First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
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.
Once upon a time there was a funny little man named Larry, who was a member of my father’s church. And Larry had decided that I needed be toughened up. You see, I was a sweet kid, but shy. I preferred solitary pursuits to team efforts. I could spend hours reading and drawing and getting lost in my imagination. But for Larry, those were signs of weakness. And so somehow, he convinced my parents that the cure to all that ailed me was a hunting trip. And I was horrified.
One day soon thereafter, Larry picked me up at the crack of dawn. And he drove us deep into the woods. There Larry taught me how to hold a gun. He taught me some rudimentary gun safety. And he taught me how to shoot.
I remember a lot about that day: what I was wearing; the kick of the gun; trying to stay upright when I shot. But what I remember most was how I felt when that squirrel fell from the tree. I had hit my mark. And Larry was more excited than I had ever seen him. But I was sick. I was sick not from some kind of philosophical orientation about hunting. I was too young for that. I was sick because what I had just done felt as foreign to me as anything I had ever done. It was something forced on me; something out of character for me. And when I got home I told my parents, in no uncertain terms for a 12 year old, that I wouldn’t ever do that again.
Sometimes I wonder just how much of my life I’ve wasted trying to be something that I was not, trying to please others, trying to fit into a mold. How much time have you wasted doing that? How much time have you wasted believing you needed to be someone other than who you actually are?
From an early age, we all react to what our parents expect from us. Then later we respond to the peer pressure of our classmates. And then we try to be what our bosses want us to be; what our spouse wants us to be. And then we come to church and hear about all that God wants us to be. And the overarching message in those messages is that what whatever we already are is somehow not enough.
This deep feeling of inadequacy has a lot to do with the theory of Original Sin. This theorybegins with the assumption that we are not enough and that we never really can be. It is our sin, our shortcomings, more than anything else about us, that defines us in God’s eyes. And while this theoryof Original Sin is deeply ingrained in the church, you might be surprised to learn that the church has not always universally believed it. Many early Christians did not believe it. One of those was St. Irenaeus of Lyon, who was a second century bishop in France. And Irenaeus, starting from a place of Original Blessing and not Original Sin, once famously declared that, “the glory of God is the human person fully alive” – YOU, fully alive.
The first time I ever read that, it was as if a bolt of lightning passed right through me. Before that moment, I had never seriously considered that James Campbell, being most fully James somehow brought glory to God. And my life and my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus have never, ever been the same since I read those words.
One day, Jesus was standing beside the Lake of Gennesaret, more commonly called the Sea of Galilee. And the crowd was pressing against him, implying that there were lots of folks listening to the sermon that day. Needing some space, Jesus noticed some boats on the shore and got into one belonging to a man named Simon. He asked Simon (who would one day become St. Peter) to row out a little onto the lake. In addition to giving Jesus some needed space, the water provided some natural amplification. Then, true to the custom we learned about a few weeks ago, Jesus sat down to teach.
When Jesus had finished speaking, he asked Simon to row out into the deep part of the lake and to let down his nets for a catch. Now Simon and company had already been out on the lake all night, but had caught nothing. They had already washed their nets, which was a last step before going home to eat and rest. This we know. But what is not mentioned here, but is very significant for the story, is that many first century Jews had a fear of deep water. For the Jewish mind of that time, the depths of the sea represented chaos or hell. At its deepest, the Sea of Galilee was about 200 feet from the surface to the bottom – enough to make Simon pause when Jesus asked him to row out to the deep water. And so he swallowed hard and protested: “Master, we have worked all night and caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will row out to the deep, and let down my nets one more time.”
We all know how this story ends. The fisherman, living in that pregnant moment between exhaustion and hope, let down their nets. And when they pulled them in, they were so full of fish that the nets began to break. And so, they called to their friends to bring their boats to help them. But the catch was still so great that it threatened to sink all the boats – their terror of the deep close at hand. But somehow the boats did not sink.
Now what do I always say about the stories of the Bible? These are our stories. We are the characters in these tales, meaning that these ancient stories have contemporary and universal applications. That is the power of the Bible – it tells a very human story about God. So what does this story have to say to us, about us?
Well, first of all, notice where Jesus is in this tale. He isn’t on the shore, shouting instructions to the ones doing the work. He’s in the boat. And he’s not in that boat like some serene divinity. Think of Jesus helping them to lower those nets into the sea. Think of Jesus struggling with them to pull in that heavy haul of glistening fish. Think of Jesus laughing with them as they realized the riches that now filled their boats. And that makes this a Christmas story! This is a story of “God with us” – God working and laughing and crying and struggling withus in the everydayness of our ordinary lives.
Second, notice that Jesus doesn’t ask Peter to be or do anything other that what he already is and does. They were fishermen, before they were anything else. They had learned this skill from their fathers and grandfathers. It was in their blood. It was natural to them. And that smelly job, full of calloused hands and sun burned skin could be used for the glory of God.
So, what about you? What’s your thing? What is it that you know how to do so well that it seems second nature? And have you ever truly considered that this thing of yours could somehow bring in the Kingdom of God?
Now, if you get that far – to imagine that your so-called ordinary skills can be used to advance God’s Reign in the world – don’t expect to be bored doing the same old, same old. Because God always calls us to more. God calls us out into the deep, where blessings lie hidden just beneath the surface. Jesus asked Peter to row out into the middle of his fears. And you know what? Peter did not die! He did not sink. Instead, he was transformed into something called a fisher of people.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the future of our church. I’ve been thinking about those pesky key indicators and what they say about this congregation’s slow decline over the last 15 years. Those numbers are my deep place. I look at them and sometimes feel afraid. I feel out of my depth. I wonder what you all expect of me. I wonder what I expect of you. And I wonder what God expects of us? But pondering this passage makes me wonder: maybe all we need in this moment is to go deep; to use what we already know how to do, but in new and bolder and more faithful ways.
Chances are in the months and years to come, God will call First Church into some uncharted waters. God will call us to go deeper than we have before. God will call us to confront our fears.
Because we might actually feel afraid as we try new things and let go of some old ones. But Jesus says: “Fear not, for now you will fish for people, all kinds of marvelous people, as different and colorful and beautiful and as all the fish in the sea.”