Lessons: Judges 6:11-24; I Corinthians 15:1-11; St. Luke 5:1-11
Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany but it is also the 5th Sunday of Epiphany and I have chosen to preach on the propers of the latter. As I was preparing this sermon on the gospel story there was something vaguely familiar about it but I could not put my finger on it. Of course I have read this story scores of times but I kept thinking that it was connected to something else. Then I recalled Fr. Chris’ excellent sermon on the miracle at the wedding in Cana and the light came on. In spite of the fact that one story is about turning water into wine and the other is about catching fish, there are similarities that I don’t think are accidental.
In both cases the problem is emptiness. At the wedding they ran out of wine and at the lake their nets were empty. In both cases Jesus was dealing with folks who were experts on their jobs. At the wedding Jesus spoke with the chief steward. At the lake He spoke with men who were fishermen. These were not rednecks with a cooler and a johnboat; these were men who fished for their livelihood.
There is more. In both cases Jesus told them to do something ridiculous. You don’t finish a nice bottle of wine and then go to the tap and refill it with water and hope for the best. And any fisherman knows, when they ain’t bitin, they ain’t bitin. There are days when you can throw everything that you have in your tackle box and it won’t matter. I fished a lot in Florida and I had a lure that was a little plastic kitchen sink with a couple of treble hooks on it because when I got down to throwing everything at them but the kitchen sink it was time to go home. So it would have been understandable if the boys felt more than a little insulted to have a preacher tell them how to fish after these professionals had been fishing all night to no avail. But then again I can also imagine that if Mother Mary had been there like she was at the wedding feast, she would have told those fisherman the same thing that she told the stewards. “Just do what he tells you to do.”
I also see a parallel in the results. At the wedding not only was this new wine better than the previous wine but also Jesus made 180 gallons of the stuff! How many people were at this party? And at the lake they caught so many fish that their nets were about to break and when they called for help they continued to catch so many fish that their boats almost sank. In both cases the people had to think back to Scriptures like Psalm 23 “my cup runneth over” and realize that the One who was making this happen was no mere man. He had to be at least a prophet and maybe more. The point of both of these stories Jesus was revealing Himself as Lord.
But beyond revealing Himself as Lord I see some important lessons for us that show how He ministers to His people and by extension how we can minister to one another. The first lesson is that Jesus met folks right where they were.
When he talked with Nicodemus they talked theology. When He met the woman at the well they talked about living water. When at the wedding they ran out of wine, He made more wine. When the fishermen came up empty He helped them catch fish. He met them at the point of their need.
Jesus did not have a canned gospel presentation, like the four spiritual laws, that addressed everyone in the exact same manner. I have been to a number of evangelism seminars that seemed more like a used car presentation and that can’t be right. Jesus did not treat people like statistics and He wasn’t interested in collecting spiritual scalps. This lover of souls treated each person as though they were fearfully and wonderfully made because He knew that they were.
And in meeting them where they were we note that He did not require them to change before He helped them. He didn’t say to the fishermen, “If you agree to get confirmed then I will show you where the fish are.” Jesus did not require them to change before He helped them because it would be His love and mercy that would bring about change. Otherwise it would be like a doctor requiring you to get well before he gives you an appointment.
As the Lord is towards us, so we should be towards one another. This is especially true when we are dealing with non-Christians or the unchurched. We must both be willing to meet them where they are and we must not require them to change before we show compassion. It is noteworthy that Jesus did not address the sin of the woman at the well until they are deep in discussion. He did address sin and He did call on people to repent but that was not were He typically started. It was the Pharisees that made people feel judged and condemned but from Jesus they felt mercy and compassion and that is why sinners were drawn to him. They should feel the same from us.
I will admit that this can be a bit of a challenge. While you certainly don’t want to come across like a Pharisee, on the other hand you don’t want to come across as condoning sinfulness. I believe that there are no simple guidelines about how to do this because there are no simple people. We are complex beings and our reasons for doing what we do, even when we know it is wrong, is equally complex. So we must pray and discern and be led by the Holy Spirit and He will guide us in how and when to show mercy.
Just know that the Holy Spirit can use the smallest act of kindness to make a radical difference in a person’s life. I read last week of a North Korean soldier who defected and found his freedom all because of a nail clipper. An American soldier as an act of kindness gave him the nail clipper. He marveled at its sharp edges and its mechanics. As he did so he had an epiphany that if his country could not even make such a simple tool that they did not stand a chance against the West. So he escaped the oppressive regime. Such simple acts of kindness can also be a tool of the Holy Spirit for giving someone a spiritual epiphany and lead them to spiritual freedom.
A second lesson about Jesus that we can learn from this story is the depth of His compassion. It touches me both in the story of the wedding feast and in this story of the fishermen that these were hardly life and death issues. As Fr. Chris pointed out, it would be a great source of embarrassment to run out of wine, and it would be a loss of a day’s wage to not catch any fish, but both of those problems are insignificant compared to a catastrophic illness or a natural disaster. But God’s mercies are so tender towards us that what is important to us is important to Him. Just as there is nothing too large for us to take to Him, neither is there anything too small. I hope that we can truly believe this. I hope we never take it for granted. Brennan Manning said, “We should be astonished at the goodness of God, stunned that He should bother to call us by name, open wide our mouths at His love, bewildered that at this very moment we are standing on holy ground.”
When we realize the depth of His compassion for us, it gives us grace to have a deeper compassion for others. And to be real honest there will be many times in which we will need that extra grace. I had an elderly retired priest for my pastoral theology class when I was at Sewanee. One day he said to us, “Boys the thing you need to know about pastoral theology is that people are no damn good.” I was shocked by his statement and just chalked it up to the fact that he was a burned out old priest. But the longer I was in ministry, the more I appreciated what he was trying to tell us. In an unsophisticated way he was reminding us that people are sinners and we should not be surprised or hurt when they act that way. It hurts when you try to help people and they turn on you and attack you, but if you help enough people that will surely happen. You will be tempted to become cynical when you find that people have lied to you and didn’t really need the help that you gave them. You will want to stop caring when you pour your life into someone and they disappear on you without even so much as a “goodbye.”
To keep from growing hard of heart we must recall all the ways that God has been good to us. We recall all the times that He has been faithful, even when were unfaithful. This is where we receive the grace to keep showing compassion, to keep on helping, to keep on serving….. because it is the kingdom right thing to do.
A third lesson we learn not only from this story of the fishermen, but also from many others in the Scripture, is that He is the Lord of the unexpected. In our Old Testament, when God calls Gideon, it was nothing he could have expected. As he said, his clan was the weakest clan and he was the least in his family so he hardly saw himself as a mighty warrior. St. Paul was shocked to be chosen because he was a former persecutor of the Church and so he considered himself to be the least of the apostles. The chief steward was hardly looking for great wine to come out of pots filled with water and the fishermen who had fished all night were hardly expecting such a catch that they had to call for help.
What these fishermen could have never ever expected was that they would be called to leave their boats and become fishers of men. From the Sea of Galilee they would travel all over Asia Minor, to Europe and Africa and as far away as India and Russia. The abundance of fish that they caught in their nets was a foreshadowing of the thousands of millions who would come into the kingdom through their faithful witness. How could they have ever seen that coming?
If you are a real strong type A, God doing the unexpected can be a challenge. I had to learn the hard way that there is my way and there is His way and my way doesn’t usually work out so well. But if I embrace doing it His way and expect the unexpected, it can be a joyful way to live. There is freedom in knowing that He is the Shepherd and I am just a sheep and so I don’t have to be in control of everything nor have all the answers. As Mother Mary said, I just need to do whatever He tells me to do.
It didn’t have to make sense to fill up pots with water or to go out fishing again but the miracles wouldn’t have happened if they had not obeyed. If you are not having the unexpected happen in your walk with the Lord it may be because you are still trying to do things your way. This Lent would be a great time to make a change, turn in the other direction, and start doing things His way.
Jesus called these first disciples to be fishers of men and while we do not share their apostolic callings we too are responsible for sharing the Good News. In our baptismal covenant we are asked. “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” And we respond, “We will with God’s help.” Treating others with Christ like compassion and grace is a great way to do just that.
I think as church people we forget how many out there don’t even know the first thing about the Good News. I got a stark reminder of that last week. I was having the oil changed in my truck and a young woman who was in her late 20’s was the sales lady. As they were finishing up she said, “I see that you have a collar on, does that mean that you are a Father?” When I said yes, she got a little dumbstruck and she stepped back and said, “Wow, I’ve never met one before. I’ve seen you guys in the movies but I’ve never met one in person.” You would have thought that I was a unicorn. This started a great conversation but we ran out of time with other cars behind me. I plan on following up with her.
The point of the story is that so many in the world have no idea where to begin to connect with the Lord. Let the knowledge that there are so many “fish” out there, who need to be gathered into the net of the kingdom, make us become fishers of men. Amen.