Empty Nets and Full Living

A Sermon by the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN

February 6th, 2022.

Our hands were numb from the coal black waters and the repeated stings of the small clear jellyfish shredded in the net’s thin monofilament lines. We were well into the cold fall day, pulling nets at the mouth of the Klawock river, seining the late run of sockeye salmon that the local natives depended upon as a source of tradition and food. Four of us worked in teams of two on separate boats setting the net in hundred foot loops, and then heaving it in, hands raw and backs aching, hoping for a flash of silver that would indicate our nets had done their work, that our buckets would soon be writhing with the delicious and nutritious fish. I had been invited here to help in the harvest of salmon for the community by one of my Alaska Native neighbors.

On this particular day, our pickings were slim. For all the stings to our hands and the cold in our boots, there was little to show for our efforts. We were about to pack it in after several hours when a voice from the bridge above us shouted, “Hey, cousin, you may want to try out there!” Arm outstretched, pointing to the other end of the bay, “The deep water” shouted the figure on the bridge. What appeared opaque and shadowy to us, gave way to those above who could see the fish and their movements and we quickly obeyed the instructions. While I envy Peter and his compatriots this morning, whose nets were suddenly so full they were near to bursting, we nevertheless limited out on sockeye in a short time thereafter, and were soon back on the beach cleaning our catch.

Fishing has long held a place of respect and prominence in our country as a hobby but also as somehow symbolic of our wider cultural values of rugged individualism and self-mastery.

But, as we know, Peter and James and John came at fishing through the business end. This was no artful pastime or leisure activity. As Jesus encounters these fishermen, they are weary and bone tired. Having worked through the night, they are washing their empty nets on the shore, having earned nothing. Like my own experience of subsistence fishing, the fishermen on the shores of Gennesaret were a collective whose aim was the sustenance and sustainability of people. Luke tells us that Peter was in a partnership with James and John, suggesting that far from an individualist approach to market economies, that these fishermen were collectivist – pooling resources and sharing their catches. And, it is here that Jesus’ calling of the disciples occurs.

Unlike the other evangelists, Luke tells us a two-part story beginning in his gospel, and continuing in the subsequent addendum, The Acts of the Apostles. He is interested in guiding a newly formed community of believers, those who had encountered, in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the inbreaking of a new and revolutionary realm, the kingdom of God, which stood in direct opposition and as an alternative to the powers and principalities of this world. Luke is interested in the discipleship of this new community, the work of forming followers of Jesus who will ultimately be sent out as agents of reconciliation and as heralds of God’s good news of justice and healing. So, this beginning story offers clues to how Luke understood Jesus’ message and way. Just as Peter and James and John are a part of a fishing collective, so too, the early churches, the communities described later by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, are collectivist in their work. We are told they held all things in common, pooling their resources, so that none had need. One might safely assume that the abundant catch that day still went to the aid of their families and the communities that depended upon them.

Yet, what is interesting here, at least to me, is that upon obeying Jesus’ instructions to cast out again into the deeper waters, and filling their nets to bursting, an occurrence like hitting the lottery or stumbling upon treasure, these fishermen decided to follow Jesus, leaving behind their fortune in favor of something apparently far more compelling and important. For these fishermen, the benefits of that catch are counted as loss, given up for something even better.

This might give us cause to pause and wonder not only about our activities as a church, but also about the end to which we’re being called – what is our discipleship as followers of Jesus’ way of love in this day and age to be about? We have only just completed our Annual Meeting, an assessment of how we fared in the year past, programs accomplished, ministry done, resources raised for our mission, and lives transformed through our work. And, we did pretty well by most standards of measurement. In the midst of the chaos of a pandemic, political and economic upheaval, it is hard to look at our numbers, record dollars pledged, an endowment that is bursting at the seams, our people generously giving of time and talent, and to not wonder how we are being called to follow Jesus in this moment. What are we being asked to leave behind so that we can truly be his disciples? What does discipleship look like here and now?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer the great theologian and Nazi resister in his well-known book Discipleship, describes it as a kind of costly grace. He says “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock.
It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live.”

When Stephanie Spellers describes the church as being cracked open by the pain of the world and the structures of injustice and racism in which we are daily complicit, she notes that it is this cracking open which is a moment when the costly perfume of our lives, the faithful witness of the church to the teachings of Jesus, of healing and justice, can be poured out.

Discipleship “is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace because it thereby makes them live.”
One of my great joys of late has been introducing our youngest to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a world of heroes and villains, of good and evil, and epic stories built for the silver screen, something I enjoyed introducing our eldest to a few years ago. One of the stories, Dr. Strange, tells of a world renowned surgeon seeking to find healing for his irreparably damaged hands, first in medicine, and then in the mystic arts. He hears of a man miraculously healed of paraplegia and seeks him out. He finds him playing basketball, and baffled by this medical miracle, asks him how he was healed. The man responds “I’d given up on my body. I thought, ‘My mind’s the only thing I have left. I should at least try to elevate that.’ So, I sat with gurus and sacred women. Strangers carried me to mountaintops to see holy men, and finally I found my teacher. And my mind was elevated, and my spirit deepened.” He is describing, as the viewer will later learn, the powerful order of wizards who defend Earth from unseen evils, who tirelessly train and perfect their mystic arts, for the good of humanity. But, this man is here on the streets of New York, playing basketball instead of following this teacher and giving his life to defend the world. Why? As he says, “There were deeper secrets to learn there, but I didn’t have the strength to receive them. I chose to settle for my miracle and I came back home.”

This is the danger of the life of faith. One cannot deny the comforts, encouragement, solace, and meaning we can take as individuals from this our own religious tradition or many others. There is healing to be found for us who follow Jesus. Perhaps not the magical kind found in the movies, but certainly of our hearts and minds and spirits. These benefits and blessings are not inconsequential or to be minimized. But, the life of faith, the life of discipleship is not reducible to an individual spiritual path. When we encounter Jesus, it often happens as an encounter with abundance, nets full to bursting, often emerging out of the chaos of the depths, the unknowable and unpredictable disorder of a broken and hurting world. But, blessings and grace can only be such if they pass through us to others. Blessings and grace are only such when they pour forth into a world that needs them as much as we do.
Discipleship “is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace because it thereby makes them live.”

That evening, after catching our limit of literally dozens of large sockeye, I found myself at home in the dark, filleting the four meager salmon that had been set aside for me and my family. It seemed such a small portion when there had been only four of us in the boat that day. But, once we returned to shore, the owners of the boats had us drive house to house, visiting elders, delivering salmon to those who could not be on the water that day or any day. The tradition held in that community that out of the abundance of our nets the whole would be sustained. There was so much more to life than what we could bring home out of our nets.

The problem of life is that we have been trained and conditioned to think that it is first and foremost about ourselves, about our individual needs and hopes and aspirations, about our comfort and thriving. But, what we learn as followers of Jesus, is that life is about the collective US, about the treasure we share in common, about the world we are called to love and serve and heal. We discover, exhausted and weary though we may be, intimately acquainted with the chaos and disorder of the world, that the true meaning of life is in following the Crucified and Risen One, Jesus, who teaches us that in emptying ourselves, by losing our lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel, is the only way we are truly and fully alive.
Discipleship “is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace because it thereby makes them live.”

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