United Church of Christ

Being Surprised

Sunday, February 10, 2019
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany Year C
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Focus Theme:
Being Surprised

Focus Prayer:
Loving God, you have called forth disciples and prophets to live and speak your word. Give us ears to hear, lives to respond, and voices to proclaim the good news of salvation, which we know in our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Focus Scripture:
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 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.

All readings for this Sunday:
Isaiah 6:1-8, [9-13]
Psalm 138
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Luke 5:1-11

Focus Questions:

1. How do you respond to the teaching of the rabbis to finish our daily work, even if Messiah has come?

2. How deep is your boat, and what would it take to persuade you to walk away from it?

3. What is "the deep" in your life, in the ministry of your church, the place where God is calling you, even against all "rational" expectations?

4. How would you describe freedom? Why do you think some people fear freedom?

5. What do you think is the best way to "share the good news" of Jesus Christ?

Reflection:
by Kate Matthews

How big is your boat? Scholars describe a recent and extraordinary find by archaeologists: a first-century boat from the Sea of Galilee. At 26.5 feet long, 7.5 feet wide, and 4.5 feet high, it gives us a pretty good idea of the size of Simon Peter's fishing boat. Since men of Simon's time were about five feet, five inches tall, John Pilch writes, that makes the boat plenty deep.

It would have held a lot of fish, and it would have taken a lot to sink it. And it would have taken something very big to get its crew simply to walk away from it and the livelihood it must have represented. In fact, we read in the Gospel of Matthew (this "fish story" is in all the Gospels) that Zebedee, the father of two of the fishermen-turned-disciples, "stayed in the boat."

After all, someone had to clean up all that fish and get it to the people who were hungry, and the everyday work had to go on. In his delightful commentary on this text, Richard Swanson recalls that even "the rabbis advise that if you are told that Messiah has come, finish what you are doing before you go to check it out. Messiahs can wait. Daily work must be done." Perhaps Zebedee was simply heeding the teaching of the rabbis.

Surprise and awestruck

Our boats--our sources of livelihood and security--are substantial, too. It would take a lot for us to walk away from them. Like Zebedee, it strikes us as wholly unrealistic and perhaps even irresponsible to walk away from our work and the people it supports, including ourselves.

However, that may not be the point of the story. Perhaps what matters most is how Simon responds to the call that will transform his life.

Jesus, already in trouble

We've already gotten a taste of the danger Jesus is in when the folks in his own hometown of Nazareth tried to throw him off a cliff after he preached in the synagogue, in the chapter before this one in the Gospel of Luke. He had drawn on the words of Isaiah to lay out his purposes for the poor and the downtrodden, and he was very clear that this message was going to appeal to people outside the comfort zone of his listeners.

It wasn't a pretty sight when the synagogue crowd chased him to the cliff, but Jesus walked away from them, passing right through them and moving out, to new places perhaps more welcoming to his ministry of healing and teaching.

Pressed by hungry crowds

In one of those places, he's found an enthusiastic audience, hungry for good news, but there, on the edge of the lake, he needs a boat. Voices carry well over water, and the people will be able to hear (and see) Jesus better if Simon will just put out a little way, into the shallow part of the lake. On this speaking platform, then, Jesus sits down to teach, as rabbis did in those days.

No microphones, no Powerpoints or DVDs or even books to work with, no notes, no social media, no reporters to analyze all this on cable news. Indeed, not one word of Jesus is recorded from this amazing teaching moment, but we sense that he feels the need for more than words to express the abundance of God's love and the overflowing power of God's grace, "far more than all we could ask or imagine" (Ephesians 3:20).

Something extraordinary

So he decides to show the people as well. Simon and the other fishermen have probably continued working on their nets as Jesus spoke, minding their own business and intending to head home for the night. However, something "extraordinary" happens, Craig Evans writes, when Jesus, a carpenter, tells the experienced fishermen where and when they can find an abundant catch, urging them to strike back out into the deep rather than head safely home after a long day.

This is counter-intuitive to Simon, of course, since he just got back from fishing all night without catching a single fish. Still, he says to Jesus, "If you say so," and he heads out into the deep water. We know what happens next: he catches so many fish that the other fishermen have to come out and help, and the boats start to sink from the enormous catch!

A new name for a new man

This is such a dramatic moment in the story that Simon's name actually changes right in the middle of it: suddenly he's Simon Peter, and this new man is completely, utterly open to something far beyond his understanding, something that makes him painfully aware of his own limitations and his unworthiness, something that can, and will, set him upon a whole new path for his life.

Nowadays, we love to analyze everything to death, to find a rational explanation for everything we encounter, so we usually miss the meaning of great, unexpected wonders, but Peter, thank God, has sense enough to recognize a miracle when he sees one.

He is awestruck, as we hear in Eugene Peterson's version of his words: Lord, he says, "I'm a sinner and can't handle this holiness. Leave me to myself." Perhaps it helps us understand why one of the really great virtues is "Fear of the Lord." We ought to know enough to be struck by awe when we witness such a thing! And yet, the first thing Jesus tells him is, "Do not be afraid."

Do not fear

Do not be afraid. We hear those words a lot in the Gospels, whether we pay attention to them or not. They reassure us, and they reassure Peter, and they help all of us, not just Peter, hear the next part, which is an invitation to follow Jesus and share this good news with all of God's children. "Don't be afraid," Jesus says. "From now on, you're going to be fishing for people."

Next thing you know, Peter, James and John walk away from their boats, their sources of livelihood and security; they leave everything to follow Jesus. The yield that day is more than enough to convince the fisherman that something really big is happening here, and in their encounter with Jesus they become keenly aware that life holds much more possibility than simply fishing for fish.

Some scholars say that the relationship Simon Peter entered into with Jesus was a "client-patron" one, where "family-like" bonds, or maybe better, one's "connections," provided help when the family couldn't, and folks depended on powerful patrons to get by when they needed something arranged. Like a boat groaning with fish, perhaps, or a mission field inviting us to leave our comfort zones and prepare for results beyond our wildest imaginings.

Striking out into the deep

Of course, there is more than one way to approach this text. We might explore what it means to "strike out into the deep," when we're tired and convinced that no one's interested in the good news we offer, especially when our popular culture offers such enticing, and very different, invitations. We've already been fishing these waters all night, Jesus, and we've come up empty.

"The deep" might represent those places we would rather not go, the places of discomfort and unfamiliarity, where we might get in over our heads. What if we forgive someone who has hurt us: how will we still hold on to that wonderful feeling of being right, of being justified, of being the victim?

What if we step up and offer our gifts to the community around us, our time and our talents, in ways that help others and build up the community of God’s children? What if our church becomes Open and Affirming and "too many" of "those people" show up? ("They" are, after all, often the spiritually homeless ones.)

So many unexpected challenges

What if we welcome people living with mental illness, and their families? How will we "deal with" the situations that may arise? What if we call a woman as our pastor? (See Sara Miles’ account of starting a food bank in her church, and coming to faith, in Take This Bread, for a good illustration of this challenge.)

What if we declare ourselves a sanctuary church that protects people who are having difficulties with their immigration status? Will we have the courage and the resources to respond to whatever arises?

What if we begin to talk about money in our church in a way that is more open, more honest, more trusting, than ever before? There are just too many things that could go wrong, too many people who might be upset, and we may be better off just calling it a day and staying here, in the shallow water, drying our nets as we should, and left quietly unsatisfied by the results of our efforts.

How can we leave it all behind?

Today we have difficulty imagining what it means to "leave it all behind" unless we do something quite unusual, something like becoming a missionary, or drastically changing our lifestyle in other ways. And so we wistfully read this story once again this Epiphany season, and then go back to our nets and our ordinary lives as if this story were not about us, and this call were not ours, too.

However, what if we can in fact clean the nets and strike out again in the morning to do the work of our lives and, at the same time, live lives true to the gospel, given to God, faithful to the Word that called Simon and his partners away? What if our lives could be transformed right where we are?

Our imaginations and our hearts can open us up to epiphanies all around us, unexpected wonders that challenge our expectations, when we are fatigued and discouraged and almost out of wonder. We could then view our "fishing," our work, as full of the possibility of seeing God's hand at work in our lives and all around us.

"Care for people where you are"

Once, years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Mother Teresa speak. Now there was a person who walked away from everything and spent her life serving the poor. It sounds almost romantic, in a way, so much simpler, and many of us have dreamed of leaving it all behind so we can go off to a foreign land and spend our lives doing good.

I'll never forget Mother Teresa's words, or her calm, non-judgmental voice, that evening. She said that Americans were always saying they want to leave their lives here and go to India to work with her. Her response: "Stay here, right where you are, and love the people God has given you to love. Care for people right where you are."

Staying where we are

Ever since I heard those words of Mother Teresa, I've heard the call of Jesus in a new light. If we truly want to follow Jesus, we don't have to leave our home and family, and live on the streets in a foreign land. This observation is not meant to minimize the remarkable ministry of missionaries overseas; it's just that the water is plenty deep right here, right where we live.

There's plenty of challenge, plenty of possibility, and a very clear call to serve right here, where we are. You might say that one of the most important things we can do, however, is to look around and make sure there's room in our boat for others.

The deeper meaning

Yes, it may be fashionable to read the Bible through scientific eyes, checking out the "wonders" to decide whether there is some "rational" explanation for them. And yet the deeper meaning of this story lies in the image of that boatload of fish, breaking the nets and sinking the ships, and the image of God's abundance that all of that conveys.

If Simon had sense enough to be open to a wonder when he saw one, rather than debating how it happened, then right here, today, we might reflect on the abundant wonders in our own lives, and in the life of our congregations, and in the long and beautiful story of the traditions that came together to form the United Church of Christ.

Called to new paths

We are indeed called out of our comfortable ways onto new paths, and toward new wonders, new nets breaking and boats filled to overflowing, but toward new costs as well. Despite the risks, we might also consider the deep waters still calling us to new ministry, new insights, new experiences of faithfulness and wonder: God's abundance in our lives, in our time, in the world God loves today.

We live in a time when the value of the individual is lifted up far more than the needs of the community. Probably this balances too many years (centuries, really) when the individual was less important than the community, but it seems we may have gone too far in the other direction.

Now our culture tells us to look out for number one, to protect our own retirement but not to worry about others, to consider our own rights and needs and even wants and not consider the rights, needs and wants of others.

Not enough, or abundantly more than enough for all?

After all, there's not enough room for too many others in our boat--and we like to have a big boat, indeed. Nothing that we could ever walk away from. No, we'd rather stay right here, in the safe, shallow end, and not strike out into the deep water of possibilities and change; we'd rather mind our own business and keep working on our own security. After all, there's only so much "stuff" out there, and we need to get our share; we need to look after ourselves.

The good news we hear in this reading is the word "abundance." We may not know what Jesus said to that crowd, but we trust that it had something to do with the overflowing abundance of life in God. In God's love--a love we're called to share with everyone--there is more than enough for each and every one of us. There is more than enough forgiveness, more than enough healing, more than enough grace.

Making room for others

What does it really mean for us to "leave everything and follow Jesus"? I think it means that we let go of the idea that there will ever be enough things to secure our future if we don't make room in our boats, and in our hearts and our lives, for our sisters and brothers. I think it means that we let go of clenched fists that convince us that our money and our possessions belong to us, not to God.

One of the children's messages to God that I love is a letter from a little boy who bargained with God, but didn't want to let go of what really mattered to him: "Dear God, if you give me a genie lamp like Aladdin, I will give you anything you want except my money and my chess set."

Anything, except....

Anything you want, God, except my money and my chess set...or my belief that I can take care of myself, or my conviction that it's only fair that I have what I have, that I deserve what I have and that others who are in need, well, they must have done something to deserve what they have...or don't have.

Living life as a disciple of Christ is a call that takes us to new places and even gives us a new name – Christian – and it transforms our lives in ways that surprise and amaze us, and fill us with awe, like Peter that day on the shore, just before he said yes to the call.

Striking out into the deep

Of course, our lives won't be transformed if we don't trust God enough to strike out into the deep waters--even when we're tired, even when we're sure it won't work, even when conventional wisdom urges us instead to accept the seductive invitations of the materialistic culture around us to fill our boats with goodies and not to worry about others.

What would happen if we found ways to share what we have, whenever we have a choice in our voting or in our giving or in the ways we reach out to others and work with others to build a more compassionate world, to consider the needs of the poor, of children, of the elderly, of those who cannot take care of themselves, whenever we make a decision in our personal or public lives?

How do we share this good news?

Our reading also provides an excellent opportunity for reflection on the ministry of evangelism--although we may be a bit uncomfortable with that word and its associations. It's right here, in the Bible, though. Several commentators observe that "fishing" as a metaphor for evangelism doesn't have to entail the unpleasant notion of dead fish. Craig Evans, for example, explains that the "word that Luke uses (i.e., 'catching [or taking] alive') is used in the Greek Old Testament for saving the lives of persons from danger."

Ann Svennungsen offers the much kinder, gentler image of fly-fishing, of using a net instead of a hook. Indeed, perhaps that's why some of us are uncomfortable with the word evangelism: it has often seemed neither kind nor gentle, let alone life-saving--a hook, not a net.

But the past mistakes of the over-zealous and well-meaning folks who perhaps missed the point of how Jesus evangelized must not deter us from passionate commitment to sharing the good news we have received. Rather than hooking and dragging people in, Svennungsen urges us "to cast the net of God's love all around--open to all the world--and then wait with patience for the Spirit's work and to see if any are caught by God's vision and grace."

Casting the net of God's love

It seems to me that Svennungsen challenges us to get outside our own circle, our own comfortable congregations (even though many of us in the pews may still need to hear the good news, and to experience our lives transformed by it!) when she observes that Jesus began his ministry not in Jerusalem, where one might expect, but in Galilee, with its more diverse populace (people not like us!), letting us know right from the beginning that God's reign is universal, "a net of love flung as wide as the world itself."

Evangelism isn't about convincing others of our truth or getting them to accept our beliefs; it's the practice of sharing and living the word that has transformed our lives with such grace and power that we can't help but tell the story, especially in the way we live, more than the words we say. It's significant that we often don't hear the content of Jesus' preaching but so often "see" what he does, and how people react to both his words and his deeds.

Walking the talk

The words and the deeds of Jesus must have gone together well, and that may help us understand why so many people today seem turned off by the church, or even talk of church, and claim to be "spiritual, but not religious." They deserve our patient and humbling listening, not our judgmentalism, as we learn from their experience.

It is possible that they have not seen enough coherence between our words and our deeds. This is especially, and painfully, pointed out by surveys that show a high percentage of young people who consider the churches highly exclusive and judgmental. Is that why our words about God so often seem unwelcome by others?

A world hungry for good news

Still, we know that the world hungers for good news, and even those whose lives are over-filled with material things long for good news that has more substance that their "stuff" does. It's scary to think about making any huge changes in our lives, but we're too often afraid even to make small ones, the little course corrections that send us in new and daring directions.

David Ostendorf says that God's living word in this story "falls on the ears of the crowds hungry for that word; it falls on the ears of Simon and James and John, afraid, amazed, attracted, and ready." But this is still true today: "God's living word cuts through the din of pressing crowds and the lives and labors of common people. It shapes the sweep of the human story. It alters the lives of those who hear and heed….[and] cuts through daily life with the gift of freedom."

Are we willing to respond to God's call with humble but heartfelt acceptance of the marvelous gift of that freedom, a freedom that will transform our lives, and lead us to participate in the transformation of the world God loves?

We're in this together

Let us remember that, in the church, we are never alone. We take these daring, risky steps, together. If Jesus chose to begin his ministry in the unexpected--and perhaps uncomfortable--place of Galilee, with all of its challenges and differences, then let us--with a mixture of fear and amazement and hope--step out, beyond the sturdy walls of our long-held assumptions, the protective walls of our familiar and comfortable and comforting sanctuaries, the well-constructed walls that stand between us and those who are different from us.

We are called in this season of Epiphany to exercise our imagination, and our courage, and our trust, to live in radical openness to all the epiphanies all around us, all the wonders that challenge our everyday, measured, carefully controlled expectations.

Perhaps the last thing those tired fishermen long ago were expecting was a showing of God's awesome power right there, at the end of another workday. The same might be said of our "workdays": that they hold the possibility of seeing God's hand at work in our lives and all around us. Someone has said that "Jesus still shows up and surprises us," and next thing you know, our lives are changed forever.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 20th century
"Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ."

Soren Kierkegaard, 19th century
"Christ did not appoint professors, but followers. If Christianity (precisely because it is not a doctrine) is not reduplicated in the life of the person expounding it, then he does not expound Christianity, for Christianity is a message about living and can only be expounded by being realized in men's lives."

Richard McBrien, 21st century
"The big issue is how do you heal a world which sees net worth and the gathering of creature comforts and powers and possessions as the norm of happiness?"

Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"In a gentle way, you can shake the world."

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, 20th century
"If you want to build a ship, don't herd people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

Madeleine L'Engle, 20th century
"We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it."

Henri Nouwen, 20th century
"Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing….The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God."

Parker Palmer, In the Company of Strangers, 20th century
"In my view, the mission of the church is not to enlarge its membership, not to bring outsiders to accept its terms, but simply to love the world in every possible way--to love the world as God did and does."

Tony Campolo, 21st century
"I don't know how your theology works, but if Jesus has a choice between stained glass windows and feeding starving kids in Haiti, I have a feeling he'd choose the starving kids in Haiti."

Killian Noe, 21st century
"I became aware of a need in me to deny that the poor could possibly feel the pain and indignities of their lives in the same way I would if I were in their circumstances. I realized that this denial in me is an illusion, a defense mechanism. For to face squarely that their pain is as profound as mine would be in those same circumstances would break my heart in two. The time has come and is well overdue to let go and let our hearts break, for fuller capacity to love grows out of broken hearts."

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