© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
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!” 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.”
 William Willimon. ’The Dangers of Fishing with Jesus," preached at Duke University Chapel, 2/5/1995.