St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 5th Sunday after Trinity, July 17, 2022
“Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net. And when they had this done, they enclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake.”
THERE THEY ARE, swimming lazily in schools of twenty, forty, hundreds of them. The entire lot would feed your family, your whole village, for a good many days. You can almost smell them frying, see them laid out in the sun to dry for later. But right now, they are ten feet under the surface and you are in the boat. Make any attempt to get to them, and by their superior skills at watercraft, like a flash they’ll vanish. What can you do to get them in your boat?
People have fished forever. It’s a unique sport because you catch a creature that lives in another world. For you, it’s all air and sun and wind, and the water is cool, and below you, and suffocating. It’s the other way for the fish. His water is your air—he doesn’t think about water at all. He lives in it. It’s his atmosphere, his breath, where he finds food. Upward is light and fear—the world ends when he swims too high. To get such creatures to leave their world for ours is their death and our life. God made us to seek and eat fish. It’s an epic Old Man and the Sea kind of story, man against alien life-form, our brains against a creature in its own element.
I know some fish stories. I’ve been in them. But that was sport. I didn’t need fish to survive. I always had something else to eat, in case I didn’t catch any. There are people for whom a catch is the difference between life and death, and they don’t have time for dry fly casting and the art of waiting for the right moment and the big one. They’ve got to eat. For them the invention of nets, thousands of years ago by our records, was a giant step in the quest of man over fish. Sitting in that boat, thinking of how you might get to those fish down there, was born in the idea of winding some fine rope and crisscrossing it, knotting it, and making a mesh of strands. Make it big. Tie weights on the outer borders of it and heavy ropes at the ends to close it and draw it up and out of the water. They tried it and it worked. The fish never saw it coming.
Nets work so well that in America only a few native tribes are legally allowed to do it, it’s still their livelihood. Better nets give such an advantage to the fisherman it could end the fish population altogether. The Indians are careful not to ruin their own fishing ground.
Nets are indiscriminate. Whatever’s down there comes up, the good and the bad. Fishermen spend hours cleaning nets after fishing, weeds and rocks, branches and tangles, and the bad fish you don’t eat.
Jesus told stories about fishing. “The kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea that gathered everything, and when it was full, they drew to shore. They gathered the good into vessels, but threw the bad away. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come, separate the wicked from the just, and cast them into the fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Matt 13:47-51 They understood Him because most of them were fishermen. He taught them the net is not a fine-tuned instrument, but will bring in many. Some you’ll keep, some throw away. That applies to people too. The Apostles were being retooled as fishers of men. Many who would answer the call of the Gospel would not be found worthy of the kingdom, even if they arrived in the Church.
Solomon wrote, “The race is not to the swift, Nor the battle to the strong, Nor bread to the wise, Nor riches to men of understanding, Nor favor to men of skill; But time and chance happen to them all. For man also does not know his time: Like fish taken in a cruel net, Like birds caught in a snare, So the sons of men are snared in an evil time, When it falls suddenly upon them.” Eccl 9:11-12 The old king’s cynicism results from many experiences believing one way and finding it goes another. We’ve all had friends who seemed to love us and yet in time we came to know they were using us, hating us, cheating us, robbing us, and betraying us.
Jesus Himself had just that problem. He cast great nets: astonishing and authoritative teaching, quiet powerful miracles, His divine Presence, and comfort to people hungry for truth. He pulled in many in one catch. The feeding of 5,000 one afternoon tells of the success He had fishing. But many of these same fair-weather fish turned their backs on Him just days later when He told them He was the bread from heaven, and they would indeed have to eat His body and drink His blood. Jesus is not just looking for huge numbers. He’s looking for disciples. He’s looking for us to be Christs ourselves, sons and daughters of God by adoption and transformation. The fish He keeps are really something.
So, what is our net? How do we attract those who might consider the message, find truth in the messenger, and remain to be cleaned after they are caught? You know that, don’t you? God catches His fish before He cleans them—meaning, we come, we take part, and we are much as we were in the world. But the process of the Holy Spirit’s sanctification begins. We can’t stay as we’ve been. That won’t do. Resist the change and you are cast back in the lake.
What is our net? This building? It was. We opened our doors for worship in this restored historic church on February 19, 1995 and the seats were so packed that over 200 people stood in the hallway and tower entry, unable to get in. It was front page news, and the paper gave us color photos, above the fold. It’s still a lovely building, but bricks and shingles don’t bring them in.
The 1928 Book of Common Prayer? Is that our net? I believe we have some of the richest, most meaningful worship available—and I’ve heard what else is offered. I have this liturgy in my DNA. I can’t get away from it. But I would say 95% of the population has neither heard of the Prayer Book nor cares. It sounds funny to them. They don’t wait around until it starts to mean something to them.
The Presence of Christ? This has been the invisible, silent draw to many who at first didn’t understand it. They only knew that God is here. The sacramental Presence of the Eucharist reserved in the tabernacle can be a mysterious attraction. They know He is here—and they like it, or they fear it and ran away.
Music is a draw to many seeking a church. At the present, it’s a kind of soft rock that echoes from K-LOVE and makes them tap their feet and sway with the beat. Our 1878 T. C. Lewis English pipe organ and organist Jack Belton give us the sweetest classic sounds, the worship of the centuries. Few there are that appreciate this today.
The preaching used to bring many people to Jesus, by famous paragons of the pulpit—John Donne, Jonathan Edwards, Billy Graham. I don’t know if post-moderns have time to hear preaching, or understand it. Inspired preaching can change a life, but the fish must hold still and listen. Are sermons working? The church populations indicate otherwise.
Good food? Colorful pageantry? Social events? Children’s programs? Mission opportunities? Door to door evangelism? Pop up ads? Radio shows? Televangelism? The nets have become high tech. We’ve redone our website, but only to provide information for those who now use the internet as they once did the phonebook. The web is a fishing net these days that spreads wide and attaches to many searches. But we aren’t so techie that our nets are all online.
I come back now to the best of what we are, what we can provide, how we may enjoy the fishing and see a greater catch. The net, the bait, the attraction we possess is not in the building, the words, the tunes—these are who we are and how we approach God—and they will not change, nor should they, for fashion’s sake. We can’t make them more of what they are, so what’s left?
Love is that ineffable cord that winds its way invisibly through the various nets woven out of the architecture, word-craft, composition, harmony, ceremony and choreography. Do all of those and yet, if you fail in love, what you have is a sham. It’s worse than hypocrisy. It’s false religion. Do all of that and, if you spite others, disregard others, disdain others, are indifferent to others—you would have been better off watching the Giants’ game. Love is what authenticates it all. It’s the gas in the tank that turns the engine. Nice car, yours, but if it doesn’t run—what is it but a pile of metal? The love of Christian fellowship is a car that purrs.
St. Peter, and all the apostles, continually reminded their churches of this. “Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing.” 1 Peter 3:8-9
The nets of love – real love, unfeigned, unselfish, wanting nothing, giving all – are the only nets we have that will send the call of Jesus from us, from you and from me, that anyone can hear today. ‘People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.’ Love can be frightening. It can cost you time. It takes you out of your way.
But it’s the authenticating mark on the real things of God that always prove to those in the world that we’re walking the talk and we mean what we say.
He’s talking to you. “Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.”
So, I bid you good fishing! Cast out your nets. Launch out into the deep.
Go forth and catch men.