Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (10 February 2019)
JoAnn A. Post
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. 4hen 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.
I’ve just returned from a four-day conference in Las Vegas—a gathering of pastors and church leaders from across the country to talk about “vitality.” The schedule was full, so we didn’t have much time to take in the sights, but one evening our synod team decided to Uber down to the Strip to do some strolling. My very first time.
Of course, you have to remember what I do for a living—no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I’m a pastor, and my mind is perking with scripture texts, in search of sermon fodder. And, at this conference loaded with others pastors, the same was true of everyone—I often overheard conversations about today’s gospel reading among small groups of preachers, all trying to squeeze in time to think about and write today’s sermons.
So, what was I thinking about as I strolled the Strip, eyes as big as dinner plates and mouth hanging open? I was thinking about Jesus and today’s enormous catch of fish. Exciting, I know.
Some of you have probably been to Vegas a hundred times, and are no longer surprised by it. But, it was all new to me. Towering neon billboards. The fountains at the Bellagio. Beautiful, extraordinarily friendly women, under-dressed for the weather. Limos as long as football fields. Music escaping from the doors of nightclubs and bars. A man in a tuxedo stepped in front of me and asked if I was looking for a party. (I wasn’t.) The soothing aroma of tobacco and cannabis in the air. I can pass for a cool person when I have to, but I fear my Inner Rube was on display Thursday night. I was like Gomer Pyle in the Big City. Golly.
And who was there with me? Jesus. Simon. Fish. And a funny thing I had learned about the text earlier that day.
So, let’s take a look at the text, and then we’ll go back to Strip Strolling.
You know the story. Teaching. Rowing. Fishing. The giving of unsolicited advice: “Row out deeper! Drop your nets on the other side of the boat!” Fish throwing themselves at Simon’s nets, begging to be caught. Simon falling at Jesus’ feet, winded and wondering to say, “You caught me.”
Jesus looked down at Simon’s ropy arms and calloused hands, his sunburned neck and bleached hair and said, “Get up, Simon. From now on, you’ll be catching people.”
What? Drop the anchor! Catching people?
Commercial fishing was and is violent business. Whether tangled in thickly knotted seines or snagged with sharp barbs, fishing is bad for fish. And this is the image Jesus used with Simon? That he was to sneak up on unsuspecting people with nets and hooks and drag them to Jesus? That’s what we do—drag people flopping and dripping to meet Jesus, playing a game of holy bait and switch?
But it’s not as bad as it sounds. Because of the difference between two little words. The text today uses two different words for the “catching” of these fish—both the finned and the footed kinds, two different images of the work of Jesus’ crew.
When, in verse 6, Simon “caught” fish, Luke used a violent commercial fisher’s word—snag, snare, surprise, subdue.
But, in verse 10, when Jesus promised Simon he would catch people, Luke used a different word. Simon was not to drag people out of their beds to meet Jesus, but instead to “capture” them, “captivate” them, “fascinate” them. “Catch” them as a teacher captures a student’s interest or an idea captures the imagination or a lover captivates the heart—that’s the fishing Simon would turn to.
Jesus wants people to come to him because they were enthralled, not because they were tied down and dragged there.
All this while I was walking the Strip, a place whose sole purpose is to captivate, capture, fascinate, entice us into doing things we ordinarily wouldn’t do.
I know I think about these things too much, but I couldn’t help but wonder, as we meandered down crowded streets that offered every enticement imaginable, who on the Strip was there because they were captivated, and who because they were caught?
Who was there because they were “taken” with it all, and who was there because they had been literally “taken?”
Every public space I entered, including the church building that hosted our conference, was plastered with signs offering assistance to girls and women caught up in sex trafficking, addicted to drugs, or run-away from home.
I know that most of the people working the casinos and gas stations, restaurants and hotels of Las Vegas earn an honest wage for work they willingly do. But I also know there are some there who are not captivated, but captured. Frightened fish tangled in a dark net. They’ve been on my mind.
The conference I attended was focused on new strategies for being church in a culture changing faster than we can row. We all know the statistics about changing patterns of faith practice. Left un-interpreted, one would assume this boat we call “church” is soon to sink.
But, like Simon Peter, frustrated at a lack of fish in his favorite fishing hole, our frustration is mostly because we’re fishing the same way, in the same places, with the same tattered nets we’ve always used. When Jesus shouted at Simon to go deeper and fish differently, it wasn’t because he had some magical knowledge about where the fish were hiding. It’s because he knew that sometimes the old ways don’t work. Simon had to go to the fish, rather than wait for the fish to come to him.
I come away from events like the one I attended this week exceedingly grateful to be in this boat with you. We are not immune from the pressures and patterns around us. But slowly, we are learning to fish differently, row farther, cast our nets in new water. And the goal of our shifting strategies is not to catch people unware, luring them in because our coffers and pews are empty. The reason we are to fish differently, row farther, cast deeper is because Jesus wants to capture hearts, captivate the imagination, invite into a way of living, a way of believing that frees rather than snares.
Jesus had a soft spot in his heart for all the frightened fish he encountered, all the sinners snagged in nets they could not escape. Jesus fished among the hungry, the homeless, the sinful, the sick not to harm them, or to sell them, or to consume them, but to protect them. And, we know from other gospel stories, that people threw themselves at Jesus the way the fish threw themselves at Simon’s nets.
That is our work. Both here in this not-very-glitzy community of ours and in the world into which we row every day. Like fish that fight the hook, the people to whom we are sent will run from us, from Jesus, if we threaten or accuse or shame or use them for our own ends. But if we offer them a place that is safe, a word that is kind, a shelter from the storm, they will leap at the chance—caught up in love that will not let them go.
Rowing into deeper water. Casting in unfamiliar places. Capturing rather than catching. This is the work to which Jesus calls us. Captivating, isn’t it?