Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 10, 2019
Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 6:1-8
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
Gospel Lesson: Luke 5:1-11
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 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. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who are partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
I am standing here today because of a dream.
Chris and I had been going through a rough patch—in the course of a thirty-year marriage they are inevitable—and we sought help from a therapist. When we stopped going together, I realized that I—as an individual—was not ready to stop, so I asked for another appointment. Afterwards, I had this dream:
I’m sitting at a table playing cards. I see this dream like a movie playing in front of me, as though I’m watching it and not in it. I see myself from the back and my dreaming self is looking over the shoulder of my card-playing self. My partners are the therapist and another man who had been my shepherd when I withdrew from the ordination process fifteen years earlier. Everyone is laughing because we have no idea what game we are playing or what the rules are. Nevertheless, we seem to know enough to keep the game going because we keep dealing hands, laying down cards, responding to the cards that are played, and then taking them up, shuffling, and dealing again. I am losing and it is hilarious because I don’t even know how I am losing. Eventually, after many hands of cards, I begin to understand the game. The surer I become of what the game is the better I become at it and the more hands I begin to win. All through the dream we are laughing. Then, my card-playing self turns and looks at my sleeping self and says, “Write down this dream when you wake up.”
When I went back to the therapist for my next appointment, I told him that I wanted to give him access to an online journal that I had begun write. I told him that I wanted to write about my days, my dreams, my memories, my fears, my aspirations and that I wanted him to read it and I wanted a conversation partner. Then, I said to him, “I don’t have a clue what I’m doing.” He just looked at me and smiled and said, “Good!”
Looking back on that day in the light of the past three years and in the light of today’s gospel lesson, I see what was going on: I was standing in my boat about to cast my net off the deep end with no expectations and no idea what, if anything, I would haul up.
Peter did have a clue—or at least he thought he did—what he would haul up when Jesus asked him to row out to the deepest part of the lake and cast his net. He thought Jesus was asking him to do the same thing he had done hundreds of times that night. But Peter was wrong. Jesus wasn’t asking him to throw his nets for a miraculous catch of fish or even of people. Jesus was asking him to go to the deepest part of the lake, where he could not see the bottom nearly 150 feet down, and take his chances there. Jesus was asking him to dive headlong into mystery.
And as it turns out, Peter was ill-equipped and ill-prepared: his nets were not strong enough, he had not taken a large enough crew and had to signal to his partners for help, and even with two boats, they nearly sank before they hauled their catch to shore. Maybe this is why Peter felt frightened and inadequate afterwards: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Fear and inadequacy are common responses to God’s call: Moses couldn’t speak, Elijah suffered burnout, Jeremiah was too young, Isaiah had unclean lips, Peter was a sinful man.
Why is it that so often call and mystery go hand in hand? Moses was called to go back to Egypt where he was a wanted man. He had no idea who would be waiting for him there, whether he would be called to account for his past, or whether anyone there would recognize him. Abraham was called to go to a land that God would show him. He was not given a destination or a map or even a general direction to head in. So often when God calls us it is not just a call to some task, but a call to place our trust in God, to head out to deep waters and do what seems impossible to us and what we feel ill-equipped to do.
Years ago, I served on the presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry as clerk. I loved that job! I prepared the minutes after each meeting, I helped plan each year’s annual consultation with our inquirers and candidates, I rewrote the committee’s manual of operations. It was right in line with my skills and passions as a technical writer. One day we elected a nominating committee to propose a slate of officers for the next year. As we all left that meeting, the nominating committee stayed behind. I fully expected to be nominated again to serve as clerk, so I was not at all surprised when my phone rang that evening and it was Dick Rice from the nominating committee. “Susan,” he said, “the nominating committee wants to nominate you to be moderator of the CPM next year.”
“But . . . but . . . I’m clerk. Y’all want to nominate me as clerk. That’s what I’ve always done!” “Yes, but we’d like you to be moderator next year.” “But, I’ve never moderated a committee before! I don’t know how!” “You’ve served on this committee for five years. You’ve recorded the minutes. You rewrote the manual. You have a wealth of experience and we’d like you to serve as moderator next year.” “But I’m not qualified. There are so many people on the committee who are more qualified No one on the committee will agree to it.”
At the next meeting when it came time to elect officers, I told the committee, “If y’all elect me as moderator, I will serve with all the energy, intelligence, imagination, and love that I can muster. But y’all are making a HUGE mistake.”
“Duly noted,” said the outgoing moderator. And then they proceeded to elect me anyway.
It was the most fun I had ever had in a ministry position before. It turns out I loved moderating that committee, and I learned so much by casting my net off the deep end! And one of the things I learned was that Jesus doesn’t expect us to know exactly what we are doing. Jesus doesn’t expect us to be perfectly equipped for our call. Jesus doesn’t even expect us to do it alone. What Jesus expects is for us to embrace the mystery. To cast our nets with the hope and expectation that the nets will hold well enough, that we can call on the help of partners, and that the boat—small as it is—will make it to the shore.
Have you ever done that before? Have you ever cast a net into mystery? I think most of us have, only we don’t always think of it in the same light. How about when we’ve stood at the altar hand-in-hand with someone who might be our oldest friend or might be someone we’ve known only a short time? Marriage is just the thing we do when we grow up. We choose a mate and pledge to live happily ever after. That’s one way to think of it. But it is also the ultimate headlong leap into mystery. Who will this person that I stand at the altar with at 23 be when we’re 33, 53, 73, 93? And how many changes will we go through between 23 and 93? And how will we respond to those changes? No 23-year-old has a clue what he or she is getting into when we stand on the brink of that deep lake called marriage and jump in together.
Or how about when we bring a new life into the world? I’m always amused when I hear young folk talk about whether they are ready to have a child. All the questions and calculations! Is it the right time in my career? Can we afford it? Should we buy a house first and is this house big enough? Can we put this child through college? Is our relationship strong enough? Are we allowing enough space between this child and the last one? Of course the answer to all of those questions is “No.” No amount of planning and calculating can prepare you for the mystery of watching a brand new person unfold over the course of a lifetime. Whether the lake you stand at the brink of is called marriage or parenthood or ministry, you just have to stand there and jump in with the hope and expectation that the nets will hold, partners will come help, and our boats will make it to shore.
So back to that dream and my subconscious telling me to write it down and lay it all out on the table with my therapist. Over the course of the next couple of years I hauled lots of things out of that deep lake, including the possibility of reclaiming a vocation that I had long since given up on because I thought I wasn’t good enough. I am too blunt, too outspoken, too impatient, too stubborn, too inclined to resist peoples’ expectations, and have too much of a past.
A couple of months ago, when we had the first of a series of workshops on evangelism, Barbara spoke her mind. I’m sure I don’t remember her words exactly, but they went something like this: “I’ve been at this church for 40 years. I’ve seen lots of pastors come and go. We’ve made lots of plans for growth, but we never quite seem to follow through on them. How is this program different?”
I had to be honest with Barbara and I have to be honest with you: I don’t have a program. There is no surefire program for community outreach and evangelism. What I have is the willingness to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. The openness to be vulnerable with you and encourage you to be vulnerable with each other. The trust that you are here because God has transformed your lives in some way that is worth sharing with other people. And the faith that God is not done transforming lives in this community.
I don’t have a program. All I have is the hope and expectation that if we cast our nets into the deep lake that is the mystery of life together in Christ, God will make sure that the nets hold well enough, that there will be partners for us to call on when we need help, and that our little boat called Butner Presbyterian Church will make it to shore.
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are God’s judgments and how inscrutable God’s ways! For from God and through God and to God are all things. To God be glory forever. Amen.