Dogs and Fish

Lk 5:1-11
This is the fifth Sunday in the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is a time of “showing forth” the abundant love of God, revealed in His incarnation in Jesus Christ. Indeed, today’s collect reads “Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins and give us…the liberty of that abundant life which thou has manifested to us in thy Son, our Savior Jesus Christ…” In order to talk about the abundance of God, I want to talk about dogs and fish.

All my life I have had dogs. My last two dogs were black Labrador Retrievers. Kelly lasted six years and Ben lasted fourteen. There really was nothing special about them; they were just dogs. They flopped down on the kitchen floor, rattling the crockery. On cold nights they blocked the heat from our Vermont Castings wood stove. They thought deer belonged in the yard. Squirrels totally bored them. Kelly would sit on my lap and watch TV. She hated Barbara Walters.

When Kelly died in ’95 my wife’s best friend decided we needed a replacement. So she found a breeder in Huntington, LI, and we drove out to the end of the island. The breeder’s house was a small track place with four grown labs, a huge Maine Coon Cat, and eight pups. The house was immaculate and the dogs perfectly behaved. I went into the bedroom and lay down on the floor to see which pup would be appropriate. Some were timid, some boisterous, but each one checked me out and went back to mother. After a while a pup came over, sniffed and settled down with me. I chose him, or rather he chose me. I named him Benedict, after the founder of the Benedictines, because all men need discipline.

My training of Ben was marginal, but he was good-natured, affectionate, calm and very strong. He followed me around, tolerated my wife and ignored my younger son. Ben worshipped my older son, Mike. He slept on Mike’s bed (or was Mike sleeping in the dog’s bed?), climbed up into Mike lap, or stretched himself across Mike’s shoulders and washed Mike’s face from ear to ear. He loved to be the navigator in Mike’s Jeep. Each day Ben sat patiently in the driveway waiting for someone to take him to Woodland Park.

In 2000 Ben had renal failure. He contacted some sort of autoimmune disease and his kidneys shut down. Ben lost 40 lbs and was hospitalized for ten days. One Sunday, during the announcements I mentioned that Ben was seriously ill and asked the parishioners at St. John’s to keep him in their thoughts and on their heart. I didn’t ask anyone to pray for Ben, but many did. Ben came home and was on intravenous for ten days. Much to my vet’s surprise, Ben’s kidneys jumpstarted and he recovered. The doctor said it was a miracle. Ben was put on steroids, but since he was a professional moocher and nudge, he was used to being hungry. He lived for eight more years until he became blind from diabetes and could no longer stand up or walk. We had to put him down. Real men cry when their dogs die.

Someone will ask, “Why is this guy talking about his dogs?” Those of you who know me, know that I am talking about more than my dogs. You and I know that life is broken, that there is a cancerous side to the world, that loneliness is epidemic, things are unfair, and that there is sin and evil, suffering and death. But in a companion animal, a dog like Kelly or Ben, or even my cat now, Rod Stewart, we are reminded that the Creator of all things is bounteous. Ben, Kelly and Rod remind me of the goodness of God and the abundance He has showered upon us. Ben reminds me that there are second chances, new beginnings and that there is a wonderful overflowing positive abundance of life in God’s goodness.

When you and I are faced with the manifestations of the fullness of God’s goodness, whether in the birth of a baby, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, or of our companion animals, we are awed, blown away. There is an imperative in the indicative. We just have to tell someone. We have to share the good news with others. Grandparents show pictures of their grandchildren. Parents are compelled to show pictures of their newborn babies. Newly weds want pictures of their wedding in order to share the joy, the “wow” of the event. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by the abundance, the extravagance of the whole thing. We feel both attracted and frightened, thankful and guilty. (The recovery of Ben from his renal failure was wonderful, but it was also scary.)

I think a similar thing happened long ago. By the lake of Gennesaret Jesus went over to three fishermen who were mending their nets following a fruitless night of fishing. Jesus tells Simon, James and John to put out from the shore so that He can use one of the boats as a platform from which to teach the crowd. After He finished teaching, Jesus tells Simon and the others to put their nets down in the deep water. Simon grumbles that it is a lost cause, but he does it anyway. Whereas earlier there were no catches, now the nets are loaded. How big is the load? The size of the catch threatens to sink both boats. Simon is so overwhelmed by the abundance of fish that he is frightened. Jesus reassures Simon and then tells the three of them “Follow me. I will make you fishers of men.” They bring their catch into shore, leave things and (still smelling of fish) follow Jesus.

In our Bibles this story is often titled “the calling of the disciples.” It could also be called “the abundant life,” for notice the central driving event in the story. It is the huge catch. Half a dozen pickerel just wouldn’t have done it. It is the abundance that overwhelms the fishermen. They are appropriately glad and frightened. When Jesus tells them to follow Him, they feel compelled so to do because they just have to tell others about what God is doing in Jesus. Yes, this is a “miracle story” and can be rationalized if one wants to (the refraction in the water was just right so that Jesus could see the shoal of fish). Whereas an abundant harvest in nature has always pointed to the goodness of God, here the abundant harvest points to the presence of God in Jesus and the abundance that is promised through association with Him. Simon, James and John respond to Jesus’ call to join Him and become “fishers of men,” recruiters and evangelists, because they sense that abundant life is now to be found in association with Jesus. The reaction of Simon, James and John is to want to tell others the “good news,” how terrific the teachings, healings, and powerful presence of Jesus is.

“But what about the pile of dead fish?” someone will ask. On the one hand we can rationalize that it was sold to other fishermen and that the disciples used that capital to finance their travels. On the other hand are there not some of you who have walked away from a seemingly “good thing” because it just wasn’t enough, or because it was SO good that it opened your eyes to new possibilities and new adventures?

The good things of this life, our friends, loved ones, money, talents and time need to be appreciated and shared. Kelly, Ben and Rod remind us how fortunate we are. They enjoy their creaturely comforts and yet look for more. They sit and wait in anticipation of new experiences, new enjoyments, new adventures, and new companionships. To the discerning eye, they remind us of the abundance of God’s great generosity. But if we stay solely at the level of nature and material goodness, we fall prey to consumerism, secularism, sin and the gods of nature. Those are the gods that fail. If we sit like Ben or Kelly or Rod, waiting for something to happen, then our rewards are, in the last analysis, simply “dead fish.”

On the other hand, you and I are assured, just as the three fishermen were, that in following Christ Jesus as our guide and master, we can have an abundant life of adventure, knowing the joy of sharing our possessions and confidence in eternal life with God and the communion of saints, where the abundance of God’s wisdom and compassion is boundless.

Regardless of our station in life, you and I are called by Jesus Christ to get out of our boats and to tell others how good things can be and how good things are when you live a life of walking and talking with God in Jesus Christ. That is truly abundant living.

In a few minutes we will receive the body and blood of Christ. In so doing you and I receive the grace and love of God and become one with Christ as we go out into the world to love and serve Christ in all persons. Through our lives of service, charity, piety, wisdom and compassion you and I make a difference. We make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of others. You and I are not simply sitting here, “missing the boat,” waiting for someone to take us along. In God in Christ you and I have NEW life. What you and I share at the altar is, in the best and widest and deepest sense, a lively and active abundant life with God. - Fr. Gage