Sermon Marlborough College Chapel, 10th February 2019, 8.30am
Fourth Sunday before Lent: Luke 5.1-11
I guess we all know that moment: when we have tried, and tried and tried, and we have reached the point we know we cannot do it. Whether it’s the further maths problem: a proposition impossible to prove, or the perfect short corner in hockey: something that looks so straightforward when you see someone else doing it. We have tried, not once, not twice, but many times, and we’re ready to admit: we just can’t do it.
What’s your first reaction when someone then says “Try it again, just once more.”? I suspect that you also, just like me, are tempted to say something better not repeated in Chapel. “It’s not for a lack of trying, isn’t it? There are times when things don’t work, and we need to give up,” is what we’d like to say.
That is precisely, I think, how the fishermen in the boat in our reading this morning are feeling. Frustrated, tired, and ready to give up. So when Peter says to Jesus “We have worked all night, but have caught nothing. Yet, if you say so, I will let down the nets”, we can almost hear him saying: “Yes, whatever” in a similar way we ourselves would do, or indeed have done. But then, a miracle happens: when Peter and his companions let down the nets once more, they catch so many fish that they can’t even pull them back into the boat themselves. Their success, so to say, is beyond imagining.
This may be the point where you say: sure, that’s where the story becomes a fairy tale, something that never happens, nor will happen in real life. So, before you switch off, let’s go back from the story to life today: to those moments when we ourselves were in such a situation.
We may well have given up, and moved our attention to the next task on the list. No more prep time to think about further maths, so let’s wait until the next lesson. Or the end of the hockey session. It’ll be better next time: life carries on. That is what happens most of the time, that’s normal life, and you forget about it. However, I suspect there may have been, or hopefully will be moments, that are different. Moments that you won’t forget, because something else happened.
Whether it’s prompted by someone else, or because you are that person who never gives up, against all odds, you give it one more go. Go on then: one more hit at that ball, one more look at that impossible equation. And suddenly, you hear the ball hitting the metal of the goal; you see the solution to the problem staring you in the face.
You may call it a miracle, you may call it pure chance, but the feeling that comes with it is good. You have done something you thought wasn’t possible a moment ago: you have transcended yourself, even if it’s just for a moment. And those moments you don’t easily forget: they are the stories you remember.
It is also those moments, that make you persevere the next time you’re in a similar situation. You may not succeed again, but you know that trying once more can make all the difference, and sometimes indeed does.
It is one of the things I learnt particularly during my physics degree. Endless days – and nights – in the lab, trying to make an experiment work. When the lasers were working, the magnet was broken. When they both were working, we had run out of liquid helium to keep the experiment at its lowest temperature.
When after long hours all the equipment was working and set up right, we just couldn’t find the part of the structure we were looking for and we realised we had to start all over again, because the lens through which we were looking was frozen. But then, eventually, there came the night that we saw the hoped-for signal appearing on our screen. It was 4am, and we were at the point of packing in all in, until someone said: let’s try once more, just once more. So we did, and the very signal on the screen, the very graph we produced, resulted in a paper that has now been cited over ninety times.
More importantly for me personally though, those moments keep me going when I am about to give up. I remember the voice of someone saying: just one more time. And that is what the story we heard this morning is all about: the belief that there is someone in our lives telling us to try, to try one more time. As Christians we believe that it is the same voice that beckons us to become who we are, and to do what we are meant to be doing, which can be very different from what we expected.
For me, those moments in the lab, surrounded by noisy vacuum pumps and the glow of scattered laser light, particularly those moments late at night, early morning, literally, the darkest time of night, the moment just before sunrise, have made me who I am. I would say, they have even brought me to where I am now.
Whether you believe in a call from God, or not, I think that there is something fundamentally important about being open to those transforming moments in our lives. Those moments, after which nothing will ever be the same, whether you realise it or not.
The Collect for the Fourth Sunday before Lent:
you know us to be set
in the midst of so many and great dangers,
that by reason of the frailty of our nature
we cannot always stand upright:
grant to us such strength and protection
as may support us in all dangers
and carry us through all temptations;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.