Sermon Seeds: Being Surprised
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany Year C
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 6:1–8, (9–13)
1 Corinthians 15:1–11
Worship resources for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany Year C, Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, are at Worship Ways
by Kathryn Matthews
One way to approach this story might be to ask, “How big is your boat?” An extraordinary archaeological find, a first-century boat from the Sea of Galilee, is 26.5 feet long, 7.5 feet wide, and 4.5 feet high, giving us a pretty good idea of the size of Simon Peter’s boat. Since men of Simon’s time were about five feet, five inches tall, that makes the boat, John J. Pilch observes, plenty deep (The Cultural World of Jesus, Cycle C).
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” (Provoking the Gospel of Luke). Apparently, Zebedee heeded the teaching of the rabbis.
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. 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
Now, this morning, Jesus is backed up by a crowd, right up against the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and the people are all around him, hungry to hear a word from him. Nearby are some tired fishermen who have been out all night and haven’t caught a thing. They’re minding their own business, literally, just trying to clean their nets and head home after a long and discouraging night, but Jesus asks one of them, Simon, if he could use his boat as a kind of speaking platform.
Voices carry well over water, and the people would be able to hear (and see) Jesus better if Simon would just put out a little way into the water, in the shallow part of the lake. Jesus sits down to teach, as rabbis did in those days. No microphones, no laptops, no Powerpoints or DVDs or even books to work with, no notes, no social media, no reporters to analyze all this on cable news. Just an amazing teaching moment.
And now a surprise
Not one word of Jesus is recorded here from his speech to the crowd, so how do you suppose we might figure out what he’s trying to tell them? Perhaps we can learn as much from what he does as what he says, because the most remarkable thing happens just then. He tells Simon, “Put out into the deep and let your nets down for a catch.”
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!
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.
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, transform his life.
He is awestruck as we hear in one version of his words: Lord, he says, “I’m a sinner and can’t handle this holiness. Leave me to myself” (Eugene Peterson, The Message). 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.
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 (John Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, Cycle C). 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, with the people we love and know?
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.
Listening to Jesus’ command
When Jesus commands us to set out into the deep – the deep of forgiveness, of justice, of creativity – it’s an intensely personal experience. And yet, our preaching could be transformed if we stepped into the pulpit and spoke from personal experience of just such moments of awe and wonder, if we spoke from the heart about what we see God doing in the world, amazing things that surprise even people of great faith.
If preachers would get such a sharing started, perhaps the people in the pews and those who read our website and those who meet us wherever we are, at the nets or sitting in hospital waiting rooms, might hear a word of good news so compelling that their lives, too, would never be the same.
What about those boats?
I think our boats matter a lot to us, and maybe that’s not all bad. It would be unrealistic and irresponsible to simply walk away from the source of our family’s livelihood, but that may not be the lesson here.
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.
However, I’ll never forget Mother Teresa’s words, or her calm, non-judgmental voice, that evening. She said that Americans are 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 you are
Ever since I heard those words of Mother Teresa, I’ve heard the call of Jesus in a new light. If I truly want to follow Jesus, I don’t have to leave my 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.) The water is plenty deep right here, right where I live.
There’s plenty of challenge, plenty of possibility, and a very clear call to serve right here, where I am. You might say that one of the most important things I can do, however, is to look around and make sure there’s room in my 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 it 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
Are we called out of our comfortable ways onto new paths, and toward new wonders, new nets breaking and boats filled to overflowing, but 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?
There’s not enough room for others in our boat – even though 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 I hear in this reading is that word “abundance.” We don’t know what Jesus said to that crowd, but I suspect that it had something to do with the overflowing abundance of life in God, who showers us with “far more than all we could ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
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 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 other people.
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 – no matter how uncomfortable we may be with that word. It’s right here, in the Bible, after all. 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” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).
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 folks are uncomfortable with the word evangelism: it has often seemed neither kind nor gentle – 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” (New Proclamation Year C 2006-2007).
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 it was significant 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” (New Proclamation Year C 2006-2007).
Evangelism isn’t about convincing others of our truth or getting them to accept our beliefs, but instead it is 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 humble listening, our respect and not our judgmentalism, as we learn from their experience.
Perhaps 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 seem not to be more welcome to our listeners?
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” (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1).
Are we willing to respond to God’s call with humble but heartfelt acceptance of the marvelous gift of 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.
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
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.”
Isaiah 6:1-8, (9-13)
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!” And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”
Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump.
I give you thanks, O God,
with my whole heart;
before the gods
I sing your praise;
I bow down
toward your holy temple
and give thanks
to your name
for your steadfast love
and your faithfulness;
for you have exalted your name
and your word above everything.
On the day I called,
you answered me,
you increased my strength
All the rulers of the earth
shall praise you, O God,
for they have heard the words
of your mouth.
They shall sing of the ways
for great is the glory
For though God is high,
God regards the lowly;
but the haughty God perceives
from far away.
Though I walk in the midst
you preserve me against the wrath
of my enemies;
you stretch out your hand,
and your right hand delivers me.
God will fulfill God’s purpose
your steadfast love, O God,
Do not forsake the work
of your hands.
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you–unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them–though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
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.”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:email@example.com)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”