One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.
In a time of emptiness and bleakness, Jesus becomes a source of hope and abundance. Do not be afraid. Changed, we become disciples – followers of Jesus.
This Lake has had many names. This morning it is called Lake Gennesaret. You might be more familiar with it being called the Sea of Galilee.
Five years ago this May, I got myself caught in a net on this exact lake, on the Sea of Galilee. I was on a pilgrimage trip to Israel-Palestine with my dear friend Jack, and we spent three glorious days on the Sea of Galilee. It is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. The Sea of Galilee is surrounded by bright yellow grassy mountains that slope into an azure blue water. On the water’s edge are lush green palms and shady trees. The heat of the day can be unbearable, but it breaks at sunset, and a cool breeze moves over the water and rustles the grass and sways your hammock in the gentlest ways. If you’re lucky enough to be in a hammock that is! Which is pretty much a fishing net tied between two trees. Which is why I say I got caught in a fishing net on the Sea of Galilee!
The Bible is an outdoors book. It is a book in love with creation. It is a love letter to the waters and the mountains and the breezes and the birds and the trees of this sacred place we’re talking about today. It’s no mistake that the Bible, the story of all creation, comes from this place, so beautiful and moving.
And yet, for Jack and I, the most difficult thing about those three days on the Sea of Galilee five years ago was seeing huge Israeli and American military planes flying over us, over the mountain behind us, into Syria. And hearing the thuds of the bombs they were dropping. The Bible may recount the story of creation, but it is also the story of humanity. And the picture it paints of humanity is one in which humanity has turned in on itself and against itself. The tale of a seemingly irredeemable species.
It’s true that this part of the world is an astonishingly beautiful place, and it’s also true that it is a place of untold human suffering. As it was in the time of Jesus.
Simon, James and John are fishermen, on the Sea of Galilee. The heat of the day in those times was just as intense. And in the first century Galilee, there were no means to keep fish fresh. So fishing was done at night. The fish were sold in the morning, and eaten that same day. This meant that fishermen like Simon and James and John were away from their home and families at night. Which meant they had little honour and low status in a society organized around the protection and supremacy of the family. So Simon, James and John were low status, low honour Jews.
Notice too, Luke’s reference to James and John as Simon’s “partners.” This is specific language in the Greek that indicates that they operated under a lease from a tax collector. At the time, the tax collected from fishermen was 40% of the catch. (It’s no wonder that the tax collectors were despised). The remaining fish were sold through agents, who siphoned off the majority of the profits and increased the price so that only Romans and local elites could afford to eat fish. So Simon, James and John are not only low status and low honour, they are also poor and exploited.
The last thing to note is that Herod Antipas had built a thriving, bustling regional capital on the Sea of Galilee. This city, finished when Jesus was 20 years old, was named in honour of the current emperor of the Roman Empire, Tiberius. Tiberius, which is a bustling city that still exists to this day, was in Jesus’s day a thriving capital in the region of Galilee. It was populated by thousands and possibly tens of thousands of non-Jewish elites and military forces. In fact, the Sea of Galilee had been renamed Lake Tiberius. But the locals, in an act of resistance, refuse to use its name.
Notice that Jesus is preaching on the outskirts of these major cities, cities like Tiberius and Jerusalem. That’s no mistake. He’s preaching at a distance from the Romans and local collaborators who hoard wealth and power for themselves, and maintain that status quo at the point of a spear, or the point of a nail. To preach good news to the poor and the oppressed was to preach the downfall of the current system of domination and exploitation. To preach the Kingdom of God over and against the Kingdom of Rome was an act of sedition. It was to be a revolutionary. And did you know that the torture and execution device of the cross was reserved for revolutionaries? Crucifixion, that humiliating and public display of weakness and failure, was not ever used for common criminals or even murderers, but reserved for those fools who opposed the Emperor. That’s the kind of courage that Jesus has, preaching in the countryside, knowing what awaits him at the cities’ gates.
But Tiberius is avoided for another reason too. It is built on the gravesite of an even more ancient Jewish town. This is a shocking insult to the indigenous Jewish population, who revile the city and refuse to live there.
But Tiberius is despised and reviled for one more reason: to support the bustling population of foreign colonials in Tiberius, the Sea of Galilee had been fished to near extinction.
Simon, James and John, these low status and low honour, poor and exploited, indigenous fishermen have returned with nothing to show for their efforts, having fished a lake that has already been plundered of food to feed the voracious forces from Rome, occupying and oppressing and humiliating their people and their religion and their God. Whose gleaming modern city, filled with Hellenistic statues and Roman religious paraphernalia, had paved over the bones of their ancestors and the sacred land that their people had managed since time immemorial.
Cleaning their nets, they have returned to shore after a dark night on the water with nothing to show for their efforts, having fished a lake pushed to ecological disaster by colonial powers. Having empty nets meant you went hungry that day. Which meant your children and family went hungry that day. Having empty nets meant the collapse of the local food system – an ecological disaster. Having empty nets from an empty lake meant your sons and daughters wouldn’t have food, nor their sons or daughters, nor theirs. Having empty nets meant a very dark future indeed.
Simon, James and John lived in empty and bleak times. In their fishing occupation and in life, they had let down their nets, and come up empty. The desperation and sense of failure and probably a simmering anger about the unfairness of it all must have been intense.
And it’s here, on the shores of Lake Tiberius, that Jesus appears to them.
We also live in perilous times. Times that feel empty and bleak and dark.
We are also facing an ecological collapse, over which we seemingly have little control. Humanity’s voracious appetite for the natural world means that ecological systems are collapsing around us. That heat dome was a taste of a very frightening future indeed. We lower our nets hoping that there is some solution – political or technological of social – that will save us from this disaster. And we keep coming up empty. Like Simon and James and John, we worry deeply for the next generation, seeing nothing but darkness and empty nets in their future.
Indigenous Canadians know what it’s like to be Simon and James and John. To see the natural world that was under their care be ravaged by colonial powers. To see their children taken away and their burial grounds paved over in a colonial effort to make them disappear. Most of us are settlers. When we see who we are in this story about Jesus and his indigenous people, we find ourselves convicted as the happy Hellenists in Tiberius. This is a bleak state of affairs. And it seems that the nets we put down to help reconcile this relationship keep coming up empty.
We are also facing what looks like the beginning of a political collapse. We saw it happen first in the United States. Where a polarization of politics led to extreme violence on the US capitol just over a year ago. Something unimaginable even a couple years earlier. Where white nationalists and Nazis and racists not only showed their faces and waved their ugly flags, but hordes of them took control of an important symbol of American unity and civilization. We have seen a similar rise in political division and hatred in Europe and other parts of the world. And this week and this weekend, with trucker convoys that included extreme hate groups filling Vancouver and Ottawa, it’s hard not to see a similar political fracturing in Canadian politics. It seems we also face a descent into madness and the fracturing of Canadian society. Like Simon and James and John we face bleak and empty and dark times. People like Dr. Bonnie Henry have called for compassion and love. But all around us we hear such anger, on both sides. Even the force we usually use to control outcomes, like the police, can’t control a convoy blocking access to three hospitals in Vancouver or basic peace in Ottawa. These civil and political solutions, and whatever other solutions we have at our disposal, seem to come up empty.
Maybe you face your own bleak and empty time in your life. Maybe you are scared for your economic wellbeing. Or your efforts to find human connection and belonging have come up empty. Or mental or physical illness have taken hold. Or you have grief and sorrow over things lost. How are you like Simon or James or John, casting out the net in your life, needing something, only to come back empty.
And for the Parish of St. Martin’s. We are in a difficult time. In a little over a month we collectively face a very difficult decision about whether to close the Parish. On the current path, it seems this beautiful community and our communal worship in this sacred space might come to an end. I have heard grief and exhaustion and frustration and sorrow and searching for answers about how we have gotten here. Your experience is just like Simon’s and James’ and John’s. You have let down your nets but your nets keep coming up empty.
It’s in this time, when all seems empty and dark, where the future seems bleakest, that Jesus comes for us.
Jesus asks Simon to cast out into the water to fish again. Something that Simon seems doubtful about, but he follows Jesus anyways. Jesus asks him to remain open to the possibility of God’s love, found in unexpected places, in the unlikeliest of times. Jesus asks Simon to do something different, to go somewhere different, to cast his boat into the deep water. To let down his net again.
And there, in the most unexpected place, in the midst of an ecological and political and spiritual disaster, Simon’s nets are filled. So much that James’ and John’s nets are filled to the point of nearly sinking their boats. This is not just food for a day. It is a surplus. A surplus of unimaginable proportions. A surplus that Simon can go home with that will not only feed his family, but will enable him to buy provisions that will secure the future of his family. This is an act of love by God that will mean Good News for this poor, low honour, oppressed, desperate, indigenous fisherman. And in response Simon falls to his knees, in awe of the divine in his presence, unsure if he deserves this. And Jesus tells him to be not afraid. As Jesus does so many times in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus is saying that God loves you and will always love you and will show you God’s love in the most unexpected places in the most unexpected ways. You can put away that anxiety, as much as you can. You can put away those thoughts that lead to dark things, as much as you can. You can trust that things are good, even when they look so bad.
If we pay attention to our experience closely enough, we know that this is true.
I will give you one example from my personal life. This is a true story from last night.
Writing this sermon last night. It was a day interrupted by the chaos of children. I live just off Burrard, it was a day filled with horns and crowds and honking and angry interactions. It was a day filled with distractions and problem solving. And I kept trying to sit down to write, which is a lot like fishing, hoping that I would catch something. And the net kept coming up empty.
It’s a special kind of stress, knowing you have to preach to a community the next morning. Waiting for God, then pleading for God and then even pressuring God to speak some word of wisdom onto the page.
Feelings of anxiety. Fear. Trepidation. Emptiness.
And into this situation my son Paul comes home. He is three. He comes running down the hallway is his oversize winter boots, yelling and screaming and getting in the way of any half baked thought I might have for my sermon. And he runs up to the computer and tries jamming his hand on the keyboard. Which is never helpful. And then insists on having a bath. He insists on doing something different. Something I really don’t think is going to help.
But there’s no fighting a three year old, just Simon realizes there’s no fighting Jesus. And off we go to the bath. And I run the warm water and put his little body into the water. And he says “colour!” Which apparently refers to food dye. Which is sitting on the side of the bath. So I get the blue out, and he grabs it and drops three dark drops of blue in the water, which turns it a glorious royal blue. And he asks me to join him, there in the water. Which is distracting, because I’d rather research biblical Greek on my phone beside him. But there’s no fighting a three year old, just as Simon realizes there’s no fighting Jesus. Time to do something different I guess.
And so I get into the water with him. With my wonderful son all pink warm, with a bowl of water that he keeps pouring on me because he says I’m so dirty. And in this warm blue water, he looks into my eyes with the biggest smile you’ve ever seen on a child, and then he lays down on me and we give each other a bear hug.
In a time of emptiness, when all seems like a failure, when you are most anxious and worried, God will show you love. Unexpected, beautiful, wonderful, abundant, love. That overflows and changes everything.
Jesus fills Simon’s nets with fish, to abundance. Didn’t Jesus do the same for the wedding guests at Cana? Just when everyone thought the wine had run out, Jesus turns water into wine. Where we expected only scarcity and emptiness, we find an abundant love. Didn’t Jesus do the same for us on the cross? Just when we thought all hope was lost, that death and violence and our human evil had the final say, Jesus rises from the dead with nothing but endless enduring love for us. Where we expected only darkness and emptiness, Jesus promises abundant life, overflowing even the bonds of death.
To us, in our times of darkness, when our nets keep coming up empty, Jesus asks that we remain open to something different. Jesus asks us to go somewhere we have not ventured yet. To cast out to the deep waters to fish once again. Jesus asks that we trust in Jesus, in God, and cast out in the heat of the day, under the heat dome, amidst our angry and expectant and pressing crowds, in our time of personal and familial and human hopelessness and social collapse, facing the end of our community as we know it, it is here, and now, that Jesus calls us to remain open. To trust – to really trust – that there is unexpected new life after death. We can’t plan for it. We can’t engineer it. We can’t predict which path forward is the one that will result in a full net. But that’s not our job. Our job is to learn that pattern that Jesus shows us again and again. That when we find the wineskins empty, expect God’s overflowing love. When the nets come up empty, expect God’s overflowing love. When all hope has been nailed to a cross, and all that is good has failed, there, expect God’s overflowing love.
This is your job as a Christian, and a Christian community: you are to be the resurrection people. You must be a people that insists that even in the darkest of times, God’s love will shine through. You must be loving people, because you know that love conquers all. You must be a sign, as an individual and as a community, that God has promised unexpected new life after death.
I don’t have an answer to our climate crisis. I don’t have an answer to our political crisis. I don’t have an answer for your very real personal crisis, though I really wish I did. And I don’t have an answer for St. Martin’s crisis. I really, truly, wish I did. But I can hear Jesus. Saying to trust him. Asking us to cast off into unfamiliar waters. Promising us that we are loved no matter what. Showing us that God’s love overflows from the wineskin and from the fishing net and from the cross.