Fish Or Cut Bait

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February 17, 2019. Jim Bennett’s sermon today is about the call to discipleship of Isaiah, Peter, and Paul, and how each of them responded. How have we heard that call? And how have we responded?


*** Transcript ***


Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.


Well, today you’re hearing a sermon that I intended to preach last Sunday. I’m getting the feeling that maybe Mother Nature never wanted me to deliver this sermon, but I hope none of you feel the same way after you hear it. But I have to admit, right from the start of this message, that I’m not a fisherman. I’ve never enjoyed fishing. I can remember as a little boy my father taking my older brothers and me to Lake Springfield, about a hundred miles north of here, and trying to teach us to catch fish. I never caught a thing. It was so boring. So I can relate to Peter in our gospel lesson today, when it says he and his fellow fishermen came in after a long night of fishing with empty nets. They didn’t catch a thing either. And they were professionals.


Now I realize, in sharing my lack of enthusiasm for fishing, I risk alienating some of our good church members who enjoy drowning worms and telling great fish stories, real or imagined, about the ones that got away. However, as much as I try, there is no way of escaping the topic today as our gospel reading is baiting us to engage the more contemporary significance of the story about how Peter became a disciple of Jesus. And the theme of responding to God’s call is also echoed in our first lesson — the call of the prophet Isaiah — and in our epistle lesson where Paul recounts his conversion from being a persecutor of Jesus’ followers to one who proclaimed the Gospel. So the lure is unmistakable. At our time in history, when researchers are telling us that fewer and fewer people are hearing and responding to the call to become disciples or followers of Jesus, perhaps a closer look at today’s readings might help us better understand why that might be the case, and also be instructive as to how we might impact that trend.


First I’d like to take a closer look at our lessons, and point out some of the similarities that are found in these three readings, and then secondly to talk about how they offer different perspectives about how one might respond to the call of discipleship. And thankfully, we have more options than just fishing. Most of you know that I was a hospital chaplain for 25 years. And one of the opportunities I had in that vocation was to encounter and learn about many different faith perspectives that allowed me to compare and contrast them with my own. Now educated as a Lutheran Christian and as a pastor, I was well-indoctrinated with an orthodox theology that helped me understand that I needed Jesus in my life, because of my human shortcomings. No matter how hard I try, my humanness gets in the way of being the kind of person God wants me to be.


Now, the three characters in our lessons today — Isaiah, Peter, and Paul — when confronted with the call to follow, each responded similarly: with fear and a confession that they were less than perfect men. Isaiah responded to God’s call by saying, “Woe is me. I am a man with unclean lips.” Paul, in his letter to the Corinthian Church, recounted his place in the hierarchy of apostles saying, “I am the least of apostles, unfit to be called an apostle.” And Peter, in our gospel when he realized he was in the presence of God and Jesus, called out, “Depart from me. I am a sinful man, O Lord.” So the common theme in all of our lessons today points out that to be a follower of Jesus meant that I must acknowledge my sinfulness and humble myself before the Lord. That’s why each Sunday, I take part in reciting the confession and receiving absolution, and taking part in the grace of God that comes to us through the sacrament of Holy Communion.


Doing all of that doesn’t make me better than anyone else. It just reminds me of my need for God in my life and makes me more grateful that God forgives my sins. Martin Luther reminds us that as Christians, we are both saint and sinner at the same time. In our current culture outside of our churches on Sunday mornings, it’s hard to find good public examples of humility and gratefulness that inspire faith in God. That might be because we too often privatize our faith on one hand, or perhaps we elevate it as something special and put it on public display, when really humility and gratefulness and faith might otherwise inspire action. Maybe, to use another fishing analogy, we choose to stay on the dock or fish from the safety of shore, or maybe we pride ourselves with the most expensive bass boat with all the technology and then show off with the size of our catch. If we do that, rather than putting on our waders and getting out into deeper water and simply do the work of God, we are missing that opportunity.


Now, we saw just a glimpse of these characteristics of humility and gratefulness and trust being put into action a few weeks ago, in the news cycle during our government shutdown, when restauranteurs and business owners and agencies and volunteers were moving to action to help those who were furloughed and not receiving paychecks. There were reports of great generosity and humility and gratitude. And now that the government has reopened and individuals are now receiving those paychecks, there’s less reporting of that activity. And I’d like to think that that activity is continuing, but just not being recognized on national TV. God knows there are still plenty of people without work, without food, without homes.


But you see, that is the thing. Recognizing my need for having God in my life, and knowing that my sins are forgiven, is really only half the story in our lessons today. Believe it or not, it was the easy half: acknowledging one’s sinfulness and need for God in our lives is the easy half, because cheap grace would tell us that that’s all we need to do, is acknowledge it and receive it. But if we’re going to exercise that grace, we have to hear the more costly message in our gospel lesson. It’s about how we respond, once we’ve recognized that need for God in our lives. And again, our lessons are illustrative of how we might learn from Isaiah and Peter, each responding differently after recognizing their call.


Isaiah was already a court prophet. Now in Isaiah’s days, there were many different kinds of prophets. And in his day the court prophets were the kinds of prophets who worked for the government, and simply told the king what the king wanted to hear. We probably still have some of those kinds of prophets in our day. But we hear that Isaiah was at risk, if he were trying to bring the king closer to God. He could have not only lost his job, but he could have lost his head. But Isaiah stayed true to his calling and remained a court prophet after receiving his call to discipleship. Now in the same way, I suppose when you or I respond to God’s call to discipleship we might continue in our same profession. We might live in the same place. We might do many of the same things. But we also might do some things differently. Our motives and our values may change. We might witness to our call to discipleship by being better stewards of our environment, or our resources. Our gratitude or humility might lead to more acts of kindness, or lead to involvement in volunteerism or social justice issues. This kind of discipleship is epitomized, I believe, in the words of the good Roman Catholic St. Benedict, when he proclaimed to his hearers, “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary use words.” What he was saying is that the way we live our lives can speak volumes. Today, St. Benedict might have been known as an environmentalist.


Now in contrast to Isaiah’s response to God’s call, Peter’s call to discipleship led him to respond differently. He left his former profession as a fisherman to become a fisher of people. Jesus later taught that Peter did that so well that he was going to choose Peter to be the rock on which he would build his church. In the generations of followers since Peter, we’ve had varying degrees of success in building the church. We struggled sometimes to understand what it means to be an evangelical church, charged with sharing the Good News of Christ as if it was more like a fishing derby, requiring a certain technique or a secret science around how or where to fish, and what bait or lure to use, to reel in the biggest catch. But perhaps this is where this analogy between discipleship and fishing needs to break down, because I don’t believe that Christians, as followers of God, can be hooked like fish. The success or failure of building our church, or of witnessing to God’s love, will not depend on gimmicks that lure people by using the right bait or catching them in nets. 21st Century Christians cannot be captured. Our confession today talked about how we instead have been captured by sin, but we cannot be captured into staying here at 8:00am or at 10:30am every Sunday morning. I haven’t checked lately, but I don’t think they lock the doors when you come in for church so that you can’t leave. But we have, I think, need to adopt a newer philosophy. I call it “Catch and Release.” The love of God can catch us, and then we are released to share that Good News with others.


In scripture, the Apostle Paul tells us that faith comes from hearing. The church of Jesus Christ calls us to be disciples, and in some cases like Peter, to leave whatever we’re doing to become followers, to share the Gospel in word and deed, or responding to God’s call by changing our priorities or values. What we hear and experience is God loves us, and that our shortcomings are forgiven, and that there is a community of faith that cares about one another and about all of God’s creation.


So today, Isaiah, Paul, and Peter hear the call to discipleship and respond. How have you heard that call? How have you responded? Are we going to fish or cut bait?




*** Keywords ***


2019, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Jim Bennett, Isaiah 6:1-8, A Vision of God in the Temple, Luke 5:1-11, Jesus Calls the First Disciples, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, The Resurrection of Christ