sermon on Luke 5:1-11; Psalm 98
On my first trip to the Boundary Waters, I was amazed at the fishing. Trolling behind the canoe with my line tangling in loops and the spinner bouncing out of the water, I hooked maybe the biggest bass I’d ever caught.
That’s not saying a lot. I call myself a fisherman, but for panfish. Most of my hours on the water or ice have been with a bit of bait and tiny hook and bobber.
That style and knowledge of panfishing made me actually relieved not to catch a fish later on that first Boundary Waters trip: a northern came out of the depths, struck my lure, then swam away. It was several years more before I landed a northern, then had to figure out how to get something with a huge mouth full of sharp teeth off my treble-hooks. (If I recall, it squirmed itself off.)
Now, unless Jesus shows up to give me unsolicited advice about fish I’m not used to catching, the main point of those details on my expertise (or lack thereof) is that even though I know what I’m fishing for and try specifically for that, still sometimes you get something else, and you can’t do much about it.
Then Jesus sends us to fish for people.
We’d imagine it’s about knowing the skills and having the right gear in our tackle box and being able to zero in on our target species, catching the people we want to catch. Like a guy trying to catch five-inch bluegills with a worm surprised by a fierce northern emerging from the dark depths, we also find ourselves shocked at times at church.
See, we too often see ourselves as polite and thoughtful and well-spoken and generous. In whatever way it is, we are surprised when somebody not like us shows up. With bait we were trying to use, that’s not the catch we were expecting to land.
There can be all sorts of surprises, many that happen in the diverse school of fishy folks around you today: It can be somebody who dresses different and doesn’t wear the right clothes to fit in.
It can be somebody who doesn’t know our language, whether we mean that literally for proper English or the church-ese theological terms that are part of these waters we’re swimming in.
It can be people who haven’t done the right thing, earned their place, and maybe you’d just as soon write them out of the prayers.
It can simply be those you can’t identify.
It can be noisy children who join in as themselves and act their age and don’t act your age and don’t sit stock still, as if church were the uncomfortable pain you were raised to believe it should be.
It can be a person with a different skin color, as some of you remember Winifred Brown speaking her mind on what it felt like to be “a brown M&M in a sea of marshmallows.”
On this Reconciling in Christ Sunday, for me, a straight male, it can come as a rather grateful stunning surprise to find in church—which has been so offensive and nasty and condescending and done more than about any other institution to repel people who are LGBTQ—that Jesus somehow still is catching queer folks along with obtrusive people like me. Our old definition of the right ones to catch and who would be thrown out hasn’t stuck. Jesus manages to catch even those tried to keep out.
Different from our sense of propriety on who church is for and the people we want to catch also goes with the story of Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tattooed Denver pastor who was along on my second trip to the Holy Land. She tells of intending her congregation to be for misfits: foul-mouthed recovering addicts. Nadia was distressed when businessmen in neckties started showing up. But Jesus was also fishing for those people.
We each have our view of what the prize catch is and we expect Jesus to be a trophy fisherman, looking for the grandest specimens to mount over his fireplace. If not a full saint, we at least hope to measure up and tip the scales as a keeper. Jesus, though, seems intent on raking up the puniest minnows and bottom feeders, not just the best fighters or the biggest beauties, but the really ugly whiskered scum suckers.
Case in point: Jesus is content to catch Simon Peter. We don’t need to react to him declaring himself to be a sinful man as if he’s especially stinky. Probably like other fishermen, he’s lied about his catch and perhaps had too much to drink out on the boat, sunburning his belly and hunched shoulders. He may not have shown the most respect to others who have horned in on his secret spot and maybe trash-talked his mother-in-law who (in the last chapter) was sick and not very helpful around the house.
But this very regular schmoe (“uneducated and ordinary” is how he’s described later in the story—Acts 4:13), who will prove himself kinda inarticulate and not the smartest fish in the school and not necessarily loyal, with his most notable trait being that he triply denied even knowing Jesus, Peter will be at the center, not just a big fish in some small pond, but an unprestigious grandpappy whale in the worldwide ocean depths that encompass God’s work.
The next two closest, James and John, keep arguing through the story about what it means to be great, occasionally in a brutal way, continually missing that Jesus isn’t casting for record breakers, much less hateful.
A real prize catch, these guys. Until Jesus catches the human equivalent of a parasitic sea lamprey: Paul, who was growing strong on the blood of those he’d been persecuting, yet became arguably the most important follower of Jesus ever.
Such is the strange fishing expedition of Jesus. Stranger still because, of course, Jesus is after you, too. You may consider yourself no trophy. You may be ready to name what disqualifies you from being sought-after game. You may not be the prettiest or strongest fighter, not especially agile or well-adapted to your environment. As a neighbor of mine used to complain about our lake’s perch, you may have some spots that are a little wormy. You may simply see yourself as not worth catching.
Or, knowing some of you, there may be a belief you’re too clever really to get hooked. You may say that you’re exploring the bait fisherman Jesus has lowered to offer, but you’re sure not going to swallow it hook, line, and sinker. You’re just testing the waters, exploring the facets of Christianity or what Jesus has to say about God, but you’re not going to get tricked enough to get swept up and lose control.
But metaphors of fishing rods with 10-pound test monofilament line hit a snag. Jesus isn’t limited by existing into my personal fish tales and soggy puns. It’s not just tackle boxes and bait. Jesus uses nets! And he sends down the net to catch you up in this, too. It’s not about either your gullibility or your desirability, not about fooling you to take the bait nor finding you the rare keeper he was after.
The whole point is that he casts his net far and wide to catch all in it. In depleted fishing waters of a Palestinian lake where pro fishermen could come back empty-handed after being out all night, yet this God of abundance immediately finds enough fish to swamp two fishing boats on one haul. This abundantly creating God of flagrant goodness in Jesus comes that all nations may see the salvation of God, with the Holy Spirit poured out on all flesh.
It’s not just the really rotten who are hauled aboard to be resuscitated in the live well, neither is it those who leapt of their own accord into Jesus’ boat, full of eager willpower to join him. It’s not those born into the right habitat to be exposed to it, or conditional on living in a culture with Friday fish fries, or even enough lakes and streams to be able to visualize what these images are angling for.
As one lovely hymn speaks of Jesus, “You have come down to the lakeshore, seeking neither the wise nor the wealthy. You who have fished other waters: O loving Friend, you have come to call me” (ELW 817).
So it is that you are caught up in Jesus’ mission, a fisherperson who has become a fish in order to fish for people. Jesus has caught you, claimed for eternity, scooped up and held you in this fisherman’s caring hands. You may like just as well to be held there forever. But after he catches, he releases you back into the teeming waters of this world, the regular flow of life, since there are other fish in the sea he must love, and since you are now his hands of care and love.
In that, you get to join his strange cast of characters, plus the fish of the sea and birds of the air and all creatures in sharing God’s goodness, in proclaiming release to the captives and this abundant goodness, joining the hymn of all creation.
It was your voice in our Psalm: “All the ends of the earth make a joyful noise to the Lord. Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Sing to the Lord a new song.” That song may sound with a fisherman voice like a sea chanty. Or like we did at student council camp, silly underwater style. Or may be the voice of Jesus is calling through each other in our next hymn.