Casting Our Nets
Synopsis: A vision of the holiness and mystery of God brings Isaiah to a recognition of his own sinfulness. The same is true for Peter when, following Jesus’ command, he casts his nets and captures a huge haul of fish. As Americans, we are also confronted with the violence, racism, affluence, and individualism in our culture. This, however, is not the end of the story because God does not abandon us, desires our healing, and calls us to cast our nets.
Our scripture text from Isaiah begins with an exalted vision of God seated on a throne in the temple surrounded by angelic attendants. It’s part earthly and part heavenly, depicting the majesty, holiness, and mystery of God. I struggle to comprehend that. We don’t have temples in our Anabaptist tradition, and the closest I can come is the goosepimples I feel when I’m overwhelmed by the wonder of creation or a beautifully sung hymn.
The opening hymn we sang, Holy God, we praise thy name, is a 4th century hymn called Te Deum laudamus that comes from an ancient Benedictine hymnal. The author is unknown. I especially like the last line, “Undivided God we claim thee, and adoring bend the knee, while we own the mystery.”
Having seen this vision, Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips; and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” How do we reckon with our sinfulness? As expressed in our call to worship, “We come trusting in God’s grace to receive us, strange mixture of good and not-so-good that we are, individually and as a community.”
How do we name the sin that so easily besets us? It’s much bigger than any of us as individuals. In his book Evangelism after Pluralism, Brian Stone says that our American churches have lost our public witness because we have become so coopeted by American imperial culture that we fail to see ourselves as an alternative to it. He writes:
In other words, the public witness we do have is too often a parody of itself, a caricature, and little more than a voting bloc. A voting bloc, however, is not a church. And to the extent that this is the most to which our witness amounts, we will never pose a problem to the aspirations of empire, nor will we represent anything like a challenge to the violence, racism, affluence, and individualism of our culture, having instead become enamored of them all.
The political storm caused by governor Northam’s racist yearbook page and his admission that he once wore blackface, indicate how much of the racist past of Virginia is still with us. How do we respond in ways that are transforming? We need to begin by acknowledging racism and white privilege. It will include genuine repentance and forgiveness. We will also need to begin the hard work of working toward systemic equality and reconciliation.
This, however, is not the end of the story because God does not abandon us. After Isaiah’s cry of distress, he is taken through a cleansing ritual involving a live coal from the altar of God, where his guilt departs and his sin is blotted out. He then hears the divine call, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” He responds, “Here I am; send me!”
It’s a huge call, bigger than any of us as individuals, even bigger than any one congregation. Yet, it’s a call that has been given to us. We’re called, as individuals and as a congregation, to be an alternative to the violence, racism, affluence, and individualism of our culture. We know that. It’s why we chose the name “Daniels Run Peace Church” with the motto “Living Love, Growing Justice, Welcoming Everyone.”
This is evangelism in the true sense of the word. Our lives have been transformed by the grace and power of God as manifested in Jesus and the work of the Spirit in our lives and in our congregation. Our church name and motto are more than slogans. It’s who we are. It’s good news to our watching community.
This is the difference in our personal lives and in the life of our congregation. To be honest, it can feel overwhelming. Even though the results are immensely gratifying, they’re not immediately evident. Furthermore, putting too much emphasis on results such as church growth can be a fallacy. We’re instead called to be faithful.
We’re definitely not in control of the outcome. Sure, there’s unspeakable joy, but spiritual growth and discipleship can hard. It’s hard personally. I mess up a lot. And it’s hard communally. We’re always in a process of becoming and (to not put a fine point on it) we’re prone to getting sucked in by the broken parts of our American culture.
Even so, I love the challenge. It’s one of the most meaningful things one can do with one’s life. That’s why I’m a pastor. It’s also why I enjoy gardening and woodworking as alternatives. They’re so hands-on and practical. I can anticipate and make plans with a specific result in mind. Then I systematically follow through until I have achieved the end product. Sure, I occasionally make mistakes but I can usually make adjustments to still get what I’m looking for.
When I’m finished, I stand back and appreciate the finished product. It’s right there in front of me. For example, I loved seeing all those jars of pickles and tomatoes I canned last summer.
More recently, I enjoyed remodeling our church kitchen. It was a nice break from writing sermons. Now I love walking into our remodeled kitchen and experiencing how bright and cheery it has become. I enjoy going down there to prepare my lunch when I’m working in my church office. That satisfaction eventually wears off and I start dreaming of my next project.
That brings us to Simon Peter, a fisherman who knew his craft inside and out. He knew where the fish liked to hide out and what their habits were. He knew how to spot where they were in the lake. Now, this morning, after spending a night on the lake without much luck, he’s helping Jesus by rowing him a bit off-shore to address the huge crowds gathered on the shore to hear his teaching.
Afterward, Jesus calls Simon to a task without clear results, or in Simon’s calculation, almost certainly no results. He tells him to row out a little further and drop his nets. I can empathize with Peter’s response, “You can’t be serious. We’ve fished this lake all night and didn’t catch anything. But if you say so Jesus, I’ll do it.”
The results were spectacular. Their nets were so full of fish that they were about to break, so they called others in a nearby boat to come help. Soon both boats were so full of fish that they were in danger of sinking. What’s most striking is Simon’s response of falling at Jesus’ feet, overcome by a sense of his own sinfulness—his fear and lack of trust. Jesus responds, “Don’t be afraid. From now on you will catch people.”
Much of life exists between work and result. We go to school to prepare for a particular profession. We work toward a retirement we cannot see. For Ruth and me, that’s becoming more real and I have mixed emotions, including occasional pangs of fear. We don’t know what the future may hold. None of us is promised a clear result to our work. Lauren Dow Wegner, the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, comments:
But that doesn’t seem to matter to Jesus. When he asks Simon to put out into the deep water, he merely asks [him] to do what [he] knows how to do. Nothing more, nothing less. Simon is a fisherman. He knows just how to cast nets for a catch. He knows the sea and the life within it. He knows how to do this; it’s the work he has been equipped to do. So this time, when Jesus asks Simon to do his job, the result—the catch—is left to Jesus.
That image of two boats swamped with fish fills our heads with dreams of success. We may dream of fame and prosperity. I, as a pastor, may dream of a church service overflowing with people. Just name and claim it in the name of Jesus. This badly misses the point. It’s incredibly self-centered and indicates that we’re still trapped in notions of success in our American culture. It does mean that we cast our nets, whatever that may be, and leave the results to Jesus. When it comes to God’s call, there’s always a catch. Lauren Dow Wegner says that we’re called in the midst of our daily lives to serve in God’s mission for the world:
Cast your nets, write your papers, teach your students, balance financial accounts, design the buildings, pour the concrete, make the lattes, lead the meetings, administer the IV, answer phones, sing the arias. Do what you know how to do, and Jesus will use it to draw others into the kingdom of God.
We need to adjust our perspective to see that. It’s not only about me, my tribe, or my church, and certainly not my political party. As I said last Sunday, God’s Spirit works wherever people are receptive to the inbreaking reign of God. To be part of that, we will want to take risks and be involved in our community as opportunities present themselves.
We will want to work with other congregations and community groups. I love it when our church becomes a hub of such activity. Let’s cast our nets and keep that image of two boats so full of fish that they’re almost sinking. Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
 Brian Stone, Evangelism after Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018): 36.
 Lauren Dow Wegner, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century (January 16, 2019): 18.