“Fishing in the City”
Rev. Tyler Sit
IMPORTANT: Please note that this is a preaching manuscript, and as such it does not cite the scholarly works that
significantly informed this sermon.
Good morning, Lake Harriet! My name is Tyler Sit, and it is so wonderful to be back with you! Though I’m not sure that my voice got the memo. Sorry! If things go awry I have a manuscript and Chris can read…
I am the church planter from New City Church, which means that we are starting this church from the ground up. We are a church that focuses on environmental justice, which means that my neighborhood used to be a place with a lot of problems, and then black and Latino families came together and said: we’re going to make this a great place to raise our kids. So they pushed back on crime, planted gardens, and even kicked a factory out of their neighborhood that was giving kids asthma. But they were so successful and making the neighborhood great, that now the cost of living has gone up, and the same people who built the neighborhood are getting kicked out to Brooklyn Park or St. Louis Park. And the message I hear over and over again is, “I guess I am too poor to live in a safe and green neighborhood.” At New City Church, we believe Jesus Christ calls us to reject that and build a new city—a city like in Revelation 21—where all tribes are welcomed in, there’s no more violence, and the whole earth is renewed. That requires inward transformation as well as outward action. Some of you remember the last time I was here over the summer, while this church was still a dream, and so much has happened since then: I brought on a Director of Environmental Justice and a Director of Community Engagement, we are looking for land to build a greenhouse so our community so we can teach our community to grow their own healthy food, we have small groups starting (tonight!), and we are more than doubling our goal of sign-ups. We’ve been featured in the New York Times, Minnesota Public Radio, Patheos blog, and at the beginning of the year we were put on the Grist 50: a secular (non-Christian) list of “environmental projects to watch in 2016.” This summer we’re taking on three seminary interns from Boston, and Wake Forest, and Duke, because divinity schools are calling us up saying: our students need to learn what you’re doing. (By the way, if anyone has a spare guest room and you would like to house one of these amazing interns for just June and July, let me know!)
And it’s because of leaders like Melanie Homan and congregations like you that we are where we are. You all went above and beyond and took an Easter Offering for New City Church, and boy—that’s exactly the type of thing that is going to tip the scale. When we work together, God does amazing things.
I picked this text because it is what you all are reading about in your class, for those of you reading We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren, but it’s actually kind of perfect that I’m preaching on this text today, because this is a great text for people who are new to the faith. (which, by the way, around 75% of the people who come to New City events do not identify as Christian). If you are a little on the fence about Christianity, or talking to someone who is, this story shows the fundamental rhythm of how we build our faith; it’s like that little safety trifold that’s in the airplane seat in front of you (you know what I mean?) that little illustrated guide that shows you how to save your life if things go wrong—well, that’s what this text is: how to save your life when things go wrong.
And the three movements we’re going to look at with this text is: being out on the water, being rung out by love, and being called to ministry. (repeat). So let’s get into the story:
The night had been long and starried. In the pale of the moonlight the faces of the disciples were not faces but question marks, looking out into the black water, the endless black water, as smooth as a casket. They threw the net out, again; it splashed, again; they heaved it back, heavy with black water, again; and there was nothing, again. I don’t know if any of you have ever been frustrated, have ever felt like everything you were putting out there was coming up dead ends, have ever felt that the black waters can take anything you throw at them and all that returns is the same cold dripping message: you can’t do this. You’re useless. You’ve been beat. If any of you have ever been there, then this story is for you.
Peter was especially distraught. He was a disciple, a follower of Jesus, and Peter and Jesus got really close. Like you know in kung-fu movies where there’s a master and someone learning how to fight? Closer than that. You know those stories of super sick people who develop friendships with the nurses that are bringing them back to life? Closer than that. You know your favorite grandparent? Closer than that! Peter had decided that he was going to follow Jesus for the rest of his life, but some of you know what happened.
And when Jesus was arrested and put on trial, Peter was waiting in the courtyard outside, in front of a bonfire, and everything he knew was going up in flames. Jesus, the one person who brought meaning into his life, was on execution row, and it was a humiliating end. So Peter is looking into the bonfire, into that glow of wood burning up from the inside. And some people came up to him and said, “hey, weren’t you with that guy in there? Aren’t you with the man in there that the government is completely annihilating?”
And Peter, who was so close to Jesus, said no. No. No. No to Jesus, no to faith, no to this world, no to trying. Three times with three different people he said he didn’t know Jesus, and the fire just kept burning.
And you know the story. Jesus ended up dying. Three days later Peter, the same Peter, went with John to Jesus’ grave and found that Jesus’ body wasn’t there anymore. And then, Jesus appeared to the disciples again, and you can the sweet-and-sour sauce of emotions Peter felt about that moment. On one hand, great! The guy that made me feel alive more than anyone is back alive! But at the same time, Peter was looking at the man that he completely, and utterly cut ties with.
And I am inferring this from the text because what do you do if you witness a miracle? You tell people, it’s human nature. In fact, Mary Magdalene did it right—once she saw the risen Jesus, she ran out as fast as she could and said: YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT I JUST SAW. Mary gets it. Peter didn’t get it. Because instead of going out and planting a church, which Jesus specifically told Peter to do, he goes out fishing. Fishing. You just witnessed the greatest miracle of all time and you go out fishing? Okay, something is up.
Peter used to be a fisherman, so he was resorting back to the familiar. Because the old and familiar felt a whole lot safer than this emotional roller coaster that he was on with Jesus.
I see this again and again as a pastor: people going back to old habits because they’re scared of what’s ahead. Children sucking their thumb when they’re too old for that. People in their 40s having a mid-life crisis and trying to go back to their college days. Why do drug addicts and spouses of abusers always go back to the thing that destroys them? Because it’s consistent. Because it promises the one thing that the rest of life can’t: predictability.
So, for Peter, fishing was as familiar as it got. He grabbed his friends, who apparently were adjusting to this news much better than he was, and he felt the familiar bite of wood against his hands, and he felt the familiar release of the boat into the water, and he felt the familiar drift into the waters.
But after you know Jesus is in your life, the old and familiar ways don’t cut it. Even the one familiar thing that Peter had, fishing, was coming up empty—and he didn’t catch any fish all night.
But then. Just as the dawn was starting to peak over the horizon, Peter did the single best thing that he could have done in his entire life: he listened to the voice on the beach.
From the middle of the waters, he heard back to shore, a voice saying: “friends. Do you have any fish?”
Which is kinda like the question I hear from God all the time: so how’s that going for ya? How’s that resorting back to your old habits going for ya? How is trying to live into a flat life going for you now that you have found some dimension in Jesus, some new life in Jesus?
And the disciples respond: Bad. It’s going bad.
And Jesus says: TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT.
And they threw out their same net onto the same waters with the same splash, but this time they caught fish—an abundance of fish—there were so many silver gills gleaming in the light it was as if another sun was rising out of the water
And that’s when Peter knew. “It’s the Lord!” he said, and swam as quick as he could.
Peter didn’t know him by his voice. He didn’t know him by sight. Peter recognized Jesus because Jesus was the one who said TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT and abundance happened, and that is always the move that Jesus was making.
By the way, if you’re wondering how this applies to your life—Lake Harriet is going through the Healthy Church Initiative (HCI) process right now, right? What an incredible opportunity! What a great time for someone to call out: TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT into our ministry. Really good.
Right, so Peter, emotionally distraught Peter, self-doubting and second-guessing Peter, going back to the old ways Peter, swims up to shore, and there’s Jesus. And what is in front of Jesus?
So Peter is looking into the bonfire, into that glow of wood burning up from the inside. And he looked at Jesus, and this time it was obvious: Jesus knew. Jesus knew what had happened the last time Peter was around a fire. Jesus knew how Peter had said he didn’t know Jesus, and he knew that he turned his back on his faith, and he knew that he turned his back on anything that was ever meaningful in his life.
And Jesus said to Peter: Simon Peter, do you love me?
And Peter said, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
If that’s the case then, Peter, ‘feed my sheep.’
You can guess how many times this interaction happens: Peter do you love me? / Yes / feed my sheep; Peter do you love me…it happens three times. The same number of times that Peter had denied Jesus (in front of a fire) to everyone else.
The reason I don’t have a voice today is because I got a little carried away with spring cleaning, and I was batting out my rugs outside, and I tried to hold my breath but I just breathed in too much dust into my lungs. So now my lungs are exiting that dust out of my body, basically by filling my vocal cords with goop, just to get stuff out of there. Same thing that we do in church: if you got some bad and hurtful stuff in your life, like Peter—it doesn’t just come out like that. You have to work it out, you have to coax it out. And that’s what Jesus was doing with Peter, at the fire, with three questions.
And people mistakenly think that that is the end of the Christian story: I was out on the horrible waters, God called me to shore, then I worked through all of my stuff with the love of God and I’m made whole. That’s the American narrative. But the Bible is much more communal than that—because what did Jesus call Peter to do after working through all of his baggage? Feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep. Jesus evokes this ancient image of ministry—it’s all over the Old Testament—as if Jesus were saying: Okay, Peter, now you have experienced what kind of love I have to offer. Now you have experienced forgiveness. Now you can believe the resurrection, not because you saw Jesus walk out of the grave, but because you just witnessed how the empty net of your heart could be full again, how a life that you feared meant nothing would be abundant and full again. You get that, and now you have to go out and do the same, Peter. If you have experienced love in yo ur life, you gotta go out and help other people find what you got.
By the way, this story is about why the church exists at all. The whole reason why we are here is because in our community, in our neighborhood, in our society, there are people who are adrift in the cold waters of their lives, and it’s time to try something new. To the racism that I see on Lake Street, I hear Jesus saying: try something new. To the hatred that is tearing our political discourse apart, Jesus says: try something new. To the giant corporations whose greed are robbing the planet, Jesus says: try something new. But it’s not enough to just criticize– the church must be a fire on the shore—a beacon of hope where the love of Jesus can help us work through the transition. We are not here to coddle people, we’re not here to be a club that happens to talk about God sometimes. We’re here to be a roaring fire, a frontline offense against the pain and injustice of our times, and a place where we can put the staff into people’s hands and say: go tend the sheep.