Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sermon for Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, "Deep Waters"

Sermon 2/7/10, Luke 5:1-11, Isaiah 6:1-8

Deep Waters

Science was always my least favorite subject in school. I always got good grades in science, because I could memorize answers just fine, and I was good at math, so the formulas involved were no problem. But I never liked science because I could never really understand the why of something even if I knew the facts. You could explain to me why a light bulb works or a how a camera works, and I could memorize that description and tell it back to you, but I’d still never quite understand why it worked that way. But my dislike of science had a couple of exceptions, both of which I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been mulling over our gospel lesson for today.

First, I loved in Earth Science in high-school, and in Geology courses in college, when we’d talk about strata in rock formations. You’d have to look at a picture of all these different layers of igneous and metamorphic and sedimentary rock, and explain what happened in what order. I think I liked it because it was sort of like a logic puzzle, actually, but I also liked thinking about the history represented by those layers, and what must have been happening so long ago at those old, old, bottom layers, that somehow could get brought to the surface over time, through the shifting of the earth’s plates. And I also love learning about animal life, and occasionally get on a kick of watching shows on Animal Planet. I’m fascinated by occasional specials or news stories that report on hundreds of new species that are discovered, even now, even today. How can it be 2010 and we still don’t know all of the species of animals that exist? It’s humbling to remind ourselves of how much we don’t know, in the midst of all we’re sure we have figured out so fully. Last year, deep, deep in the ocean near Australia, a new, carnivorous sea squirt was discovered, that traps small sea creatures in this funnel-shaped mouth of sorts. It fascinates me to think that there is so much undiscovered and the ocean depths seem to be one of the places of yet-unknown mystery.

I had those images in mind this week as I was reading our gospel lesson, and thinking about deep things, deep waters, bringing to the surface what has been deep, deep down. In our gospel lesson today, we find a familiar scene – Jesus preaching and teaching, the crowd gathered, and the setting – the lake of Gennesaret, where many fishermen would be busy at work. When the scene opens, we read that Jesus is standing by the lake and the crowds are “pressing in on him to hear the word of God.” What an image! They’re impatient – anxious – hungry to hear God’s word – that’s how excited they are about what Jesus has to say. The want the words that he’s about to speak. I’ve heard some good preachers – and I like to think I have some preaching skills myself – but I can think of but a few times in my life when I’ve been so anxious, so in anticipation of hearing God’s word.

With the crowds pressing in, Jesus sees fishermen washing their nets and their boats nearby on the shore, and he gets in a boat and asks Simon Peter to put out a little way from the shore. This way, Jesus can comfortably teach the crowds from the boat without being smothered by them in their excitement. When he’s done teaching, he turns to Simon, and tells him, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Not a suggestion – not a questions – but a direction, an imperative. Peter responds in a way that I admire, since I think most of us wouldn’t respond so openly. Jesus tells them to go out into deep water and let their nets down for a catch. Well, Jesus wasn’t a fisherman; he was a carpenter, and now a teacher; Simon Peter was the fisherman. And Peter knew where to fish. And Peter knew that they had already been fishing all night without catching anything. But Simon Peter didn’t respond that he knew better than Jesus, or that they tried what he said already and it didn’t work, or that this new way wouldn’t work. He said instead, “Master, if you say we should try it, we’ll try it.”

They let down their nets, and begin to catch so many fish that their nets are breaking. They signal for help, and another boat comes, and still, there are so many fish that both boats are filled to the point that they can barely stay afloat. Peter, overwhelmed, falls on his knees before Jesus and says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” But Jesus responds, to Peter and James and John, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” And with those strange words, these fishermen are inspired to leave their boats and nets and everything, and they begin to follow Jesus.

Jesus tells Simon Peter to put the nets into deep water, and let them down there for a catch. I’m struck by the phrase, and all the meaning this biblical image holds for us. If we think of our spiritual lives, our souls, as this water, we can find many ways to think about this text. Shallows waters are safe places in our lives and in our hearts, where we can put our feet on the ground and keep our heads well above water, and where everything that is there is easily visible to the eyes. The deep waters – there is so much there that you might never see or know it all, and you can’t touch bottom, and you have to work harder to stay afloat, but some of the most fascinating things are found in the deep water, and you have to be a strong swimmer, or a strong boater, or with someone who is strong enough for both of you, to spend a lot of time in the deep waters. You can spend all of your time in shallow water, but most swimmers aren’t satisfied with that, are they? You could theoretically do all of your boating right along the shore, but most serious boaters would laugh at such an idea. So if we’re thinking about our souls as the waters of this passage, what is Jesus saying to us? Go to the deep water. Go again. Go deeper. Simon Peter makes it clear they’ve spent all day out on the lake, fishing, without catching anything. But Jesus won’t let them give up, call it quits, move to another spot, or bring the boats back to shore. There are more fish than the disciples will know what to do with in that lake, and Jesus will help them find them, if they trust him and do what he commands.

Where are we spending our time in the waters of our soul? I think it is astonishingly easy to spend all of our time, all of our lives, in what God would consider the shallow waters. Not taking risks. Not digging deep. Not exploring the unknown. Keeping our feet firmly planted, never heading out to the deep where we’d have to rely on having Jesus in the boat with us in order to make it through. I can tell you that I’m generally not a risk-taker. I don’t like roller coasters. As you know, I don’t even like statistically safe airplanes. When it comes to physical safety, I will always take care of myself. Spiritually, I wonder if I have any more sense of adventure. How easy it is to do the bare minimum instead of giving heart and soul to God. It is easy, sometimes, for me to understand exactly what the scripture is saying, what Jesus is asking, and somehow easier to make a list of reasons why I can’t quite do what is required.

God calls us to go deeper and deeper. I hope Derek won’t mind me using him as an example today, but I have to tell you, as much as I wish we could keep Derek here, with the wonderful way he’s clicked with our youth and ignited our youth ministry, I can’t really encourage him to do other than exactly what he’s doing. No doubt Derek has already seen his life as an attempt to respond to God’s calling – he’s served at church camp for years, worked now in youth ministry, and gone to school to try to strengthen his gifts and talents. But God always calls us to go deeper. And Derek is trying to respond to that call – and so he’s starting seminary, which requires a new home, a new town, new financial situations, new schedules, new ministry challenges, a whole new day-to-day life – and Derek is diving in, and heading for the deep waters, just where God is calling him. Of course, what’s in my deep waters, and in Derek’s, and in yours isn’t the same – but that God calls us to go deeper, bring more to the surface, give what’s in the depths of our hearts – that is a call that excludes none.

We can talk about going deep and staying shallow as a congregation too. Last week, in my annual report, I talked about where we’ve been in the last year and where I hope to see us going. I know many of us are full of dreams and visions for the church. But I also know that it can be easy to be discouraged, and I have those moments too, where it seems like our dreams for the future are more like impossible fantasies. When we talk about our finances, for example, and trying to overcome a deficit that will let us just pay the bills, it can be a challenge to think about increasing our mission, or strengthening our understanding of stewardship, or extending the reach of our ministry. When we dream about a church that is full of people and excitement and energy, we can grow skeptical when it is a challenge even to draw our own members to worship. When we think about our youth program, it can be easy to get discouraged when we know we face another transition, even as we send Derek off with our support and encouragement. But I’m drawn back to Peter’s faithful response to Jesus’ call: “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” The deep waters are full of abundance that God means for us to discover, and in the life of the church, even when it means letting down our nets for what seems like the millionth time in the same waters, I believe that God promises us a catch of fish that is beyond our imagining.

“When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.” Let us go and do likewise.

Amen.

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