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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Gather a Team

Making Change, a New Year sermon series from Luke, Week 3 of 6

Preached January 24, 2021, for the 9:30am Worship


From Advent to Easter, we are reading and preaching from the Gospel of Luke. We are on week three of a sermon series called “Making Change,” where we are studying the earliest days of Jesus’ ministry and looking at the steps Jesus took to make change. Can we imagine using those same steps to make whatever good effective change we know we need to make in this New Year in our lives and communities?

Two weeks ago, Jesus began his public ministry with the first step in making change, find a mentor. His mentor was John, a bold truth-teller focused on the kingdom of God for all people. Last week, Jesus retreated to the wilderness and showed us the second step in making change, prepare for resistance. IN the wilderness, before he began his public ministry, Jesus practiced how he would respond to the temptations of giving up, using violence, or rushing in unprepared when resistance to change became real.

Today, we turn to Luke 5 and listen for a third step in Making Change. Let’s pray, and listen for the word of the Lord…


Scripture Luke 5:1-11, 27-32

5 Once while Jesus 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. But, 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…

27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And he got up, left everything, and followed him. 29 Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house, and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. 30 The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick (do); 32 I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)

Sermon Gather a Team

When’s the last time you stayed up all night? For me, it was a few years ago, when the Youth group and I stayed up all night watching movies, playing games, laughing, and running through the church. We ended the night with a doughnuts breakfast around the island in the church kitchen, and that put a good ending on a good night, where laughter, time together, learning a little more about each other were all accomplished. I went home tired but content, because the night had gone mostly as planned, and the youth were more of a group.

Not all nights go as expected though. Like this night for these fishermen. They had worked all night long and had caught nothing. Empty nets and empty boats meant empty pockets and empty stomachs. I’ll bet they were exhausted and a bit disheartened as they rowed back to shore.

Last night had been just like the other nights before. They had pushed off in the same boats, gone out into the same lake at the same time of night, and had lowered the same nets. Yet, repeating that lowering and raising of the nets hundreds of times in one night had not even yielded enough for a breakfast. So they rowed themselves back to shore exhausted, dejected, and bewildered, wondering what in the world they did wrong to catch absolutely nothing all night.

That’s a feeling that strikes a little too close to home for me, that feeling sometimes like I’ve done everything I could think to do, everything I believed and planned I should have done, but it just didn’t work. I’m a fixer. Not sure if yall have realized this yet, but the mechanical engineer in me every now and then needs to get fed. So I will pick up some complicated device or technical project that is broken, and I will try to fix it. I put my effort and knowledge into it, and in the end, I usually walk away tired but refreshed because the item is repaired, the project is complete, and usually it's way better than before. One time, in the early 90s, I made a coax cable out of two paper clips so High School seniors could watch videos from their Senior cruise. Another time, in the early 2000s, I fixed my car, at night on the side of the road from Greenville to Charlotte with a sucker stick. And now, we’ve bought the big pink monster on Queen Street. I have 3D models of what it looks like today and what it will look like someday. I love these moments when I try hard to make something better, and it works out. But, I hate those other moments, when no matter how hard I try, how much I give or sacrifice, it just doesn’t work. There are no fish in the net, and there’s little to do other than row myself back to shore, clean my nets, and get ready for tomorrow’s next project, or problem, or fishing trip.

As they rowed themselves to shore, I seriously doubt they paid much attention to the crowds gathering or the man speaking. The bitterness of the empty nets and empty boats was pushing their chins to their chests and driving them to hurry up and get this over with. When the boats hit the shore, they weren’t curious. They didn’t look at each other and say, “Hey, let’s go see what’s going on.” They heaved themselves out of the boat, heaved their nets out, and began cleaning the weeds and bait from the nets so the cords would not rot as the nets dried and as they slept to prepare for another attempt tomorrow. I wonder if they had any hope. There had been days in the past when the night’s haul had been plentiful, but not this night and sometimes, the most recent failure seems more real, more true, than all the other nights' successes.

Then the stranger approaches and plops himself down into one of their boats. Can you imagine? This person is plopping himself down in the middle of their boat. Today, it might be like someone climbing into your work truck and having a seat. I imagine the first words to him were something like, “Hey, that’s our boat. What do you think you’re doing?” It's tired moments like these, times after failure when fuses are short, and when there is little room for curiosity, compassion, or conversation. It's tired moments like these, after hard work that produced so little, that people forget how to be hospitable, hopeful, how to listen.

Not only did he plop himself in the middle of their boat, but then he started telling them what to do. “Put out a little way from shore.” Now, they’ve been in that boat all night. That little boat is the space of their most recent failure. And that failure is still terribly fresh on their minds. So, to put out again in that boat tonight had to be the farthest thing from their mind.

But something, something overrules their anger, frustration, disappointment, and skepticism. Something blunts their sharp tongue, and they do put out in the same small boat into the same small lake, and they find themselves listening to a teacher speaking over them to the crowds but at the same time, speaking to them as well. They didn’t want to be there right now, in that boat, again. But his words were somehow making them forget that. He spoke of the old ways but spoke of them in new ways. He spoke of the others, the broken, the forgotten, but spoke of them as precious, loved, and essential. The smile in his eyes and in his every word was enough that they almost forgot how they felt just moments ago, stuck here on the same ol’ bench in the same ol’ boat that hadn’t caught a thing all last night.

I say almost forgot because they remember quickly when he told them to put out into deep water and let down their nets. “We’ve already fished the whole night and caught nothing. We’ve put in and pulled up our nets so many times we’re exhausted, and every time nothing came up in the nets. We’ve been fishing for years. We know what we’re doing. But tonight, our nets come up empty, and there’s no use, no hope in trying it again.”

The word that I heard the loudest in Jesus’ phrase was the word “deep.” He asks them to put out into deep water. I wonder if he was giving them fishing advice as if they had been fishing too shallow. I wonder if in any way we are the tired fishermen who fail sometimes because we haven’t been fishing deep enough. I wonder if any of us can hear his call to put out into deeper waters, and hear that as a suggestion for why things are not going as well for us as we’d like in our career, our relationships, our family. I wonder if our church is a little boat that has been taken out again, and again, only to return from its journeys empty, perhaps because we have been casting too shallow. I wonder what it means to push out in this same ol’ boat together, listen as Jesus teaches us and the crowds around us, and then trust Jesus and not be afraid of what we might find if we are truly willing to go deeper with one another.

For some reason, they did as he suggested. They dropped bitter memories of past failures. They set down their own skepticism. They ignored the voices of their experiences and habits. They allowed Jesus’ suggestion to guide them. In so doing, they pulled up those same nets from those same waters into that same boat and were amazed when the nets reached the surface and were full to overflowing.

The others, who had not pushed back out into the waters, who had stayed behind on the shore and finished cleaning the nets and were about to leave, looked out and saw their friends with their frowns gone, and excitement in its place, pulling together, pulling up more than a net full. With the heavy nets in their hands, they called to their friends on the shore, who hopped back into their boats, and came out into the deep waters and joined in the excitement of reeling in the biggest catch they’d ever enjoyed.

This is Jesus’ third step in making change. He gathers a team and teaches them how to go deeper with Him and one another. Today, we are ordaining and installing new elders and deacons. Caitlan and I will do our best over the years ahead to go deeper with these leaders. I pray this church and community see them enter this boat we call Church, in these strange waters of our time with whatever exhaustions or doubts or skepticisms they may bring, and watch them go together into the deep waters, and then wonder in amazement at the amazing catch we find when we go there together as a team with Jesus.

When those disciples returned to shore, there were no longer the same. Something had changed in them. They had gone into the deep waters together, and from this day forward, they would be together and would follow him. May we build a team like Jesus did, and guide them into the deeper waters.

To God be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.


Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.

Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown

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