(a sermon for February 10, 2019, the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, based on Luke 5:1-11)
I think it’s safe to say that for most of us, daily life moves in a certain pattern and rhythm; and that pattern and rhythm exists largely for the purpose of doing what needs to be done! It’s true, no matter where we happen to be in life (!); from the time our feet hit the floor in the morning, whether the main goal is to get ourselves ready for work, or to get the kids to school on time, or to maneuver through whatever “to do” list stands before us, I think you’ll agree that most of the time our attention and effort is focused on simply taking care of the business of day to day existence!
Every once in a while, however, in the midst of all that routine something happens that makes us profoundly aware of another dimension of our lives; something that reminds us in glorious fashion that there’s more to life than what consumes us in the here and now. It might be that moment when you’re holding your child (or your grandchild!) in your arms for the first time, and you’re struck with the utter miracle of human life; or maybe it’s what comes in the midst of a particular triumph or tragedy, when all at once you suddenly grasp, if only for a moment, just how precious and fragile a thing life really is. Or it might be something as simple as gazing into a brilliantly starlit sky on a cold clear winter’s night, pondering the vastness of the universe; and you get this feeling that reaches so far down to the depth of your soul that the only possible response is one of awe, because there’s this palpable awareness of a living God right there with you!
My point is that there are for each of us unexpected experiences in our lives in which the extraordinary enters into the ordinary and the divine is revealed. And it is in such singular moments that we delve deeper into what life can be and is supposed to be; and while such times might well be clear and confusing, invigorating and exhausting, empowering and terrifying all at the same time (!), these are the events that somehow challenge us to move beyond simply living the shallow, day to day process of life; so to live our lives more fully and, dare I say it, with purpose. Because these are the things that take us deeper: deeper into life and yes, deeper into faith… because, really, what are we talking about here if not something akin to a call from God?
There’s actually great precedence for what I’m saying here; holy scripture is in fact, full of stories of men, women and even children (!) who are going about the everyday business of living, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, get the experience of God that calls them to something more. From Abraham to Miriam to Moses to Isaiah to Jeremiah and beyond: the history and tradition of our faith is filled with moment after moment in which ordinary people, by the graceful intrusion of God, are suddenly given a glimpse of the true depth of human existence that comes from faithful living; and who, as a result of that experience, bravely move out of the regular pattern and rhythm of life in order to go where God would have them go!
And then there’s Simon Peter, whose response to that experience, initially at least, was pretty much the opposite! You know, I’ve always felt that I can relate to Peter more than almost any other character in the Biblical story, because as you read the gospels, you find that where faith is concerned Peter represents equal measures of bold and enthusiastic bravado, on the one hand, and a spineless lack of commitment on the other; in other words, he’s a whole lot like me and, I’m guessing, maybe you, too! But, if that’s the case, we can all take comfort in knowing that whatever else one can say about Peter, he always leads from the heart; and ultimately, if eventually, it’s a heart of faith!
This comes through very clearly in our text for this morning, in which Peter, a fisherman by trade, is sitting cleaning and mending his fishing nets, getting ready to put out to sea for the next night’s work; which is basically the same thing he’s done just about every single day of his life. It’s just another day on the job; except that on this particular day Jesus, who was there on the shore teaching a crowd of people “pushing in on him to better hear the Word of God,” [The Message], asks Peter to take him out on the water in his boat, where he can better speak to the group as a whole.
That in and of itself was an out-of-the-ordinary event for Peter and the other fishermen with him, James and his brother John; but then, once he’s finished speaking to the crowd Jesus turns to Peter and says, “’Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’” Now, understand that although Peter, James and John were probably capable as fishermen they really weren’t all that successful at it; the likely truth is that the three of them were barely able to eke out a living by fishing, and they’d probably tried just about everything they could think of to increase their catch, without any success. They’d “been there, done that,” so to speak, so you can understand Peter’s skepticism and even a bit of annoyance in his voice when he answers Jesus by saying, “’Master, we have worked hard all night long but have caught nothing.” (“…haven’t caught a minnow,” is how The Message puts it!) “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’”
Of course, you know what happens next: Peter does indeed put down his nets into the deeper water, and ends up pulling in so many fish that the nets split from the weight of them. Likewise, James and John come to help, but so great is the catch of fish that both boats begin to sink! It was the kind of day that most fishermen, professional or otherwise, only dream of; but understand, there was much more to it than that. For you see, in this incredible moment of abundance out there on the lake a brand new dimension of life was revealed to those three fishermen; in an instant, every old assumption and expectation they’d ever had about life and living was suddenly and irreversibly swept away by the sheer magnitude and power of God’s presence in their midst.
But how does Peter respond to this? Not with breathless excitement or joyful awe, not even a word of gratitude for the great catch of fish! No, what Peter brings to this incredible, God-imbued, life shifting moment is… complete and utter fear (!), combined with an overwhelming sense of unworthiness that literally drives him to his knees. “’Go away from me, Lord,” he says, for “I am a sinful man.’”
Now, we’re not told exactly why Peter reacts this strongly, but we can guess; as we’ve said, Peter’s a lot like you and me, and Peter reacted the way we might react! After all, it’s not every day that you encounter God, and now, to see God’s power and grace embodied in this man Jesus… well, not only does that reveal something about the nature of the Almighty, it also has a way of revealing everything about you! William Willimon describes this well: he writes, “God’s holiness is the mirror through which our pretentious goodness is seen for what it really is.” There, in this mirror, “you see reflected every moment of your life, every secret thought, all the good little things you have done for bad little reasons, the way you live every second for you and you and you alone… who could stand to stare into that mirror for long?” And who could experience that without being changed?
Well, certainly not Peter, and now suddenly, with James and John along with him, he’s out into the deeper water of life and faith in more ways than one, and it’s an experience both awesome and terrifying. But it turns out that this is also an experience that brings both an assurance and an invitation: do not be afraid, Jesus says to them in the midst of their fear and uncertainties; because “from now on you will be catching people.” And, of course, as we know, “when they brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”
Now, did they know where they were going? Not at all. Did they feel up to the challenges that potentially awaited them? Hardly! Were they suddenly “over” the fear they’d just experienced, or the unworthiness they felt about it all? Not a chance! But somehow they just knew they couldn’t stand on the shoreline or cling to the shallow waters any longer; because now they’d seen what can happen beyond the familiar waters of their lives, and now there was this challenge… this calling, if you will, to go out and cast their nets deeper than ever before… and so they just had to leave everything behind and follow Jesus.
And how it was for Peter that day on the lakeshore… that’s how it’s meant to be for you and me as well.
It’s still how God works: in the midst of all our everyday dealings and the varied episodes of stress and strife, we’re being called cast our nets deeper than we’ve ever done before. Now, you and I, if we’re being honest about it, do tend to focus our attention on the shallow waters of life. Like I said before, we’re people who live our lives with a certain pattern and rhythm: we do our best to get by, we try to make ends meet, we approach the future with a cautious and conservative spirit, and we value maintaining the status quo; and we do all this because, frankly, it’s terrifying to do anything different!
But now here’s Jesus, bursting onto the shallow waters of our lives and saying to us, why not go deeper and cast your nets there? Don’t you know, he says, haven’t you figured it out yet, that you are more than simply flesh and blood; that you are more than your job, or your salary, or your daily responsibilities; that you amount to more than a random collection of biographical facts and figures? You are mine, says Jesus. You are my beloved child!. And if you’ll only dare to set aside your doubt and fear and cast your nets deeper, I will help you harvest so much more from your life and your living than you ever thought possible.
Even now, you see, Jesus is calling us to the deeper water! And of course, as it was for Peter before us, that’s a scary proposition for people like us. I’m reminded of a cartoon from the New Yorker from some years back: a man is talking with a friend about his life, and the caption reads, “This morning opportunity knocked at my door, but by the time I pushed back the bolt, turned the two locks, unlatched the chain and shut the alarm system it was gone!” Frederick Beuchner puts it another way: he says that most of us would like to say we follow Jesus “joyously and proudly with a spring in our step and banners flying, and sometimes by God’s grace this is so. But more often than not, we go dragging our feet, wishing we’d never heard the voice that now we can never entirely stop hearing, and knowing that it is never ours that is the power and the glory, but always his.” But for those who would follow Jesus and would risk casting the nets of their lives deeper, there awaits a harvest previously unheard of: a new way of life, a new way of thinking, a new way of being that invests itself into everything in life.
I know it scares us, beloved, as persons and as a people of faith, and sometime even as a church; this thought of breaking with “the way we’ve always done it” in favor of going deeper with our Lord Jesus, following him to places where we’ve never gone before. It’s tempting to succumb to this notion that we’d just be better off staying closer to shore where it’s safe and quiet; but I ask you, how would it be if from this moment on if every voice and thought and opportunity before us came with a profound awareness of God’s might and creative power around us and within us? How would it be if our motivation for each day’s routine of life was based upon the Lord’s leading and not our own? How would it be if everything routine in our lives becomes brand new because we’ve become brand new; renewed and transformed into fishers of people, bringing the power and glory of our faith in God to family and friends and brothers and sisters we don’t even know yet?
It’s amazing what can happen… your life can change… the world can change! But it all begins by you and I answering this call to put aside our doubts and fears and be willing to cast our nets deeper. Even now, you see, Jesus is there, prodding us on to the wonder that is a life of faith; do not be afraid, he’s saying, because, you know what, the fishing’s gonna be good out there in the deeper water; just wait and see.
I pray we have the grace to follow.
And as we do, may our thanks be to the God who calls us now to the overflowing abundance of his grace.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry