I am not a fisherman. Ask Brad Stevens, he'll tell you. I mean I know how to throw a line in the water and sip on a beer, but tying lines, picking the right lure, removing a fish from the hook; yeah, I don't do any of it. In my two-plus years in Foley, however, I've come to really appreciate the art of the fishing story. Most of the time, I can guess the end before it happens; it is either about one, huge fish or a short-time-period, limit catch. Our gospel lesson this morning is probably the most famous short-time-period, limit catch fish story in human history. It is such a well known story; a favorite in Sunday School curricula, an easy wing-it talk for youth ministers, and probably a top-5 preaching text. It is such a well known story, and has held that title for so long, that by now, most of us don't really even know the story. All we remember is Jesus, a net, and fishers of men.
I found out just how un-well-known this story was on Monday afternoon. I was on the phone with Scott Trotter, the rector down in Bon Secour, and we were lamenting the NRSV translation of this text. We both wondered why the translators would choose catchers of people when fishers of men is so easy to remember, so punny. Why change the translation? Well because fishers of men is Matthew's version of the story, not Luke's. Luke wrote catchers of people. Doesn't say much for two seminary educated priests, surely, but what it made me realize is just how un-well-known this story is. And with that, my preaching challenge was set. A story so popular, so important in our life together, has to be known, well-known.
Last week, we left Jesus having narrowly escaped an angry mob in Nazareth. In the interim, he has made his way to Capernaum where he taught in their Synagogue with authority, he healed a man with an unclean spirit, healed Simon Peter's mother-in-law, cured the sick, released those held captive by demons, and then took his message on the road to all the Synagogues of Judea. This morning we find Jesus on the bank of the Sea of Gennesaret or the Sea of Galilee with a crowd pressing in on him. Simon Peter, whose home Jesus had been in already, was finishing up a fruitless night of fishing when Jesus spotted him and asked him to push his boat out in the shallow water so that he could reach more of the crowd with the word of God. After he finished teaching, Jesus asked Simon to move out into the deep water and throw out the nets.
So we have Jesus the carpentry trained preacher telling Simon the fisherman where to fish. Simon thinks that he ought to protest, if only a little bit. "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." My friend Bill has argued, and I am apt to agree with him, that we need a sarcasm font so that when people write things that are dripping with sarcasm, everybody knows it. Believe it or not, there is sarcasm in the Bible. Moses and God hit each other with sarcasm on more than one occasion. In this case, I think Simon is really treating Jesus with the contempt only a true fisherman could have toward a novice telling him what to do.
"We, the four professional fisherman, have worked all night and caught nothing, but you obviously know what you are talking about oh wise carpenter slash rabbi, nut you did heal my mother-in-law so we'll do what you say." So with great reluctance, Simon puts the boat into deep water and throws out the net, and lo and behold, the catch is huge. It is the ultimate short-time-period limit catch. The nets begin to break and Simon frantically calls to his buddies James and John for help. As fast as they can, they join Simon and Jesus in the deep water and both boats get filled to the point of sinking. As a congregation full of fisher-folk and boat owners, I feel the need to give you an idea as to how big these boats were. A recent archaeological find near the Sea of Galilee tells us that these boats were in the neighborhood of 26.5 feet long, 7.5 feet wide, and 4.5 feet high. These are not dugout canoes, these are sure-enough fishing boats, and to fill them to the point of sinking is serious business, and our sarcastic friend Simon has changed his tune.
"Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" I don't think the sarcasm font is needed here. If you were paying attention to the Old Testament lesson, you've probably noticed you heard this before. Simon's miraculous call to ministry is not unlike Isaiah's, and their responses are essentially the same. Isaiah, having seen the glory of the Lord says, "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips..." Peter having realized that the carpenter-slash-rabbi in his boat was indeed the Lord cries out, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" Jesus' response is not to leave Simon alone, but instead to invite him to join him on the journey. "Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people."
A few things of note in that sentence. First, unlike in Matthew and Mark, Jesus is not addressing a group of people, but Simon alone. For Luke this call story is important, it needs to follow the ancient motif, like that of Isaiah, and it needs to solidify Peter's place in the story, a place that will be even more important in his companion text Acts. Secondly, also unlike Matthew and Mark, the verb Luke has Jesus saying to Peter is not to fish, but to catch. Even as a non-fisherman, I know that there is a huge difference between fishing and catching. Matthew and Mark are concerned with fishing; they want to use the right lure in the right depth of water to catch a very specific type of fish. Luke, on the other hand, is much more concerned with Jesus' wide net. His ministry starts not in Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish world, but in Galilee where Jews and Gentiles lived side by side. His message, the one that got him run out of Nazareth was one of freedom and redemption for all people. And for Luke, it is all about throwing a net into deep water and bringing in whatever comes.
Now I know what you are thinking. Steve, thank you. Thanks for helping us learn the intricate details of Luke's version of the miraculous catch story, but what on earth does it have to do with us?
I'm glad you asked. There are three details from this story that really apply to our lives in Foley, Alabama in 2010. The first is the sarcasm of Simon Peter. I think it teaches us two things; that being a disciple does not preclude us from having a sense of humor and that God can use us all, even the most sarcastic sinner among us. [raises his hand].
The second is the way in which Jesus calls Peter; his nets are tattered and his boat is sinking, and Jesus says, "come, follow me." It reminds me of the way my former bishop told the story of St. Francis of Assisi. We've all heard the story of the rich young Francis giving back of his possessions to serve the Lord. Bishop Creighton told us that Francis' father, afraid of what his son would do with his new found call and a lot of money, took it all away from him, and it was only after Francis was poor that he took his vow of poverty. Does it matter which version is true? No not really. Either way, the life that Francis went on to live is an example for us all to model. Did Jesus call Peter when his nets were still full of fish or did he wait until he could see was a tattered sinking mess? It doesn't matter because in the end, Peter dropped it all to follow. This morning we prayed that God would set us free from the bondage of our sins, which sounds a lot more like, take all this stuff away from me and leave my life tattered and sinking so that I have no choice but to follow you than allow me to give it all up for you. Either way, the fact remains that Peter walked away from it all and followed Jesus, and we are called to do the same.
Finally, we learn that Jesus ministry is one of casting as big a net in as deep a water as possible. Adding to his mission is not about having all the right answers, but about sharing his love to everyone we meet, no matter what. So join me, a transformed sarcastic sinner, who is still trying to leave the tattered sinking mess of his old life behind to follow Jesus and let's share the love of God in all times and at all places and be catchers, not just fishers, of people. Amen.