Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 10, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Isaiah 6:1-8 – Psalm 138 – 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 – Luke 5:1-11

One of the things I most admired about my parents was their unceasing willingness to learn and to try new things. They signed up for the Peace Corps in their 50’s. They lived in India and China when my father returned to work as a manufacturing consultant. When a grandchild would ask how many eyes a certain bug crawling along the wall might have, my mother would get out the magnifying glass to see. And, just before my father retired and they moved to a coastal island near Charleston, South Carolina, where they learned to bait a crab line with a chicken neck and to cast a shrimp net into the Low Country marshes near their home.

This move to South Carolina came after I left home, so I was a fully-fledged adult when I had my first experience throwing a shrimp net. My parents patiently showed me how to drape the heavy 6-foot net over my shoulder and swirl it gracefully out into the marsh creek, although I hit myself in the face more than once with the weights that forced it to the bottom. I rarely tossed the picture-perfect net, but I did well enough on most days to catch enough shrimp for at least an appetizer for all of us.

After a morning or afternoon of shrimping, depending on the tide, we would go back to the house, sweaty and salty and tired, and while most of us would hit the showers or begin to attend to our daily catch of shellfish, my mother would be outside with the cast nets, mending the ones that had gotten caught on oyster shells or barnacles, washing them of the marsh mud and brackish water where the shrimp were found. 

I imagine that had I gone to her after an unsuccessful day of casting the net as she hung the now-clean nets to dry and told her we needed to go back out and try this other spot, I would have gotten a certain look from her. You know, it’s what we might now call a Pelosi, but at the time (and sometimes even in my own house right now), it was called “the look.”

Luke doesn’t tell us if Peter gave Jesus “the look.” He had been fishing all night. Certainly, he was bone-tired and in need of a shower, a meal, and a bed, and maybe not in that order. But he doesn’t argue with Jesus. Whether or not this is because Jesus healed his mother-in-law in the last chapter or because he’s too tired to debate or he’s already beginning to wonder about this new friend of his, he only remarks that they’ve been fishing already. But if you say so, Jesus, I’ll give it a try.

When the miracle occurs, as weknow it will, Peter is astonished to the point of shame. Get away! I’m not worthy! Jesus, of course, isn’t interested in worthy. He’s interested in “follow me.” And this is precisely what Peter and his brother Andrew and, perhaps their friends James and John did at precisely that moment. They followed.

We often think of God and God-incarnate as all-powerful, capable of miracles and signs and wonders, and this is true. But note that Jesus does not force any of this. Peter could have told Jesus he was going home to bed. Even after seeing what he saw, he could still have hung up his nets and gone home, but he didn’t.

The late Scottish theologian William Barclay wrote about this scene in his commentary on Luke and outlines what he calls the “conditions of a miracle.” He wrote:

(i) There is the eye that sees. There is no need to think that Jesus created a shoal of fishes for the occasion. In the Sea of Galilee there were phenomenal shoals which covered the sea as if it was solid for as much as an acre. Most likely Jesus’ keen eye saw just such a shoal and his keen sight made it look like a miracle. We need the eye that really sees. Many people saw steam raise the lid of a kettle; only James Watt went on to think of a steam engine. Many people saw an apple fall; only Isaac Newton went on to think out the law of gravity. The earth is full of miracles for the eye that sees. 

(ii) There is the spirit that will make an effort. If Jesus said it, tired as he was Peter was prepared to try again. For most people the disaster of life is that they give up just one effort too soon. 

(iii) There is the spirit which will attempt what seems hopeless. The night was past and that was the time for fishing. All the circumstances were unfavourable, but Peter said, “Let circumstances be what they may, if you say so, we will try again.” Too often we wait because the time is not opportune. If we wait for a perfect set of circumstances, we will never begin at all. If we want a miracle, we must take Jesus at his word when he bids us attempt the impossible.[1]

So first, we have to have an eye to see, to expect the unexpected, to focus on the overlooked. Secondly, we have to give it a shot. Thirdly, that shot has to be a “hail, Mary,” so to speak – believing a situation hopeless and yet trying all the same.

And this takes us.Jesus didn’t do the miracle on his own. He never does. Whether it’s a boy bringing some fish or the friends who lower the paralytic through the roof, we all have agency to partner with Jesus. Or not.

The Jubilee Center did not just magically appear one day out of nothing. Laurie Wurm perceived the need, partnered with the community on the west side of Hoboken, gathered support, and built it. Same with the Lighthouse. Jill Singleton saw an unused rectory at Incarnation in Jersey City, persuaded others that, although the crisis with asylum-seekers may seem overwhelming, we can do our part in our part of God’s creation to make a difference, and this temporary home for asylees became a reality. Bothof these women were formed in this congregation

But, you say, Laurie is a priest and Jill a deacon. Well, they weren’t always. They weren’t ordained persons when they developed the eyes to see what God sees. It doesn’t take any special gift or talent to do that. It only takes a willingness to see and to trust and to have courage. And they will be the first to tell you that they fail to see at least as often as they do.

Peter didn’t see what Jesus saw. Peter thinks he is not worthy. It’s a universal condition, apparently, because we get the same motif from Paul when he says, “Last of all, to one untimely born, he appeared to me.” Even centuries earlier, it is echoed in the scene from Isaiah. 

“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!” (Isaiah 6:5)

But when the time came and the call was spoken, Isaiah, like Peter, responded:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’(Isaiah 6:8)

Friends, we can come up with all the excuses in the world about why Jesus doesn’t really mean us, that we have nothing of value to offer, that the problems of the world are too great, that our situation is beyond help. But if, like Barclay claims, our willingness is part of the conditions for a miracle, then what do we have to lose?

Maybe a better question is what does the world have to lose? Well, quite a lot. The hungry remain hungry, the poor remain poor, the schools continue to crumble, the walls keep getting built.

So what if you aren’t planning to drop your nets, leave your home and your family, and go off to follow Jesus. Listen carefully to what Jesus is actually asking from you. 

Give. Serve. Speak. Pray. Love. Let down your nets. And do this all in the name of the God who loves each and every one of us.


ASEPSermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 10, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas