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Doorknobs and fishing nets

By Rev. Joan Kessler

Luke 5:1-11

I grew up in a small farming community in southern Saskatchewan and my family attended the United Church there every Sunday. My parents were both heavily involved in the work of the congregation. It was a small group, maybe 20 on any given Sunday. Nobody had a key. The door was never locked because well there wasn’t anyone to keep out.

Yesterday, I wrote this reflection from the memory of my home church and I saw all the artwork that graced its walls. Our organist was a talented artist and he produced large pieces depicting some of the scenes of Jesus’ life and ministry: the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper, Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane. And there was also another large piece, not painted by the organist, but one of Jesus knocking at the door with no handle entitled, Christ at Heart’s Door by Warner Sallman… It was a standard issue sort of piece that was commonly found hanging in churches. As a child, I used to spend many a Sunday morning, wondering about that picture… I imagined Jesus coming over to my house. But why wasn’t there a door handle and how was Jesus supposed to get in? The theological reflection of my 8 year-old being… The door, of course, had to be opened by the one on the inside.

So, I suppose you could say I have been thinking about doorknobs… those that are locked and those that are open and those that are missing all together. I should be thinking about fishing and nets and the biggest catch you could ever imagine being pulled up out of the deep, surprising some weary and discouraged fisher folks early one morning. But maybe there is a connection to doorknobs and Jesus calling his first disciples from the seaside.

I heard this passage from Luke, and at its heart is evangelism. This is a word that likely evokes an immediate response. It brings forth memories of the ways churches have used Jesus’ words, “I will make you fish for people” in harmful and destructive ways. This passage was used as a means of justifying the removal Indigenous children from their families and placing them in the Residential School system run by churches, including the

United Church of Canada. It was used to launch missions that sought to convert and exert a power over another, to strip groups of their culture and beliefs. Passages like this kept you in your place… you were either “in” or you were “out”. So how do we decolonize, or as one commentator put it, unsettle the language of this reading? If the original meaning of Jesus’ phrase had been understood within its context, harmful missionary expeditions perhaps wouldn’t have happened. The hooking of fish is an image from the prophecy of Amos (4:2) and it was heard as a euphemism for the judgment upon the rich and the powerful.

So, if we understand this phrase fishing for people in this way, we can surmise Jesus was inviting Peter and his fellow fishers to join him in the struggle to overturn the existing power and privilege structures. The Hebrew understanding of fishing for people was about catching a certain kind of person and removing them from a position of oppression that was causing harm to others. It wasn’t about saving anybody’s soul but rather about overturning systemic injustice in the here and now.

How do we reimagine evangelism today? Is it something we give much thought too anymore? How do we continue to be here if we don’t tell others what we have found? I love the definition of evangelism that imagines it like one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.

But back to our story…

Peter and his friends fished all night and returned to shore with empty nets. They worked really hard at something that mattered and they had nothing to show for. We know this kind of disappointment from time to time. We know what it’s like to pour ourselves into a job, a relationship, a ministry, a dream and come away exhausted and frustrated that our good efforts and intentions didn’t net the catch we were hoping for. So, we feel for Peter when Jesus suggests that they go back out, one more time to the deepest and darkest part of the lake and put down their nets and wait. Jesus is asking the fishers to go back and try again…

Last Sunday at Zoom coffee after the service, we had some spirited conversation about what it means to live as an intentional community. We talked about developing friendships with First Nations people in our community and learning from their experiences and traditions so that we might more fully undertake the work of reconciliation. We also talked about how we make our welcome known to the LGBTQ2S+ community. We wondered if now is the time for us to look at undertaking the process of exploring becoming an Affirming congregation within the United Church of Canada. We can say “we are welcoming” when we know everyone. But how does a new person find us? Because they want to know before they arrive whether or not they will find a place of safety and belonging and if their story and personhood will be embraced and accepted. And our United Church has the tools to help us become a place of wide welcome.

We also wonder about the future of our Zoom services post-COVID. What will become of this intentional community once restrictions have been lifted? Because you have heard me say it before that we have made our Zoom Sundays into not just some means to an end as something we did while we waited to return to the building. What conversations are awaiting us on these important and timely topics in our life together as one body with many unique and gifted members?

We have fished all night and caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets. Changing perspective and approach is at the centre of this story…so too is evangelism. Peter acknowledges the crossroads he unknowingly has arrived at…. the reality of limits and scarcity, but also makes his willingness known to listen and try again. He decides to give it another go and make one more trip out to the deep, the place of uncertainty. But deep water also be a place of unexplored potential, of seeing something in a new light, beyond the perceived limits of what is otherwise known to be. Peter and his crew pull up an abundance of fish. They will be able to put food on their tables, money in their pockets, and a sense of pride in accomplishment. But somehow, it’s not enough… all these fish are nowhere near enough. Jesus calls them to come with him, to put this life aside and the worry about quotas and limits, to put people ahead of profits… to live with a spirit of liberation for all.

And now I am back to where I started, and the image of the doorknob. How do we open ourselves to our community in 2022? Is it locked? Is it open? It is on one side of the door? We have gleaned much from our experiences of COVID these past two years. What are the deep places of uncertainty yet divine possibility that we are being nudged to explore? Our welcome is our evangelism. What will you tell others about your search for bread? And maybe some fish on that bread… I look forward to our Annual Meeting in three weeks time and the possibility of discussing these things further with

you all.

And may peace be with you this day and always.


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