“More Than Persistence”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham congregational Church, United Church of Christ
February 10, 2019
I’m a pretty bad fisherman. I know that some of you love to fish and that you’ve learned over the years how to lure the elusive creatures of the river and sea to your hooks, but I never did get it. My fishing memories are more about the people I went fishing with than the success — or lack of success — I had.
I remember fishing with my dad and catching flounder on the Saugatuck River when I was five years old. I remember my best friend, Bruce, and I catching striper blues in the tidal inlet at Burying Hill Beach when we were teenagers on a Saturday morning and frying them up with some scrambled eggs. I remember dropping a lure into the pond behind our house when my boys were 5 and 7 years old.
I always wanted to be a better fisherman than I was, and I did try, and then I realized there is way more to it than just trying and trying again.
Fishing is an art. There is a science to it, for sure, but there is also a feel, a spiritual aspect to the sport.
To the early Christian community, fish were a powerful symbol. Although we share bread and grape juice for communion once a month here in our sanctuary, there’s lots of evidence in scripture that fish was also a part of early Christian communion celebrations.
Remember the feeding of the 5,000, that story told in all four gospel accounts? The crowds are following Jesus and they are tired and hungry. He and his disciples give them bread and fish.
The simple drawing of a fish was a common Christian symbol, just as prevalent as the cross in early days.
I love fish, but I’m not sure it would work all that well as a communion element. That low tide smell and the oiliness might not make for a very dignified ceremony.
In today’s reading, Peter, Jesus’ best friend and the head of the disciples, is just doing his job. He’s fishing, and he’s had a rough night of it. He isn’t fishing for fun. He is fishing to survive. And he gets what my dad used to call skunked. Nothing. Nada. Zero fish.
Jesus, who has been preaching from a boat to the fisherman and others on shore, wraps up his sermon and turns to the Peter and tells him to drop his nets in deep water.
Peter has been fishing all night with no luck. It’s not about his work ethic. He has been trying and trying and trying. And yet he has had no success.
Why, then, when Jesus tell him to drop his nets once again, does he have such success that it is almost too much?
There is a lot going here and we should pay close attention. It’s important that we remember together that nothing — absolutely nothing — made it into the Bible by mistake or simply because it happened in history.
Scripture is always purposeful. In other words, if the author of Luke writes that Jesus instructs Peter to drop his nets in deep water, that word, that idea, is there on purpose, as are others.
Listening. Cleanliness. Obedience. Humility.
All of these things contribute to Peter’s eventual success as a fisherman. His nets become so full that they are almost ready to break.
That this story is a metaphor is obvious. What can we learn from it? To what sort of deep waters is Jesus inviting us?
So often, we take the easy way and try to gain wealth, pleasure, success, knowledge, or wisdom without spending very much time or effort. And we wonder why we don’t get very far.
Yes, persistence is important. Working hard matters. But on our spiritual journeys especially, there is more to it. When we go deeper, when we ask good questions, when we wrestle with ideas, wrestle even with God, we become more spiritually mature.
Listening. We resist listening. We love to talk, to express ourselves (at least most of us), whether we have a good idea or not. Talking is easy. Listening takes work. It takes humility. It takes patience. And very few of us have that. Peter has been listening to Jesus preach. He has absorbed the wisdom of his master.
Cleanliness. Peter washes his nets. This is another detail we could easily overlook. But if we take seriously everything we read in scripture, we know the there is a reason this detail is included in Luke’s account.
He washes his nets. Why does the author of Luke tell us this? All throughout scripture, cleanliness is a theme. When someone washes or experiences a flood or crosses a river or a lake, that is preparation for something special, some new encounter with the Divine.
Luke is telling us that Peter is getting ready for his new life at Jesus’ side. How might we clean up our act so that we might be better prepared to follow and to serve?
Obedience. When Jesus tells Peter to drop his nets once again, he is skeptical. After a night full of futility, he wonders, What’s the point? We’ve all felt that way, right? Why keep banging our head against a wall for no purpose? Isn’t one of the definitions of insanity doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?
And yet, Peter obeys. There is something in Jesus that Peter trusts, and his trust is well placed. His nets fill up with fish.
Peter’s first reaction is not a positive one. To him, these nets full of fish are a sign of Jesus’ power and of his own inadequacies. He reacts with humility. Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man, he says.
But in the end, he decides to follow Jesus. He decides that catching people, as Jesus puts it, will give his life meaning.
This whole idea of catching people makes most of us feel uncomfortable. It’s problematic in that we don’t make a practice of imposing our ideas on others or manipulating them. Most of us would not describe ourselves as evangelical and we really don’t like the idea of going around trying to convert people.
So, can we embrace this idea of catching people? If so, what would that look like in a church like HCC, for people like us?
How about we think of it as catching people for a deeper and more meaningful life? Catching people for compassionate service? Catching people to add more voices to the causes of social justice? Catching people who can work together to heal the oceans and the rivers and the lakes and ponds of our nation and our world? Or allowing ourselves to be caught?
Peter and James and John go off with Jesus to serve amongst the poor and outcast, to heal and to share the good news of God’s love. To what kind of deeper waters is God calling you today? To what new adventures of service or leadership?
We don’t need to press people to believe just what we believe, but we can do our very best to welcome others into community, a community where healing happens, where love is shared, where hope shines a light into the future.
Come, let us cast our nets into the deep water of God’s new world, a world where all of us are needed and all of us belong.