Sunday, February 7, 2010

Dude, it's just FISH...

A couple of books I've read have gotten me thinking about epiphanies and Epiphany. I've hopefully made it clear just how much I like these books on Twitter, but I want to make sure and recommend the two books I mention in the sermon: Susan Isaacs' "Angry Conversations With God," and Matthew Paul Turner's "Churched."

In my own life, I've seen God move through friends (my life began to change radically, and for the better by far, because a dear friend recommended a part time youth director position at her daughter's church in Hoover), through things I've read, and through long conversations over coffee at Vestavia Waffle House. I don't get to have Damascus Road, but thank God for fish.

Isaiah 6:1-13
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!" And he said, "Go and say to this people:
'Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.'
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed."
Then I said, "How long, O Lord?" And he said:
"Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
until the LORD sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled."
The holy seed is its stump.

1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you-unless you have come to believe in vain.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them-though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

Luke 5:1-11
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So 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. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

This is the Word of the Lord.

It had been one of those nights. They had tried everything, searching hour after hour for fish, only to come up empty every time they cast their nets. Failure upon failure, yet they refused to stop; after all, no fish to sell meant no food on their families' tables. Simon worked feverishly, hoping for just another hour of darkness to try one more spot. Yet as the sun peeked over the Judean horizon, the boats were still empty.

Nothing to do but pull in to the nearby shore, wash the nets, and try again after dark. Better luck next time, and all that.

There was comfort in the menial task of washing the nets. Simon didn't have to think about his failure, didn't have to worry about what his family would eat for dinner. Just make small talk with your partners as you stood in the shallow water, clearing out debris caught in the lines and looking for frayed and broken strands to repair. It was tedious but necessary, and delayed the time when he'd have to endure the shame of coming home empty-handed.

Simon was engrossed in his work, but you'd have had to be deaf and blind not to notice several hundred people crowding up against the lake shore. They were concentrating, or trying to concentrate, on that itinerant teacher from up Nazareth way. Simon had heard him talk before, in passing, really, and thought he made sense. Besides, like Andrew had said, some of the synagogue elite had gotten their tail feathers ruffled by the guy, so he couldn't be all bad.

This guy (John, one of his partners, reminded Simon that his name was Jesus, or something like that) was having trouble being heard, trouble getting settled in to teach.

With that many people, there was no place to sit, and no one could have seen or heard him if he did. Finally, Jesus hopped up over the starboard side of Simon's boat. Of course, someone just jumping in your stuff gets your attention, so Simon began walking over. Jesus simply asked him to push off from the shore a little bit so he could teach. You could be a net-washing failure five feet from shore as well as you could be on the shore, so Simon agreed, and Jesus' problem was solved.

Jesus sat in the bow and taught while Simon and his crew sat in the stern and finished cleaning up and getting everything ready for the next night's work. Simon hoped that James and John had gotten their work done, because once you mentioned Jesus, John was completely useless for anything else. There he was now, right on the water's edge, almost falling forward into the water to catch every word Jesus said.

But Peter had to admit that it was interesting, and that Jesus made more sense out of the Scriptures than anyone else he had heard, though he'd been to synagogue his whole life, and had probably heard the Scriptures read through again and again. Truth be told, by the time Jesus was finished, Simon was hanging on his words every bit as much as John. Simon was ready to agree with John that this Jesus was really something different, until, as the crowd was dispersing, Jesus turned to him and said the silliest thing he had ever heard: “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Simon sighed, and with the air of someone explaining to a small child why the sky was blue, said to Jesus, “Teacher, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing...” He probably would have gone on, told about how he had combed the water for hours, deep, shallow, and middlin', and had come up empty, and he was a fisherman so he probably knew a little about where and when to fish, and oh by the way broad daylight was not the time to fish, and another thing... but over Jesus' shoulder, Peter saw John waving wildly, mouthing the words, “GO!!! SHUT UP AND GO!!!!” DUDE! GO!!!!”

In the end, it was probably worth having to re-wash a net to keep a business partner happy. So he said, “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

I've already asked a lot of our imagination this morning, but I really wish I could get away with putting Roy Scheider's line from “Jaws” in Jesus mouth – you know, as Simon throws the net over, Jesus says, “We're gonna need a bigger boat.”

But let's step away from the narrative for now, because what is about to happen for Simon, his epiphany, is big. Huge. Earth-shattering, destiny-altering, history-changing. God is about to call one of the giants of the faith into service. And God is going to do it in a way that makes sense to Simon... and no one else.

In our Old and New Testament readings this morning, we read accounts of or allusions to two people God calls into service through theophany: a manifestation or appearance of God to a person. For Isaiah, it's a vision of God in the Temple, complete with angels and booming voices and hot coals touched to lips to purge them of their uncleanness. And though he doesn't mention it specifically in our reading today, Paul reminds us of his own conversion experience on the road to Damascus, where in a flash of light he was struck blind and had a conversation with Jesus.

In our day and age we are skeptical about theophanies. There are many cults which get their start through someone claiming they saw, spoke to, or became God; we've all heard this TV preacher or that one claim to have heard God tell them to tell us to send money, and most of us are old enough to remember Oral Roberts and his vision of a 900-foot-tall Jesus. Our experience teaches us that it's healthy and right to be skeptical; after all, we reason, God will tell this or that TV preacher to tell us to send more money next week; far too many cults end up drinking poisoned kool-aid or burning alive with their house; and even Pastor Roberts' 900-foot-tall Jesus couldn't keep that medical center He was supposedly ordering Roberts to build open for more than eight years.

But we see these accounts, and many, many more throughout Scripture, where real theophanies happened, where God really did speak and act and move, and the proof of this is in the results. Isaiah became God's willing messenger, up to and including being martyred by King Mannaseh. Paul changed sides, becoming a champion for the same faith he had previously sought to remove, by force, from the face of the earth. He even changed his name from Saul, and, like Isaiah and centuries of prophets before him, and like most of the Apostles, Paul too gave his life as a martyr for the faith.

And then there's Simon Peter. Oh, he won't get his second name for a few chapters yet, but it's easier for me to just go ahead and call him that. I can see him sitting across the table from his wife, too excited to eat the fish she had cooked, the fish which just a few hours ago he had despaired of ever seeing. His wife looks at him like a flower has just sprouted from his forehead: “Let me get this straight: you're leaving everything and following this Jesus fellow... because of fish? No, no, I understand you'd been working all night, and that it was a lot of fish, and the net nearly broke and the boat nearly sank and you had to get help and it was really amazing and totally a miracle, but, honey... fish? I mean... really? You're a fisherman, sweetie, you see fish every day. You've had big catches before. Simon, think. It's just fish!”

It's just fish. Sure, a few flashing lights and booming voices and singing angels and coals of fire would have made a better story, but for Simon Peter, all it took was fish.

And isn't that a relief? I know I can only speak for myself, but I've wondered from time to time why I haven't had the kind of experience Paul and Isaiah had – I can't point to a vision of God enthroned in the Temple, or a time when God knocked me down in the middle of the road. I completely understand why Paul and Isaiah did what they did, because in a situation like that, there's no doubt Who is talking, and no doubt what is required, and that would be nice sometimes. Not to have to wonder if God is blessing this situation or that decision. To have no doubt. To be just a little less dependent on faith.

But isn't it true that, for us, epiphanies and theophanies, when they happen, are much more like what happened to Peter? Now, this is going to sound like I'm going down a rabbit trail, but bear with me. One of my birthday presents a couple of weeks ago was a gift card to a bookstore, and I am a reading addict and haven't bought a book in forever, so the gift card was burning a hole in my wallet and lasted only the distance from here to Lakeshore Parkway. I bought a couple of books I had been wanting to read: “Angry Conversations with God” by Susan Isaacs, and “Churched” by Matthew Paul Turner.

Both of these books come highly recommended by me, are memoirs, and both address, in their own ways, epiphanies and theophanies.

Susan's life was falling apart, and though she had known God as long as she could remember, God was nowhere to be found. At a low point in her life, a friend (who was trying to help) recommended a book, saying, “Susan, our relationship with God is nothing short of a marriage.” Susan replied, “In that case, God and I need to go to couples counseling. Because we're not getting along.” And that is, believe it or not, what she did. It was a long, tumultuous process, with lots of little epiphanies and imagined theophanies along the way leading up to a healed and restored person and her relationship with God.

Matthew Paul Turner was raised in a strict Fundamentalist church – one that relied on rules and regulations and strict codes and high expectations for doctrinal performance for salvation. One where if you did something wrong God hated you until you repented, where it was always a safe bet to walk the aisle and accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior just one more time to make sure you got it right. Matthew was torn up inside most of the time, physically ill, fearful that this errant thought or that offhand comment would get him sent to eternal torment in a fiery Hell.

Yet what turned his life around wasn't an Isaiah or a Damascus Road experience, or even couples counseling: it was a single sentence from a woman who did not go to his church and who his church had taught him was going to hell because she was Catholic: “God loves you.”

Taken at face value, Susan Isaacs taking God to marriage counseling makes as much sense as Simon Peter following Jesus because of a good haul of fish. And I can imagine Matthew Paul Turner trying to explain his epiphany to friends and fellow church members and getting the same kind of look I imagine Peter got from his wife: “Well, OK, God loves you... we know that, I mean, we've told you that, I guess, and we agree, you know, but Matt, dude, she's Catholic.” Man, come on... it's just fish.

Taken at face value, Simon Peter's epiphany, his theophany, would have made sense to no one but himself. He found God's truth in something he did every day, something he already knew everything about, something he was good enough at to be a business owner with partners and property. To anyone looking on from the outside it was just fish.

I want to propose something this morning for those of us who have been in church all our lives, who were present in regular worship services nine months before we were born, as well as for those of us who started going later – because of the kids or because of life changes or because we thought it would be nice or we liked the people there. I want to propose that God most often speaks to us not with flashes of light, burning coals, and voices which shake the foundation of the Temple, but through the mundane and everyday.


I want to propose that sometimes when God speaks to us, it makes sense to no one else, and when we try to explain it, even people who love us look at us like we have a flower growing out of our forehead, and that's OK, it doesn't have to make sense to anyone else. That perhaps we don't get knocked in the dirt like Paul or touched with a burning coal like Isaiah, but not because we aren't as good as or as important to the faith as they were; rather it's because, like Peter, deep down we really don't need that. We just need to see the fish.

I know that Lent doesn't start for a week and a half, but I want to suggest this morning beginning to develop a Lenten discipline: look for the fish.

In what ways is God speaking, challenging, directing and calling you through the everyday, the mundane, the familiar, the fixed, the ordinary? In what ways is God teaching you things unique to your personality and experience, things that are exciting to you but irrelevant or confusing to others?

Where is your fish?


  1. God challenges me to strive to be merciful. If I were to pick a god based on my personality type, it would be Odin. Not much mercy there.

    Instead of commenting on your sermon, I'd rather give you a totally non-gay bear know like what Godzilla would give to Gitra, if Godzilla were in to giving hugs.

  2. I've always wanted to write a book about how God worked in the life of an ordinary person- me. No flashing lights, no famous evangelist or healer, just an ordinary person who saw God while working in a nursing home, and hundreds of other ordinary life days.

    I very much enjoy reading your blogs/sermons. Thank you for breaking the bread so simple folks can eat it.