In the midst of splendid worship Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips.” Paul writes that he is unfit to be called an apostle. Simon Peter shrinks back from Jesus, stammering about his own sinfulness. Today’s Scripture conspires to convince us that the call to ministry is no respecter of persons.
Hearing that Isaiah reading takes me back to February 2, 1998, the night of my ordination to the priesthood. I have a vivid memory of 30 minutes before the service began, hiding in the one corner of my office that couldn’t be seen from the hallway, overwhelmed by the vows I was about to make, filled with holy terror, convicted of my own unworthiness. And then, in the midst of a splendid service, filled with pomp and circumstance, hearing that passage, “Woe is me,” and being comforted by God’s response to the prophet and the prophet’s acceptance of the call: “Here I am; send me.” Ever since, I have kept my eyes and ears open for the holy terror that appropriately accompanies any experience of the Holy Spirit’s call.
Luke introduces us to the first disciples by taking us to their workplace. Jesus asks for their help, and even though he’s been up all night, Simon Peter is willing to take on this small task. They put out into the shallow water. I’ve waded in the shallow water of Galilee; I remember the tiny fish that swarmed around my legs and nibbled at my toes. Jesus asks for more. Put out into the deep, he says. Let’s go fishing.
Now, our translation says “the deep water”, but I don’t find the word “water” in the text. Put out into the deep. That single word has all kinds of resonance. In the beginning, the Spirit of God moved over the face of the deep. The psalmist groans, “out of the deep have I cried to you, O Lord.” The deep is a scary place. Fishermen fear the deep; most professional fishermen can’t swim; Jesus is asking Simon to go way out of his depth. And Simon is tired. He had a bad night; he’s ready to go home, hug his kids, sleep, and hope for a better catch tonight. But something makes him say yes. Here I am. Something about being with Jesus, whom he first calls Master, makes this extra effort worthwhile.
The result is shocking. Fish, lots of fish, tons of fish. Abundance beyond imagining. Abundance that threatens their equipment – The nets are breaking! – their safety – The boats are sinking! -and their professional competence -where the heck were all these fish hiding last night? Simon, at the end of his tether, overwhelmed by the exhaustion, the emotional whiplash, the danger, falls to his knees and begs Jesus, whom he now calls Lord, to give him a break. He isn’t ready for such abundance, for such risk, for such a stretching of his imagination.
But Jesus doesn’t let up: instead of saying go home and rest, he says, leave your fear behind and follow me, learn how to share this abundance with all people. Simon and the others let go of their fear and their fatigue, they leave behind the very profitable piles of fish, and they throw in their lot with Jesus, ready to embrace a new life, a new kind of abundance, ready to plunge into the deep of God’s world, the deep hunger, the deep loneliness, the deep alienation that desperately needs this good news of life abundant meant for all.
What made them follow him? The promise of abundance. The embrace of a different way of life, unencumbered by anxiety. That sounds pretty attractive, doesn’t it?
The disciples’ values were shaken by this experience. They realized that the economic prize of the fish was nothing compared to the spiritual prize of following Jesus. And so they left everything. They gave up certainty, security, and comfort for the uncertain blessing of an itinerant preaching mission. They broke through the nets of their old lives and launched out into the deep well of God’s love.
In the diocese of San Diego we have a simple mission statement: fearless love. This is what Jesus offered Simon Peter and his friends. The chance to be free of fear, to live fully, to bring others into that deep place of abundance. How are we living out that fearless love?
Where is Jesus leading you, me, us, the diocese?
As a congregation, we are entering into a time of transition. This summer, God willing, our staff will move into the Great Hall basement, and the northern half of our block will become a construction zone. We will be challenged to ensure that our ministries are sustainable and our community strengthened throughout the years of construction. We will need to remember Jesus telling Simon to put out into the deep, and the abundance that resulted from Simon’s obedience.
As a diocese, we expressed fearless love last Saturday by electing the less traditional candidate. We put aside our fear of a different model of ministry. We dared to put out into the deep and risk the unpredictable abundance of the Holy Spirit. Susan Brown Snook’s election will mean discomfort for some in our diocese. The nets of our community may be strained by our call to leave fear behind. But if we believe that the Holy Spirit directed this process, we can trust that abundance lies ahead.
What if we follow the call and the result is abundance beyond our imaginings? What if we go fishing for people and our nets fill and strain and start to break with the overflowing abundance of needy humanity? What if we take seriously the need to embrace multiculturalism, and the people who come demand change in our culture, our worship, our language? Are we willing to risk the deep, or will we pull back, pay lipservice to the need for change, circle the wagons and stay on the shore, clinging to our security, our comfort, our power ? Our bishop-elect recently wrote about the urgency of our call to go fishing: she said, “We can no longer afford to set a small, beautifully appointed aquarium right next to an ocean full of multitudes of fish, and wait for a few fish to jump in.”(a)
A Facebook page for Episcopalians had a conversation this week about what evangelism is in our tradition. There was a lot of disagreement and a lot of evident discomfort. The word has been co-opted by people with very different theologies than ours. Jesus evangelizes the disciples by offering them a chance to experience the same freedom and abundance that characterizes his life. And they follow him because they see what fearless love has done for him.
Evangelism, as this Gospel illustrates, is offering others the freedom and abundance that characterizes your own life. That’s a definition that I can live with.
If you’re feeling a little challenged by all this talk of the deep, here’s some good news from today’s Gospel: the disciples didn’t have to go looking for Jesus; he came to them. Any one of us may encounter God, because God comes to us. We don’t earn that encounter, we don’t have to be perfect. But we should be ready to recognize God’s presence among us, whether in the midst of magnificent worship like Isaiah, or on the road like the “unfit to be an apostle”, Paul, or in the mess and muddle of our daily lives, like Simon Peter. God will come to us and God will call us to follow. If we respond to the call we may find ourselves way out of our depth, but that is precisely where we will discover life in its abundance. And if we react as Simon did to the presence of Jesus, in fear and trembling, that’s OK.
Jeffery John, dean of St Alban’s Cathedral in England, offers these reassuring words about that: “The strangest thing is that simultaneously the most gut-wrenchingly awful part and the most wonderful part of the experience is realizing that one is loved as one is. Peter’s words, ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man’, are the authentic response of someone feeling himself, unbearably, exposed to the glare of this vast, unconditional love. He can’t bear it, he wants to run and hide; yet, having known it, he could never let it go. He will give up everything to follow it.” (b)
Our collect for today is the prayer we need in that moment: “Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your son our Savior Jesus Christ.” Amen.
February 10, 2019
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
(a) Susan Brown Snook, unpublished essay on how the church must change, 2018
(b) Jeffrey John, The Meaning in the Miracles Eerdmans, 2004