I found this sermon I preached nearly 20 years ago. As I read it, I found it was speaking to me, right now. Maybe you need to hear it, too.
Luke 5: 1-11
“Being God’s Partner”
The story starts simply enough. A wandering teacher was walking by the shore of the lake, when so many people gathered around him the press of the crowd almost pushed him into the water. He needed to get a little distance from those folks, so he climbed into one of the fishing boats there on the shore. He rowed a little into the water and taught the folks from the boat. I imagine it was a sunny, warm day — they don’t get much rain in that part of the world. And there was a pleasant breeze blowing off the lake, carrying the teacher’s voice out over the crowd. But there were other sounds: the call of the gulls, the flight of the other shore birds, the sounds of the fishermen as they brought their boats to shore with their catch. And the never ceasing sound of the waves of the lake lapping on the beach and the boats and piers. The whole area smelled like fish, for this was a fishing village. So there were nets stretched out on the sand for repair, and fish spread out on racks for drying. There were three kinds of fish in the lake to catch: a family of large panfish, one of which is now called “St. Peter’s fish,” the carp fish, and catfish. Of course these Hebrew folk didn’t eat the catfish, because their laws did not allow eating fish that do not have fins and scales.
But everyone’s livelihood here depended on the fish in the lake. So when the teacher was through talking and he turned to Simon and said, “Let’s go fishing,” Simon didn’t interpret his offer as a suggestion for a day of fun on the lake. For Simon, fishing was his work, not recreation. And he had already been on the lake all night long dropping his nets and retrieving what few fish he could find. He didn’t have a good catch today. And tired, hungry, dirty, and smelly, Simon just wanted to get some lunch and rest for awhile. But the teacher looked him in the eye, and the power of his glance convinced Simon that maybe it was worth it to go out once more.
He didn’t have much confidence as he lowered the nets into the water. In fact, he was pretty distracted. His tax bill was coming due, and he wasn’t sure how he was going to pay it. Ever since their new tetrarch, Herod Antipas, started building his brand new city on the shore of the lake, taxes had been going up and up. Tiberias he named this new city, a monument to the Emperor of Rome, with its fancy architecture and Roman baths and all the graven images the Hebrew people were supposed to avoid. Yes, a Roman city for the Roman rulers and their sympathizers. But the poor people of Galilee had to pay for it with taxes that left little for feeding your kids or getting ahead. Added to that were the tithes and taxes for the Temple in Jerusalem. Everybody was feeling the pinch.
And fishing wasn’t much like what it used to be, either. Before Antipas, the fishermen could work the lake and support their families by selling their catch at the local market. But things were much different now. Ever since Antipas put in that fish factory in Magdala, the lake was covered with fishermen. They were pulling in tons of fish for the factory, which made pickled and spicy delicacies they exported to Rome and Greece. All the fishermen were dependent on the factory now. Every time a new boat was built to fish the lake, the price the factory would pay went down a little more. And now it seemed the fish just weren’t as plentiful as they used to be.
So Simon was feeling squeezed from both ends. And the teacher with the powerful eyes told him to drop the nets again. Well, OK. It won’t take long to convince him you can’t catch fish here in the middle of the day.
But . . . what’s this? The nets are full! Simon can’t pull them into the boat fast enough. He signals to his partners to come with their boat, and they fill them both with fish. The biggest catch they had ever seen! Yes, he could sell this haul and catch up on some of his bills. But who is this man? This teacher, he has power over fish, too? What about this catch? Miraculous, extravagant!
And then the teacher caught his eye, and with a glance looked into the depth of his soul. And all at once Simon knew. . . . Knew that here in his fishing boat he was in the presence of the power of God. And he remembered what the rabbis had taught about Isaiah, how he was in the Temple and the power of God came over him, and he saw the Lord sitting on a throne, and the winged creatures flying all around singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts! The whole earth is full of his glory.” And that is how Simon felt right now, today, in his fishing boat on the lake. And like Isaiah, Simon was overcome with his own frailty and feebleness and sin. Isaiah had said, “Woe is me for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the Lord of hosts!” Oh, that is how Simon felt, covered with his inadequacies and failings, ashamed of his worries over petty things, and sorrowful for his neglect of his own religious life. “Get away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” he cried, for he knew he was in the presence of the Holy One.
What happened next changed his life forever. For the teacher looked him in the eye again, and said, “Simon, put away your fears. From now on you will be catching people.” Simon had no idea what he meant right then. He just knew he wanted to follow the teacher, and learn from him, and dedicate his life’s work to the will of the man with the powerful eyes.
Now, although Simon lived in a different world, his worries about work were not so very different from ours. For Simon was concerned about finding meaning in his work. You see, the changing economic picture of Galilee brought on by Herod Antipas had thrown everything in turmoil. Old family structures were falling away, and for the first time ever, people were needing to fend for themselves. The security of a close-knit village and extended family structure were falling away. Even if Simon were able to pay his tax bill with the load of fish generously given him by Jesus, that would only postpone his worries about paying taxes. So many people were behind in their taxes, and drowning in debt, they were having to sell old family estates. Once the family property was gone, there was no security at all. As rich merchants and overlords gobbled up all this property, they got even more wealthy and detached from most of the people.
So working to keep even seemed a futile task. Simon had long since discovered he was not getting ahead. What he wanted to know was why he kept doing it. Why haul himself out every night and fish the lake in the dark? What difference would it make?
I know that Simon’s experience is shared by many people, no matter what the work is they are doing in this life. For what Simon needed and what we all need is the understanding that the work we do has meaning, has a larger purpose in the scheme of things. And when Jesus looked him in the eyes that day, Jesus gave meaning and purpose to the work Simon would eventually do. For Jesus invited Simon to become his partner in the work of the Reign of God.
Several times lately I’ve been encountering this idea of being asked to be God’s partner in the work of the world. The first time was for a wedding I officiated. The couple had chosen the text from the first chapter of Genesis where God makes the man and the woman, and then says, “Great, now that you are here, you can help me with this creation work. I’m giving you jobs right now.” And as I thought about God creating that first couple for the work of creation, I invited the wedding couple to think of ways they, too, were called to be God’s partners in creation.
Then, lo and behold, the same idea came up later in our confirmation class. There again, we were challenged to think of ourselves as God’s partners in the work of creation, and to develop an awareness of the ways we work with God in creating the Reign of God on earth right here and now.
And as this idea has been cooking in my head, I want to offer it to you today. For I think that Jesus is looking each one of us in the eye this morning and challenging us to join him in the work of God in this world. Now I’m not just talking about doing church work, and mission work. Those are important ways we do the work of Jesus among our sisters and brothers. But I’m talking about all the work you do — your employment, and the work you do building and sustaining your families and communities! In that work Jesus is calling you to join in partnership with him in the work of God.
And so a nurse could see his or her job as participating with God in the work of comfort and nurture. And an accountant could join with God in the work of bringing order to the world and making it accountable. And an architect could be God’s partner in the work of creating environments for living. A clerk at the deli counter can be God’s partner in providing for us all the food we need. And of course a parent who takes care of children is an image of God our Nurturing Parent. What about those who cannot work because of disability? What is their partnership with God? Perhaps they can be messengers of God’s care and love for us all, even when our bodies appear useless to this world. And this work of being God’s partner is not something we retire from. No, indeed, as our years proceed we find more and more ways we are called into partnership with God in making peace and justice a reality in this world.
When we think of our work, our very lives, as being in partnership with God, then we find our outlook changes. Instead of looking for affirmation and acclaim in our work, we can join God in praising those who help us or others. When confronted with a choice between God’s way and a less honorable way, we find it easier to choose God’s way of doing business. And when faced with the inevitable daily frustrations, we can see how we can bring our good humor to bear to ease tensions and lighten the mood of someone else. When we live our lives as God’s partner, we will find many moments of our daily lives affected by the presence of God at our side, influencing our decisions and guiding our work.
Jesus saw something Simon’s eyes that day. A deep hungering for meaning in his life. For an end to the drudgery and sameness of day after day. And Jesus spoke the call to Simon, “Come and follow me; from now on you will be catching people.” But it wasn’t just Simon who heard that call. James and John, Simon’s business buddies, also heard that call to a life of meaning. And after that miraculous fishing trip, they brought their boats to shore, and left everything and followed him.
And now Jesus looks into our eyes. What is Jesus calling forth from you? Are you ready to leave your boat on the shoreline behind you, and by Jesus’ side, fish other seas?
This will require some soul searching from everyone this week. So I invite you to look in your bulletin at the second to last page where it says, “Being God’s Partner.” There are some questions there, questions I hope will spark your thinking and inform your prayer this week. I hope you will come to see how Jesus is calling you to become God’s partner in the work of living the Christian life. Won’t you please take some time to consider how you can be God’s partner in the coming week? (Copyright 2017, RevLinda)