A sermon shared at Suttons Bay Congregational Church, March, 2022
Scripture: Luke 5:1-11
My Christmas presents from Lisa last year included a book that has an intriguing title, Uncountable, and an intimidating subtitle: “A Philosophical History of Number and Humanity from Antiquity to the Present.” Uncountable is a densely packed 300-page scholarly tome that traces the development of particular ideas through the course of human civilization. That Lisa thinks I’m up to so cerebral a task says something about the triumph of love over evidence.
Uncountable was written by a father-and-son duo—David and Ricardo Nirenberg—both of whom have dazzling academic credentials.In their book, the Nirenbergs take on no less ambitious a topic than what it means for us human beings to know something. They observe that, throughout history, we have tended to divide our knowledge into two categories: things to which we attribute objective certainty, like mathematics and logic, and things to which we don’t, like poetry, art, and religion. The Nirenbergs contend that for centuries we have argued over which of these kinds of knowledge matters most, sometimes literally going to war over the question.
The Nirenbergs maintain that we will have fewer conflicts, and arrive at a better understanding of each other, if we grasp a few fundamental truths. One of those truths is that things like mathematics and logic actually have less certainty to them than we think. Another is that neither of these forms of knowledge is inherently better than the other. Rather, the Nirenbergs contend, the kind of knowledge that matters depends on the type of question we’re asking. It’s an important insight, brilliantly explored in this book by two great minds.
With that background, let’s take a closer look at the familiar miracle story from Luke that appears in this text. The scene opens with Jesus standing beside a lake, a crowd pressing in on him. He sees some fishermen on shore. He gets into a boat belonging to one of them, who the text identifies as Simon Peter, and who Jesus will of course later call simply Peter.
Jesus teaches from the boat for a while, and then He tells Peter to go out to deeper water and to drop the nets so they can catch fish and feed the gathered. Peter objects that they’ve had their nets down all night and haven’t caught a thing, but finally he grudgingly obeys. Lo and behold, they catch so many fish that the boat begins to sink.
Now, I’d like you to take a step back from the miracle itself and to notice a detail about this story that comes early in the narrative and that seems to me terribly important. It’s this: Jesus asked Peter to do something that didn’t make any sense.
In fact, Jesus’s instruction to Peter didn’t make sense in multiple ways. First, the instruction came from someone who had less knowledge about the subject matter than the person being instructed. A carpenter, from a family of carpenters, was telling a professional fisherman how to fish.
Second, the person providing the instruction knew less about the current circumstances than the person receiving the instruction. Peter had tended the nets all night long and had first-hand knowledge about the conditions for fishing. Jesus hadn’t and didn’t.
Finally, the person being instructed had hard data that conflicted with the instruction. We recognize that fishermen don’t always provide reliable reports of the size of their catch. But Peter could hardly exaggerate when the objectively true number was zero.
In short, Jesus said: Lower your nets. Logic said: Don’t bother. And Peter said: Down they go.
We may feel tempted to take Peter’s decision as evidence of his great faith—the kind of faith he showed in another familiar gospel passage when he stepped out of a boat to join Jesus walking on the water. But this story says at least as much about Peter’s doubt. After all, when Jesus told him to drop his nets, Peter initially responded with skepticism and he plainly viewed the exercise as a waste of time.
No, I don’t think Peter’s decision to lower the nets testifies to his faith. I think it testifies to his humility. I think it testifies to his realization that he may have been asking himself the wrong question.
Think about it. If the question is “Do you have reason to think there are fish here?” then the answer is plainly “no.” You don’t bother looking. You just row your boat to another spot and see if the fishing is any better over there.
But if the question is “What does it mean to stand in the presence of the Lord?” well, then, you make a different decision. You go angling for the fish that reason tells you aren’t there. You drop your nets.
We need to be careful here. This story doesn’t mean that we’re called to ignore what reason tells us. Indeed, it couldn’t mean any such thing because Jesus himself didn’t hesitate to employ logical analysis on occasions when it was appropriate to do so. For example, when the Pharisees argued that Jesus had relied on Beelzebub (the ruler of demons) in order to cast out demons, Jesus noted the logical contradiction in their position. He asked: Why would Beelzebub divide, and thereby destroy, his own kingdom?
Sometimes the answer will indeed reside in science, mathematics, data, and logic because that’s the sort of question we’re asking. When the pandemic struck, our church viewed the question presented in these sorts of terms: “How can we best look after the physical well-being of our congregation, especially the most vulnerable among us?” That’s a question for medical and public health experts and so we appropriately turned to those sources for answers.
Doing so didn’t mean that we were short on faith, or doubted God’s power, or failed to trust in the Lord. It just meant that we didn’t think those were the questions on the table. We were considering questions like: How many people can we safely gather in one place? Should we wear masks? Should the choir sing?
We can go to resources like the Center for Disease Control to answer those kinds of questions and also go to the gospels, the psalms, the letters of Paul, and the book of Ecclesiastes to answer other kinds of questions. There is no inconsistency here; to the contrary, it’s how we generally do things. When I want to know how to live my life, I look to the Sermon on the Mount. When I want to know how to cook the macaroni, I look on the back of the box.
The process I’m describing demands that we know in the first instance what kind of question we’re asking. Often, this simply requires that we pause long enough to make sure we understand what we’re after. Failing to do so can put us on the wrong track entirely.
Many years ago, I found myself in a conversation with a close friend who was trying to figure out whether he should ask a woman for whom he cared deeply to marry him. At one point, he pulled out a yellow legal pad, drew a line down the center of the page, wrote “costs” on one side of the line and “benefits” on the other, and started to make notes. I generally hesitate to critique anyone else’s decision-making methodologies. But I thought he had clearly misunderstood the nature of the question he was trying to answer.
When we ask the sorts of questions that take us away from cost / benefit analyses, mathematics, science, and reason we can feel lost, confused, and uncertain. We may find that the guard rails on which he usually rely have fallen away and that we have to accept things, believe things, and do things that don’t make logical sense to us. It’s as though we’re standing on the edge of a boat, unstable in the rocking current, staring down into a black and fishless sea, and being told to drop our nets.
In his wonderful poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” Wendell Berry offers some advice. Let me give you just a few lines from it:
[E]very day do something that won’t compute.
Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium.
Expect the end of the world.
Be joyful [even] though you have considered all the facts.
Then he ends the poem with just two words. I’d happily trade every sentence I’ve ever written if I could only claim to have come up with the idea of putting these two words together. They are: “Practice resurrection.”
Practice resurrection. Talk about something that doesn’t comport with logic, that defies reason, that mocks science, and that won’t compute. Practice resurrection, indeed. And those words seem even less rational in combination than they do individually.
Start with the idea of resurrection. It makes absolutely no sense. Medical science tells us that one of the defining characteristics of death is its finality. It is the ultimate and unavoidable “hard stop.” As my favorite existentialist philosopher, Roy Kent from Ted Lasso, bluntly puts it: “You live. You die. You’re done.” How could any rational person argue with that?
Furthermore, resurrection doesn’t just suggest the possibility of a life beyond physical death. It also implies the potential to rise up from all of the inevitable smaller deaths that we suffer as life churns along. The deaths of hope. The deaths of joy. The deaths of confidence. The deaths of forgiveness. The deaths of relationships. The deaths of love. Resurrection tells us to see those experiences not as deaths at all, but as the pangs of rebirth. How can this be so?
But Wendell Berry’s poem doesn’t just tell us to believe in resurrection, to accept it as an abstract article of faith. He tells us to practice resurrection, to treat it as a do-it-yourself project. He says: Don’t content yourself with accepting the theological possibility of resurrection; roll up your sleeves and get after it.
The idea that we must practice resurrection seems to make even less sense. It’s one thing for me to accept that Jesus Christ, the Very Son of the Living God, could push death aside like a minor inconvenience and rise from the tomb. But how could I possibly imagine a similar potential within myself? Me? The guy who can’t even keep track of his car keys?
Yet over and over again our faith assures us that this is true. In the seventeenth chapter of the gospel of Luke, Jesus says: “The Kingdom of God is within you.” In the fourth chapter of his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
You. Me. Practicing resurrection. How can we imagine such a thing?
And yet Jesus calls us to do just that. Indeed, notice another intriguing detail about today’s gospel story. Jesus doesn’t say to Peter: “Here, give me your nets and I’ll show you how it’s done.” Rather, he invites Peter to do it himself.
Jesus has a message for us, just as He had for Peter as he stood there on his boat, staring blankly at his savior, holding his nets in his hands, his eyebrows raised in confusion and uncertainty. The message is: Consider the question that is before you. Believe. And then prepare to be amazed.
As a law professor, I spend my professional life teaching students how to think logically, critically, and clearly. I help them learn how to reason toward the best answers to the kinds of questions we’re asking. But my faith tells me that those are not the only questions, and that sometimes they’re not the right questions.
Early on in their book, the Nirenbergs tell a story from the Muslim tradition. An expert in religious law was asked what he thought of the mystics of the faith. He responded: “Knowledge of the divine truth is a limitless ocean. We lawyers are the people who stand on the shore. The great Sufi masters are the divers in that limitless ocean. We do not argue with them.”
As I noted before, we may sometimes feel daunted by the kinds of questions that logic and science can’t answer. But another great poet, Rainer Maria Rilke had some useful advice here. He said: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.”
I think that’s precisely where Jesus wants us. Looking at the questions we’re asking ourselves. Ushered into a conversation with the still small voice of God. Loving the questions, just as Jesus loved to ask them, because they remind us that—while logic and science are glorious things—you cannot reason your way to resurrection. You have to practice it. Because, in the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, resurrection is an audience participation activity.
So those are our marching orders:
Every day, do something that won’t compute.
Love the Lord.
Love the world.
Work for nothing.
Love someone who doesn’t deserve it.
Embrace the triumphs of love over evidence.
Honor the gift of reason and know when you’re asking that kind of question.
But also ask the questions that have no answers.
Love those questions, especially, because they’re the kind that draw us toward God.
Be humble in your asking.
Be joyful, even though you have considered all the facts.
And on those occasions when the good Lord whispers in your ear to do something that makes absolutely no sense at all…
Understand the question that is before you…
And let down your nets.