The Boys in the Boat
Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11
Once while Jesus[a] was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 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. 4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7 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. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
Good morning. The title of my sermon comes from a book I read a couple months ago. The Boys in the Boat tells the story of the U.S. Men’s rowing team that competed in the Olympics in Berlin in 1936. This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I told Eleanor Hargis that I’d read it, and she said, “oh yes, we read that in book club a couple years ago.” So, I know a few of you are familiar with the story.
For those of you who haven’t read the book, or who know nothing about rowing, the boys in this story are the eight oarsmen who row the boat, plus the coxswain who sits in the back of the boat and tells them how fast to row. All of them were college students; they rowed for the University of Washington.
Many of them began rowing as freshmen in 1933. Some of them were poor kids, who could barely scrape up enough money to afford college; they didn’t come to school with rowing scholarships. Plus, it was in the middle of the Great Depression; our nation was in the midst of its greatest crisis since the Civil War. And the stories of some of the individual members of that team are even more amazing. Yet somehow, over the course of three years, the individuals were able to overcome their personal challenges and the coaches were able to mold them into a cohesive team—a team that won the gold medal at Berlin.
I couldn’t put this book down, even though I knew how it ended! That’s the mark of a great book. Let me read a little bit of it to you. At this point, it’s 1933 and a bunch of the boys are trying out for the team as freshmen:
The boys heard time and again that the course they had chosen to embark on was difficult almost beyond imagining, that both their bodies and their moral characters were going to be tested in the months ahead, that only a very few of them who possessed near superhuman physical endurance and mental toughness would [make the team].
The coach told the boys that if they made the team, it would be a transformative experience. They could become part of something that was larger than themselves; they could find an inner strength that they didn’t know they possessed.
As I read this, it dawned on me that church can be like that, too. The Church, writ large, is bigger than any of us as individuals. When we all pull together as a team, we can accomplish amazing things, and we’re transformed in the process. The fact that those young men were able to overcome such adversity should serve as a reminder to all of us that we can do amazing things in difficult times.
You could say that I had an epiphany when I read this book. We are currently in the season of Epiphany in our church calendar. Today, we heard the story of Peter, James, and John. In this story, Peter, James, and John are the boys in the boat, and they have an epiphany; they hear Jesus’ call and they leave their boats behind and follow. They’re never going back to their old lives.
When our story begins, the boys in the boats have been fishing all night, but they haven’t caught anything. Yet Jesus says, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Jesus knows they’ve been fishing all night. Peter reminds Jesus that they’ve been fishing all night. It’s crazy to think they’re going to catch anything.
You know the old cliché. Insanity is repeating the same behavior, over and over again, expecting different results. But this time, they get different results. They get more fish than they could possibly handle—so many fish that the boats might sink under the weight of the catch.
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that there’s something different in this story. Peter, James, and John aren’t doing the same thing over and over again. They’re doing something different because God is there with them, in the person of Jesus Christ. God has told them to go back out there and try again. And they do.
On Thursday and Friday, I went to a seminar with a bunch of other pastors from Monmouth Presbytery. The speaker was a pastor named John Vest. John’s in his early forties and he took a very traditional path into ministry, though he serves in a very untraditional ministry setting today. He told us all the grim statistics about declining church attendance and the rise of a demographic group called the “nones.” These are people who have no religious affiliation whatsoever. Among people under the age of thirty, this is the fastest-growing group.
After seminary, John was called to serve as the youth pastor at a very large church in downtown Chicago. I’m talking about a 5,000-member church. I’m talking about a church with seven or eight pastors on staff. Maybe more. It’s the kind of church that attracts lots of people. They have no shortage of kids. And they have every kind of programming you can imagine. John led confirmation classes with dozens of kids, maybe 30-40 per year, or more.
He served there for nine years, and then he left.
I wondered: Why?
Why would he leave such a good gig? At a church that certainly paid a great salary. At a church where you didn’t have to worry about how you would pay for building repairs and staff salaries at the same time. Why on earth would he leave a church like that?
The hard truth was, after nine years, John found that most of those kids who went through confirmation classes never came back to church. John cares passionately about community and faith formation. Yet despite his best efforts, serving at a well-endowed congregation, something wasn’t working. It seemed like the nets were full of fish, but somehow, the nets weren’t bringing more fish into the larger church community.
On the surface, John Vest’s decision seems crazy. But I think I understand his reasoning. And I kinda agree with him.
There’s a lot of anxiety in our churches today. Most congregations aren’t as stable and healthy as that church in Chicago. Half of all Presbyterian churches have fewer than 93 members. Everyone is worried that we’re not bringing enough people into our buildings. Everyone wants to find a surefire way to attract new people to worship. Everyone wants a quick fix. We want to attract more people to worship, because that’s how we did it 30-40 years ago. And it worked. Then. But the world outside our walls has changed, yet we long for the programs of our past.
This brings us back to the definition of insanity. Are we crazy for hoping that the programs that used to work will work again? Or are we just hoping to return to a time that seemed to make more sense? I don’t know, but I think our lesson from the Gospel of Luke contains a couple hints.
Jesus tells Peter, James, and John to go out into deeper waters, and then cast their nets. There’s a subtle reference or connection there to the primordial sea at the beginning of creation. Think of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” The deep is a place of chaos, and the chaos is a frightening place in the Hebrew scriptures and in the Jewish imagination in Jesus’ time.
Jesus tells Peter, James, and John to go out into the scary chaos, because that’s where the fish are. They’re not jumping into fishing boats in the shallow waters. Yet when the disciples cast their nets into the chaos, the nets are filled to the point of overflowing.
Our pews don’t look like those fishing nets. The schools of fish are out there, in the chaos of modern life. Yes, there are still some churches like that one in Chicago with a 5,000-member congregation, but even those congregations are in decline. John Vest saw that and he set out for the deeper waters, too.
He decided to combine his passion for faith formation with his passion for barbecue. He now lives in Richmond, VA, where he has a food truck called Redemption BBQ and he leads a new worshiping community called the Joyful Feast. He’s bringing Christ’s church to the people outside the walls, to the “nones.”
I’m not suggesting that we turn the auditorium into a restaurant or build a barbecue pit in our prayer garden. Though, now that I mention it…. There are lots of deeper waters out there, we just have to pick a direction and cast our nets. To do this, we have to get out of our comfort zone.
The overflowing nets in the story this morning serve as a reminder that God will always provide; God will always respond faithfully when we step out in faithfulness, too. Yes, the chaos and the deep are scary, but I have it on good authority that stepping out of your comfort zone can be a profoundly wonderful thing. And you folks don’t even have to move to New Jersey. Let us go with God, outside of this building, and meet people where they are. Let us see the chaos as a blessing. Thanks be to God. Amen!
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to go out into deeper waters, into the chaos of modern life. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Daniel James Brown. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, New York: Penguin (2013), p. 41.
 Brown, 41.
 Ronald J. Allen, “Commentary on Luke 5:1-11,” retrieved from: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3958