Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Epiphany, 2010

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Epiphany, 2010
Preached at St John United Lutheran Church, Seattle

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 were 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.

-Luke 5:1-11

Of all the boats, in all the beaches, in all the world, he stepped into mine.

We were living in Capernaum at the time, James and John and I, Simon Peter, fishermen in a fishing village on the shores of Lake Galilee.

We had had a rough night.

From dusk until dawn we were on the water, letting the nets down, hauling them in, letting them down, hauling them in, again and again and again. On this night it was all in vain. What we brought in was as good as nothing. By the time the sun cast its first rays over the water, we were spent and had little to show for it. We laid out our nets on the shore, and prepared to scrub them down before the heat of the day set in.

I must have lost myself in the scrubbing, because I didn’t notice all the commotion until there was already a crowd gathered. They seemed to be jostling for position, pushing and shoving to get closer to this spot on the beach where something was happening. I shielded my eyes from the sun, but I couldn’t see what it was.

Someone squeezed his way out of the crowd, and the crowd seemed to follow him. He hurried over to where our boats lay on the shore. He stepped inside of my boat, and turned to look at me.

It was only then that I saw who it was. It was him, the itinerant preacher they called Jesus.

I knew him better than most. He had been in my house, after all. He had eaten at my table. He had healed my mother-in-law! But I never thought I’d see him again. Until now.

“Simon!” he called, in a friendly voice. “Will you put out a little ways?” The crowd was already moving to surround him again, and more people were coming down to the lakeshore every minute. Word traveled fast.

I got in. James and John grabbed the nets, and then they hopped in, too, and we left the shore. The boat scraped the sand until there was no more sand to scrape, and then it was free and floating, rocking back and forth as the waters splashed up against its sides. Jesus steadied himself and sat down. “This is far enough,” he said to us. And then he raised his voice, and spoke to the crowds. It was as if the whole world was his synagogue, and the pulpit was my little boat, as it rocked between the waves.

The Sermon on the Lake is forgotten to history, but if he didn’t preach about the Call of Isaiah he must have been preaching the same message, because the Call of Isaiah is all I can think about when I remember that day. “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord…”

I saw the Lord, alright, I know that now. He was not sitting on a throne, high and lofty. He was sitting in my boat, small and rickety.

But the seraphs were right: The whole earth was full of his glory, charged with the grandeur of God. Holy, holy, holy, everything was holy, the sand and sky and trees, even our worn clothes and our empty nets, all of it had always been and would ever be holy, and we had simply forgotten it until his words, on that day, washed over us like water and reminded us.

I was lost in my reverie when I suddenly realized that Jesus had finished speaking. I blinked my eyes, embarrassed, and shook my head awake. He had turned away from the crowds, and was speaking to me, and only to me. “Now,” he said, grinning as he spoke, “put out into the deep water, and let down your nets for a catch.”

Now? He wanted us to fish now? We fishermen were nocturnal beasts; our thick nets only worked at night, when the fish couldn’t see them. And of course, there didn’t seem to be any fish in these waters, not right now. Maybe he didn’t know. We had heard he was a carpenter by trade, after all. He probably didn’t know about fishing.

“Master,” I said, “we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.”

He just kept looking at me, expectantly. And as he looked at me, I began to wonder. Maybe…

James and John stared at me. We had worked at sea together for so many years they knew what I was going to say before I said it. Their eyes spoke for them: You can’t be serious.

“Yet,” I said slowly, “if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

The shore grew further away, and the people on the beach faded from view. We lifted our nets, and cast them into the water.

Fish. Fish everywhere! Never, in all my years of fishing these waters, had I seen so many fish in my nets. We clapped our hands with joy and prepared to pull them all in, our night’s work not in vain after all.

But the fish kept coming. More fish, more fish… more fish?! James stared at the hordes of fish gathering in the water, his eyes wide. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

And then I remembered the nets. The nets! Our nets won’t hold this many fish! We rushed to the side of the boat, and pulled, hoping we could get the nets in before too many fish piled on.

We were too late. Our nets strained at the weight, and then the ropes started to fray…

In a panic, I waved my arms wildly to our partners on the shore, and they came out to help us. Together, we managed to pull the fish-filled nets into the two boats.

But it was more fish than even two boats could handle, and soon both boats started to sink! We stood stock still, in real danger now, but the boats stopped sinking just before the waters could rush in and send us all to the bottom of the sea.

Fish. Fish… everywhere. The only sounds were the sounds of their wet bodies flapping around inside the boat.

No – there was another sound, too. It was… laughter. Jesus was laughing. He seemed to think the whole thing was terribly funny. Did he not see the danger? Did he not see how close we had come to breaking our nets and sinking our boats?

It was too much for me. This time I wasn’t watching the miracle as a spectator; this time I was in the miracle, and it was a very different experience. I collapsed at his knees, exhausted. I looked up at him, pleaded with him, pleaded like a man terrified out of his wits, but even as I spoke I knew who I sounded like, and Jesus did, too. They might as well have been the same words Isaiah used as the winged seraphs flew over his head. “Go away from me, Lord. Leave me be! I am in over my head. This is too much for me. I am only a sinful man!”

Jesus wiped his eyes, and looked at me sympathetically. Then he grinned again. “Don’t be afraid,” he told me. “You won’t raise up any more fish. From now on, you will be raising up people.” Then he started laughing again, and I let my head fall back to the floor of the boat.

I dreamed of Isaiah, standing in the throne room of the Lord.

Except it wasn’t Isaiah, it was me, standing there. The call came from the voice of Lord, my holy vocation spoken aloud, just like it had been spoken to Isaiah, in the year that King Uzziah died.

But the Lord wasn’t sending me out alone on a hopeless mission. He had come down from his throne, and was standing beside me, in my little boat.

And then he was leading the way, going out first, before any of us, to open eyes and ears and minds and hearts, shining the light of Epiphany into them, in the hope that the world might one day turn and be healed.

There was nothing for it. We left everything, and followed him.

May he ever lead us.


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