Gregory Bentley,
preaching for the 2009 Conference

Luke 5:1-11

In the 1850s, Henry Comstock left Canada and made his way to western Nevada hoping to strike it rich by prospecting for gold. While in Nevada, he gained the reputation of a shyster; someone who was willing to do less than honorable things Bentley_Greg_2009to get what he wanted. Moreover, many of his observers said he was too lazy to bake bread preferring instead the easy flapjack, hence the nickname “Pancake.” After he had made a modest sum of money from gold prospecting, Henry “Pancake” Comstock sold his claim. The company towhich he sold the claim later found, on the land that he sold them, a vein of silver worth tens of millions of dollars. We know this strike today as the Comstock Lode. Had he gone a farther, dug a little deeper, maybe Comstock would not have met the tragic end of taking his own life.

How many dreams have gone unrealized because we refused to go a little farther, to dig a little deeper? How many divorces have been the result of our unwillingness to go a little farther, to dig a little deeper? How many of us graduated “O Lawdy!” rather than cum laude because we just couldn’t muster the discipline to go a little farther, to dig a little deeper? How many churches are in crisis or decline because we fight tooth and nail against going a little farther, digging a little deeper?

The text opens with Jesus standing beside the Sea of Galilee, what Luke calls Lake Gennesaret. John Dominic Crossan argues, and I agree, that one reason that we see so much of Jesus’ ministry taking place in close proximity to the Sea of Galilee is that King Herod had commercialized the lake driving many local fishermen out of business. Israel was a colony of Rome and Herod was a puppet king; he was Caesar’s crony; he was Jewish in name only; he exploited and oppressed his own people to stay in good standing with Rome. Although his onerous and inhumane taxation on the lake was driving his people to destitution and desperation, he couldn’t have cared less…it was the cost of doing business. Herod’s economic policy was an ancient version of Reagonomics, the trickledown theory, a reverse Robin Hood, from the needy to the greedy.

And this vicious policy caused unspeakable misery throughout the land. Families were torn apart, crime was rampant, poverty and disease wreaked havoc, many women had to resort to prostitution just to survive, many young men took to banditry-a first century form of gangbanging-just to eke out an existence, and a host of other social ills. The more I think about it, this would be an accurate description of the harsh reality of life for billions of God’s children around the globe in our day and time.

So Jesus led a movement against this demonic and dehumanizing system. Jesus knew the “earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world, and all that dwells therein.” The world belongs to God and not to Rome. And likewise, we must realize that the world belongs to God…and not Halliburton, or Exxon, or Texaco, or Enron, or even the United States of America. The world belongs to God.

So we find Jesus standing beside the Sea of Galilee, with the crowds pressing in on him to hear the word of God. I like that, that’s good news to my ears. In this age of muckraking and smear campaigns, it is good to know that somebody wants to hear the Word of God. In this age where it seems like the whole country has an appetite for the sordid fare served up by the likes of Jerry Springer, Rush Limbaugh, and FOX News. I am delighted to know that somebody wants to hear the Word of God. When people come to us with mess we must have the holy boldness to say, “Go on somewhere with your mess because my mind is on the Master; get from ’round me with that junk because my mind is stayed on Jesus; I don’t want to hear your garbage ’cause I’m rolling with God.”

Jesus saw two boats at the shore of the lake and the fisherman had gone out of them to wash their nets. And Jesus tells Simon Peter to put out a little way from the shore; away from the shore of comfort, complacency, and convenience; away from the shoreline of tradition and “we’ve never done it that way before.” We must leave terra firma, step out on faith and go farther out into the deep water to let down out nets for a catch! God is calling us to go farther in our: 1. prayer life, 2. Bible study, 3. pocket books, 4. creativity, 5. connectivity, 6. relationships, 7. faith, and farther in our 8. witness and evangelism. Stop messing around in the shallows, venture boldly into the deep and let down your nets for catch.

But some of us, like Peter, will retort, “Master. We have labored all night long and have caught nothing.” Does anybody here know anything about the night shift? When you labor all night long and even when daybreak comes all you have to show for it are the bitter tears of disappointment? When you’ve prayed all night long and your situation seems to be worse than it was before you started praying? I’m talking about working the night shift.

But in spite of the disappointments and dejections of life, Jesus is calling us to launch out into the deep. This call is counterintuitive; it goes against the data at hand. It very often makes no sense at all. But that is what it means to walk by faith and not by sight. We can not see what the end is going to be but we know Who is going to be with us to the end. There are no guarantees about results; there are many unknowns, many things we cannot see. It’s dark in the deep. Howard Thurman recounts the story of a deep sea diver in his classic book the Luminous Darkness…but if we just be still, and not give in to our fears, if we just hold on and not react to the darkness, the darkness takes on a luminous quality. We begin to see things in the dark that we never saw before. Reality opens up in a whole new way. If we can just get beyond our fear- our fear of losing control, our fear of change, our fear of being challenged, our fear of walking by faith rather than by sight- God will turn the darkness and the deep into a delight.

Part of the problem is that we have bought into the world’s myth of scarcity rather than God’s promise of abundance. God’s economy works a little differently than Wall Street’s economy. God says, “Try me in this, and see if I won’t pour out a blessing that you won’t have room enough to contain.” God tells us if you want to be first, you must be a servant of all; it you want to be elevated, you have to humble yourself; if you want to be filled, you have to empty yourself; if you want to save your life, you have to give it up for Christ’s sake.

We are witnessing right before our very eyes the folly of me-first, profit-over-people-, capital-over-community thinking. Trickle down wasn’t nothing but a trick, a free press is only for those who own one, and those who profess to prefer less government only do so until they’re in power and upon seizing power they create the most bloated bureaucracy in the history of our country. Dr. King had it right; unless we learn to live together as brothers and sisters we will surely die separately and tragically as fools.

In spite of Peter’s reluctance and initial hesitation, he say’s something that should be the hallmark of any disciple: “Yet if you say so, I will let down the net.” No it doesn’t make any sense to me, yet if you say so! I’m tired and I don’t feel like going on, yet if you say so! I don’t believe I have the competence or the courage, yet if you say so! I feel like a failure, yet if you say so! At the end of the day, it’s not about fish, it’s about faith. It’s not about if we believe we will catch some fish it’s about our belief in Jesus! Relationship with and belief in the Mission giver is necessary for carrying out the mission.

And when Peter was obedient, he bought in a catch that was too big for him to handle. There is a relationship between obedience and abundance; between faithfulness and fruitfulness. But there’s something else here that needs to be lifted up. Peter’s encounter with Jesus leads to a sense of unworthiness and confession. “Get away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Ah, shades and echoes of Isaiah 6:1-8. You know the passage, don’t you? In the year that King Uzziah died…

Jesus doesn’t beat Peter over the head with his sinfulness. He doesn’t minimize it but neither does he use it to club Peter into a sense of worthlessness and uselessness. Too often the church has the regrettable distinction of being an institution that buries its wounded. Too often the church is so legalistic and so self-righteous that we forget that each and every one of us is a sinner saved by grace. That if it had not been for the Lord on our side, O’ where we would we be? No, when people are down, they need a lift, and not a lecture; they need to be encouraged, and not injured. The fact of the matter is that God is more concerned about where we’re going than where we’ve been; God is more concerned about our future than our past; God is more concerned about who and what we can become than who and what we are.

So don’t let shortcomings, frailties, and foibles prevent us from becoming and doing what God wants us to do. God wants to use us to catch people for the kingdom. The sense of that phrase “from now on you will be catching people” is no longer will you be catching fish to die but you will be catching people to live, to bring them to life. To bring them alive from dead thinking, dead behavior, dead habits, dead relationships, dead tradition, and a dead faith. To bring them alive from a dead culture and system and that can only kill, steal, and destroy. To bring them alive to living hope and a living faith; a new way and new walk; a new reality and a new relationship. A reality that is defined by freedom, justice, and equality for all of God’s children. A reality where the jobless are gainfully employed, the homeless are housed, the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the ignorant are educated, the blind have their sight restored, the lame are made to walk, the sick are cared for, where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest, and God is glorified and God’s people are edified throughout the earth!

Jesus’ person and pronouncement are so compelling that they left everything — boats, fish, nets, everything — and followed him. There’s power, in the name of Jesus! There’s purpose, in the name of Jesus…! I want you to know tonight, that I am compelled by this man named Jesus; I am convinced about this man named Jesus; I am convicted by this man named Jesus; and I am satisfied with this man named Jesus!

I have decided to follow Jesus…! Though no one join me, still I will follow…! The world behind me, the cross…!

Gregory Bentley
Pastor, Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church
Tuscaloosa, AL
Sermon delivered to the Covenant Network of Presbyterians
November 6, 2009