God is at Work Through You

The Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan preaches at Sunday ServicesThe Rev. Alanna Sullivan, Associate Minister and Director of Administration, the Memorial Church. File Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.



By the Rev. Alanna C, Sullivan
Associate Minister and Director of Administration 
The Memorial Church of Harvard University

(The following is a transcript from the service audio)

Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight. Oh, God, our rock and redeemer. Amen.

Our gospel lesson for today read so beautifully by Elizabeth is the moment when Jesus calls the first disciples. Thus far, he has been an itinerant preacher, traveling the Galilean countryside. He has started his healing ministry, word is getting out, but he's been at it alone. And it is this moment that Jesus finds Simon, James, and John and other fishermen returning to land after a difficult and ultimately unsuccessful night at sea.

Now, fishermen lived on the margins of society in Jesus's day. It was not work for which you were well compensated or rewarded. In fact, quite the opposite. In that time and setting, people believed that poverty was a punishment for sin and therefore their social location was one they deserved. And fishing was hard manual labor. Being on the sea was hazardous. And it's true that fishermen were not formally educated. And their social standing was far from the religious elite. Nevertheless, fishermen had important skills and expertise that they brought to their work.

One essential piece of equipment was their nets. Nets helped these fishermen adeptly navigates the shallow and deep waters. While traversing the shoreline, they would cast their nets into the shallow waters and then slowly pull them back to haul up fish. And when wayfaring deep waters, fishing crews would team up. Two boats would work together by stretching a net between them and circling the fish and then pulling in the catch to one of the boats. And these nets required daily care and attention because debris and weeds and silts and dead fish could easily get caught in them. These nets needed to be cleaned and mended and hung to dry after every excursion.

So it's not hard to imagine how Simon and the others could have been too distracted to notice the crowds when they had returned empty handed. This wasn't supposed to happen. The nets were supposed to work. They were supposed to be reliable. They invested a lot of time in learning how to use and care for their nets proficiently and their livelihoods depended upon them. Now in many respects, the life of Galilean fisherman is very different from the lives that you and I lead. But in considering this passage, I was surprised by how much I could relate to their sense of frustration and disappointment. Like everyone else, I've had to discover how to live through a pandemic these past two years, how to live with uncertainty and fear as undercurrents to my daily existence. And thereby, I've tried to find ways to stay afloat during this disorienting time.

And in particular, I have invested a lot of time and energy in writing to-do lists and putting reminders in my calendar. My net might look a little bit different, but nonetheless, I rely upon these tools and practices to catch all the pieces of my life so that nothing falls through the cracks. And I've felt a sense of accomplishment in how much I can multitask and how many items I can check off my list in a day. Day care drop off, check, grocery shopping, check, staff meeting, check, sermon, check, check. Tending to my to-do list is something like my version of mending nets.

Yet recently, the daily grind has threatened to come to a grinding halt. One can push through the day for only so long, and it's disconcerting when the familiar tools and routines that we've relied upon no longer seem to be working. Now, Simon's initial reaction when Jesus tells him to return to the water is protest and skepticism. They have been at it all night and caught nothing. Simon knows of Jesus' miracles, but what does he know about fishing? After all, Jesus is a landlubber, unfamiliar with the sea and lacking the fisherman's experience and skills. And perhaps it felt like Jesus was just another person underestimating him.

Now, my father who loves to fish has taught me that you must be careful how you talk to a fisherman. For instance, you should never ask, "Have you caught anything?" Because it would seem to imply any lack of success is the fisherman's fault. Instead, it is better to ask, "Any luck today?" That question is more neutral and doesn't imply judgment. Obviously, Jesus didn't think he needed to be careful in how he talked to these fishermen. He implied that they had been going about it all wrong and told them how to do it right. And amazingly with a little grace, Simon acquiesces and heeds Jesus's advice saying, "Yet, if you say so, I will let my nets down."

Simon is willing to listen in and try again. It is almost as if he is saying, what do I have to lose? Clearly what I've been doing isn't working. He accepts the invitation to place his trust in something new. And this time when Simon and his crew go to the deeper waters and let down their nets, they catch so many fish. So many that their nets begin to break, along with their assumptions of how things are supposed to be. When Jesus asks Simon and his crew to cast their nets in deeper waters, Jesus is inviting them to relinquish their old routines and perceptions of worth with the promise of abundant life beyond what they possibly could have imagined.

And Jesus does not call the disciples from this safety of solid land or shallow waters. Jesus calls the disciples to the deeper end of things, where there are unknowns and risks, but it is also there that they will find faith and abundance. They leave the shore to gather fish and in turn, and they come back with a call to gather people. As Emmanuel preached last week, what makes a calling intimidating is its scope and scale. A calling is never about yourself. It is a call to serve others. The net Christ calls us to mend and care for is each other.

We are the ones knit together meant to catch each one. In a rare moment this summer away from to do lists and phones and schedules, we took my three year old son, Henry and his friend, Leo to a pond to go swimming. And at first the boys were too nervous. They would dip their toes into the water, but instead decided to watch minnows from along the shore. And my husband finally waded into the water, a couple yards out and called for them to join him. Nervously, they responded to his beckoning and began walking into the water.

And about halfway there, my son's friend stumbled on a rock and fell to his knees. He was on the verge of tears when Henry said, "Leo, you are okay. You did it. We made it to the deep deep." And Leo stood up, looked around and said, "Yeah, we are in the deep deep." And the boys spent the next hour running in the water, yelling we're in the deep deep. We're in the deep deep." The deep deep has become our family vernacular for letting go, taking risks, being surprised by joy. Of course, Simon Peter is frightened by Jesus' calling to be his disciple. He is not ready. He feels not worthy. How scary it is for all of us to have our certainties upended, how scary it is to place our trust into something new and to have our lives transformed in the process.

If I am left without filling my days with tasks, what will God fill my life with? What happens when my worth is no longer determined by my productivity? What happens when I learn that God's provisions doesn't come from what I gather, but by being open to receiving what God has to give? And furthermore, God doesn't wait until we are ready. Like Simon Peter, we are so acutely aware of our fallibility and we thereby deem ourselves unworthy. God, however, can work through flawed instruments, which is a good thing because flawed instruments is all that God has to work with. That is nothing short of good news because it means that God can be at work through you. God can be at work through me, even with our frailty and failures and doubts. Even in our ordinary, busy, complicated lives, God calls us. We are called to navigate unfamiliar waters, to risk the depths. Boy, it can seem daunting and we can feel unprepared. Gratefully, Jesus' words to Simon is also a word for us. "Do not be afraid." Amen.