“Sunday at East”—Concordia College, Moorhead, MN
February 7, 2010
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
So, this past Friday morning I woke up feeling out of sorts—down in the dumps about conflicts in our churches and a year-end financial report overflowing with red ink. I needed a dose of good news—so I switched on the radio in my car, which was a pretty stupid idea--because I was greeted by a litany of bad-to-worse stories that only deepened the blue funk I was already in.
It was so bad that I said, in my car, right out loud, “I could really use some good news here!” And then there was a blurb about a car manufacturer recall, and I told myself: “Well at least I don’t own a Toyota—that’s a shred of good news.”
Maybe you, too, have days that start out like that. Things pile up, nothing seems to be going your way, what’s a body to do?
I suspect that’s maybe how it was for Simon here in this gospel story.
He’d been plying his trade all night long, but the fish just weren’t biting. And when fishing is your business, your only business, that can’t be good. As far as we know Simon didn’t have a bait-and-tackle shop on the side; so if the fish weren’t biting he was out of luck.
Simon had called it a night, come into shore, beached his boats and was cleaning his nets when along came Jesus.
Jesus was having different problems--crowd control problems. “The crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God,” and he needed some space, so Jesus commandeered Simon’s beached fishing boat, to use it as a floating lectern, a water-borne pulpit.
Now I might as well name something that’s been on my mind as I read this gospel lesson this past week. I wonder whether Jesus wasn’t sometimes downright annoying to those around him.
I mean, can’t he see that Simon’s not having a good day, after all? Can’t Jesus give Simon and these other fishermen a little space?
Apparently not. Jesus needs a boat and Simon’s is available.
But then when the teaching time out on the water is over, Jesus makes another request—or is it more like a demand, here? “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
Sounds like an order to me, and not a very smart one, either.
Like a city slicker who’s spent one week on a dude ranch and now thinks he’s a real cowboy—Jesus, who knows nothing about fishing, tries to tell Simon how to do his work. The nerve of him!
And you can hear some of Simon’s skepticism and world-weariness in his taut reply: ““Master, (um) we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet (sigh!) if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
That’s what I mean! Simon knew where and when to fish. Simon was a professional, and Jesus was a rank amateur who, by rights, should have kept his mouth shut…
….but Simon plays along, nonetheless.
And the outcome of Simon’s reluctant obedience is simply staggering.
No sooner do the nice, clean nets—nets that haven’t caught even a minnow all night long, when the fishing is supposed to be the best—no sooner do the nets hit the mid-morning water, then that they become filled suddenly with a teeming school of fish.
You know this is something great because it’s described here in such disastrous terms. Did you catch that? This is a marvelous, wondrous thing—because it just about destroys Simon’s whole business. “…They caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So 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.”
Tearing nets and sinking boats—the miracle was that good, that wonderful, that amazing!
Which makes Simon’s next action all the more surprising. For, instead of shouting “Glory hallelujah…” instead of getting right into Jesus’ face and asking, “How did you do that?”
….Instead of any such understandable reaction, Simon chooses, rather to “hit the dirt.” Falling at Jesus’ knees, Simon begs him to depart from his presence, “for I am a sinful man!”
Here we see, not how confused Simon was, but how completely, utterly aware he was of just what was happening.
In that moment—with nets torn, and boats about to go down to Davey Jones’ locker—it dawned on Simon that he was in the very presence of God-in-human-flesh. And Simon saw all at once the gulf between himself and Jesus. Keenly aware of his own god-forsakenness…Simon asked Jesus to head somewhere else—to flee from his miserable presence….
….which is exactly what Jesus didn’t do!
Instead of fleeing, Jesus got into Simon’s face and said two things.
First, “do not be afraid.”
If there is a training manual for angels and saviors, I’m pretty sure that on the first page of it are these instructions: “You never can say to human beings often enough that they don’t need to be afraid.”
Do not be afraid, Jesus tells Simon, which in this case is sort of like an absolution, sort of like “your sin isn’t a problem here, not with me anyway!”
And then, lest Simon miss the point, Jesus adds another word: “From now on, you will be catching people.”
This, too, was a kind of absolution—in the form of a call, though, an invitation to fall into line with Jesus, to join his royal service, to become a follower, and not just a follower but a catcher of persons….to let down his nets in a teeming sea of lost and wayward humans.
Jesus’ response to Simon was at least as surprising as Simon’s earlier response had been.
Because when someone confesses their sinfulness, when someone falls down at Jesus’ knees, you expect Jesus to flat-out declare a word of forgiveness….which in effect he does so here, but not in those exact words.
And that is what I want to ponder with you for just a few more minutes here. How is it that sometimes Jesus forgives us, not by forgiving us but by telling us to not be afraid….and then by putting us to work?
Isn’t that curious? Sometimes the absolution sounds like an absolution: You know, the kind of absolution that says, “I therefore declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all your sins…”
But sometimes the absolution sounds like something a loving parent whispers to a terrified child: “do not be afraid”—followed by an invitation to embark on something new with your life—to join with Jesus in catching others up into God’s great, big bulging net of mercy!
I wonder, my dear young friends….I wonder if in this season of your lives….off to college, here at Concordia….I wonder if that may be how Jesus wants to do vital business with you—here and now.
You are such fertile soil for Jesus to till, after all. You’re here, in this hothouse of learning and exploration and vocational discernment (to use a 25-cent-term)….and maybe some of that has you taking stock of yourself, becoming aware of what you’re not so good at, but also being open to how God might use you.
Let me repeat that, just in case you missed it: God has use for you. God wants to use you.
If that very thought makes you want to flee…to get out of here….because you know you’re not good enough for God to use….
…If that very thought spooks you, scares you off….I say to you: “Do not be afraid.” God is accustomed to working with imperfect stuff. God is familiar with sinners and their foibles. In fact, God has a thing for sinners—sinners are God’s favorite people!
God can use people who know they can’t make it on their own. God likes to get a hold of such people, to get a hold of you and of me, and then God really gets a kick out of using us to get a hold of others for him, as well.
And when God does that, sometimes, sometimes the absolution hits us in the form of a warm, gentle invitation…spoken with deep love and fierce determination.
It’s an invitation to be of use to God, to hear God’s voice, to follow God’s call and to spend yourself in God’s service…however that might look through your eyes, with your hands, tapping into your gifts.
Despite all your failings, all the ways you fall short—God has need of you. And God will have his way with you.
Lawrence Robert Wohlrabe was born in Mankato, MN. He graduated from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and Luther Seminary, St. Paul. Luther Seminary awarded him a Doctor of Ministry degree with distinction.
Ordained in 1981, he served parishes in Willmar, MN; St. James, MN; and Moorhead, MN. He was also on the staff of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, and the SW MN Synod ELCA, Redwood Falls, MN. Larry was elected bishop of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod on June 10, 2007. He was re-elected bishop of the synod, to a second 6-year term on June 7, 2013.
Larry's wife, Joy, is retired after working many years as a hospital and hospice social worker. They have two young adult children, Erik and Kristen (married to Aaron) and two grandchildren, Olivia and Micah. Note: the views expressed here are Bishop Wohlrabe's views--not those of the NW MN Synod.