When I was in college and seminary, it was quite customary for a fellow student to give me the audio tape of a great sermon (before CD’s were popular, if I must date myself). We aspired to become great preachers ourselves, and we delighted in, and often emulated the excellent preaching of our role models.
This happened once during the summer after my first year of seminary. On the outside things looked great: I was a Harvard graduate, in graduate school, with a great summer job, and driving my first car. The internal life was a different story. I had just experienced a difficult year of growing pains, a tough year in my first ministry position, and the early signs of health challenges to come. I was depleted, confused, and wondering if I was on the right path. I even considered not returning to seminary.
Then, the ordinary happened. A dear friend of mine loaned me her audio tapes from a recent women’s conference. On a Saturday morning, with a bowl of cereal in my hand, I pressed the play button.
The tapes contained many great sermons, one of which was delivered by Rev. Dr. Carolyn Ann Knight. It was titled “Try Again.” Her message was based on the familiar account, from the Gospel of Luke, of Jesus in the fishing boat with Simon Peter. Jesus, after being followed by crowds who want to hear the word of God, gets into the boat belonging to Simon Peter and teaches the crowds from the boat. Then, after Simon Peter’s ordinary night of fishing:
When [Jesus] 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. Yet 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. (Luke 5:4-11)
It has been some time since I heard the sermon, but I remember that Dr. Knight eloquently preached about how life is filled with nights in which we have given all that we can and feel as though we have caught nothing. In the electric style that typifies African American preaching, she exhorted the congregation to “Try again!” She reminded that you can’t catch big fish in shallow water; you have to launch out into the deep. And when you come up short, try again!
I’m pretty sure that a little milk splattered as I tossed aside my cereal bowl and had a Holy Spirit moment in my subleased apartment. Dr. Knight’s words, though homiletically excellent, were much more than that. Spiritually, they were exactly what I needed to hear at that time in my life. I knew from then on what I would do that next year. I would try again.
But her sermon rang true not just that year. Seventeen years later, I still remember her words. I remembered them when a project did not work out. Try again. I recalled them as I adjusted to life with a chronic illness. Try again. I repeat those words in physical therapy. Try again. I remind myself of those words as I submit my poetry for publication. Try again.
Currently, I am launching out into the deep. I am researching and writing a book about my grandfather, Bishop Joseph A. Johnson, Jr., the first African American to graduate from Vanderbilt University. At times I am overwhelmed by the project. But most of the time I am excited. I believe in going after the big fish. I believe in both the challenges and the blessings of launching into deep water. Moreover, I believe that God is with me in the boat. And when I encounter obstacles along the way, I am prepared to try again.