Sermon February 6, 2022 Paradigm Shift (Luke 5:1-11) Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you ever paused to consider all those left-behind fishing nets? The fishing nets of Peter and James and John. Which are alluded to in the reading that we heard earlier from the gospel of Luke.
Because it’s a waterfront encounter, the events of this reading, between Peter – who already knows Jesus, Jesus has already met him, has been in his house, in fact cured Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever and then she hopped up and gave everyone supper – so it’s a waterfront encounter between Jesus and Peter, and then also James and John the sons of Zebedee.
And all three of them are fishermen. They’re business partners, apparently. They fish together and then presumably pool their efforts. And at the time of the events of this reading, the three men have been fishing all night – the linen nets they use are apparently visible to fish during the day, so most fishing was done at night – but it has not been a good night.
They’ve caught nothing. So when Jesus arrives on the shore and needs to borrow Peter’s boat to sail out a bit so as to have a good spot from which to preach to the great crowds that are already following him, this is no problem, says Peter. Jesus is most welcome, he hasn’t any fish-cleaning to do from the night before, might as well be helpful.
And that’s where the story would end, if it were really just about Peter being helpful and Jesus preaching to the crowd. But of course it’s not. Because once the preaching is done, Jesus turns to Peter and says to him, “cast out your nets”.
It’s kind of amusing to imagine Peter’s face at that moment. Because on the one hand, as he’s already mentioned, he’d been fishing all night the night before and he didn’t catch a thing. So it seems like casting the nets out yet again would be at best a wasted effort.
But on the other hand, this IS Jesus. And it hasn’t been too long since he healed Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever enough that she hopped up and made dinner. So even as Peter’s saying “Oh ya, you know what? There’s really nothing out there…”, at the same time in the back of his mind has GOT to be another voice reminding him “this is the man who healed my mother-in-law…”
So out go the nets. And sure enough – more fish than Peter’s ever caught before. So many fish that the net starts to tear. So many fish they could actually cause the boat to capsize, so he needs James and John to bring their boat up too, and take some of them too, and even then the nets are tearing and the boats are over-laden. And then what? They all limp back to shore, with the best catch of fish they’ve ever made EVER – and they lay it all down and they walk away. Because come on now, Jesus says to them, and I will make you fish for people. And they’re inspired!
Sometimes when we read or hear these stories from the bible, we get struck by something in particular. And this time, for whatever reason, of all the times I’ve read or preached on this story, this time I got obsessed by the nets. By what happened to the nets. Because Peter and James and John, they just walked away and left them there. Left the fish there too, of course, but one assumes that the fish didn’t go to waste. Someone would have to have taken the fish. But what about the nets?
They’d all been torn, because of that enormous catch. So did someone think they were worth repairing? The story would surely have gotten around quickly, that Peter and James and John had made a vast catch and then just left – was there any notion that the nets themselves had power? So that they’d totally have been immediately grabbed and repaired by someone else who wanted to get so lucky?
Or maybe it was more like scary power, because clearly Peter and James and John, having left them behind, didn’t want anything more to do with them. Maybe they just lay there, no one wanting to touch them. Because of fear, or maybe its holier sister ‘awe’. Sort of a monument to that moment – here lieth the nets with which the Lord inspired the great catch of the year ’30.
There’s even the possibility that some of those who were hanging around the shoreline that day, who saw what happened or heard about it afterward, got it into their heads that the way to reorient, to change toward newness of life, to follow this new teacher Jesus, was to first make nets… and then dramatically abandon them. In order to begin fishing for people.
If that sounds as though it’d be crazy, it would have only been the FIRST time that people landed on lifting up a literal event in the life of Jesus and insisting that replaying it symbolically was somehow necessary to salvation. It certainly wouldn’t be the last. So it really is entirely possible that after that day happened, there were people who in good faith carefully knit up fishing nets, and then prayerfully and dramatically abandoned them on the shore to run off to find where Jesus was so they could follow him. And fish for people.
There are just so many possibilities for what happened with those nets – whether they got repaired in the hopes their power would work again, or venerated as monuments of a miraculous moment, or even mimicked with copies as eternally symbolically sacred to the process of becoming a disciple. And we really don’t know if any of those possibilities actually happened. Maybe Zebedee just strolled over later to check up on his sons James and John, saw all the nets and the fish, and rolled his eyes and cleaned up the mess.
The only thing we DO know is that if any of those possibilities DID happen, it probably would have made Jesus sigh. Because if there was one thing he tried to convey to the people around him, it was that the life of faithfulness doesn’t actually have anything to do with whatever it might have looked like in the past, or at one particular moment experienced by one particular person. The life of faithfulness is wholly about now and looking forward. About what inspires us now to want to reflect God’s love in how we live in the world, and what inspires us now to want to join with others in bending the arc of history ever closer to God’s vision of justice and peace.
And that may seem totally obvious, but at the same time, as a human family we’re not always good when ‘now’ really doesn’t bear much resemblance to ‘before’. When we experience, or when we’re contemplating the kind of major shift in our reality that happens to Peter and James and John. When who we’ve been in the past, the expertise we’ve used, even the resources we’ve employed or the space we’ve occupied, have been left on the shoreline as it were – while we’ve been moved on.
Does it matter that Peter and James and John actually chose their major paradigm shift? When some of ours are not so much chosen as thrust upon us? Of course it does. But at the same time, chosen or not – and Peter, James, and John might well note that they weren’t so much offered a choice as compelled by the sheer force of Jesus to change things up –
At any rate, chosen or not, a major shift is a major shift. And it’s not just things that sometimes get left behind – nets on a shoreline, free to good home – it’s also our familiar ways of being.
Peter and James and John were fishermen. That’s what they knew how to be. Their lives had particular patterns, particular contours, they knew the lay of the land – and the sea – it was all familiar. They even knew how to follow Jesus, spend time with Jesus, learn from Jesus, within that familiar way of being. Peter’s invited Jesus home already to meet the family. Heal the mother-in-law. Have supper and hang out. Teaching and preaching, just in conversation around the table.
But now this is all new. A major paradigm shift has been chosen by? compelled in? demanded of? all three of them, Peter, James, and John.
And on that day by the Sea of Galilee, what Jesus wants to happen to those nets is just for them to get left behind. Yes, they were useful for that brief period of time – it was because Peter and James and John were fishermen that Jesus wound up in their boat that day on the Sea of Galilee. And it was the nets that provided Jesus with the means to open their eyes on that one day with a miracle that blew their minds and made them want to follow him.
So the nets made it possible, the nets were how it happened – then. But the life of faithfulness is about now and into the future. There is nothing about how Peter and James and John are going to be fishing for people – travelling with Jesus and helping him to encourage others to reflect God’s love and join in embodying God’s justice and peace – that’s ever going to happen with those nets again. They just need to get left behind.
We have a tendency to romanticize these stories. To imagine ‘perfection’, to make these people less than human. But in fact I think there’s no way that Peter and James and John didn’t miss being fishermen. Didn’t miss at least something about what had been their familiar identity and routine and the familiar space they occupied in the world.
And in fact I think there’s no way, chosen or not, that it didn’t take them time to get used to everything changing. Just imagine them, for example, after a day of walking the roads with Jesus, kicking back for some relaxing conversation in the evening – and finding themselves fidgeting fidgeting fidgeting because suddenly there’s nothing to do with their hands! No nets to knit, no nets to mend!
These shifts can be hard, they take time! It takes time to adjust, and there’s no reason to imagine it didn’t take Peter, James, and John time to adjust.
But they do model for us what’s possible. And what in fact we are called to, in a life that sometimes doesn’t ask us first if we’d like a paradigm shift, but merely thrusts said paradigm shift upon us.
Because we are called ever forward. To adapt and adjust – or maybe even embrace! What’s been our faithful living, our faithful expression, our volunteering perhaps as students, it changes with the shift into full-time work, or the responsibilities of family life. We might plan when children are grown or when we retire to use our faithfulness in advocacy or mission work, and find instead that where our faithfulness is needed is in caring for our parents. We might desperately miss a time when we felt useful, but it’s also possible that the space we’re meant to faithfully occupy right now is the space of helping other people feel useful.
The point is to feel okay about leaving those nets behind, when the paradigm shift no longer needs nets. They were good, they were a gift, they were then. And this is now.
Now may not have nets, but now still has God. Now just as surely is held fore and aft by the goodness that is Godness. Who knows that no matter how romatically we might imagine that Peter and James and John just turned on a dime, they couldn’t possibly have. They had help. And so do we.
Thanks be to God, here among us now. Amen.