Text: Luke 5:1-11
At 5 AM on a December Sunday morning a few years ago, Judith and Martin Markovitz were awakened by the sound of breaking glass. Vandals had walked across their front lawn, smashed their living room window, and destroyed an electric menorah that had remained lighted through the night in celebration of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights.
Word about the incident spread quickly through their quiet neighborhood, built only five years before in a community outside of Philadelphia. By nightfall, 18 homes on their street and adjoining cul-de-sacs were lighted with electric menorahs. On the next-to-last day of Hanukkah, 25 menorahs lit up Christian homes nearby. More families would have put a menorah in their window if local stores hadn’t run out. “We wanted to make sure that the family knew they had our support,” said Margie Alexander, a 36-year-old Roman Catholic.
I think it’s fair to say that after five years this neighborhood was becoming a real community. That word is used a lot today. In fact, I think it’s over-used. The term “community” is often applied to little more than casual relationships among people who are very much alike, or those who avoid their differences and pretend that they are alike, or people who just happen to be in the same place at the same time. We use it to apply to our cities—the Raleigh community—and to all kinds of groups. We are asked to build community, to support our community, even to pray for our community. In an unintended moment of honesty, one congregation’s newsletter asked members to “remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church and community.”
Whatever you think about the use or misuse of the term, I think you’d agree that the neighborhood in our story comes closer to being a community than most. The people who live there aren’t the same and aren’t afraid to express their uniqueness. In fact, someone has described a community as a place where the people “seek unity, not uniformity; oneness, not sameness.” Apparently at the beginning of Hanukkah, the Markovitz family was the only one who chose to express their Jewish faith with a menorah in their window. But when they needed neighborhood support, they got it, 25 menorahs-worth.
The passage Jim read today is a very familiar story about one of Jesus’ miracles—or at least that’s what we tend to remember about it. Jesus teaches the multitudes from a boat just off the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Then he tells the fishermen whose boat he has borrowed to put out their nets. They grumble that they have fished all night and caught nothing, but follow Jesus’ instructions anyway. Suddenly the nets are so full of fish that they have to call another boat to come and help them. When the second boat arrives and lowers its nets, both of the vessels begin to sink. Eventually Peter recognizes the power of his passenger and the boats don’t sink. Instead they go ashore and the fishermen leave everything to follow Jesus to be “fishers of people.”
We call this a miracle story because of the sudden appearance of enough fish to sink not one boat, but two, when many hours of fishing on the previous night produced nothing. In our middle class American churches, we have been taught that this miracle revealing Jesus’ power was performed so that the fishers would follow Jesus, ultimately becoming his disciples. You can believe it really happened or understand the story as metaphor. Either way, this explanation makes sense. There are no fish. Jesus gets involved. There are literally boatloads of fish for no logical reason. The boats should sink, but they don’t. Hard-working people leave their work and their families to follow Jesus. It’s a miracle.
Well, it is, but that’s not the only significant aspect of the story. We’ve identified what’s important in this fish tale from our point of view. But, thank God, ours is not the only point of view. We can learn about other perspectives in a collection of scripture interpretations called “Reading from this Place: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in Global Perspective” by Fernando Segovia. Segovia’s book includes one about our text for today.
When this story was read by a group of poor people who survive by fishing from small boats off the coast of Central America, the fisherman heard something very different. Their focus was not on the miracle, although they certainly recognized the miraculous nature of what happened. Most important to them was the response of the second boat to the cry for help from the first boat. Those in the second boat stopped fishing and came to the aid of fellow fishermen. Important to them in this fish tale wasn’t lots of fish, but lots of help.
These stories tell us that whether it’s an upper class neighborhood in 21st century Philadelphia or a fishing village in 1st century Galilee, human beings need support to do what’s important—things like being loyal to your religious tradition or to those who share your profession. Today we focus on another of those important tasks: working for peace in our world, and we can’t do it without a community to support us. Without people to work with and march with and pray with and even feel overwhelmed with, we cannot sustain the work we are called to do for peace. Or we will sustain it as strident, angry people who are mad that others don’t “get it” when it comes to peace work. Most of us have seen those people and that’s not who we want to be.
What we want to be is consistently persistent. We want to be a loving presence and a thorn in the side of the powers and principalities at the same time. We know that God is on the side of justice and peace, and we want to be there, too. It’s just that consistently, persistently, and lovingly standing on that side is very hard. Few of us can do it as lone rangers and survive, or if we survive, our relationships don’t. So we need companions on the journey of peacemaking—people who believe deep in their hearts that peace won’t come unless we help God bring it here. “Christ has no body now but yours” is the way one song puts it. For God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth requires “activists” on the front lines of the quest for peace. Pullen needs a Peace and Justice Mission Group and a Cross of Nails Reconciliation Fellowship. The perilous times we live in demand that we have groups of people here who are working for affordable health care for all and against hunger, who promote care of the planet and oppose manipulation of other nations for America’s benefit. This “first circle” of people who feel called to put feet to their earnest desire for peace and justice are God’s gift—to this church and to the world. God only knows what life on this planet would be like if it weren’t for ordinary people who have an extraordinary commitment to a just peace. Jesus said it best: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
But I also want to say a word to those of you who are not part of this “first circle” of peacemakers—who for whatever reason cannot or choose not to be on the front lines of peace work, at least for now. The number of people who make up our various mission groups is a small percentage of our church, and they are very aware that not everyone wants to come to meetings, many of which are after worship on Sundays. They know the fact that you don’t come to the Peace and Justice Mission Group on the first Sunday of every month doesn’t mean that peace isn’t important to you. They know you care and they need your help. They need your support in whatever ways you can give it.
What I’m saying is that our first circle of peacemakers needs a “second circle” to surround them, a second circle composed of people who will be faithful in their prayers and their emotional support always and occasionally with their presence, their money, and maybe some volunteer time. Sometimes they need your letter-writing and your emails to Congress and your attendance at periodic city council meetings or rallies. They need you to be a peacemaker in your family, at school, and at work. For those who are very active in pursuing peace and justice either through Pullen, the Hope Center or other groups, the boat is full of fish and overflowing. Sometimes—probably more often than they want to admit—it feels like the peace boat is going to sink. This is reflected in one of the discussion topics for our Peace and Justice group this year: how to deal with feeling overwhelmed.
What all peacemakers need is another boat to come over and help out so they won’t drown. They need people who put a menorah in their window as a show of support—even if they aren’t Jewish. They need a caring circle who will love and encourage them even if the people in the circle can’t go to the march themselves. Many of you do this already. You row over as quickly as you can when you hear of a need.
This second circle—this group of supporters of our peacemaking at Pullen is essential for us to be a peacemaking church. The outer circle makes the work of the activists possible over the long haul, and it makes us a closer, more faithful community in the best sense of that word. Being in it together is the tie that binds us. Having everyone in one circle or the other enlarges our capacity to make a difference in the world for the next 125 years.
As we pursue a just peace in whatever ways we are called at this moment, I don’t have any doubt that Jesus is in the boat with us. I’d stake my life on it. But we also have a role in keeping the peace boat afloat, and it takes all of us. When everyone participates in the work of peacemaking, we experience a miracle. And that miracle is 25 menorahs. The real miracle is not lots of fish, but lots of help.