Sermon of Pastor Esther Handschin
Dear brothers and sisters,
Some words seemed to follow one sometimes. One hears them only once yet they stay and reemerge over and over again and will be heard anew. With every new experience that related to this word it deepens and forms a new annual ring just like the one’s trees form. Over and over again can such a word help anew to see and understand one’s own life. One of those words is for me the sentence, “A word, which is helping you, is not one you can say yourself.” It is an Ethiopian saying and one was able to find it in the old hymnal “leben und loben” in form of filler text. Over and over again this word became true for me. The word, which was able to help me, came from outside. It has been said to me. I cannot say it to myself. We heard today from a person who too needed to hear a word from outside and needed to meet this word to find his calling.
The fisher Simon, later he will be called Peter, meets Jesus, God’s living word. It started rather unremarkable. In fact, Jesus addressed the people around him with his word. He talked to the massive crowds, not a single person. The scene the evangelist Luke is describing is set at the shore of Lake Gennesaret. It is exhausting when everybody is shoving around and one needs to constantly take care to not be pushed into the water by the crowd. Which is why Jesus asked one of the present fishers to do a little job for him. If Simon would row him out into the water with his boat and it would be a great help. The feet will stay dry and Jesus will be kept from an involuntary bath in the lake. It was an unremarkable job, which Simon is asked to do. Yet sometimes it is exactly those little jobs and those unremarkable requests, which call people to be close to Jesus. I have already told you about one example of my grandfather. He has asked an unchurched yet articulate student of his school, whether he could play the role of the son of the sacristan in a play. Otherwise, the lay theater of the Methodist church would have not been able to perform. The only sentence, he answered, was, “Do I also need to clean the floor of the cup?” Who would have thought then that this boy would 33 years later be elected to be Bishop of our church?
Despite his request seeming quite unremarkable, shortly afterward Jesus gave Simon a clear task: Simon seemed to be one of those people who needed more than just a common sermon or a request for a little job. He needed a task, a clear mission, “Row out farther, into the deep water, and drop your nets for a catch.” This could be interpreted as: venture forth, further into the depth of the lake! Do not only stay by the shore! Use the space, which is available to you! Leave this safe space at the shore if you really want to accomplish something! In the middle of the lake will be more fish. Not only are you asked to do small jobs and favors. You also have valuable know-how. You have skills, which you can use. Use them for the good of many!
Yet this exact know-how blocked Simon’s path. As an experienced fisher, he knew to not count on having a good catch during the day. This is when the fish swim on the bottom of the lake. The chance to catch even one single fish is very low. Just as it was last night there will be only empty nets. Experiencing such a disgrace again, no thank you. All night he and his colleagues had been working for nothing. Nothing had come of it but a few ripped nets, which needed to be mended with painstaking work. This very discouragement can be felt and also the skepticism and the doubt whether this venture can even succeed. It made no sense to take up the task Jesus had told them to do.
Working all day and all night, while achieving nothing – we all are very familiar with that. One works on the computer, something has not been saved properly and one needs to start all over again. We all know discouraging situations. Every day we teach children certain rules just so they forget those again the very next day. Reasoning and know-how tell us that this will not work – we know this all too well. We know the feeling of pure despair when the pain endures despite taking all sorts of different medication. This is when we meet our own words and sentences, which nobody can take away from us, because they have been burnt into us through experience, “Whoever has endured what I have experienced knows how it works.” Or, “I have tried everything, nobody can help me anymore.” Or, “This is hopeless, it is not worth the hassle.” Or, “I do not have the strength, I do no longer care. They should take care of it themselves.”
Words, which become a sentence; experiences, which become nuggets of wisdom; opinions, which freeze into worldviews. Where in all of those words can one find God’s living word? How are we even able to find the word, which pulls us out of this and helps us? And how are we supposed to announce the word, which wakes us up to life? Despite all of this despair and hopelessness, Simon had found the right words. He said “but” and right after this “but” one can see the relationship. “But because you say so, I’ll drop the nets.” To me, it seems as if Simon made a deal with God. The relationship should compensate, where his reasoning doubts. He was not certain, whether or not dropping the nets will actually work. Which is why he put the success of this endeavor into Jesus’ responsibility. He would do what Jesus told him to, yet if there will be no fish in the net, it will not be his fault. This is when Jesus’ godly word would have failed.
To make a deal with God: This has a bitter taste to it for me. I have learned one should never bargain with God. Abraham might have done this when he fought with God about the residents of the city Sodom. A religious studies researcher might say, this is an example of the lowest development stage of religiosity. It is as if this human wanted to pressure God with a demand, “If you manage to save me from this situation, I will do this and that for you.” “If you keep my child alive, I will put my life into your service.” “If you keep me alive during this storm and no lighting will strike me, I will become a monk.”, which is how Martin Luther prayed and he did become a monk. “If this girl survives this horrible accident with the bobsled, I will become a pastor.”, is how the youth leader of our church became a pastor. “But because you say so, I’ll drop the nets.”, said Simon, the fisher. Whenever we bargain with God we are not always saved. We also need to take into account that God will take us seriously.
What happened with this deal? Despite his skepticism and his doubt Simon eventually met God’s grace in the middle of the lake. The nets were overfilled with fish and were about the split. Simon needed to ask his colleagues for help so he can hoist all the fish into the boat. The boat was so full they were about to sink. To meet God’s grace in the middle of the lake: this experience was made possible because Simon has let those words in. At his lowest point he has said to himself: I have two options, either I just leave it and give up or I trust that this Jesus person is right about the things he told me. My know-how tells me the exact opposite and my reason makes me doubt all of this, my skepticism tells me to rather stay at the shore to not risk another humiliation. But now I want to dare to do it. But now I want to know if there is anything more to this. But now I will try whether this is an option, which would give meaning and depth to my life.
Simon says “But”, “But because you say so” and discovers that this very word, in the middle of his own words of doubt; a word of God, which will become a word of life. This small bit of trust he has in this word, the small spark of hope, which is still in him, lets him meet God’s grace in the middle of the lake. And Simon realized that this word has power and a changing force in it itself, which scares him a bit at first. He has trusted in God with a “But because you say so”, despite it being really difficult. God has met him with all his grace and abundance, even though Simon has not counted on this at all. He has been given more than he expected to. Who is even surprised that Simon is scared of himself? He realized in the mirror of God’s grace that he is a poor man. “Leave me, Lord, for I’m a sinner!” He saw himself as a sinner who could not match God’s offer of grace. He profoundly felt that he was not able to cope with the power and love of God. What Jesus had shown him, what had become of this little bit of trust, this exceeded absolutely everything he knew.
We know how this story continuous. Meeting God’s word changed Simon’s life. Saying those words hesitantly, “But because you say so”, lead to Simon giving up his job and becoming a fisher of men. This word “but” changed a life, because a frozen life experience had been broken. How can those firmly joined sentences and frozen worldviews be changed, if we were to insert this word of God “but”? “I have experienced a lot of pain, I have experienced sorrows, but because you say your grace and love is greater, I trust my experience will not be the last.” Or, “I believe everything is hopeless but because you say so I will take care of this person. I have been trusted with patience and I can see through Him a creature of grace in this person.” Or, “I have reached the end of my strength and perspectives, but because you say so I will try to leave my safe harbor and reach new shores.
“Because you say so”, God’s word as we encounter it in Jesus Christ and as it leads us to life, will encounter us through different ways. Maybe it is an unremarkable request. It might be very easy for us to do it, yet taking up the request lead us close to Jesus. It might be a concrete mission, a task, where our skills and know-how is needed. We are challenged and experience that it is good to act and that it is good for us to follow Jesus and serve God. Maybe those words will first lead us to skepticism and doubt. We might hesitate to take part in God’s action, yet we encounter in the middle of the lake overwhelming grace and love. And as soon as we look back after some time, to see how everything has started, we will realize that it was God who has broken the first ground in our life. He is the one, who lets the word come to our ears. He meets us with His grace and love. He is the one who says Yes to our life and leads us with the power of His spirit through life. And He is the one who hopefully can put it all to an end where we can say that it was good.