Thursday, March 18, 2010

Putting Out and Letting Go

Scripture appointed for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany include Isaiah 6:1-8; I Corinthians 15:1-11; and Luke 5:1-11

Last Sunday, Jesus escaped an angry crowd in his hometown, Nazareth. They were furious at him because he told them stories they didn’t want to hear, stories in which God gives away his love to foreigners. Incensed, the hometown crowd rushed at him to send him headlong over a cliff, but he somehow slipped through the loopholes of their inefficient rage and went on his way.

And his way would bring him next to Capernaum, a city in Galilee where he performed a number of healings including bringing an old woman through a high fever. The more people he helped, the more people were brought to him, until he had to slip away from the dense pressure of so many needy people.

Then his way brings him today to the lake of Gennesaret, where again a crowd presses in on him, to hear him express the word of God. You will understand why his eyes travel to those two boats offshore. Jesus wants a Plan B.

And the more he considers those boats, the more swiftly they become his first choice for a pulpit. A portable pulpit, one that leaves him free to achieve that critical distance which preaching and teaching, and listening and learning, require. And then he’ll be free to move on. His earlier experience in Nazareth has taught him a thing or two.

It’s Simon’s boat he chooses to get into. Back in Capernaum just days ago, it was Simon’s mother-in-law whom Jesus had visited and brought through that deadly fever. So Simon and Jesus already have a history of grace, though Simon is still new to this generous love that is about to be shown.

Jesus has Simon put out a little way from shore. Jesus must have had a big voice, to teach them from that boat. I don’t imagine they hear him, though, when he turns to Simon and turns his life upside down.

“Put out…” (there’s that phrase again) “into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Sure, Jesus could have spoken loudly enough that the people on shore would hear his words to Simon… but I can’t picture that. That would have been like staging an act, like treating Simon as if he were more a prop than a person. No, I think he spoke quietly and directly to Simon, in a way that Simon would trust—because trust is just what it takes to outweigh logic in this instance. What he has seen at Jesus’s hands already leads him to trust the teacher—but it’s hard, letting go of what logic teaches him.

All night long, Simon and his crewmates have thrown their nets and caught nothing. As Simon is about to tell Jesus, none of them is in any rush to let down their nets any time soon because their own recent experience has taught them that the fish aren’t there.

Anticipating that someone here this morning might wonder about the practice of fishing at night, I consulted my closest commentary and found… nothing on the subject of nighttime fishing. When in doubt, google. And there I learned that here in the U.S., especially in summer, night is the time to fish if you’re after bass, catfish, or carp. And what the Bible commentator did tell me is that two of the three most common fish in the Sea of Galilee are, yes, catfish and carp. Like human beings, catfish and carp would just as soon escape the heat of the day, when they sink down to the deep places, rising at night to do their own feeding, up near the surface. So it’s with a certain authority that Simon could say to Jesus, “Master, if the fish weren’t rising last night, they won’t be rising today.”

I imagine Luke the story-teller relishing this moment. Simon thinks he’s an authority on the topic at hand, but he is clueless as to how much more Jesus knows about things of first importance. Simon deals in fish, but Jesus deals in resurrection. Simon knows how fish rise; Jesus knows how people rise.

And if nighttime represents the realm of human weakness up against the limitations imposed by darkness, if night ultimately symbolizes death, right down to the little dyings we do as each night we surrender consciousness and sink into sleep, then can’t you hear Luke the Gospel-teller setting the stage for Jesus, the light of the world, in full daylight launching the kingdom of God by speaking the Word that can be answered only by trust, not by logic: “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

With these words, Jesus turns Simon’s world upside down. Soon, he’ll even be known by a different name, Cephas, the Rock, or Peter as the name is translated. This is the story of his being called to discipleship by Jesus. And the setting isn’t a temple, as in Isaiah this morning when the calling of the prophet happens in an ethereal venue complete with seraphs flying and God sitting upon a throne. Our setting in Luke is a fishing trip, and the divine one is seated on the plank of a small boat bobbing on the Lake of Gennesaret.

One similarity between the divine call of Isaiah to be a prophet and the calling of Simon Peter appears to be God’s penchant for needing and calling not the most capable, or the most qualified, or the most promising candidates. Nothing about young Isaiah or about Simon the fisherman merited or deserved the singling-out that came to each man. We can hear this in their common response of anguished amazement, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips…” “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

The Bible’s stories of God calling people to discipleship and leadership demonstrate that the call is to grow and share an interior life, both learning and leading spiritual life. And whether it’s in your household, your career, or your parish, equally, the principles shown by these call stories from Isaiah and Luke are these: Those whom God calls, God equips. And those whom God calls may resist and sputter, and by grace get over it.

Neither of these men thought that he’d won the Lottery. Each knew instinctively that he had been called to a life of service, complete with obstacles, risks… and grace, as each in time would understand and come to utterly rely upon.

But right now for Simon Peter, the Rock is sinking. His own boat is filled to the gunwhales, and so is the boat belonging to James and John, sons of Zebedee. None of them had ever seen the likes of this, and they were beginning not to like the looks of this, as their boats road lower and lower in the water. It is possible to have too much of a good thing.

In terms of the story-telling here, Luke is probably familiar with the metaphor of fishing, common in Greek literature for the activity of philosopher-teachers, where a good catch might be a point well made and readily taken.

In time, Simon Peter might have agreed. What becomes of all those fish we aren’t told. But what becomes of Peter the fisherman we know: his life is turned upside down. In one of my favorite hymns, it’s suggested that these were such “happy simple fisherfolk, before the Lord came down. Contented, peaceful fishermen, before they ever knew the peace of God that filled their hearts brimful, and broke them too.” It’s then that the hymn says, “Young John who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless, in Patmos died. Peter, who hauled the teeming net, headdown was crucified. … The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod. Yet let us pray for but one thing—the marvelous peace of God.”

What upends their lives isn’t the catch of fish, isn’t the momentum of the crowds, isn’t even the number of healings they witness and take part in. It is God who turns their lives around by calling them to claim the liberty of that abundant life which they see and feel and receive in Jesus. Through Jesus, God makes them free to serve, free to rise.

He weighs down their boats with fish to catch their attention, convincing them that they will never lack what they need with which to serve. For just a few moments, did it it nearly kill them, discovering that they have to let go of the catch of fish to become free enough to catch people?

Their suddenly gaining the material prosperity of all those fish almost puts them out of their boats, could put out their lives.

Their suddenly losing the material prosperity of all those fish puts them out a lot of money—but this they put out of mind as they recognize what is of first importance.

What happens to Simon and his fishing buddies today frees them to put first things first. In all our gainings of prosperity, in all our losings of prosperity, may we lay claim to the liberty of that abundant life which we see and know in Jesus, who has come not to be served, but to serve.