Sermon: Epiphany 5 RCL C – “Words”

The podcast is available here.

A lawyer had a wife and twelve children and needed to move as his rental agreement was coming to an end for the home where he lived, however he was having a difficult finding a new home.
When he said he had twelve children, no one would rent to him because they were afraid that with so many children the home would be destroyed. He could not say that he had no children, he could not lie, after all, lawyers cannot and do not lie.
So, he had an idea. He sent his wife for a walk to the cemetery with eleven of his children. He then took the remaining one child with him to see homes with the Real Estate Agent.
He liked one of the homes and the agent asked, “How many children do you have?”
He answered, “Twelve.”
The agent asked “Where are the other eleven?”
With a sad look, the Lawyer answered, “They are in the cemetery with their mother.”
And that’s the way he was able to rent a home for his family without lying.

Nathaniel Hawthorne writes, “Words—so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become, in the hands of one who knows how to combine them!”

I want to talk about one particular word: if, but before I get there, I have to give you the backstory and why this word is important to us.

John’s Gospel seems to indicate to us that Jesus, walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, saw Peter, and called him, to which Peter dropped everything and followed Jesus. However, Luke provides us with a good bit more detail of their meeting.

We know that Jesus was going from place to place preaching in the various synagogues and at some point he came to the synagogue in Capernaum. Peter was from Bethsaida, but he lived in Capernaum, and given that he was Jewish, it is very likely that he attended the synagogue there (at the time there was only one). Given that Jesus will very soon go and stay at Peter’s house, it stands to reason that Peter would have heard Jesus preaching in the synagogue and would have witnessed the healings and the casting out of demons—which came out screaming at Jesus, “You are the Son of God.”— that Jesus was accomplishing.

Leaving the synagogue, Jesus then goes to Simon Peter’s house where he healed Peter’s mother-in-law (I’m sorry, I can’t help myself: Why did Peter deny Jesus three times? Because Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law. Moving on….). That night, while at Peter’s house, many more were brought to Jesus and were healed. Again, Peter was witness to all these things. Later that night Jesus goes off to a quiet place to pray, but the people find him and want him to continue performing miracles so they try and hold him, but Jesus says, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.” He leaves, and scripture says, “He continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea.” This is where our Gospel reading picks up. We don’t know how much time has passed, but Jesus is clearly walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee near Capernaum, because Peter and his fishing crew are there on the beach tending their nets after having fished all night.

The people, learning that Jesus was there begin to gather, so much so that he is unable to speak to them properly. To solve the problem, Jesus used Peter’s boat to go a short ways from shore and then began to teach. That sounds a bit unusual, but near Capernaum, there are a number of small inlets that form these perfect amphitheaters, so it would have been possible for Jesus, a short ways from the shore, to have been heard by everyone present, even while speaking in a normal voice. After teaching, he tells Peter to go out to the deep water and cast the nets. Peter’s response, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” And there’s our word: if. “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

I don’t know how many times I’ve preached on this text, but I’ve always interpreted this text and read that “if” in the same way. How does that look? Peter is saying, Look, Jesus, you don’t know anything about fishing. I do. My father was a fisherman and my father’s father was a fishermen. In fact, we’re fisherman all the way back to Adam, so you really don’t know what the heck you’re talking about, but look—he’s almost whining at this point, because he’s tired and he wants to go home, put his feet up, and have a nice kosher brewsky—if you want us to go out again, we’ll go out, but preacher man, its pointless. However, after spending some more time with this text, I think that is an entirely inaccurate picture. And you know what? I’ma tell you why.

Peter has heard Jesus preach. Peter witnessed first hand the healing of his mother-in-law. Peter saw many other healings and heard the demons coming out shrieking, “You are the Son of God.” Peter did not say, “Hey, preacher man, you ain’t no fisherman and you don’t have a clue what you’re asking.” So, what did Peter mean when he said, “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” For starters, and it is curious, but the version of the Bible we use for our readings, NRSV—New Revised Standard Version—is about the only version that includes that “if.” And, if you go back and look at the original Greek, it is not there. Instead, most of the other versions say, “At your word I will let down the nets.” Maybe this is just me being tedious this week, but for me, there is a heck of a difference between, “If you say so” and “At your word.” If, to me, implies contingencies, options, a way out. Not only that, it also suggests that you begrudge the one asking. “At your word” implies great faith in the one who is giving instruction. For Peter, “At your word,” says, I have heard the preaching and seen the miracles, there is no doubt, and the great catch of fish was the final piece to Peter not only having faith in Jesus, but beginning to truly understand what he would later be able to confess and articulate: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Now, again, you may think I’m making a big deal out of one little word, but here’s the thing, I think we like the word “if.” Why? For the same reasons I stated a moment ago. “If” gives us contingencies, options, a way out, and at times, it can state our displeasure at being asked.

I told you a few weeks back that my superhero would be Roland Deschain from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. At one point in book five, Roland is making plans with Father Callahan. Roland asked if Father Callahan thought the plan would work. Callahan responded, “Mayhap. If all goes well.” Roland’s response, “If… An old teacher of mine used to call it the only word a thousand letters long.”

Jesus asks us to do things—whatever they may be—in the same manner that he asked Peter, and we can say to Jesus, “If you say so,” and in saying that, we are conveying a clear message, I’m keeping my options open in the event I need a way out, and oh, by the way, I’m not too pleased with being asked. But, now, try it the other way: Jesus asks you do do something and you respond, “At your word,” and without hesitation you act. Through your faith in the one speaking to you, you do not need options or a way out, and through your love and obedience to your Savior, you respond to his request.

Like Peter, you have heard the teachings of Jesus and you have witnessed the miracles in lives changed. When he comes to you, he is not a stranger, he is the bridegroom approaching the bride, and he knows you just as intimately. When he asks, whatever he asks, say to him, “At your word I will do as you ask.”

The Lord declares:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
    and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

We are the instruments of his hand, and through his word and our actions, his works are accomplished.

Let us pray: We adore You, O God, present in the holy Eucharist, as our Creator, our Preserver, and our Redeemer. We offer You all that we have, all that we are, and all that depends on us; we offer You our minds to think of You, our hearts to love You; our wills to serve You; our bodies to labour and suffer for Your love. We are Yours, we give ourselves; we consecrate ourselves to You, We abandon ourselves to You, we wish to live and die for love of You. Amen.

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