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So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/27/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Luke 5:1-11. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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This morning we read an origin story. It’s a story about how Jesus got the band started. Peter – also known as “the Rock” –  and the brothers Zebedee – James and John – who Jesus gave the nickname “Sons of Thunder.” I’m honestly surprised that ancient church art doesn’t look like 1980s metal band album covers. These guys sound pretty rough-and-tumble, to be honest.

These were working-class guys. They worked hard. They worked with their hands. When Jesus first met them by the Sea of Galilee, they had just gotten done pulling an all-nighter out on the lake, repeatedly casting their nets for the family fishing business. They were exhausted, and frustrated. They had struck out, finding no fish at all. 

It’s not clear how tight a margin these fishermen were on, but not catching anything couldn’t be good. It might even mean that they didn’t get to eat that day. “Give us this day our daily bread,” indeed. How about some daily fish while you’re at it, God?

Anyway, here comes Jesus. It says that he commandeered Peter’s boat to do some preaching. It sounds like Jesus did this a lot – preaching from on board a boat, so that the crowds wouldn’t overwhelm him.

And after preaching for a while, he says to Peter: “Put out into the deep water, and let down your nets for a catch.” Peter reminds Jesus that he just spent the whole night fishing out there in that same spot and caught nothing. But despite his objections, he trusts Jesus, and casts his nets anyway.

The result is astonishing. It’s almost comical. Peter and his crew draw in so many fish that they were almost overwhelmed. The nets were starting to break, and they had to call over some other fishermen in another boat to help them take in the catch. And there were so many fish in those nets that, not only did the catch fill both boats, but the boats started to sink under the weight of it!

This was clearly a miracle. Jesus had to be a prophet. After a long night of fishing and catching nothing, here was a catch like no one had ever seen before. This had to be God at work.

And in the presence of God, Peter is afraid. It says that he gets down on his knees and tells Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

Jesus responds to Peter by saying, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” And it says that when they got back to shore, Peter, James, and John left everything and followed him.

I tell myself a story. Maybe you do this, too. I tell myself a story that everything is depending on me. I’ve got to excel. I’ve got to produce. I’ve got to provide. I have to make things happen. It’s on me. Will I do enough, be enough, deserve enough to provide for myself and others. Will I succeed in making things come out alright?

I was raised to believe that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. And so it’s really hard, those many times when I have been fishing all night and come up with nothing. At times like these, when I have tried and failed, repeatedly, I see just how much I am at the mercy of forces beyond my control. 

There are elections and natural disasters. Droughts and pandemics. All sorts of events that I just can’t foresee. My efforts are not the key factor. I’m weak and limited. I simply can’t control the outcome of my day, much less my whole life. 

So I get worried. I get worried about the small stuff and the big stuff. I get worried about how my team at work regards me. I get worried about my impact as a Quaker minister. I get worried about the future of our church, and how we can share the gospel with a new generation that sees the world differently. 

I’ve had my share of disappointments in life. There have been times when I have worked so hard, and yet things just didn’t go the way they were supposed to. I gave it my best, and I failed. Sometimes I’ve thought, “God, I just can’t do this. I’m not strong enough.” 

So I feel like I have some idea what Peter and his friends were feeling, when Jesus told them to head out into the deep waters and go fishing. I feel like I can relate to the pressure Peter was under – not just from the fact that they had had a bad night and might not get to eat that day – but the gnawing pressure of uncertainty: “Am I going to make it? Does my whole life amount to anything? Does God love me? Am I enough?”

I feel like I understand where Peter was at, which is why his response to Jesus is impressive to me. You see, I’d be tempted to tell Jesus, “you know what, teacher. That was a real nice sermon. But as a professional fisherman, let me tell you: We spent a lot of time drag-netting that area last night – there’s no fish there. Let’s get you back to land so that you can go heal some people. And I can get some sleep.”

But that’s not what Peter says. Maybe that sermon Jesus just gave really did make an impact. Because Peter doesn’t brush Jesus off. He’s worn out and disheartened, but he trusts Jesus. He says, “If you say so, Jesus. I’ll give it another shot.”

I am trying to put myself in Peter’s headspace when he feels the tug on the nets, and starts to try pulling them up and realizes what a massive haul he has. I’m trying to imagine Peter’s emotions as he smells the fish, coming up into the air. Seeing the silhouette of the massive haul still beneath the water and realizing that he is going to need another boat to help bring this catch in. I’m trying to wrap my head around what it must have meant to Peter, James, and John, to see two whole boats filled with fish, so many that the boats were beginning to sink.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” But so much! Just like when Jesus feeds the thousands. Not just enough; overflowing. Baskets and baskets of bread and fish left over. Fishing boats, sinking under the weight of God’s grace.

It says that the fishermen were amazed. It’s also implied that they were frightened. I know I would be. Frightened. Intrigued. Grateful. Changed?

When Peter, James, and John saw those boats sinking under the weight of the catch, something happened inside them. They were no longer fishers of tilapia and carp. This was the catch to end all catches. What they had just seen could never be surpassed. It was finished. Now it was time to try a new kind of fishing.

It says that, when they got back to shore, they left everything and followed Jesus. The piles of writhing fish. The boats. The family business. Everything. Peter and the brothers Zebedee started all over again with empty hands.

What gave them that courage? What possessed them to walk away from everything they had and knew, and to follow this teacher from Nazareth?

They knew that Jesus was a better fisherman than they would ever be. They had learned from experience that God could and would provide for them. The struggle to survive, to eat, to provide, was not a burden they had to carry any longer. They had discovered that people do not live by bread – or fish – alone, but by every word from God’s mouth. They could sense that Jesus was that word, and that they could live by him.

What Peter, James, and John experienced that day by the Sea of Galilee, we can experience, too. Maybe you have already experienced it. Have you seen God make a way out of no way? Have you seen him turn failure into success, hunger into fullness, despair into hope? Have you seen him part the Red Sea and turn water into wine? Have you seen that God does indeed provide your daily bread?

What does that do to a person? What does that do to you, when you know that God provides? What difference does it make in your life when you know, truly know in your bones and sinews, that you can trust in Jesus to lead you – that you can count on his promises – that you are safe with him?

The word of the Lord to us this morning is this: God will take care of the fish. God will provide for you. Do not be afraid. God has liberated you from concerns about the scramble for daily bread in order to free us for a much more significant labor. From now on, you will be fishing for people.

What are the fish to you? What is that daily bread that you’re trying to earn, to control? What are you afraid to lose? What are the fish, the boats, the family business, to you? What have you been clinging so tightly to – what do you need to let go, and let God provide?

God will take care of the fish. He will give us this day our daily bread. He will provide manna in the wilderness and water from the rock. He will make a way out of no way. He will not fail you.

Trusting in that – trusting in his promises – what might be possible? What could change? What could you walk away from, and what is it that you are being called to walk towards? What are the risks that you have been too terrified to take, that God is inviting you into now?

From now on you will be fishing for people.