The Great Catch, John August Swanson.
There’s an old story about a man that’s drowning who says to himself, “God will save me!” A boat comes by and attempts to rescue him. He resists. “No!” he says. “God will save me.”
Two more boats come by. Same thing. A little later, a helicopter hovers above the water and lets down a rescue ladder. He responds the same way. “No!” he says. “God will rescue me!”
Refusing all help, the man dies. He reaches heaven, angry that his life has been taken from him.
“God!” he protests. I believed in you! Why didn’t you save me?!”
God smiles and leans back in his chair and says, “My son, welcome to your eternal rest. But you should know before we go any further: I did try to save you. I sent you three boats and a helicopter. What more did you want?”
The story isn’t without its theological problems, but I find myself returning to it over and over to explain a whole wide variety of things, all of them related to what we expect God to appear to us as.
The church of Jesus Christ has always loved the tale of Saul’s conversion — when Saul became Paul. He begins as a really mean dude. In the Bible, Luke describes him in Acts as literally “breathing threats and murder against the disciples.” That’s quite an image — that hatred of the disciples of Jesus was, to him, like breathing. He had participated in the killing of Stephen, one of the first early disciples. He was about as anti-Jesus as you could be.
The rest of the story you know. We know it so well that we reference it in popular culture: to have a “Damascus Road Experience” is to experience a sudden conversion. You have to hand it to Paul, man. He’s got the most dramatic story of any of the disciples. We like to joke about getting knocked upside the head by Jesus, but it literally happened to Paul. God, in fact, knocked him so hard upside the head that he went blind for a minute. You’ve got everything that an Old Testament style divine encounter has: a flash of light, falling to the ground in fear, and finally: God identifying himself and giving verbal, clear direction.
I have to confess that I myself have never experienced anything like this. I’ve never been surrounded by light, or struck blind, or spoken to by an audible voice of God. But I’ve met people who have told me about such things, and while I have some questions about some of those accounts, I can’t be so naive as to think that they’re all off their rockers. I have had some slightly less dramatic experiences where it’s felt pretty clear to me that there was some sort of divine intervention. For God’s sake, literally, how else do you think I found my way from the red clay of rural Alabama to the Connecticut River valley of Massachusetts? That’s either divine intervention or the luckiest and most extended GPS malfunction I’ve ever experienced.
Look, I’m skeptical by nature. So skeptical, in fact, that sometimes it’s hard to be a pastor because most people (present company excluded, of course) don’t really look at pastors as individuals, but as, I don’t know, McDonald’s fries: 1) pretty much the same wherever you go, and 2) just exactly what your soul needs.
So I here confess to you that I’ve never had a Damascus road experience, but I’ve heard about them on TV. And I do have a pretty expansive view of what God is capable of, so who am I to rule anything out.
I think we get into trouble when we expect every divine encounter to be movie-worthy and dramatic. When we say to every attempted messenger of God, “No! God will save me,” instead of realizing that God can show up in all kinds of ways — even the most mundane.
In the Gospel lesson, Peter has the strangest response to the events of the past week or so: his Lord and teacher had been executed by the state, and then had appeared alive first to Mary, then to the disciples two different times. And Peter’s response is to get the boys together for a little naked fishing. It’s hot in Israel, I guess.
That’s when Jesus shows up on the beach. Not in a flash of light. No one falls to the ground. Jesus is just there. Peter swims ashore, eager to greet Jesus, and Jesus responds in the most mundane of ways: “Come have breakfast.”
Sometimes the Lord shows up in a flash of light. Sometimes he shows up in plainclothes and offers you breakfast.
It’s amazing how often we try to limit God by thinking that God can only show up in the spectacular.
It’s in this ordinary meeting that Peter gets his restoration: he had denied Jesus three times, and three times, Jesus asks: “do you love me?” From this, Peter will get his charge to help build the church we know today, in all its beautiful and broken glory.
As we think together about our future, I want you to consider that it may be beautifully mundane. Most churches look for a return to the glory days, when people will once again flood the church and the pews will overflow. Instead, all of the churches that I know that have experienced new life have experienced it in far more ordinary ways: in things like helping their neighbors, offering space for art and AA groups and other congregations, in feeding hungry people, in singing hymns in bars.
Consider that the same might be true for your own future. We love dreaming about our futures from the time we’re young: when you’re six, you dream of what you’ll be when you grow up. When you’re fifteen, you dream of an exciting and independent college life. When you’re 22, you dream of professional life and maybe even a family. When you’re 40, you might dream of the joys of retirement. And when you’re 60 or 70 or 80, you might dream of the next trip you’ll take or the next game you’ll go to or the beautiful places you’ve yet to go. Dreaming isn’t just for the young. Dreaming keeps us alive. It’s for all of us. But we all know that sometimes the future isn’t as spectacular as we might dream, but often, it’s the beautiful truth that we need.
If you hear nothing else from me this morning, please here this: just because the flash of light and the audible, booming voice of God aren’t coming doesn’t mean that a miracle isn’t.
Sometimes the miracle is breakfast.
This place is a miracle. All of us coming together in this place at this time is a miracle. Don’t miss the little miracles waiting for the big ones.
I imagine myself in a slightly different version of the story about the drowning man. I imagine myself getting to heaven a little miffed that God never spoke to me, you know, in an audible voice. “God!” I say. “Why didn’t you ever come to me?”
“Oh honey,” God says. Naturally, I imagine God with an Atlanta accent.
“Oh honey, I did speak to you. I sent you Sue, and Debbie, and Wayne, and Phyllis, and Bob. I sent you your mom and dad and brother, your seminary professors, your bishops and colleagues, your own pastor, and your dearest friends. I never stopped speaking to you, honey. Never once.”
Just because the flash of light isn’t coming doesn’t mean the miracle isn’t.
Because while it’s true that the miracle does sometimes come in a flash of light.
And sometimes, friends, the miracle is breakfast. Both are holy. Amen.