Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
February 10, 2019
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
In the year 1577, Sir Francis Drake, English sea captain and privateer, went to the docks of Plymouth, England, looking for a crew for his next expedition. He gathered a group of sailors and told them that if they came with him that they would see some of the most marvelous things they eyes could ever behold. They would discover sandy white beaches; they would taste juicy fruits; they would experience foreign peoples; they would find priceless treasures; and they would see gorgeous landscapes. All of this could be theirs – if only they would come with him upon the next expedition. Not one of the sailors enlisted for the journey.
The next day, still in need of a crew, Drake came back to the docks and once again gathered a group of sailors around him. Drake told this group that if they came with him they would encounter storms that would terrify them to tears; winds that would hammer them and blow them off course for months; and danger that would be their constant companion. He concluded by declaring that if they could handle those things, the joy of exploration would exceed their wildest dreams. This time every sailor enlisted for the journey. They were eager to follow.
We might wonder – what made the difference in these two groups? Why did the first group of sailors turn down the mission while the second group jumped at the chance? Was the second group of sailors more daring and more adventurous than the first? Or perhaps it was not the men themselves who were different. It was the message that changed and therefore its power to persuade. Drake’s first message spoke of rewards. His second was one that described challenge. His first invitation offered comfort. The second promised hardship. The first tempted the sailors with enticing things. The second message offered them a test unlike any other they had ever known.
Perhaps Sir Francis Drake discovered with these sailors on the docks at Plymouth what Jesus knew when he spoke with Peter and James and John along the shore of the lake of Gennesaret or the Sea of Galilee. The Scripture reading tells us about it this morning. Jesus borrowed a boat that belonged to a fisherman named Simon and from that boat he taught crowds of people along the shoreline. When he was finished speaking, Jesus asked Simon to go out into the deep water and put down his nets for a catch. Simon answered, “Master, we’ve been fishing these waters all night but have caught nothing. But if you insist, I’ll give it one more try.” Simon did so and there was a great catch of fish, so great that others from shore had to be called out to help them bring the fish in. The story then identified the Simon as Simon Peter and the two men with him as James and John. Following this miraculous catch, Jesus offered to them the challenge of leaving behind their nets and following him and catching people.
I am struck by the invitation that Jesus offered that day. Like Sir Francis Drake, Jesus promised a challenge, an admission that the task to which he called people would be difficult. Yet he also offered possibilities beyond their present reality. Jesus told Peter and James and John that they should no longer settle for a dream whose boundaries are limited by the Sea of Galilee. If they would follow him, they would be catching human beings all over the world.
This is Luke’s version of the call of Jesus’ first disciples. It is fitting for this Epiphany season, a time in which we in the Christian church celebrate the gift of Jesus the Christ as the Light of the World. It is a time in which we are to consider what his mission was and what our mission as the church is supposed to be to the world today.
There are some elements in this story that speak beyond the literal aspects. For example there is the metaphor of depth. Jesus asked the fisherman to row out into the deeper water. Even though they had failed to catch any fish some four hours earlier, Jesus told them to let their nets down into the deeper water and try again. Unsuccessful in their previous attempts, the disciples found the energy and the courage to try again, to go out into more challenging water, and there they were rewarded for the catch of a lifetime.
Many of you know how I feel about water. I prefer being beside water than in it. Deep water is just about the biggest fear that I have. I am more comfortable in water shallow enough to put my feet on the bottom of the pool. I am at ease when I see the solid sand beneath my toes. When I am called to venture out into mysterious water I get uneasy, uncomfortable, and even a little bit afraid.
Each summer when I have a reunion with my college friends, we take a pontoon boat out to a sand bar in the middle of Higgins Lake. All of my buddies jump out of the boat swim over the sand bar and stand upon it, an interesting sight in the middle of such a large lake. But I remain on the pontoon, not wanting to risk the depth of the water, content with watching my friends from a safe distance.
When I read this story I wonder, perhaps like many of you, have the waters I’ve been working in lately been a bit too shallow? Am I hesitant to take the risk of following Jesus because the things he asks seem a bit unnecessary and too demanding? What if Jesus’ challenge to his disciples to cast nets into deeper water is also true for me as a disciple of Christ today?
Maybe like me, you too are prone to sit in the boat in shallow waters even when there are no fish there worth catching. In the quiet and placid waters, we might find ourselves rather bored, dissatisfied, discouraged, maybe even depressed. Could it be that fulfillment lies in some deeper water that we’ve never fished before? Perhaps there are resources that we haven’t used, skills we haven’t yet developed, dreams we haven’t risked following, assets to which we’ve clung too securely, and possessions we have not dedicated to any great use. Could it be that all we need for fulfillment is the courage it takes to take our boats out into the deeper waters of life- to break out of our sameness- and to encounter a new way of finding meaning and purpose?
The deep water in this story is a metaphor for how we invest ourselves in discipleship. Are we timid or bold? Are we careful or courageous? Are we reticent or eager? Are we comforted or challenged? Michelangelo once said, “The greatest danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark too easily.”
I am reminded of the story of Tom, a young man who grew up attending worship regularly in a mainline church. Religion really didn’t mean anything to him until one day he heard a famous evangelical activist at a youth group meeting. He was so moved he signed up for one of the evangelist’s projects in the inner city. That morning he arrived at an inner city church where the large group prayed and then heard an inspirational sermon by the famous evangelist. Everyone was in a frenzy similar to a ball park or a political rally.
The young people then left the church and got on a bus. They went from a bad neighborhood to the worst of the worst neighborhoods. The building appeared to be abandoned. Windows were out. There were rusting hulks of cars in alleys. At the beginning of the bus ride the students were singing about Jesus. But as they got deeper and deeper into the city, the bus grew quiet. Tom was scared.
The bus finally pulled up in front of one of the worst blocks of tenements. The evangelist stood, motioned for the bus door to open and shouted, “O.K., let’s go witness for Jesus!” Tom gulped back a few tears, shuffled off the bus and headed out. He walked into a terrible looking apartment building. Everything was dark and it smelled bad. He walked to where he heard the sound of a baby and knocked on the door. “Who is it?” a loud voice called.” The door cracked open. A woman, smoking, holding a naked baby, peered out from behind the door. “Hello,” Tom said, “I want to tell you about Jesus.” Immediately the woman started cursing Tom and chased him down the hall, down the stairs and into the street.
Tom was now stunned and scared. He sat down on a curb and wept. Asking God for help he looked up and saw on the corner a rundown grocery store with boards over the windows. He walked in and looked around. Remembering the baby and the woman, Tom bought some disposable diapers and a carton of cigarettes. Back up to the apartment he went, knocking on the now open door.
“Who is it?” the voice called again through the open door. Shaking all over, Tom walked in with the diapers and the cigarettes. “Come in,” the woman said. She took a diaper and put it on the baby. She smoked one of the cigarettes and offered one to Tom. Although he didn’t smoke, he did that day. He spent about an hour in that apartment, playing with the baby and talking with the woman. Shortly before he left, the woman asked, “What is a boy like you doing in a place like this?” Tom told her what he knew about Jesus and how he felt called to serve. As he got up to leave, the woman said, “Please pray for me and my baby.” Tom prayed. He left. He got on the bus. And he thanked God for the courage to be a worthy witness of Jesus’ love in a deep place where he made a difference.
The dangers of our routines is that they develop into shallow comfort zones. We can get so comfortable in how we serve God that we dare not venture out of past and preferred practices. Yet Jesus calls us into a deeper place, to cast our nets in waters and ways that we had never considered before. He challenged the early disciples to break their routine, to see beyond their self-constructed world, and to try fishing again in a different way. He challenges us to cast our nets in deeper and stranger places assuring us that we will find a catch that will profit the Kingdom of God and our part in it.
I began the sermon with Sir Francis Drake and I will close with a prayer he wrote many centuries ago.
Disturb us Lord when we are too well pleased with ourselves
When our dreams have come true
Because we have dreamed too little
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too closely to shore.