When I was young, I loved to go fishing. I grew up in Dassel, Minnesota a small town about 40 miles south of St. Cloud.On Sunday afternoons, my family would often visit my Uncle Walter and Aunt Lydia, my mother’s oldest sister. They lived on farm northeast of Dassel. What I loved about the farm was the river. The north branch of the Crow River meandered through the property. During summer visits, my family spent hours fishing for northerns, sunfish and crappies.
One Labor Day weekend, when I was about 6 years old, we were fishing on a warm afternoon. Suddenly, my mother got excited because she saw an enormous fish. It looked like a log floating by in the stream. In retrospect, maybe it was a sign.
Not long after this, my Aunt Lydia came out of the house sobbing. She told us, as we stood there holding our fishing poles, that my grandfather—the father of my mother and Lydia—had just died of a heart attack.
When we got to my grandfather’s house, my grandma Ida told us a strange story. Just before he died, grandpa called her into the bedroom. “They’re coming to take me,” Grampa Bill told her, pointing at someone she could not see. With those words, he passed away.
Back then, I wondered—and to be honest, I still wonder today—who came to take my grandfather? Was it God? Was it Jesus? Was it angels? People who have had near-death experiences tell of meeting spouses and parents and friends. Loved ones who passed before. And a bright light that welcomes them to their eternal home. I like to think that’s what happened to my grandpa. A holy encounter with love. An epiphany.
As a child, I remember my mother repeating that story about the big fish and my grandpa. In my six-year-old mind, the death of my grandfather was forever connected to that afternoon of fishing on my uncle’s farm.
In a similar way, today’s Gospel story links fishing with a major event in the life of Jesus and Peter.
Like my hometown, first-century Capernaum was small—only about 1,000 people. A fishing village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, called Lake Gennesaret in this lesson. Of course, the way people fished at the time was very different than when I was a kid. Instead of the long cane pole I used as a boy, they used fishing nets, dragged behind their boats.
In 1986, archaeologists discovered the remains of a first-century fishing boat, buried in the mud of the Sea of Galilee just south of Capernaum. In fact, it’s called the “Jesus boat,” and today it’s displayed in a small museum next to a kibbutz near there.
I saw that boat when Charlie and I visited Israel seven years ago. The boat is much larger than today’s fishing boats—eight feet wide and 26 feet long. A huge boat that needed a crew to row and steer. The kind of boat used by the fisherman in this story. But for them, fishing was not something you did to relax on a Sunday afternoon.
Fishing was manual work. It was also a team effort—Peter, James and John were partners in their business. They worked side by side from early morning into the hot afternoon. These fishers had little—if any—formal education. Some were illiterate, and many were poor. It’s ironic when you consider that these first disciples would not meet the minimal qualifications for ordination in our Lutheran Church today.
Yet, Peter later became the leader of the early Church. In this ordinary guy, Jesus saw something special. But Peter doesn’t see that in himself. He says, “Get away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” A curious reaction for someone who has just hauled a record-breaking catch of fish. You’d think it would be more like the end of a Super Bowl game—where the winners high-five one another and celebrate their good luck. Well, except for last week’s game, which was not that exciting. Even the half-time show—normally my favorite part—was not very good. Nevertheless, Peter has something to celebrate. But he doesn’t feel that good about it. He sees himself as undeserving, as a sinner.
The prophet Isaiah has a similar reaction, in our first lesson, when he sees God. He cries, “I am a person of unclean lips.” I remember feeling that way when I was in seminary. As a closeted gay man, I was terrified that others would discover my secret, and expose me as a sinner. Now, I know that God did not see me that way back then. Just like Peter, who was afraid Jesus would see only his sinfulness, his brokenness, his self-doubts. But I don’t think Jesus came to make people feel guilty. Jesus came to bring holy love to people like Peter. An epiphany on a smelly fishing boat. Revealing what others cannot see. The presence of God shining into hearts and homes. Amazing grace revealed to shame-filled humans.
The same is true today. For Jesus comes not to reveal sin. Jesus comes to bring the holy presence of God to ordinary places. Jesus comes to instill holiness in people like us. Holiness that touches our broken hearts. Holiness that heals our troubled minds. Holiness that comforts those hovering on the border of life and death. Today, a lot of people in our culture feel like they have no value. That they have nothing to offer.
I once read about a survey that asked a large group of Christians what they believed God thought about them. It asked them to name the one emotion God feels for each of us humans. Can you guess what the survey revealed? It’s actually kind of shocking. For the majority said, “When God thinks about me, I believe that God’s overwhelming feeling is disappointment.” Disappointment. Isn’t that incredible? With all the songs and Bible verses and sermons about grace, we still think God is disappointed with us.
How awful, really. Because the truth of the matter is the exact opposite. What I’ve learned in living this life, is there’s nothing holy or spiritual about beating yourself up. There’s no redemption in wallowing in shame. Talking bad to yourself does not please God.
St. Paul knew that grace is given to free us from all that. In our second lesson from Corinthians, Paul calls himself “the least of the apostles” and says he’s “unfit to be called an apostle,” because he persecuted the early church of Jesus. “But by the grace of God,” Paul says, “I am what I am, and [God’s] grace toward me has not been in vain.”
Paul was convinced of God’s love when Jesus appeared as a bright light on the road to Damascus. Paul was the last of all the apostles to see the risen Christ.
In Jesus, Paul saw something he had never seen before. In Christ, Paul felt a love he had never experienced. A holy encounter with grace. A meeting that instilled in him a confidence no one could take away. That’s the kind of faith we share here at St. Mark’s. For this congregation is based on the theological concept that we are all saved by grace. That God in Christ loves us as we are. Despite what others may think. Despite what other Christians or politicians may say. Despite what our own self-doubts may whisper in our ears.
That’s the message we have to proclaim to our world and our community here in Fargo, North Dakota. For Jesus says the same thing to us that Jesus said to Simon Peter in the fishing boat so long ago, “Don’t be afraid. I am calling you by name. And will lead you, wherever you go.” Like Peter, the voice of Jesus is calling us today. Calling us by name, as beloved children of God. Calling us to catch not fish, but people. Like Peter, in Jesus we see the holy love of God our Creator, revealed in ordinary people like me and you.
And all we can say in response is, “Here I am. Send me.” Amen.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 5:1-11
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.