The Impossible Possibility for an Impossible Time, IV: That Mirror of Strange Glories
During the season of Epiphany the revised common lectionary is following the early ministry of Jesus as he makes his way from Bethany to Calvary. So Christine, Katie, and I have been looking at those lessons with you to see what we can learn about the Christ-like virtues during this difficult time, with lingering pandemic, racial discord, and political decisiveness. The sermon series is called “The Impossible Possibility for an Impossible Time.”
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
I called my friend the other day on some church business and it turns out he was ice fishing somewhere in the wilds of Wisconsin. I asked him if he was having any success, and he said “Well, there’s a reason they call it ‘fishing’, not ‘catching’.
Often fishing can be a metaphor for futility. When you say someone is on a fishing expedition, you mean that he is looking for something that is not there and he’s not going to find it.
One morning Simon Peter and his buddies are part of just such a futile fishing fleet on the Sea of Galilee. “We have worked all night long but have caught nothing,” says Simon Peter. So they give up, beach the boats, and start mending their nets.
Just then an itinerant rabbi starts preaching a sermon right along that Galilean shore, and the crowds are so big they’re pushing him into the lake, so he hops into one of those nearby fishing boats, pushes out about 30 feet from the beach, and starts preaching from the prow. This is why the pulpit in some Christian Churches is shaped like a boat, as in Moby Dick.
When Jesus finishes his sermon, he hollers over to Simon Peter and tells him to get back in the boat and do his job. Peter protests “We’ve worked all night and caught nothing,” but he does what he’s told and lands the hugest haul of his fishing career, a catch so big it threatens to tear the nets. Ironically it’s also the last haul of his fishing career, because Jesus says “Follow me. Don’t be afraid. From now on you will be catching people.”
Notice that Jesus calls Peter in his moment of utmost barrenness and futility. And I’m just wondering if there is someone here this morning who’s worked all night but then faces the rising sun empty-handed. “Master, we have worked all night and we’ve hauled up nothing but seaweed and detritus, flotsam and jetsam.” It just doesn’t seem to amount to anything at all. Jesus meets Peter at the moment of barrenness.
Never stop listening for the voice of Jesus during that long night of futility and frustration. He might be setting you up for implausible plentitude and strange new glories.
Do you have gaps in your résumé? You know: 2005–2012—second-grade teacher at Joseph Sears; 2015–2019—third-grade teacher at Hubbard Woods. Any new employer is going to ask you what you were doing in the gap years 2013–2014. What were you doing? Playing golf? Watching Netflix? Couldn’t get a job.
Kimberley C. Patton is a professor at Harvard Divinity School. Her students who are applying for positions in churches or for graduate programs often ask her how they should explain the gaps in their résumés.
She tells them always to submit honest résumés. “Say ‘I took in a child whose mother was in prison.’ ‘I battled an addiction, and I won.’ ‘My husband was crushed by a boulder that fell in our own backyard, and I tended his grave’…. ‘My marriage made in heaven turned to hell’…. ‘I took photos of skulls left by the Khmer Rouge.’”
Every one of those “gaps” actually happened to her students. Dr. Patton says, “The gaps on the résumé are the abysses into which we fall from time to time, and in the process, fall into the hands of the living God.” Yes? From those abysses, we fall into the hands of the living God.
Sometimes it’s so clear what God is calling you to do and where to go it’s like you’re mending your nets on the shore of that Galilean Lake, and you hear your name “Don’t be afraid. Follow me. From now on you will be catching people.” Catching people. A vivid metaphor.
A couple of weeks ago, I heard about some wonderful people catchers. May May Tchao is documentary filmmaker from Evanston. She belongs to the First Presbyterian Church of Evanston and one day at church she noticed an unusual girl sitting in the front pew. Her facial features were distorted. The filmmaker found out that the girl’s name was Hayden Curry. She was 11 years old at the time.
Hayden has linear nevus sebaceous syndrome which not only affects her appearance but also limits her cognitive abilities. Hayden is from China. When she was five she was abandoned on a train. She lived in an orphanage until she was nine, then Elizabeth and Jud Curry of Evanston adopted her.
Ms. Tchao, the filmmaker, met the Curry’s and discovered that when they adopted Hayden, they already had five biological children, so Hayden made it six. After they adopted Hayden, they had two more biological children, making it eight, and then they adopted four more children, all from China and Vietnam, all with special needs, including one who has the same facial distortions as Hayden. Twelve children, seven they brought into this world and five they didn’t but heard the voice of God calling their name. Ms. Tchao made a film about them called Hayden and Her Family. It’s not always easy to watch, but it is touching to see what one family can do.
It isn’t easy for the Curry’s. Adoption isn’t always a “happily ever after” story. There are money issues and medical issues, and the children with special needs have emotional and cognitive challenges. But Elizabeth and Jud Curry are people catchers. They are determined to redeem as many of God’s lost and falling children as they possibly can. I like to think the Curry’s heard the voice of Jesus at First Presbyterian Church of Evanston.
It isn’t always easy to follow the summons of Jesus. When Jesus calls Peter, Peter says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Peter says “I don’t belong to the same world as you do. You come from far away and high above, and I don’t know if I can face myself in your presence. You are the Impossible Possibility.”
The English poet Dorothy Sayers described Jesus as “that mirror of strange glories.” In his presence Peter saw a double reflection of himself, we will see a double reflection of ourselves. We see ourselves as we are without him, and we see ourselves as we could be in his help and hope and power. It’s a little scary. We say to Jesus, “You ask too much of me. You ask for what I cannot give.”
But Jesus says “Do not be afraid. Follow me, and you will see wonders you never imagined, and accomplish feats you never dreamed. I will never leave you. I will walk before you to mark your path, and beside you to companion your way, and beneath you to catch your fall.” Peter left his nets to drift and his extravagant stash to rot on the beach and caught the world for Christ.
If you’ve been fishing all night and have come up empty-handed, listen for his voice, then follow him, and then discover strange glories.
Kimberley C. Patton, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Winter, quoted by The Christian Century, in “Centurymarks,” March 21, 2006, p. 6.
I found out about Hayden and Her Family from an article by Darcel Rockett, “Meet the Currys, an Elburn Family with 12 Children, Including Five Adoptees with Special Needs: Family Is Family,” The Chicago Tribune, November 23, 2021.
Dorothy Sayers, quoted by Harry Emerson Fosdick, “Taking Jesus Seriously,” in A Great Time To Be Alive (New York: Harper & Bros., 1944), 72.