I was an expert bass fisherman. At least as much as anyone could be who had never been bass fishing.
When I was a preteen, I became enamored with the prospect of fishing for bass. I was old enough that I had been fishing plenty. Caught a ton of bluegill and sunfish and crappie. Been out on my Granddaddy’s johnboat plenty of times with a bobber and spincast reel and caught more fish than I could count. But none of them were bass. Bass fishing was like grown-up fishing. Like anyone that age wanting to learn more, I watched TV. There was a string of fishing TV shows on during the 80’s and I think I watched every single one of them. Bill Dance. Jimmy Houston. Hank Parker. Roland Martin. Saturday mornings, I would spend all morning watching those shows, learning how to catch bass. What lures to use. How to tie them. How to cast them. How fast to reel them in. Where to look for fish, and how to find the right spot on the lake to go. I watched those shows. I read my Granddaddy’s Bassmaster magazines. I was an expert…who had never actually caught a bass.
By the time I got out on the lake, I was ready. I used my knowledge, my expertise, my big tackle box filled with lures…and didn’t catch a thing. Must be the wrong lure…let me try another. Nope. Another. Nothing. I remember the first several times I went out bass fishing, I didn’t catch anything. Eventually I did. But I spent a lot more time NOT catching fish than I did catching fish. I realized the problem with these TV shows: It sure looks like Bill Dance is an expert at catching fish, because for half an hour, it’s all he does. Fish after fish. Huge lunkers one after another. Because they don’t show footage of him not catching fish. That would be a boring TV show. But Bill Dance spends a lot of time not catching fish. It’s kind of the way fishing works. Eventually, I realized that even these big experts, with their expensive boats and their fish-finding radar, and all the time in the world to devote to fishing, spend a lot of time not catching fish.
Simon and James and John spend most of today’s passage not catching fish. Again, it is kind of the way that fishing works. It is often an exercise in futility. Very often, the weather isn’t right, or there is something about the conditions that keep the fish away. Of course, Simon and James and John were fishing without the benefit of million-dollar bass boats and fish-finding radar. But as far as experts go, they were up there. They seemed to have a pretty successful fishing business here on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and wouldn’t have lasted long if they didn’t know what they were doing. But as the passage opens, it appears that tonight was not their night. Simon tells him that they had been working all night and hadn’t caught a thing. Biblical scholar Joel Green suggests that the type of net that they used would have been visible during the day to the fish, but not at night, which is why they fished at night. By morning, the fish would avoid the netting and it would be a waste of time to try. So, they packed up the nets, cleaned them all out, and were getting ready to get some sleep to try again the next night.
Then Jesus shows up. Up until then, Jesus has been preaching in the synagogues…just like Nazareth last week, but Luke tells us that he was going around to all of the synagogues and visiting them and teaching there. But now, it seems that the crowds are getting too big for the synagogue. More and more people want to hear Jesus, and so he has started to preach outdoors. And today, he is preaching by the Sea of Galilee. And as he preaches, the crowds are getting in close around Jesus. So, probably feeling a little claustrophobic, he asks some local fisherman if he can get in their boat to row a few feet off shore. Sound carries on the water, so the people will be able to hear him, and it would give Jesus some room. And the boat he asked to use was that of Simon.
Now, according to Luke, Simon would have known Jesus or at least known about him. In the passage before, Jesus heals his mother in law of a high fever in Capernaum, and while we don’t know if Simon was there then, he likely would have heard the news by then. Chances are, he would have known who Jesus was, when he showed up to preach on the shore that day. But it doesn’t sound like Simon is overly interested in Jesus at this point. It doesn’t say Simon stays to listen. It doesn’t say Simon thanks Jesus for healing his mother in law. At this point, Simon probably just wants to go to bed. He is probably pretty worn out, and frustrated that he hasn’t caught anything. In fact, while I don’t know anything about fishing the Sea of Galilee, I do know about fishing for bass in small farm ponds, and a huge crowd of people making noise and splashing around on the side of the shore is the last thing that a fisherman wants. Simon might be a little miffed at Jesus for bringing this mess to his place of business, disrupting his only way to make money and feed his family. Instead of taking a load of fish to market, like he wishes he could do, it is almost as if Jesus says, “hey, since you obviously aren’t doing anything else, want to row me off shore and sit there while I preach?” It only highlights Simon’s futility.
Let me suggest that we have a little bit in common with Simon these days, don’t we? How many of you thought you were pretty good at your job before the pandemic? Pretty good parents? Pretty good students? Pretty good balancing home and work and school? Maybe you weren’t experts, but you knew what you were doing. And then the pandemic hit. Now, maybe the rest of you feel like you took on 2020 and you nailed it. You were experts waiting for the opportunity to shine. Maybe you have done better at your job or school or home life. But I will say that for one, I haven’t. Like Peter, and like my early days of bass fishing, 2020 taught me a ton of lessons in futility. All of the expertise in the world…all of the knowledge and education and experience and answers…and most of them were entirely useless. I felt futility at my job, as a parent, as a human being trying to balance all of the unexpected and unknown and unpredictable decisions that had to be made. Like Peter, I had all this expertise. And like Peter, on more than one occasion, I came back with an empty boat.
Maybe you would agree. Futility is hard. We want to be good at our jobs or our life responsibilities. To feel lost and confused is no fun. And that is not just about the pandemic. Nor is it just about immediate circumstances. Sometimes that futility becomes ontological or existential. What is my purpose now that I am retired? What is my purpose now that I have lost my job, or I have been told that I am not good at my job? What is my purpose now that the kids have left the house? Life is filled with these reminders of our futility…a lack of accomplishment or more fundamentally a lack of purpose. If you have lived long enough, you know the experience of coming back with an empty boat.
Simon knew it, too. And it gets worse before it gets better. He fails at his job, Jesus reminds him of his failure, he is tired and weary, and if all that weren’t enough, after the sermon is over, Jesus turns to Simon and says that they should go deeper and fish a little. I remember during my bassmaster expertise days, my little brother would go fishing with me and suggest that we do something…try this lure or go over there to fish. Of course, as the big brother, my response would always be, “I know what I am doing here…I’m the expert…I watched Hank Parker last week.” I can imagine that Simon has to think that at some level. “We just cleaned these nets and were headed to bed. You interrupted us to preach your sermon, and now you want to put these nets back in the water…these nets that the fish will obviously see and swim away from?” Simon has to be humoring Jesus here to put his nets back in the water. Maybe he is being polite, or honoring the popular teacher, or thankful for what happened with his mother in law. But he has to assume that nothing is going to happen, that Jesus will see that, he’ll get out of the boat, and Simon can go to bed. He humors Jesus, “Yet if you say so…” That phrase is the turning point of the passage. For whatever reason, Simon shows this modicum of trust, and it makes all the difference.
And we all know what happens next. The nets are immediately filled with more fish than they can handle. James and John have to come out and bring their nets. Both boats are so full, they are about ready to sink. And Simon knows that he is in the presence of something holy. It is interesting, isn’t it. It wasn’t Jesus’ healing of his mother in law that impressed Simon. It wasn’t his amazing ability to teach and preach that impressed Simon. But when Jesus demonstrated power in an area that Simon understood, he was in awe. Simon was an expert here. He knew this should not have happened. He knew this was a holy moment. And he treated it like one. Remember when we read in Isaiah a few weeks ago, “I am a man of unclean lips.” Isaiah knew what he was good at, what he was an expert at, and it wasn’t enough. Simon knows what he is an expert at, but knows it is not enough. He falls to the ground and tells Jesus, “get away from me, because I am a sinful man.” Simon is terrified at the power that he has just seen, and knows that his life may well be in danger from this power. Simon’s futility goes from circumstantial to existential. And he is terrified.
But look what Jesus does. In what is the first of many examples of this, Jesus restores Simon. That restoration is two-part. First, he removes his fear of futility. “Do not be afraid.” We hear that phrase so often in Scripture, it is easy to miss. Simon has all of this fear, but Jesus takes it away. The first part of the restoration is to remove his fear. He takes away this fear of futility, both circumstantial and existential.
Which of course, is the same thing that Jesus does for us. As individuals. As Christians. As the Church. We just want to do it right, but this story—and the whole Gospel so far—takes away that pressure and expectation. So far in Luke, Jesus’ earthly parents haven’t understood his Gospel. His cousin John hasn’t understood his Gospel. The people of his hometown of Nazareth haven’t understood his Gospel. If you watched my midweek video, you see that the people of Capernaum thought he should stay there with them just like those in Nazareth…they didn’t get it either. And spoiler alert, as Jesus starts to call his disciples, *they aren’t going to understand it either. Simon will be one of the worst.* Jesus takes away that fear of messing up. A fear of futility. Simon was there, and Jesus spoke the words that he needed to hear, that we all need to hear: “Do not be afraid.”
But Jesus restores Simon in a second way, too.: he gives Simon a purpose. Isn’t it interesting that when Simon asks for forgiveness, Jesus doesn’t give it to him. At least, not with those words. How often does Jesus tell people “your sins are forgiven?” But not Simon, at least not here. Instead, his forgiveness, his restoration comes with the gift of purpose. Of calling. You will fish for people. It is an ordination to ministry. A calling to purpose.
But the restoration continues. Simon comes out of the water and is given new life and new calling. Now he will fish for people. It is the same for all of us. Some of us are ordained for special service and professional ministry. But all of us, when we come out of the water, as baptized believers, are given new life and new calling. Sometimes that calling shifts and changes, but we are all called. All chosen. All given purpose in the Church and in the faith. And like Simon, when we step out of that boat, it will mean that we are frustrated and newbies and we will get it wrong as often as we get it right. But we can trust that the one who calls us will lead and guide and accompany us on this journey.
This past weekend, I had a blessing to be able to spend three Zoom sessions alongside of the leadership of this church. The Spiritual Leadership Team, the chairs, the vice chairs, the staff. Each group dug a little deeper into the ReShape initiative and what it means for the future of our church. And it felt like a moment of calling and purpose. Here we are, all trying to figure out how to do church in 2021. And let me be clear, your leadership doesn’t have all the answers. We aren’t experts here…no one is. They know that we have faced and will still face a certain level of futility.
But I didn’t hear despair or anger or frustration about that fact all weekend. Know what I heard? “Yet if you say so…” That measure of trust to say, “God we don’t have all the answers, but we trust you to accompany us as we figure them out. We trust your guidance and leadership and calling and purpose. We are not afraid. And we are ready to abandon our expectations and expertise, our fears and agendas and follow you.” And as we ended each session, we shared the benediction and blessing from Mark Tidsworth, one of our guides through the ReShaping process. It feels like a blessing and sending from Jesus:
Now, know that you are God’s people
God’s creative Spirit brought you into this world
And God’s power sustains you to this very moment
So, as you go, be who you are in Christ
Go as salt to flavor this tasteless world
Go as light to shine in the darkness
Go as grace to bring healing and hope to this broken and hurting world
And may the peace of God that surpasses all comprehension guard your hearts and minds until we gather again
So be it! Amen