Steve Lindsley

Luke 5: 1-11

There are two ways our church will be observing Lent in worship this year. The first is that our Affirmation of Faith from today through Palm Sunday will be our church’s mission statement.  This mission statement was approved by session back in 2015 and can be found on our church website.  During Lent we’re going to refamiliarize ourselves with it and let it serve as a reminder of who we aspire to be as a church and a guide for our Lenten journey together.

Rebecca and I will also be preaching a sermon series we’re calling, “Hands, Feet and Heart of Jesus.”  We’ll look at the stories of Jesus, and the stories told by Jesus, as a guide for how we are called to live as followers of Jesus Christ – something that seems important to re-root ourselves in, given the twisting of the Christian faith in our current cultural context.

Our hope is that, for the next six weeks, we’ll all be drawn more fully into not just what it means to follow Jesus as an individual, but what it means to follow Jesus as the church.  And so with that, would you pray with me….

American author Mark Twain was said to have been, among other things, an avid fisherman.  Equal to his love for fishing was his tendency to boast with great enthusiasm about his catch of the day.  Returning home after a three-week fishing trip in Maine – long after the legal fishing season had concluded – Twain retired to the train’s lounge car in search of a stranger to whom he might share his fishing adventures.  A sour-faced New Englander sat down next to him and the two struck up a conversation.

The stranger began: “Been to the woods, have you?” he said to Twain.

Twain responded, “I have indeed.  And let me tell you – it may be closed season for fishing in Maine, but I have a couple of hundred pounds of the finest rock bass you’ll ever see, iced down in the baggage car.”

Realizing that he had not been properly introduced, Twain asked, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.  Who might you be, sir?”

The man’s sour face turned more sour.  He replied, “I’m the state game warden, monitoring illegal fishing in this region. Who are you?”

To which Twain replied, “Well, my friend, I happen to be the biggest liar in these United States!”

Tall fish tales, apparently, can get you in trouble depending on who you share them with.  Even if they are true.  Josiah read one for us just a minute ago.  The way Luke tells it, it happens right on the heels of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  There’s a lot that happens in these eleven verses commonly referred to as the calling of the disciples – which it is that, although it is so much more than that.

Here’s how it all plays out: Jesus finds himself one day at the Lake of Gennesaret, and he is not alone.  The crowds are following him, eager to hear him speak; so many of them that he’s not able to see all of them standing on the shore.  So he invites himself on one of the fishing boats cast out a bit in the water so he can see all of the people and they can see him.  From there he teaches and preaches to the crowd.

When the crowd begins to disperse, Jesus tells one of the fishermen in the boat, named Simon, to head out into the deep water and cast his nets.  Who knows why Jesus bothers to suggest this.  Who knows why Simon listens to Jesus, given that he’s just met the guy, he’s obviously not a fisherman, and the spot he’s referring to had already proved fruitless that day.  But to the spot they go, and the nets are cast.

And what happens next would make the likes of Mark Twain green with envy.  The nets fill up with fish – a ton of fish.  So many fish, in fact, that Luke tells us the other fishing boat had to come alongside the first one to help bring in the haul.  And even then, the two boats were barely staying afloat.

That, my friends, is a lot of fish.

And we’d understand if the story ended there.  It would’ve been a great fish tale to tell; a sign of just how miraculous Jesus was.  But there is more going on in this story.  With Jesus, it seems, there is always more going on.

We catch a little glimpse of what this might be in Simon’s response.  One might think he’d be elated with this mammoth haul of fish, set to provide well for him and his family.  We’d even understand if Simon reacted anxiously, with sinking boats and ripping nets.

But Simon is neither of these.  Instead, he is contrite, he is remorseful; and he throws himself at Jesus’ feet and says “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

I find it interesting that Simon’s response to this amazing miracle on the water is an acute awareness of his own unworthiness.  Don’t you think that’s curious?  And isn’t it somewhat contradictory that, as Simon is begging Jesus to get away from him, he is literally throwing himself at Jesus’ feet?  Simon cannot wrap his head around what’s going on here, but in the very depths of his being, he understands at some elemental level that it is about far, far more than simply the catch of the day.

Now Jesus, of course, ignores Simon’s request to go away.  Quite the opposite.  In fact, he issues Simon and the others an invitation to join him in an entirely different kind of fishing: Do not be afraid, he tells them (we’ve heard that before, haven’t we?)  Do not be afraid, because from now on you will be fishing for people.  And Luke tells us that when they get to the shore, they leave everything behind and follow him.

All the times I’ve read this story, thought about this story, and I’m still not sure which is the more impressive miracle here – on the one hand, nets so full of fish that two boats can barely hold them; or on the other hand, people leaving everything behind – livelihoods, families, the only lives they’d ever known – to follow a man they just met. Now I know how hard it is to catch a bunch of fish at once, mainly because I’ve never done it.  But I also cannot fathom how one speaks to the depths of the human heart in such a way that lives are radically transformed in an instant.  Honestly, if I had to choose, I’d probably go with the latter as the more impressive – wouldn’t you?

What was it exactly about Jesus’ invitation that compelled these men to do this?  Was it what he said?  Was it how he said it?  Or was it something else?

Years ago I became aware of a particular church building that I’ve never forgotten. In many ways it wasn’t all that different from most churches.   The building stretched high into the air with a steeple on top.  It had large Gothic arches as you walked in the front door, and inside pews for roughly 100 worshippers. Up front there was a pulpit, a table, and an organ; surrounded on both sides by beautiful windows.  It was a fully-functioning church sanctuary that saw action every weekend.

The only difference about this church that set it apart from all the others?  It was inflatable.

You heard me right, inflatable.  As in “blow up,” “just add air” inflatable.  It was the brainchild of a 40-something Englishman who developed it in the hopes that it would “breathe new life into Christianity,” pun intended.  It’s frequently rented for weddings and other services – and if you want to use it more regularly, no worries, you can purchase your own inflatable church for a mere $35,000.  Air pump not included.

When asked what inspired him to come up with such an odd creation, his response was surprisingly theological.  There was a time, he said, when churches were the center of community life; but that is no longer the case.  And if all people of faith do is sit and wait for the community to come to them, they are going to be waiting for a very long time.  So why not bring the church to the community, literally wherever the people are?  That’s why this guy created the Inflatable Church – because it goes where the people are.

Now I’m not sure how practical the inflatable church actually is – if you’re imagining in your mind something like a bouncy house church, you’re not very far off.  And you probably should leave all sharp objects at home.  But you can’t argue with his rationale, can you?  Jesus certainly didn’t.  Think about it.  Jesus shows up at the lakeshore that day and finds a crowd waiting for him.  Now he could’ve stayed there at the shoreline and taught to just that small subset of the crowd who could see him standing there.  But he doesn’t do that, does he?  No – he goes out on a fishing boat so more people can see and hear him.  He goes where the people need him to go – not the other way around.

And then, when it’s time to tap his first few followers, he could’ve retreated to the safety of the shore, to solid ground, to what was familiar and comfortable, calling out to the fishermen from a distance.  He could’ve invited them using language and terminology that was familiar to him as a carpenter – hey, guys, come with me and let’s build a new world together; let’s construct something together.  But he doesn’t do that, does he?  No – he stays right there in that boat with these fishermen and asks them to follow him in language they understand:  Follow me and I’ll show you how to fish for people. 

It wasn’t what Jesus said or how he said it that compelled those fishermen, and so many after them, to leave everything behind to follow Jesus. It was where Jesus located himself – and where he located himself was right there with them. Speaking their language. Sharing their lives. Being a community of faith together.

I mentioned before that our Affirmations of Faith throughout Lent will be our church’s mission statement.  You’re going to get very familiar with this statement over the next month and a half, but today I want you to pay particular attention to how it begins, which is:

In the busyness of life on Providence, we are a growing community of faith….

 Now there’s a whole bunch in the rest of our mission statement about what we do as a church, and they’re all important.  But none of them can happen if we don’t first squarely locate ourselves in the busyness of life on Providence.  The two schools and hundreds of families who come here five days a week.  The immediate neighborhood and surrounding areas.  The people who walk their dogs on our campus, the families who take their fifteen year olds for driving lessons on our “strip” on vacant Saturday afternoons, the yoga classes who meet downstairs.  These are just some of the crowds coming to our lakeshore day after day.

The church is at its best when it locates ourselves where the people are.  When it speaks the language of those it wishes to build community with – not in a way that compromises the gospel, but in a way that enhances it.  The church is at its best when it discerns the needs of the ones it’s called to serve and then tends to those needs, as opposed to trying to convince them that our needs should also be theirs.

And there is no doubt that this is very different from how we’ve traditionally gone about things as the church – building buildings and manufacturing programs and ensconcing institutions and doing our darndest to convince people that they need to come to us.  We’ve written the book on that kind of church.  But beloved, that book is out of date; and it’s time to write a new story.

Here’s the good news, though – that “new story” is actually a very old story.  It’s not some far-fetched, off-the-wall idea.  It’s already part of who we are, all the way back to the very beginning.  Jesus coming to some fishermen at the lakeshore, speaking their language, tending to their needs.  Meeting them right where they were.  They were ecstatic to leave everything behind and become part of the community Jesus was calling them to be.  So are we.

Our community of faith is changing, friends – you know this.  We have leadership who are thinking at the high level what our future holds.  We have a staff who are guiding us into this new norm.  We have a team of folks who are fleshing out a new vision for a new Trinity.

And while all of that is still in the works, one thing I know for certain is that whatever our church becomes, it will always be a community of faith bound together in Jesus Christ; people who have experienced God’s amazing abundance, like those fishermen whose nets were barely enough to hold the catch.  People whom Jesus sought out and met right where they were.

That is our growing community of faith in the busyness of life on Providence.  That is our inflatable church.  And for that, in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.