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A Fish Story

Text: Luke 5:1-11

He had had it with life, with people, and especially with preachers. He wanted to talk and for me to listen. Just listen. He did not want to hear another word from me and when I started to speak, he cut me off mid sentence and said, “Gary, save your preacher talk for someone else!”

God, how I hate it when people assume they know what I am thinking and what I will say just because I am a “preacher.” What is “preacher talk” anyway? Well, this man did not leave that question hanging in suspense. In his mind, “preacher talk” is pious sayings and holy platitudes that have all the substance of a roasted marshmallow or guilt producing rhetoric, urging people to live ten times better than any human can ever pull off or insipid advice on subjects about which preachers pretend to know much more than they actually do.

I will bet you good money that Simon was tempted to tell Jesus, “Save your preacher talk for someone else!” After all, Simon fished for a living. He fed his family by pulling fish out of the sea. He did not need an amateur’s advice on where or how to fish, especially from a land-loving-carpenter.

To Simon’s credit, he is polite enough to stop cleaning his nets and listen to Jesus. He even agrees to take Jesus out for a boat ride.

When out to sea, Jesus has the audacity to tell Simon to cast his fishing nets in the exact same spot that had yielded absolutely nothing just hours before. Clearly, Simon does not know where the best fishing spot is, but he knows for sure where the worst one is. He has just spent a long, miserable night there.

I am no fisher, but I can identify with Simon being asked to do something that he knows is a consummate waste of his time. I can hear Simon holding back the urge to say what he really thinks and instead answers far more gently than he probably felt, “Master, we toiled all night and caught nothing!” or in other words, “Jesus, save your preacher talk for someone else!”

At this point in the story, Simon and I part ways. I can appreciate his good manners in listening to the amateur Jesus, even with agreeing reluctantly to take Jesus out to sea. I draw the line though in agreeing to toss newly-cleaned nets into empty waters I have just fished. Simon is much too nice. At the very least, I would have told Jesus. “Look, Jesus, thanks for your advice, but it is late and time to head back to shore. Trust me, Jesus, this is a lousy place to fish – I know.”

So, what convinces a professional fisher like Simon Peter to do something that proven experience has already demonstrated is a complete waste of time? What is it about Jesus that makes Simon, makes many people in the Gospel take chances, doubt what they have always known to be true, believe people, and trust that even the most predictable life can be radically different? What prompts people to launch out into deep waters and cast out nets when good sense tells them to stay on shore?

Whatever the reason, Simon sends those nets sailing overboard. What happens next has all the elements of a classic fish story – except, have you ever heard a fish story in which the fisher is not interested in the catch? When the fish descend upon these nets like metal to a magnet, Simon does not line up between two boats holding up the biggest fish for a photo. He does not sail back to shore so he can strut about the village with a story of the greatest catch ever. No, Simon kneels knee deep in his great catch and begs Jesus, “Go away, I am not worthy for you to be around me.”

Some scholars swim about in the shallow shoals debating the veracity of this old fish story. Did it really happen? Did it really happen this way? Luke, though, invites us to swim out from the shallow shoals and set out for deep waters, the locale where we go to give God even half a chance in our lives.

If you think about it, this fish story has a million reruns. Everyone in the community said, “It’s such a shame. His father was a drunk. His sister is a drunk. He just didn’t have a fighting chance.” There was finality in their voices. They knew he could not beat the family addiction odds. Yet, somehow, he did. He stopped drinking and stayed sober. No one seemed to know how. When he sat down in my office, he knew exactly how he stopped. He told me that he had cast his nets into the deep waters, giving faith in God more than half a chance, because there was nothing left for him to do and nowhere else for him to go.

Everyone said, “That church will never grow. It is in a ‘declining’ neighborhood” – a nice Southern euphemism for people of the wrong color were moving in and people with money and power were moving out. The church’s fate was set in stone. It was only a matter of time before it would close its doors. Then, somehow, a few adventuresome elders stopped doing church as usual. They opened a shelter for women, started a food pantry, began an after school tutoring program for second-language kids, offered a Saturday evening worship and meal time using music of the neighborhood – in this case, Latino. They ventured out into deep waters and somehow this invisible, moribund church became a lively, living body of Christ again.

Of course, all fish stories do not always have such happy endings, but no ending is ever happy or complete when we stand fixed and defeated on the shore, convinced we know what is possible and what is not. It is in the deep waters that we have the chance to discover that our wildest dreams pale in comparison with the dream God has in store for us and that with God’s imagination at work in us, even the most proven empty waters are worth fishing again.

This will not be the last time that Jesus tells Simon to “Cast your nets out into the deep.” To follow Jesus means to enter into a world of “that just does not make good sense” on a regular basis. For, you see, this story is not so much about Simon or a great catch of smelly fish as it is about a God who knows more than we know even about those things we think we know a lot, a God who does not give up on us even when we have good data to give up on ourselves. Just ask Simon Peter, not even three denials of Jesus before a cock’s crow could make God give up on him.

“Cast your nets out into the deep.” What are those things about Cove that you are dead certain can never change? Will we always hope for racial diversity in this congregation, but know that we will never make that catch? Will we always wish there were young children and young adults chasing young children in our pews, but know that that day will never come again?

“Cast your nets out into the deep?” What are those things about your life that you are dead certain can never change? Is it your relationship with a child? Is it your job? Is it a relationship with a parent or your spouse? Is it a relationship with God or a preacher? About what part of your life would you be willing to stand up today and say to Jesus, “Just don’t bother, brother. It is simply not worth the effort.”

Did you notice how Jesus responds to the penitent Peter stinking of fish? He does not chastise him or say, “I told you so.” Jesus tells the fisher to get off his knees for it is time, as the Greek puts it, “to catch people alive.” And so, by the lake, amid a huge pile of fish, with one man humbled to his knees the church is born. The church is always being born when in a deep sense of humility, you and I resist the urge to say, “Can’t be done” and instead, believe that God makes it possible “to catch people alive” with the astounding chord of God’s forgiveness and the astonishing melody of God’s grace.

My disgruntled friend who did not want to hear any more “preacher talk” did finally hear this preacher talk. I listened for a long time to his chorus of how nothing ever changes and nothing ever will. I did not know exactly what to say to him and I was sure that arguing with him would get us nowhere. So, I told him a fish story about a land-loving-carpenter named Jesus and a professional fisher named Simon bowed knee deep in a great catch of fish and a God who is ready “to catch people alive” whenever their faith has grown stale or is waiting to be born.

I did not know what else to do, so I told him a fish story. I suspect some fish stories simply cannot be told enough.


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