Sunday, February 28, 2010

Waiting Is the Hardest Part

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Second Sunday in Lent, February 28, 2010

Psalm 27

Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord! NRSV

We tend to like Psalm 27. I know I do. It is a favorite, almost up there with Psalm 23 and Psalm 139. I recall my high school men’s chorus singing a rousing, triumphant rendition of the Psalm, with confident, full-voiced assurance in the psalm’s first verse, sung both at the beginning and the end of the composer’s arrangement:

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid? NRSV

In my adult years, especially my years in ministry, I realized that the composer of that choral piece did a bit of cutting and pasting. He put the anthem together in classic “A B A” form, using the psalm’s triumphant first verse as the “A” theme to begin and end the piece, and the more introspective third verse about “an army encamped against me” as the B section. But in that verse about an army camped outside Jerusalem’s city gates, the composer of that music I remember so well ended the last line in the “B” section with a triumphant unison octave leap for the whole chorus, singing “Yet I will be confident!” Then it was back to the “A” section, marching confidently to the end: “The Lord is my light...!”

Completely left out of that arrangement was the last verse of the Psalm, verse 14. Though it may be an inconvenient verse for triumphalists, I believe that last verse was included for people whose perspective on triumph may have not yet arrived, indeed, may never have come into view.

Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord! NRSV

We are Americans, we don’t like waiting. As long ago as 1905 a line from a song in a popular American musical put it rather succinctly, “I want what I want when I want it.” [1]

Waiting is something most of us don’t like to do. I certainly don’t. I’ve been known to drive an extra six blocks on a circuitous avoidance route to bypass a certain traffic signal in order to get to a different traffic light, losing more than five minutes over the time I would have spent had I simply waited for the original traffic light to begin with. Waiting often gives birth to its close cousin, impatience, which – if experience serves me – can be a synonym for jerkitude, closely related to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s chronometer. Who doesn’t know that? How many of us wait patiently? At best, don’t we mostly wait unwillingly? For modern folks, isn’t waiting generally thought of not as a passport to a peaceful spirit, but as something to be suffered through? If not, why did we ever invent interstate highways where we can often indulge our need to hurry for a while in order to stop and wait together in spots where too many cars converge on too-small interchanges?

And if you or I find ourselves in that blessed place where we aren’t really in a hurry and take a leisurely pace at stop lights or in traffic, we will soon also find ourselves enduring the scorn of honked horns and digital gesturing from those who labor under the mistaken belief that the one who drives the fastest gets there the firstest.

Headings for waiting and impatience appear on the very same page of my trusted old Roget’s Thesaurus – and I probably should say for the benefit of any in the Google generation that a thesaurus – dear companion of writers of every generation prior to our own – is not some class of dinosaur but rather a book that provides writers with terms that are closely related to one another, helping us discover a fuller range of meaning for a single term. The word thesaurus is Greek, thesauron, meaning “storehouse,” or “treasury,” and a book called a thesaurus is a storehouse of words related to the worn-out term a person was thinking of using for the fiftieth time in their English paper – or sermon.

But I distract myself. The words waiting and impatience appear near to one another in a thesaurus not because they are words that are related linguistically, but thematically. One who waits is so often one who is also impatient that there is every reason to place those words near each other. One who waits, delays, stands by, bides a while, tarries, lingers, marks time, sits tight, hangs on, holds his horses, keeps his shirt on, also, very often, soon becomes one who is anxious, breathless, restless, tense, fretful, sitting in pants full of those proverbial ants.

Why is this? Is waiting just something to be endured, and that as rarely as possible? Our Bible translators have given us 139 places in scripture where variations on the word “wait” are used. And I can tell you, if you haven’t guessed already, the Bible is not unaware that waiting is something human beings never have liked to do all that much. Nonetheless, waiting is exactly the prescription the Bible authors often provide for our anxious want-it-right-now-this-very-minute lives.

The first thing God told Moses to do when he came up the mountain to receive the ten commandments and the law was to “wait there...”[2] Isaiah said that those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,[3] and that those who wait for the Lord will not be put to shame;[4] The disciples asked Jesus “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”,[5] dimly aware that waiting for a Messiah was not something to be in a hurry about. Paul said, “if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience,”;[6] II Peter says, “In accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home”;[7] The prayers of the psalmist refer to waiting 20 times. Apparently waiting is something to be prayed about, or prayed through, or even prayed for.

Our Psalm today is a psalm of courage, a confident psalm filled with images of fearlessness and the Lord as life’s strongbox. This is not to say the psalm doesn’t deal in the arena of the same sorts of doubts about the usefulness of waiting that we find so common in our own lives and times. The confident voice of the psalmist that instructs us at the psalm’s end, saying “Wait for the Lord, be strong and let your heart take courage...” also, a few verses earlier, pleaded, “Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.”

We know how that is, don’t we? Our lives can be like roller coasters, carrying us to peaks of overconfidence one moment, and deep anxiety the next. And it is when we are in that deeply anxious place that we are most likely to snap impatiently at the person who suggests that we wait patiently for the Lord, isn’t it? Let’s say you’ve just seen someone who is practicing their parallel parking take out the left front fender and driver’s side door of your car. And the last payment on that car just went in the mail yesterday. And your ultrasound is scheduled in a half hour. And the police won’t send an officer to a non-injury accident. And the other driver is a nervous wreck who speaks only in some language unknown to you, and is taking forever just finding the insurance information in his glove box. And it has started to rain hard. And are you sure you remembered to mail in that last insurance premium on time? And you forgot your umbrella when you put on your best suede outfit today. And, and, and... Do you feel a gasket about to go? So the first person to step up to you and say “Wait for the Lord,” had better keep at least an arm’s length distance between themselves and you.

Patient waiting: so easy to prescribe, so difficult to do. Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament professor emeritus of Columbia Presbyterian Theological Seminary, once wrote a helpful prayer that addressed our waiting for God. In it he said,

We have heard of your wondrous power,
the ways in which you make newness,
the ways in which you defeat death,
the ways in which you give life.
We trust you in the night while we sleep;
we rise early in the morn to find you alert, active, engaged.
You dazzle us day and night.
Yet ... we notice the place where
you are curbed,
you are fringed,
you are held.
Your newness we do not see ... so we wait.
Keep us easy at night in our wait.
Keep us vigilant in day while we wait.
Keep our wait fixed on you,
you alone,
you and none other ... and we will rejoice. Amen.

One person, commenting on this last verse of Psalm 27 said that the entire Psalm declares to us, in a way, “Take courage. God is a God of the things that will be.” Waiting to recognize the presence of God among us, to save us, is a good Lenten discipline, trusting in the God who was and is, and who is God of things that will be.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Mlle. Modiste, an operetta in two acts, composed by Victor Herbert, [libretto by Henry Blosom], premiered on Broadway on December 25, 1905 where it ran for 202 performances.
[2] Exodus 24:12.
[3] Isaiah 40:31.
[4] Isaiah 49:23.
[5] Matthew 11:3, Luke 7:19.
[6] Romans 8:25.
[7] II Peter 3:13.
[8] “The Place Where You Are Curbed,” Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, Edwin Searcy, ed., Fortress Press, 2003, p. 20.
[9] Peter Steinke, “Fear Factor,” Christian Century, February 20, 2007, p. 20.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

At Home in God

At Home in God
A Communion Meditation
© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder

Psalm 91:1-16
Luke 4:1-13
First Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2010

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God in whom I trust. NRSV

Depending on how familiar we are with the stories about Jesus in the gospels, we might have heard the words of Psalm 91 this morning and recognized at least two lines from the Psalm that are quoted in the New Testament in both Matthew and Luke:

He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.[1]

But there is one thing that is a little disquieting about the fact that Psalm 91 is probably one of the most well-known of the psalms. If we do recall the lines of this psalm fairly readily, it may well be because we have heard sermons on the first Sunday in Lent over the years, in which gospel lessons from either Matthew or Luke have been read. In the passages in those gospels where the devil takes Jesus into the wilderness to tempt him three times, on the third try, Satan invites Jesus – possibly we could say he dares him – to leap from the highest point of the temple, trusting in God’s protection for him as announced in Psalm 91, that ministering angels would come to his aid.

The realization that Satan could use scripture itself to tempt the Son of God can serve as one of the first and most sobering lessons for all of us about the Bible and its appropriate uses. It stands alongside the much-told story of the despairing fellow who went to his grandmother’s old family Bible for an answer to a serious problem. Not being familiar with the Bible, and treating it something like a ouija board, he decided he would follow the advice of the first verse he came upon. Letting the pages fall open randomly, his eye came upon Matthew 27:5: “he went out and hanged himself.” Thinking surely that couldn’t be God’s answer to his problems, he thought he should try one more time, and the Bible pages fell open to Luke 10:37: “Go and do likewise.” It may sound funny or perhaps morbidly humorous, but it is amazing how many of us often treat the Bible in just this way, quoting a Bible verse here and there without bothering to recall who might have said or written it, and under what sort of circumstances.

The Bible is not an answer book, and, as our seminary Bible professors tirelessly declared, a text without a context is nothing but a pretext. Jesus knew this, and when he told his disciples about the temptations he had undergone in the desert (as he must have, or how would we know about them?), he provided a clear demonstration that treating words of scripture as an arrogant declaration of special privileges deserved by those who pronounce themselves righteous is – not to put too fine a point on it – tantamount to be found doing the devil’s work for him! It is faith that can provide a sense of ultimate security in God, not some claim of inherited or earned righteousness.[2]

So it’s good for us to think about Psalm 91 today without spending too much time wondering why Satan chose to quote it to Jesus many years after it was originally written. What does the psalm itself have to say to us on its own merits?

Two things that come to my mind are these:

1. The words shelter, refuge, fortress, shadow, dwelling place. The psalm says, “Because you have made the Lord your refuge...” These terms all call to mind home, safety, and belonging. This is a psalm that speaks of ultimate things, lasting things that emerge from our deepest hearts’ desires. Because you have put your ultimate and lasting trust in God, have found your security in God, then no evil will befall, no scourge come near, in any ultimate sense. Those whose trust is in the ultimate protective love of God are given a glimpse of the eternal, with which passing troubles and fleeting friendships cannot compare.

2. Psalm 91 is a hymn that was sung in the Temple in Jerusalem 500 years before Jesus’ time, before the Temple was destroyed by invading Babylonian armies. A pervasive belief had developed about that Temple, that it was a perfectly secure place against which none of Israel’s enemies could prevail. Psalm 91 countered that belief in a building made with human hands, and promoted a faith built on something more lasting. It is not our friends, not our beautiful church, not our doctrine, not the Temple that stands as our secure place. Psalm 91 declares in bold language that it is the Lord who is our refuge. Ultimate hopes placed on anything less eventually will be disappointed.

Reflect on the powerful verbs in God’s promises in Psalm 91 as they declare God’s ultimate intention to be present in our lives:

“I will deliver...”
“I will protect...”
“I will answer...”
“I will be with them in trouble...”
“I will rescue...”
“[I will] honor...”
“I will satisfy...”
“[I will] show them my salvation.”

It is that last one I cling to most fervently. It is one of the diamonds mined by the earliest Christian preachers in their search for evidence of Jesus in the Old Testament. “I will show them my salvation...” and indeed God has, in Jesus Christ. It is the total and perfect self-giving love of the Savior whose supper we share this day that delivers, protects, answers, rescues, honors, and satisfies us, showing once and for all the salvation of God.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Luke 4:10-11. NRSV
[2] See Exploring the Psalms, by Erik Routley, Westminster Press, 1975, p. 134.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Unveiling

The Unveiling
II Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder

Transfiguration, February 14, 2010

When one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.NRSV

Not a lot of people wear veils any more in our culture. Not even very many brides wear a traditional light, gauzy veil, if my experience is any measure. What purpose is a veil supposed to serve, anyway? The ancient idea in marriage, dating back from times before any of us was likely to have been around, was that the groom was not only not supposed to see the bride on the wedding day before the service, this custom dates to a time when the groom was not supposed to have seen the bride at all. Marriages were arranged between families, the chief purpose being to advance some interest of both families, either in a step up in formal or informal social ranking for one, or an elevation in material wealth for the other through the payment of a dowry. Whatever the reason, for the groom to have seen his bride before marrying her was not likely to serve either purpose. The wedding day was, literally, an unveiling. This disguising or obscuring purpose of veils is all but lost in almost any modern wedding in our culture.

Beyond marriage practices, in some cultures a veil over the face serves the purpose of modesty in public life, a quality little valued in our own culture; and much debated, as in last week when I listened to an hour-long discussion on Public radio on the wearing of a veil and other religious practices by Senior High school students. Another use involves concern for safety, and makes me think of beekeepers, who wear a light, gauzy material surrounding the head for protection from bee-stings, while not fully masking their vision.

And of course, the word veil can be used as a verb, as it is in Paul’s thinking in II Corinthians: to veil, to obscure, to hide, to cover, to conceal, to disguise. When we think about it, a veil is a two-way device when it comes to obscuring vision. A person cannot see what is behind a veil all that well, but neither can the person see all that well in trying to observe the world through it.

One translator rendered verses 16-18 from our epistle passage this way:

“Whenever, though, they turn to face God as Moses did, God removes the veil and there they are – face to face! They suddenly recognize that God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiseled stone. And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We’re free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face...”[1]

Some of you will remember Dr. Joseph Campbell, author of books like Myths to Live By, and known around the world for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion. He was perhaps the 20th century’s most quoted authority in these subjects. In the mid 1980s he sat for a series of televised interviews with Bill Moyers which eventually led to a book called The Power of Myth. I recall a statement from one of those interviews, when Dr. Campbell offered a reflection on the middle-class protagonist of the 1922 novel Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis. Through a character he named George Babbitt, Lewis drew a satirical portrait of the power of conformity in mundane early twentieth century values.

Dr. Campbell said,

“Remember the last line (George Babbitt uttered in the novel)? ‘I have never done a thing that I wanted to in all my life.’ Well, I actually heard that line when I was teaching at Sarah Lawrence. Before I was married, I used to eat out in the restaurants of town for my lunch and dinners. Thursday night was the maid’s night off in Bronxville, so that many of the families were out in restaurants. One fine evening, I was in my favorite restaurant there, and at the next table there was a father, mother, and a scrawny boy about twelve years old. The father said to the boy, ‘Drink your tomato juice.’

“And the boy said, ‘I don’t want to.’

“Then the father, with a louder voice said, ‘Drink your tomato juice.’

“And the mother said, ‘Don’t make him do what he doesn’t want to do.’

“The father looked at her and said, ‘He can’t go through life doing what he wants to do. If he does only what he wants to do, he’ll be dead. Look at me. I’ve never done a thing I wanted to in all my life.’”

Dr. Campbell, reflecting on this brief encounter from many years before said, “And I thought, ‘My God, there’s Babbitt incarnate!”[2]

I have reflected on how often we think of the continuing ministry, the living presence of Christ among us as something veiled, something that covers the delights of the world from our eyes, something of not much more use than an ancient obligation, something the church insists on for the sake of propriety, a duty, a burden to be born. Perhaps without intending to do so, the church often declares to the world “Take up the ministry of Christ, it doesn’t taste very good, it’s not very popular, it will squeeze most of the opportunities for fun out of your life, but it is something you should do.”

We have taught people outside the faith how to visit this attitude on us, haven’t we? Say you’re out in the front yard working on the porch swing, and you blurt out a swear word after hitting your thumb with a hammer, you – an admitted, practicing Presbyterian Christian, someone known to love your church – and you are certain to hear from any neighbor who happened to be passing by, “What kind of language is that for someone who calls herself a Christian!?” as if dour Christians are the only people to be held to standards of good language.

When I was in college, preparing to go on to seminary, I recall coming home with one of those very attractive early 1970s shaggy dog haircuts. I thought it looked pretty out-of-sight (we used to talk that way), and my dad, seeing me, said “Wait until your grandmother sees you looking like that. And you call yourself a Christian preparing for ministry!”

Drink your tomato juice!

Everyone knew the way a pastor should dress and behave: crew cut, modest clothing, Bible in one hand at all times, quotations from scripture peppering every conversation. I know one guy, preparing for ministry, who was criticized by his father for purchasing a new pair of loafers when anyone could see that someone intent on ministry should have bought a pair of black lace-ups. And this isn’t just about pastors. Claim Christ as your model, your Savior, and some nonbeliever is sure to make themselves into an authority on the ways you are falling short of their imagined standard for the faith they claim not to share.

No wonder we get gun-shy about sharing our faith with others. We don’t want them trying to smash us into some phony mold of what they imagine it means to be a Christian, a sanctimonious mold for which we know ourselves to be ill-fitted.

I think Paul may have been aiming at this in his brief dissertation on veils and covenants. He was referring, of course, to the time when Moses received the commandments from God, when he came from the mountain, and lest he frighten everyone with a face sunburned beet-red from being in God’s presence, he wore a veil to keep them from becoming overanxious. Only Moses was allowed to go and have these chats with God, and it was dangerous even for him.

Paul declared that the day for hiding our faith behind veils, for keeping the wonder of our faith under wraps for fear of what people might say, those veiled days are over. Because of the loving ministry of Christ, God’s own son, “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord (as clearly as if it were) reflected in a mirror, are being transformed ... from one degree of glory to another!” Paul announced. “Therefore ... we do no lose heart.”

I know there has been a lot of losing of heart around our church for several months. Some have lost heart, some have struggled to keep their hearts motivated for this ministry, some have never missed a step and some have spoken to me, sayingc, “What is all the fuss about, let’s keep our ministry moving!” Some of us have felt all of those things. No matter to what degree we may have felt loss of heart, we can take heart again using the strong words of the apostle Paul, who, God knows, had as much reason to lose heart as anyone we can think of: During the course of his ministry he was imprisoned, starved, shipwrecked, beaten, threatened, run out of town, imprisoned again... yet knowing the sheer bliss, the freedom as well as the terror of acting “with great boldness” in the name of Christ, he continued to do the thing he wanted to do, the thing to which he was called, no matter how many people told him to buy lace-up shoes, or get a haircut, or step to the back of the bus, or sit down and shut up, or drink his tomato juice, he responded, saying “Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”

He did not. And we do not. We do not.

“Take heart,” Jesus said to his frightened disciples one night as he came walking to them across the storm-tossed waters, “Take heart, it is I.”[3]

And, unveiled in the presence of his glory, they did take heart, as disciples have, from that day to this. It is not nearly so hard to follow Jesus as some of us try to make it. Take heart. It is the Lord, who, as Paul said, “gives us such hope, we (may) act with great boldness.” We may. And we will!

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language, by Eugene Peterson, © Navpress Publishing Group, pp. 2094-2095. [2] Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, Doubleday, 1988, pp. 117-118.
[3] Matthew 14:27

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Going Overboard

Going Overboard

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Isaiah 6:1-8
Luke 5:1-11

February 7, 2010

Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people. NRSV

I know it’s not really liturgically correct to say it, but Happy Super Bowl day everyone. I hope the sermon fits the day.

I remember being a pro-football fan.

I didn’t start out that way.

As a young child, football appeared to me to be some boring, grainy televised black-and-white affair that my dad slept through on Sunday afternoons while the kids were out playing after Sunday dinner. But I grew up within the reach of the Dallas, Texas professional sports market, and so we all learned briefly to be Dallas Texans fans until that team fled Dallas for the apparently more advantageous locale of Kansas City, giving up being both Dallasites and Texans in order to become Kansas Cityians and Chiefs instead. But almost immediately after, in 1960, Dallas had a new team, the Cowboys. And what a team they turned out to be! I was coming to football fan consciousness by then, at age 11. And I, who never played a game of football beyond the backyard type, became an avid fan of the Cowboys. Much of their early talent came from the area, from SMU and Oklahoma State and other schools nearby. Don Meredith, Walt Garrison, Roger Staubach, Bob Lilly, Mel Renfro, Randy White, Tony Dorsett, and coach Tom Landry are all names that ring in my ears almost like the names of gods in the Greek pantheon.

I tried hard to turn away when I moved away from home. At seminary in New Jersey I tried on the New York Giants for size. Never was a fit, turned out the Giants were too small, if you catch my drift. Moving to Southeast Texas I tried to take up with the old Houston Oilers. Not even a temptation, they played indoors, what kind of football was that? Even with Earl Campbell in Houston, I had to face it, I was a true believer, converted to the Cowboys, and there was no turning back. Once, in my tenure as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Amarillo, Texas, I once stepped into the pulpit to find a small black and white television turned on under the shelf there, tuned into the Cowboys 10:00 AM game against the Giants. I took that as a hint to make sure the sermon didn’t get in the way of Texas’ real religion. Occasionally I even made plans to watch teams simply because they were going to play the Cowboys soon.

But then I awoke one day to news that coach Tom Landry, the brilliant sideline commander of so many stunning wins and titles for the Cowboys, had been summarily fired by the new owner of the team. My memory is hazy, but as I recall, they didn’t have a testimonial dinner for him. Just handed him his pay stub and showed him the door. I was stunned. Can they do that? I had always thought he was one of the most decent men on earth. I read his autobiography last year, and I still think so. Don’t they have to put things like that to some kind of vote from the faithful fans? No, it turns out they don’t.

Now I don’t want you to think I’m trying to spoil anyone’s afternoon Super Bowl plans today, but if you haven’t noticed, as they have become richer and richer, pro football teams and their owners and players have come to have little conscience about breaking your heart whenever they please. Do you like that new tailback that has been setting records for your team? Well forget him, he’s so good, he’s renegotiating his contract to play with some also-ran team for a kajillion dollars more than your team is willing to pay. Do you like the coach that took your team to the Super Bowl? Well, you can forget him too, because if he has a spotty record next year, he’s gone. I recall a distant time when you could hear professional athletes like Walt Garrison saying things to the media such as, “I know I was offered more money to play elsewhere, but I just want to stay here and play with my friends.” When did you last hear anything like that?

So, it happened to me. I lost my faith. And I have never really gotten it back.

Now, I plan to watch today’s Super Bowl game, I’m not an atheist when it comes to professional football, I know it exists. I am really just a bit of an agnostic about it in that I no longer think it is really very important, at least not to me.

I thought of these things because of the national occasion this day has become in our culture, this Super Bowl Sunday. The afternoon of this game will find city streets almost as quiet as on Thanksgiving or Christmas day. Right here in the middle of basketball season, the nation stops and watches – though watching or not watching, the thing can hardly be avoided. And I know there are others like me out there, more or less finished with professional sports enthusiasms, though of course there are more than plenty who are not. Still, it is possible to become disillusioned with anything we had at one time eagerly pursued like true disciples.

Take fishing. Who doesn’t like fishing? Well, me, for one, I never have really much liked fishing, no offense to you fisherfolk, it’s just not for me. My dad and eldest brother thought two straight weeks of 10 hour days of fishing on a river in Colorado – the same exact spot on the same river every year – was simply the best possible way for a family to spend their summer vacation. My poor luck is that I have always had about an eleven minute attention span for fishing. If fish don’t want to bite in eleven minutes, I don’t want to spoil the rest of their day or mine by being too persistent about it.

And that little quibble is nothing compared with the disciples. They had been fishing all night long. And this wasn’t vacation or recreation for them, they were professionals, this was their livelihood. No one was offering them bonuses to fish for another team either. All night Luke tells us they fished, and ... nothing. Not one little bite. Their holds were empty. The only thing worse than a long night of toil is a long, fruitless, pointless night of toil, rather like watching the Buffalo Bills take on the St. Louis Rams, who used to be in Los Angeles before the Cardinals left St. Louis for Arizona – but I’m distracting myself again.

Jesus stepped up to the weary fishermen who are washing their nets to set them out to dry and asked if he could use one of the boats as a sort of floating pulpit to speak to the crowds that were gathering to hear him. They obliged, and he sat down to teach, as was the custom of the rabbis. Then, after speaking a while – as if all he was asking them to do was whistle Dixie – he asked the fishermen to put out further into the water and drop their freshly cleaned nets back into the very water that, for hours just prior, during the best fishing time of the day, had failed to yield a single fish. Peter, knowing a non-fisherman when he saw one, said, “Well, we’re professionals at this, and we’ve worked all night and have caught nothing ... but of course if you say so, rabbi, we’ll just drop the nets over and see what happens,” with a knowing wink, wink to the others in the boats.

And you know what happened.

End of story. Or least we might think that’s certainly enough of a miracle to occupy a preacher’s sermon time for one morning. Stop at verse 6 and the congregation will go away satisfied, a good story about how many fish you can get if you will just listen to Jesus. It’s even a sort of affirmation of a common proverb: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, a success story fitted to all-American up-by-our-bootstraps thinking.

Anyone who has spent time in the church – or around people in general – knows the shortcomings of the old bootstraps success philosophy, knows full well there are many stories of unmerited failure around us, especially in the economic times we are currently experiencing. They are everywhere. We all know our own failures and shortcomings, probably better than we wish we did. I know I do. So was Jesus giving them a little up-by-your bootstraps story to encourage them that when at first they did not succeed they should try and try again? Is that the sum of his teaching?


It turns out that this whole episode is a sort of acted-out parable for the real work of ministry Jesus has in mind for them. Here is why the story is so well remembered. Once they hauled that immense pile of fish aboard he looked them in the eye and said, “Forget the fish, you think that pile of fish is something? Listen. Follow me and you will be catching people.” And you know what came next. They left their boats and the double load of fish right where they were and followed him, these newly recruited fishers of people.

And they made the church of Jesus into a reality, a reality where Jesus still says to us, sitting here whiling away time before a little thing like a football game, “If you can forget the preoccupations of your lives for a minute and contemplate the big picture, then come, follow, from now on you will be catching people.” So much is asked of the church, and yet what do we have to show for our efforts? Sometimes we conclude this fishing story in the middle instead of the end, with the victory dance of the ecstatic fishermen or the championship award ceremony for the victorious football team.

But other times, many times, we have this to say: “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.”

Someone grumbles, “I’ve led this Bible study,” or “cooked the church supper,” or “knitted blankets for the homeless for three years now and not one person has ever said ‘Thank you.’” I remember as a graduate student working for a tutoring service for a couple years where I worked with one youngster for a whole semester, once a week, for four long months, and she still never caught on, never could raise her grade to passing. “Master, I have worked all night long but have caught nothing.”

It would be great if the Super Bowl could somehow have 2 winners, if no one had to leave the stadium a loser, it would be great if every sermon and every day of the church’s life could be about huge catches of loving and believing people, all hauled on board with glee at the size of the catch for the kingdom. It would be great if throngs of young people were waiting at the church doors when we opened them for youth meetings, if parents had to get on a waiting list to fit their children into our overcrowded classrooms. We could just stop with verse 6, with the big catch, let everyone go out with a success story to hang their hats on.

But there’s still that darned verse 8. The story isn’t about a big catch of fish followed by a gleeful band of disciples heading off down the yellow brick road to discipleship success behind Jesus.

A preacher friend of mine once said, “If you don’t know why Peter said, ’Get away from me Jesus,’ then you don’t know about the dangers of fishing with Jesus!”[1] He went on to say, “I told them, before the Stewardship Campaign that it was crazy in a church our size, with our record of giving (or, more accurately, our record of not giving) to plan to increase the budget 18%. I told them. Economy’s bad. There’s been trouble making even this year’s goal. And you want an 18% increase? Are you kidding? I told them, from the pulpit, you will never pledge that budget. By the end of October, they had gone over by two thousand dollars.”

It’s enough to make a pastor fall at Jesus’ feet and cry “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

“Preacher,” someone asked my friend after that stewardship campaign had ended, “Preacher, wasn’t it you who said we wouldn’t be able to make that budget? ... Yup, I think it was you who said, just a couple of weeks ago, ‘You’ll never....’”

“Shut up,” my friend explained to him, thoughtfully, and in a pastoral way.

“Put out into the deep water, let down your nets.” Jesus says.

And we say in unison, “It’s deep out there, you don’t understand, this isn’t the fish-catching kind of church. Why don’t you let us just rest, we haven’t been able to catch a thing so far.”

And Jesus says, “I’m going to teach you to catch people... or die trying.”

[1] William Willimon. ’The Dangers of Fishing with Jesus," preached at Duke University Chapel, 2/5/1995.