This is the sermon I preached for Ocean Sunday, the first Sunday in the Season of Creation C at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The text was Luke 5:1-11.
I love the Sea of Galilee, which is just a small lake, not an awful lot bigger than Chautauqua. I have fond memories of vacations there as a family when the kids were small. The area was so much greener and lusher than the desert of Bethlehem, where we lived. We could relax on various beaches with little to no other people and just play in the clean, beautiful water. I enjoy the stories of Jesus, like today’s, that take place on or near that lovely lake.
The first three verses of our gospel set the stage for all that follows. Jesus’ growing reputation has resulted in a crowd. There were so many “pressing in on him” that Jesus needed a boat as a place from which to teach, the water providing a natural amphitheater for sound. And so we find the elements of Earth become Jesus’ teaching partner.
When Jesus calls Simon Peter to go to deeper water, I can imagine Simon thinking and maybe even saying, “You want me to do what? Are you kidding me! I’m exhausted. We fished all night and came up empty. You know this isn’t the right time or place to fish. But…whatever you say, Master.”
The kind of nets the fishermen used were made of linen, which was visible to fish during the day and so they were used at night. Two to four men were required to deploy them. They needed washing every morning. Peter really must have thought Jesus was crazy. Imagine that a professional fisherman like Simon, after working all night at this work, would let a non-fisherman like Jesus direct him into the depths to try again.
Going out into deep water means less control. Scary things can happen there. Deep water represents risk and danger and the land represents safety. “Deep water” would make the ancient listener think of the power of chaos we read of in Genesis 1.
The focus now is truly on Peter and Jesus and the exchange between them. Simon Peter is the only one who speaks to Jesus in our gospel reading. Initially, he addresses Jesus as “master,” but after the huge catch of fish, Simon Peter addresses Jesus as Lord. Likewise, Simon Peter is the only one Jesus addresses directly, when he tells him to go into deep water (v. 4) and at the end of the story when he tells Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people (v. 10). The waters and fish play an important teaching role for Peter and the others that God’s power and abundance never cease to surprise us.
The huge amount of fish that were caught, that started breaking the nets and almost sinking two fishing boats was a sign of abundance. Would it seem like such a big deal in comparison to healing, exorcising or raising the dead? To others it may seem like a small thing, but not for those who depend upon fishing for their livelihood.
Simon’s first response was worship (falling on his knees before Jesus), then unworthiness (“go away”), followed by confession (“I am a sinful man”). Whatever Peter’s sins, they did not deter Jesus from calling him to fish for people. Jesus did not tell Peter to repent. Jesus did not tell him to go and sin no more. Jesus did not tell him to sell all he has. Peter said he’s a sinner and God called him to become a fisher of people. Period.
The verb translated as “catch” came to mean “to restore to life and strength, to revive.” Listen to how this verse could be translated, “You will be restoring people to life and strength.” Can you imagine that as evangelism, as fishing for people? Can we capture people with love, grace and mercy as opposed to threats and law and intimidation?
This was the last time that Simon, James and John fished in the old way. Jesus asked them to re-imagine who “fish” might be. The moral of the story is NOT “Let’s keep doing what we have always done and trust that one day God will fill our nets.” The real moral is, “Let’s stop fishing the way we have always done. Let’s re-imagine who we are and how we are and what we are called to do now” (Ewart).
In fishing for Simon Peter and his co-workers, Jesus has captivated them with his love. As the boat returns to shore, Peter, James and John have been transformed into followers of Jesus. They leave all to follow him. The disciples have freed themselves from all things, are being released from them.
This was huge! It involved leaving the family (14:26) and leaving one’s means of support. The family was the primary producing unit in antiquity. They were abandoning family responsibilities and their own security (Tannehill). The disciples will find their sense of belonging and being in relationship to Jesus, the other disciples as community and the redemptive purpose Jesus serves.
The fish are ready and waiting to be caught. Jesus has prepared them. What is keeping us from capturing the fish and sharing the good news with our world? We need to be released from whatever is hindering us from following Jesus, from acting on Jesus’ word, from putting in the effort to haul in the catch that Jesus promises us.
Because Jesus is in the boat with us, the power of God’s realm is already at work through us. Jesus gives us far more than we can imagine (Ephesians 3:20). We just need to do what Jesus says—to put down our nets into the chaos of life (Havea).
If Peter were to let down his nets in open waters today, it’s likely that his haul would be compromised. Overfishing would result in smaller and fewer fish. And the nets would be so heavy, not from fish, but from a disgusting array of trash, poisons and toxic waste. We have floating islands of trash both on the surface and below water. Human waste chokes and poisons marine life in ways that cause suffering that many of us never see or want to face.
The very illustration Jesus uses—the basic, natural and life-giving phenomenon of fish thriving in a healthy aquatic ecosystem—this very process is under threat of eradication. This would be an accurate reframing of Luke’s fishing expedition for today’s world.
We need to remember the ocean is home to many creatures, including those from the South and North—all over the world. It is not an uninhabitable wilderness, but a hive buzzing with life. The ocean and the earth will survive human destruction, albeit a bit battered, however, humanity may not survive if we remain on our current course.
We know what the problems are that pollute our waters. But what can we possibly do about it? Lots. I’d like to share just a few of the many, simple things we can do as a congregation or in our own homes. For one, the way we clean makes a difference. Did you know there are green cleaners available that do not add chemical pollutants to the water we discard?
The type of pesticides we use make a difference as well. If we make the effort, there are chemical-free alternatives available.
One last thing we can do comes from the past, which is the use of rain barrels and cisterns. These collect rainwater during storms. That water can then be used to water our landscape. It’s an easy way to promote stormwater management and reduce the unnecessary use of safe drinking water.
There are many other measures we can take to help ensure the cleanliness of our waters. Please refer to the materials in the narthex, which contain at least a half dozen other ideas.
As Lutherans, we don’t emphasize what we have to do as much as what God does. We hear so much of what humans do to desecrate the Earth, that we need to remember that we proclaim a theology of the cross that reminds us that God shows up in places we would least expect God—to announce the good news of what God is doing to restore the oceans, seas, rivers and streams—and yes, our own Chautauqua Lake; especially as they connect to human and other living creatures around and within them.
Why should we care about what happens to the waters of our world? Because God cares. Water is instrumental to our physical and spiritual lives. In The Small Catechism, Luther writes concerning the wondrous things God does for us in the waters of baptism. Answering the question, “How can water do such great things,?” he writes, “Clearly the water does not do it, but the word of God, which is with and alongside the water, and faith, which trusts this word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is plain water and not a baptism, but with the word of God it is a baptism…a grace-filled water of life.”
Let us pray:
Lord, we see the algae blooms in our nearby waters as well as other pollutants and we sometimes feel so helpless. May your grace inspire and energize us to be good caretakers of your earth. Holy Spirit, move us to be fishers of people just as Peter and the other disciples were. We ask all this is the powerful name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
David Ewart, holytextures.com
Joel B. Green, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of
Jione Havea, The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary
Arland J. Hultgren, workingpreacher.org
National Councils of Churches USA Eco-Justice Program, Water Stewards: A Toolkit for Congregational Care of Local Watersheds
Linda Schade, letallcreationpraise.org
Brian Stoffregen, crossmarks.com
Robert Tannehill, Luke