A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 10, 2019 (Epiphany 5, Year C)
If you’re a woman, you’re probably well-versed in the concept of mansplaining. It’s a word that describes the unfortunate and sexist phenomenon of men explaining things to women in condescending ways.
For instance, if I were to take a mother aside and explain what happens at childbirth, I would most likely be accused of mansplaining. If I was authentically mansplaining, my limited, second-hand experience of child birth, wouldn’t stop me from arrogantly coming across like a world-renowned expert on the subject. After all, someone gave birth to me, I’ve witnessed childbirth, and I’ve read a couple of articles about it on Wikipedia. My mansplaining would be made complete if the mother I was speaking to was also an OB/GYN.
In this story from Luke’s gospel, you could argue that Jesus engages in a bit of fisherman-splaining. I mean, it had been a long night out on the water for Simon Peter and his fellow fishermen. An exhausting and frustrating night on the Lake of Gennesaret. Over and over again they toss out their nets and haul them back in. And time and time again they come up empty. Muscles ache, the spirit is broken, and they have nothing to show for it. There are no fish. Which is a problem, because these weren’t recreational fishermen. They weren’t weekend warriors out to catch some fish so they’d have stories to tell back at the yacht club. Their very livelihood depended upon catching fish. And they simply weren’t biting.
Soon after returning from this failed fishing trip, Jesus shows up on the shore. A great crowd quickly gathers to hear his message and suddenly everyone is pressing in on him. So Jesus borrows Peter’s boat to speak to the crowd from the water. Which is a good strategy because this floating pulpit allows everyone on the banks to see and hear him.
Then, when he finishes speaking to the crowd, an unusual exchange takes place between Jesus and Peter: a carpenter tells a fisherman how to fish. And I can’t imagine the advice is particularly welcome. Jesus, this teacher that Peter had just met moments before, imparts the following wisdom, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Um, okay, Captain Obvious. Thanks for the fisherman-splaining.
Peter had been doing just this all night without success. In fact, Peter had been doing this his entire life. If there was one thing that Peter knew, it was fishing. Yet along comes Jesus with that unsolicited advice. “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
Probably biting his lip, Peter replies, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” If even Peter comes back empty, there must really be no fish. Of course, this isn’t really about the fish. Yes, they go back out and return with nets heavy laden with the catch, and Peter, James, and John famously drop their nets to follow Jesus. But this is about the life of abundance that comes from following Jesus, the life into which the first disciples are invited and to which we, too, are called. It is a call to walk alongside Jesus, to fish alongside Jesus, to bring others to experience the good news of God’s abundant grace and love.
Last week as I came in for coffee hour, before I had even made it to the coffee urn, I was ambushed by two young girls from our Sunday School. They had a burning question for me, and it was an important one: “Why aren’t there any female disciples?” they wanted to know. They had been learning about Jesus and the twelve apostles and it didn’t go unnoticed that no women were mentioned as being part of his inner circle.
So, we talked about the first Easter morning and how it was the women who first discovered the empty tomb. How, while all the men had fled in fear after the crucifixion, the women were the first to learn of the Resurrection. How one of the women, Mary Magdalene, is known as the Apostle to the Apostles for her role in sharing the good news with the male apostles who ran away. And we talked about the fact that men wrote the accounts of Jesus’ life and left out the names of women. There were plenty of female disciples, we just don’t know their names.
I loved this question because it was a great teaching moment. But it was also so painful to realize that this is the experience and understanding of so many — not just two brave and wondering young girls. If the church can’t be a place of empowerment and safety and aspiration for every single one of us, we’re doing something wrong.
And it made me think of all the unnamed women in the crowd pressing in on Jesus in this morning’s gospel passage. Straining to get a glimpse of him and to hear his words of compassion and love and salvation. What hurts did they bring with them that day? What painful experiences of objectification and marginalization did they hold in their hearts as they struggled and jostled to see and hear this teacher who offered such hope and wisdom.
When Jesus called the first disciples, it was into a male-dominated culture and context. Even in this story he has famously called fishermen to become fishers of men. But while the twelve who traveled with him throughout his public ministry were males, Jesus spent so much of his time shattering ethnic and gender stereotypes and breaking down walls between and among fellow children of God. He had female friends and followers, as evidenced by his relationship with Mary and Martha; he engaged in daring encounters that broke down taboos between the sexes, as evidenced by his conversation with the woman at the well; and he encouraged women to exercise spiritual leadership in the days following the Resurrection. None of this is by chance; all of it is intentional and radical and life-changing. And we still, lo these many years later, still have work to do, both in society and in the church.
Seventeen years ago, on my very first Sunday as a brand new rector at my parish in New York, I remember processing out during the final hymn and overhearing a conversation in the back of the church between a young boy and his father. My predecessor had been a woman and so was the interim minister who served before I arrived. He stared up at me, pointed, and said with great excitement, “Hey, dad, I didn’t know men could be priests too!”
This shows the possibility of changing the narrative and modeling the way we pass along the faith. But it takes hard and intentional work. It takes opening up the Scriptures and looking in the holy crevices that exist between the lines. It means lifting up and highlighting the holy women in our tradition and in our midst. It means perhaps reexamining the male-centered language we use for God; being reminded that God, in fact, transcends gender altogether. That the mythology of God as an old white man with a beard is not only an unhelpful image, it is often a harmful one. The reality is that God is so much more than any human image or language can convey.
When Jesus bids us to drop everything and follow him, sometimes that means dropping our childhood notions of God and entering into deeper relationship with the living Christ. May we, like those first disciples, have the courage and will to do so.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2019