” he replies. “I get more this way than if I were clean.” Brigid insists that he “take a blessing and be cleansed.” And he acknowledges that he is, in fact, in a lot of pain. And so she prays for blessing for him, and he is cured. (2)
It’s easier – less risky, less costly, less work – to stick with whatever we’ve got, to do what we’ve always done, than to open ourselves to blessing and abundance that may require something more of us than we expected. Jesus calls us to cast our net into deep waters – to risk moving towards possibilities we cannot yet see, or predict, or understand. If we follow, who knows what wild bounty we may haul in? In the process, there are habits and practices, attitudes and understandings, in our lives and in our church life that will stretch and maybe break, and maybe even sink. Are we up for that? Are we willing to follow the Lord of the broken nets? Are we willing to trade what we’ve got for what he wants to give?
In the end, it was not just fish that were caught that day at Galilee – Simon and his friends were hooked, too. They could not resist the draw of this man Jesus. He would call them into dangerous places. They could not foresee the outcome. But they had experienced a moment of untamed, unmitigated, abundant, amazing grace, and they could do nothing but respond. They left behind the nets, the boat, and the catch. Because in the end, the real grace wasn’t about the gift, but the giver.
God is ready to do abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine. What is it that you would ask, for yourself, and for this church? What do you imagine? What can you dream? God’s dream is bigger. God’s bounty is wilder. God’s provision is more outrageous.
Everything we’ve got is just a net, or a boat. We have to be willing to let what we’ve got be stretched, be broken. In some cases, we may need to be broken, ourselves. But God will provide more than we can ask or imagine, as long as we’re willing to keep following Jesus, and to go deeper than we’ve gone before, maybe to places we cannot yet see or expect.
And if we really fix our lives on following him, if we really stake our church on him, then we will find ourselves drawing a net of love out into the world and hauling more people towards unexpected blessing and grace. The haul may not look like what “experts” call “success.” It may look like dozens of children from Hikone Housing, coming to know the love and dependability of God because of people here who showed that love. It may look like scores of children and families in Nandasmo, Nicaragua, who are strengthened and empowered by the bonds of Christian friendship with sisters and brothers here. It may look like a new kind of movement to confront the problems of homelessness in this city with courage and conviction, while caring for those who are homeless with compassion and greater resourcefulness. [Maybe it will look like a holy zeal to share the love of Jesus in every way we know how.] Or it may look like something we have not yet dreamed.
Jesus said, “From now on you will be catching people!” Who knows what that catch will look like – all we know to do is throw out our nets, let ourselves be stretched, let our boat be rocked. And keep on following him.
 New Interpreter’s Bible. “Luke.” Gail R. O’Day. 118.
 The Reverend Jan Richardson, http://paintedprayerbook.com/2010/01/31/epiphany-5-the-wildest-bounty/. Also thanks to her for the phrase “wildest bounty,” which she found in Alice Curtayne’s biography of St. Brigid. Curtayne wrote that Brigid ministered to the poor with “a habit of the wildest bounty.”