Before I start today’s sermon, I want to share something with you that has bugged me for years, literally years. Do you know the writer, scholar Joseph Campbell? He wrote a lot of really phenomenal books about mythology. His best known book is the Power of Myth. In the 1980’s, he was interviewed by the journalist and TV Commentator Bill Moyers over many hours and that interview appeared on TV. It was so popular it became a best selling video series also called the Power of Myth.
What are myths? Well, according to Joseph Campbell, myths are stories that are based on tradition. Some may have factual origins, but others are fictional. Myths are more than mere stories and they serve a more profound purpose in ancient and also in modern cultures. Myths are sacred tales. They explain the world and human experience. Myths answer timeless questions and serve as a compass to each generation.
Our Bible is chock full of myths, right, at least the way Joseph Campbell defines them. However, Joseph Campbell said many times that the world, and particularly our North American Christian culture, is in need of a NEW mythology. His thinking is that the mythologies in our Bible have not stood up well over these last centuries. Our biblical myths do not adequately explain today’s world. They don’t answer the questions that our current generations are asking.
That part about needing a new mythology is what bugs me. I love our Biblical witness and it speaks just fine to me. But maybe I am the exception rather than the rule. What do you think? Do we need a new mythology? Are we wasting our time studying scripture? Now don’t answer that question yet. I want you to mentally write on a sticky note right now, “Do we need a new mythology.” Mentally stick that note, in a corner of your brain. We’ll get back to it after we have discussed the scripture reading for today.
Ok. On to the sermon.
Exactly thirty years ago in February of 1986, there was a severe drought in the Middle East. By treaty arrangement, Israel agreed to supply fresh water to Jordan, which had been especially hard hit by that drought. Israel did that by pumping water into Jordan from the Sea of Galilee. The sea of Galilee is a freshwater lake. This lake is also known as the Sea or Lake of of Gennesaret.
Because of the drought and the fact that water from the Sea of Galilee or Gennesaret was being pumped into Jordan, in early 1986 that sea or lake was at its absolutely lowest ebb.
Knowing that the Sea was at such a low ebb, two very enterprising and curious Israeli brothers, got it into their heads to walk the lake’s growing perimeter. They were hoping to discover something of historical and archeological interest. They studied the mud of the lake bed, crouching down to get a better look at the dirt and mud. Could that be a clay jar? Look, is that sharp looking rock an arrow head? After a long while one of the brothers exclaimed, “Heneh!” which is Hebrew for Behold! He had spied a wood timber sticking out the mud. Upon closer inspection, the brothers decided that timber was part of a wooden skeleton of what looked to be a very old boat. Cool, huh?
Right away, the two brothers contacted an archeologist living nearby. They asked him to come out to the lake bed and have a look-see. That archeologist, an American as it turns out, was on study leave from Texas A and M University. His name is Shelley Wachsmann. Mr. Wachsmann says that he drove out to the site, but before he could get a good look at the boat’s disintegrating frame, it started to rain. It was a heavy downpour. He and the two brothers huddled in his car waiting for the rain to subside. When they finally stepped out of the car into the now extremely muddy Genneraset lake bed, they were welcomed by a stunning double rainbow. All three men, the two Israelis and Mr. Washsmann, took the double rainbow as a sign from God. And, maybe it was. The rainbow after the great flood that is recorded in Genesis was a sign of God’s promise of restoration. This particular rainbow marked the beginning of a ten-year restoration—that is, a project to dig out, preserve and restore the remains of a fishing boat. You can read plenty about that restoration project on-line. [Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1chZL3Ll-Lw]
Here, I will just say, that through carbon dating and the dating of a pot which was buried in the mud with the boat, scientists determined that the fishing boat was sea- worthy sometime between 40 BCE and 40 CE, so around the time that Jesus walked the earth and sailed with his fisherman friends on the Sea of Genneraset.
Not surprisingly, that boat’s discovery was highly publicized. It made the front page of the Israel paper, Ha Eretz. Journalists referred to the find as the “Jesus Boat,” although no one knows if Jesus ever in fact stood in that boat—still, everyone agrees—it IS possible. Today the Jesus Boat is the main attraction at the Yigal Allon Museum in Kibbutz Ginosar. It’s not too very far from the Sea of Genneraset. The museum was actually built around the boat.
Peter, James and John in our story for today were fishermen, of course, and they would have fished in a boat probably very much like the Jesus boat if their boat was not, in fact THE Jesus Boat.
Our story for today indicates that Peter, James, and John had gone fishing in two boats, which is often the way fishermen fished back then—two boats, with one long net between them to ensnare and then scoop up the fish. They had gone fishing at night. Fishermen in Jesus’ day often fished at night. Fish rose to the surface then—after the water had cooled after a hot day. The fishermen used torches to peer into the water and look for schools of fish. Unfortunately for them, though, on the night before our story takes place, Peter, James and John and the rest had not caught any fish at all. And so that morning, after a night of no-fish, they had docked their two boats. and were in the process of washing off their nets, storing them in their boats, and then going home to get some sleep.
But Jesus appears, and commandeers Peter’s boat for preaching. He stands in the boat, and preaches to a crowd standing on the shore. When he is done, he tells Peter and the other fishermen to (quote) “Let down your nets.” And surprise, surprise! They catch so many fish they are afraid their nets will break!
What kind of fish did they catch? They caught tilapia. In Jesus’ day, three different kinds of fresh water tilapia swam in the sea of Gennaseret. I don’t have a clue what those fish were called in Jesus day, and I can’t begin to pronounce their scientific names, but today the popular names for those fish are St. Peter’s fish; Magdalaine’s fish; and Sacred fish.
Jesus’ action, the multiplication of the fish, was what we might call a sign action. According to my study Bible the “unexpected catch” is an indication of Jesus’ more-than-human power. Peter responds to that action by personal self-judgment. Peter gets down on his knees and says to Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” He knows he is in the presence of a man from God.
That’s the Biblical story, but I want us to consider a little more those fish. Of the three fish I just mentioned, St. Peter’s, Magdalaine’s and the Sacred fish, the only one that is not extinct is St. Peter’s fish, and it is only a matter of time, before St. Peter’s fish follows suit. First it was the drought and the subsequent pumping of water from the Sea of Genneraset into Jordan--the same drought and pumping of water that led to the discovery of the Jesus boat--that depleted the number of fish. That was followed by overfishing which led to the extinction.
Someday soon, the Sea of Galilee may have no fish population at all, and then fishing boats on the Sea will become extinct, too. According to one academic source, “We have already killed off 90 percent of the big fish that were in the world’s oceans just sixty years ago….and fisheries all over the world are in a state of collapse. …Almost a third, 29 percent of all species [of fish] that humans consume are at or beyond the point of collapse and all others are moving in that direction—extrapolating the data into the future, we will see 100% collapse in 2048. 100% collapse of the fish population in YOUR LIFETIMES (pointing to youth) and in our children’s and grandchildren’s lifetimes (pointing to older people in our congregation). Isn’t that remarkable? Isn’t that tragic? REMARKABLY TRAGIC.
The original story as it is relayed in the Bible is supposed to humble us—We are weak and Jesus is strong, right? Jesus has special powers, indeed, Jesus is God! But in light of our new information about the fishing industry and fish in Lake Genneraset that is not necessarily the modern day take-away from this story. Better to say, maybe, that Jesus is strong, yes; but, over 2,000 years and collectively, human beings have proved stronger than Jesus—we are on the way to killing off for good the same fish Jesus was able to multiply; and we are able to destroy an entire human culture, a human culture based on the fishing industry. In your lifetime (point to youth) and to —your grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren (point to older people) this story may become at best quaint, and at worst, a testament to humanity’s great power—humanity’s great perverse, MALEVOLENT power.
Ok. Do you still have that sticky note? Because now I want us to return to Joseph Campbell and the power of myth. Is Joseph Campbell right? Does it make sense to retain a myth, say, about fishing boats and fish on the Sea of Gennersaset when both may soon no longer exist? In light of today’s circumstances, is the message of Jesus’ power in that myth greatly overstated?
Then again, maybe the story of the multiplication of fish, can serve as a cautionary tale for us in the 21st century— “Once upon a time there was a lot of fish in the Sea of Genneraset. There were tilapia of many different varieties. People in the region enjoyed a profitable fishing industry. The fish, the fishing industry were blessings from God. Since they are blessings, we are called to cherish them, protect them.”
That is a new way to read and understand the myth of the multiplication of fish. Let us work together to restore God’s blessings on the Sea of Genneraset and the world over. The challenge is before us. Restoration. Shall we start looking for another rainbow? Amen