This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached yesterday, the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany. The gospel text was Luke 5:1-11. It was also the final Sunday of our annual Stewardship campaign.
Some moments are crucial. There are moments when something happens, when a decision is made. Or a word is spoken. Or a heart is changed. And from that moment, the future unfurls.
Such a moment happened on an admittedly small scale here in our community some fifty years ago. Three such moments, in fact, very similar, in three locations. Fifty years ago, Grace Lutheran Church in East Bangor took a congregational vote. St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in North Bangor took a vote. Faith United Lutheran Church in Johnsonville took a vote. Each of those three congregations voted on the same thing – to shut down their ministry. To cease to exist. To no longer see themselves as God’s hands in this world, but instead to put those hands down. To put those hands down and let go of everything they had.
These were certainly incredibly difficult decisions for each congregation. All three of those votes were affirmative. All three congregations closed their doors. All three ceased to exist. But in doing so, something new was created. From their ashes rose a new congregation.
That’s where Prince of Peace came from. Those three simple yet difficult decisions, made by people fifty years ago. That moment created their future, which is now our past, our present, and our future.
There was such a moment in our gospel reading today as well. A moment when a decision was made that changed the fate of everything yet to come. It was a moment when Simon Peter made a decision that changed his life, and indeed yours and mine.
I’ll set the scene. Simon was a fishermen, who worked along with his brother Andrew, and also the sons of Zebedee, James and John. They had been fishing all night, as commercial fishing was done in those days. Each night while it was dark, they lowered their huge nets into the sea and hoped to make a big catch so that they could sell those fish and have enough money to keep their families fed. This particular night, they caught nothing, and they were not pleased about this. They were used to this happening every now and then; it wasn’t a shock, but whenever it happened it was frustrating and a little frightening.
In the morning, they were cleaning their nets after an unsuccessful shift, when the teacher Jesus showed up and asked if he could stand in Simon’s boat while he preached to the crowd. “Sure, whatever,” Simon thought, “My boat might as well get some use today.”
When Jesus was done talking, he told Simon, “Go out into the deep water and let your nets down for a catch.”
Simon sighed deeply. You don’t fish this lake at daytime, he thought. That’s not how it works. You may be good at theology, Jesus, and maybe carpentry too, but I’m the fisherman around here, okay? He didn’t say that, though. He just said, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
He did so. And he was astonished. Gobsmacked. Not only did he catch something in the daytime, but he caught so many fish that his nets began to break. He called Andrew over. And the sons of Zebedee. They were eventually able to unload the net onto two boats, which were so laden that they began to sink.
And here’s where the decision came. Here’s where the moment came that changed everything. Simon Peter didn’t say “thank you.”
I mean, really. He should have said, “Thank you!” Here’s what should have happened. While Andrew and the Zebedees were struggling to bring the boats in, Simon should have taken a moment to say to Jesus, “Thank you so much, Master! You have given us a great gift!” And then he should have turned back and helped the others. They should have taken that load of fish to the market, and sold it, making a record profit. And when the market day ended and there were still fish left, they should have given what was left to the poor. And then they should have come back home, and Simon should have written a very nice thank you note to Jesus, telling him how much it meant to him, and maybe included a few coins in the note for Jesus.
That’s what Simon should have done. That would have been good stewardship. Thanking and using your gifts wisely. But Simon didn’t do any of that. Instead of saying “Thank you,” he fell down at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord! For I am a sinful man!”
I don’t think Simon was rude or stupid. No, I think he was so amazed by what had happened that he lost his marbles, and he recognized that he was in the presence of holiness. He knew that Jesus was holy. And he knew that he himself was not. So he said, “Go away, Lord! I’m too sinful to be around you!”
And Jesus confirmed his suspicion, by saying, “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid,” the very thing that angels always tell people when they first appear. “Do not be afraid,” the very thing the angel told Mary before telling her she was to conceive the Messiah. The very thing the angels told the women at the empty tomb before sending them to tell the news of the resurrection. “Do not be afraid,” the very thing God told Jeremiah before sending him as a prophet. “Do not be afraid,” the words always said to people right before giving them a sacred task, a way to do God’s work in the world. “Do not be afraid, Peter,” Jesus said, “from now on you will be catching people.” And Simon Peter and the others left everything and followed him.
Peter should have just said thank you. We would have. But instead, Peter said, “My God. You are my God. And I am not worthy.”
And Jesus said, “Nonetheless, I choose you, Simon Peter, to be my apostle. And you will catch people with the good news.” And I wonder if he’s saying the same to us.
I wonder. I usually think that good Stewardship means saying “thank you” to God, and then using the gifts God’s given me in the way I know how to use them. Using them to do good things the way I know how to do it. But I wonder. I wonder if Peter gives us a different model.
I wonder if our stewardly response to the good things God has given us could be something more than “thank you.” I wonder if our response could instead be, “My God. You are my Lord. And I am unworthy.”
And I wonder if God would then say to us, “Do not be afraid.” And I wonder if God would tell us, “From now on, you will catch people with my love.” And I wonder if, like Peter, we are called to leave everything behind. Everything we think we know about the world. Everything we think we know about God. Everything we think we know about ourselves.
I wonder what would happen if we looked at all our good gifts, all the things and the money, all the time and the schedules, all the talents and the skills. All the relationships and the love. I wonder what would happen if we looked at all that and said, “My God. You are my Lord. And I am unworthy.”
I wonder if that would unleash another moment that changes everything. I wonder. Do not be afraid.