A CATCHING STORY
A sermon by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, Quebec. Luke 5:1-11. February 8, 2004.
...he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.
- Luke 5.4
A few years ago, there was a Presbyterian Church just a block away from the church I was serving, and people who walked along the street would look at the sign-boards to see what the sermon titles were. At both churches, if there was to be a guest preacher, his or her name would be put on the board, along with the sermon topic. At the Presbyterian Church, when they didn't have a guest preacher, they would put the sermon title on the board, and then the words "The Minister" or "The Assistant Minister" underneath. Since we did not have an assistant minister at the United Church, it seemed to me to be unnecessary to put "The Minister" under the sermon title since my name was already there as the minister of the church.
One day, one of the church-members came into the church and told me that the sign-board at the Presbyterian Church said: "Walking on Water. The Minister." Then they asked what I could do to top that. I assured them that there was nothing I could do to top that; in fact, walking on water is something which I most definitely do not do. In fact, I have tried to make that clear at every church I have served. But I did admit that the sign was a catching one that it caught people's attention. And while our gospel reading this morning is not about walking on water, it is certainly a catching (or catchy) story.
First of all, like the Presbyterian sign, this story catches people's attention. Then when we read through the story, we find that catching is also what it is all about. On the face of it, it is a story about catching fish. After Jesus taught the crowds from a boat, he told the owner to put out into deep water and let down the nets for a catch. Now the owner who was Simon was not exactly overjoyed about doing this. "Teacher," he says, "we have worked all night long but have caught nothing." "Yet, if you say so, I will let down the nets."
The first part of Simon's response reminds me of things we sometimes say or hear in many churches. Someone come along with an idea, and we squelch it. "Been there, done that" has become a mantra that is said over and over again. "We tried that once: it didn't work!" we say as if new approaches should be expected to work the first time they are tried. So Simon is not too different from the rest of us at this point. In fact, Simon was not yet a follower of Jesus; and while he has already seen and heard Jesus, he has not yet learned that surprises happen when you do what Jesus says. And so his initial response to Jesus is something of a protest: "We've fished all night and taken nothing." We're tired, and we want to rest. We'll fish another day.
How much I find myself to be like Simon. Jesus says to do something and I find an excuse. The older English translation says, "Launch out into the deep," which seems to me to carry a double meaning. Not only is deep water the place where the fish are, but it is also the place of risk and possibly of danger. I would rather not venture into the deep, for getting back to safe harbour may not be so easy.
You see, what Jesus tells Simon is that this is not the time to wash your nets and take your rest: no, no, this is the time to fish and expect results. I believe that this same message is put to you and to me in the church today. To the church to all kinds of churches Jesus says to "launch out into the deep and lower your nets." In other words, he is telling us to be prepared for something to happen. And just as it was with Simon, so with us too this is not the time to wash our nets and put them away. Quite the contrary, it is the time for us to use those nets and to expect results. And further we are to move away from the safety and security of the shore and put out into deep water a place where there are risks, to be sure, but also the place where the fish are. When Simon did that, he took a catch of fish so large that it threatened to tear his nets and swamp his boat. He even had to call for help from his friends in another boat to pull in the net.
Now when this happened, Simon knew it wasn't because of his ability as a fisherman. He knew that he was not worthy of that kind of good fortune, and that he was in the presence of someone very special someone from God. So it is with us: it is God who gives the increase. When new people are drawn to the church, let us recognize that it is not because of our skills, or because of "luck," but because God is gracious and generous and blesses us when we do what Jesus tells us..
When Simon fell at Jesus feet and told him to go away for he was a sinful man, Jesus told him not to be afraid, and that from now on he would be catching people. And the last verse of the reading says that "when they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him."
What would it mean for our church to launch out into the deep? It can, of course, mean many things, and as always we would need to talk together to discern what kinds of deep water Jesus wants us to move into. One thing seems clear though: there are no fish to be caught on the shore with our nets put away.
What would it mean for us to "leave everything to follow Christ?" Does it mean that we should leave our occupations or our homes as Simon and the others did? Perhaps. There are certainly people who have done this, and many of us know of ministers who left an earlier career to follow Jesus in this way. In fact, some of your ministers here at Trinity had done just that. But clearly, not everyone can just pick up and leave their source of income and their family responsibilities.
One thing that we see in this Bible story is that Simon left his self-reliance. On his own, this skillful, professional fisherman had not caught any fish at all even though he had been out on the water all night. It was only when he obeyed the Christ that any fish were caught and in truth it was a miraculous catch.
Like Simon, we must learn to let down our nets at Jesus' word. Like him, we must leave behind our reliance on our own skills and our own judgement. We have already tried on our own. We already know that by ourselves we cannot draw people to Christ and his church. But when we launch out into the deep and put down our nets at Jesus' word, then we have ceased to rely on ourselves. When we do that, we are relying on the Master's word, and we know that whatever the size of the catch, it is given by God. And what God gives is sufficient.
Another Bible story about a boat is the one about Noahs ark at the time of the great flood. One writer points out that the ark did not have a rudder. Noah had to rely on God to guide the ark. In like manner we who have embarked in the fragile ship called the church must also trust in God to bring our boat to the place where we are supposed to be.
What does it mean to leave everything as Noah did and as Simon did? Most of all it means to leave behind our self-reliance, which is usually the source of our disappointment and discouragement anyway. To launch out into the deep is to rely on God. To let down our nets at Jesus' word is to rely on the Christ. To confess our sinfulness as Simon did is to take the first step in catching people: it is to know that we are not self-sufficient and that we do need forgiveness. In a very real sense, this is what it means to leave everything and follow Jesus.
As he did with Simon, Jesus tells us not to be afraid. Not to hesitate to launch out into deep water, even though it may be risky; for that is where the people are the people who need to hear and experience the gospel, and also the ones who will respond to it. The church of Jesus Christ does not grow by sitting on the beach. The church of Jesus Christ does not catch people by washing our nets and hanging them up to dry. It is only when we move into deep water and put down our nets because Jesus has said so that we shall be disciples and catch people .
When I was a university student, one of my teachers used to say that "Christianity is not so much taught as it is caught." How easily we forget that. This catching gospel story reminds us that we have each one been caught by the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that we are to be catching people for the gospel.
Come, then, let us leave behind our self-reliance. Come, let us put our trust in God, who is present to us in Jesus Christ. Come, people of God come followers of Jesus: let us launch out into the deep and put out the gospel net, relying on God to take our church-boat were we need to go, and then to bring us to safe harbour. Amen.