Harrowing Of Hell
February 10, 2019

When Jesus Gets In Your Boat

Preacher: Charissa Bradstreet, M. Div.

To listen to the sermon click here.

Have you ever really worked at something, and you just didn’t seem to get anywhere with it?  Have you ever found yourself at the end of a day that felt like nothing but toil, and with no fruitful outcome from that work?

Imagine Simon in the opening of today’s gospel, at the end of that kind of day.  He’s been out at on the water all night trying to catch fish.  It’s his livelihood.  Maybe it’s even part of his identity, a measure of his value and importance.  But one night, no matter how hard he and his fellow fisherman try, they can’t catch anything.  The nets come up empty again, and again, and again.  We know from other stories in the gospels that Simon can be a little hot-headed, and maybe at some point he lost his temper with the others or began to take out his frustration on them.  Perhaps by the time they finally gave up and came back to shore they all felt exhausted and defeated – and a little sick of each other.  Sometimes that happens; our personal misery can lead to relational ruptures.

So there is Simon near the shore, washing out the nets.  The nets that caught nothing all night.  What kind of emotions do you imagine he is sitting with as he does that chore?  What do you experience in your own life in such moments?  Would you rather just be left alone?

Well, it’s not Simon’s lucky day if that’s what he wants, because up walks Jesus with a throng of crowds following him and pressing in on him.  Suddenly, even as he’s bent over his nets and muttering under his breath, Simon is surrounded by people.  “This is so not my day,” he may be thinking to himself – and then Jesus swings a leg over the side of his boat and gets inside it.  Does Simon think, “Hey, that’s my boat, what do you think you’re doing!” or is he conflicted because this is the teacher he likes so much, the one who talks about God with a strange authority, and who affectionately calls him “the Rock.”  This teacher just healed his mother-in-law a few days ago so it’s not like he can say, “Hey, get your own boat” when Jesus asks him to push his boat out from the shore. 

Suddenly Jesus is in Simon’s boat and there’s nothing left to do but listen as Jesus sits down and starts to teach. 

Some time passes and Jesus finishes speaking.  He then turns to Simon and says, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”  Poor, tired Simon now has to take the boat further out into the lake and go through the motions of once again casting out the nets and trying for a catch, with an audience looking on. 

Now, you and I are just imagining this scene, bringing insights and ideas from our own experiences and character, so I will leave it to you to decide whether Simon’s tone is sarcastic or sincere when he says, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.  Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 

Regardless of his words to Jesus in this moment, what can you imagine about how it might feel to step back into a place of failure and to risk the invitation to hope for a different outcome?  Don’t so many of us want desperately to put ourselves as far away as possible from our places of failure? 

And yet Simon finds a way to gather strength for one more casting of the net, for no other reason than Jesus suggesting he do so.  Maybe he has learned that this teacher constantly surprises, and while his faith may be small, he can’t help but be curious about what will happen next. 

Out goes the net and then something bizarre happens.  They suddenly have so many fish, they can’t pull up the net.  Frantically, Simon has to signal to James and John to bring their boat out to help him with this catch.  They come out and begin unloading the fish into both boats but then the boats start to sink from the weight!  The storyteller doesn’t tell us how these sinking boats make it back to land.  But he does tell us Simon’s response.  He drops to Jesus’ knees and says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

I wonder what you make of that response. 

I think about the complicated cocktail of emotions that must be running through Simon at that moment.  Exhaustion, irritation, defeat, and confusion colliding with a spark of hope and curiosity, then surprise, wonder, elation, and a crisis of abundance.  He realizes that there was nothing in his mind or his heart to prepare him for this moment in which he now stands.  He is undone, struck with awe, and he seems afraid like one who finds himself suddenly in a very different kind of world than he thought he lived within.  It is the stuff of all the hero legends where ordinary persons suddenly find themselves within an extraordinary story.

It can take one aback and one can feel acutely a lack of capacity to take it all in.  That’s what I hear in Simon’s response.  His story suddenly got immensely big and he feels unworthy of the moment.

And what does Jesus say?  He doesn’t say, “You are right. You are foolish and sinful, and I find you rather hopeless.” 

No, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people.”  He basically suggests that this is just the beginning of something much larger and that it is time for Simon to reimagine who he is and what he is on this planet to do.  It is time for Simon to step into mystery and to become a catcher of persons.

Jesus gets in the boat.  Jesus says, “Cast your net.  Move toward that place of failure, because I want you to see that in the places where you feel weak and exhausted you will be met with abundance.  I am calling you into a great adventure.  Do not be afraid.”

Today’s gospel is a pretty big fish story.  It’s even bigger than the fish story Doyt told when he came back from Montana a few months ago.  If you haven’t heard it you should ask him about it.

But for all the drama of the breaking nets and the boats that almost sank from the weight of the catch, I think our lives are woven with that kind of drama if we have eyes to see it.

How does it show up in our lives?  Well, maybe it looks like standing in front of a judge and having to answer the question, “Is your marriage irrevocably broken?” and feeling the ache of this death, only moments later to step outside the courtroom, and together with your now ex-spouse, wander into words and actions that allow you to release the marriage with grace and tenderness.  How are such things possible?

And maybe it’s like finding yourself a month, to the day after your divorce in a conference room at work where you are told that your role has been eliminated.  To be offered a choice between a demotion and a severance package.  And all the air rushes from your body.  Only to awaken the next day in the early hours of the morning, to stumble into prayer, and suddenly realize that someone is now going to pay you very handsomely to go out and actually do those bold things you’ve been quietly dreaming of – those dreams that started to emerge even as your marriage was ending. 

That’s when you realize that somewhere along the way Jesus got in your boat.  That’s when you see that the net that stank of failure and loss is bursting with unexpected mercy. 

Which is not to say that it all feels good in the moment.  Like Simon, our interior lives are complicated with big feelings of fear, loss, anger – joy, wonder, and anticipation.  It is a lot to honor, each emotion bringing its own strange gift for the journey, none of them to be ignored.  If it feels big and overwhelming, you are probably in the very center of that liminal space where transformation is occurring.  We may very well inwardly drop to our knees and feel unprepared for a life this big.

Our respective boats are different.  Your boat is different than mine because God steps into the unique places where each of us has invested and struggled so much, and then uses that context to speak to us in a way that only we can understand. 

That is our God – the God who gets into our boat and who invites us to cast our net into the places that feel like failure so that we can discover unexpected mercy and the actual adventure that is our life.  Not just for our own sake, but to drive us deeper into a calling as a catcher of people, so that we can see our neighbor unveiled, and delight in the shared mystery that enfolds us all.

  • When has Jesus gotten into your boat?
  • Where have you cast a net, with barely any hope, only to be met with mercy and abundance?
  • How does your fish story uniquely prepare you to be a catcher of people, a restorer of the great breach, a singer with a new song?