Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany February 4, 2007, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
When the Call Comes
I am not much of a fisherman. Except for a single lesson in fly fishing, my experience of fishing is limited to a few summer afternoons, when as a kid I dangled a line off the edge of a dock in a Minnesota lake and tried to snag a sunfish. I don’t remember ever catching any.
You may know a lot more about fishing than I do, but even if you don’t, I think we can all imagine the moment when Simon Peter throws himself to the bottom of a smelly fishing boat and kneels at Jesus’ feet. Peter and the other fishermen must be exhausted. They have been working hard – they were up all night on the lake of Gennesaret (also called the Sea of Galilee), casting their nets again and again and pulling nothing in. Fishing can be dangerous, as we know only too well from recent losses off our own Atlantic coast, and it can be frustrating, too. So Peter and the other men are tired. Their muscles are sore and their spirits are low. Their hard work has come to nothing.
As the sun rises, these dispirited men get out of their boats and wearily rinse their nets at the side of the lake. As they wash up, wanting nothing more than the relief of going to sleep, Jesus arrives, along with a crowd that is eager to hear him speak about the ways of God. Jesus takes a look at Peter and asks him to take him out in his fishing boat a little way from shore, so that everyone can hear what Jesus is saying. Who knows how Peter feels about that request – whether it is annoying, because he wants to go straight home to bed and be done with his stupid boat, or whether he is glad, for news of Jesus’ power has begun to spread around the region and Peter’s own mother-in-law has been healed by Jesus’ word [Luke 4:38-39]. So maybe Peter invites Jesus into his boat with just a tiny sense of expectation, with just the slightest flicker of hope.
Then Jesus sits down in the boat and begins to speak. The story doesn’t tell us what Jesus says, but we know that Peter can hear every word. I imagine how intently Peter is listening, how closely he watches the expression in Jesus’ face, noticing every gesture, hearing every intonation in his voice. Whatever Peter heard Jesus say that morning as the sun rose and the waves lapped against the side of the boat, whatever Peter heard and saw in Jesus that day, “it won him heart and soul.” (1)
Common sense would tell Peter not to fish again – the time for fishing is at night, and after a long and futile night’s work it’s clear that no fish are anywhere nearby – but tired as he is, Peter does what Jesus asks him: “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” [Luke 5:4]. So the fishermen throw their nets down again, letting them drop into the deep, and up comes an enormous and unexpected catch, fish upon fish, so that the nets are close to breaking and the wooden boats are creaking under the weight.
Something sends Peter to his knees – maybe Jesus’ power to create a miracle, to create life where there was no life – maybe Jesus’ sheer goodness, the holiness of this man, his astonishing transparency to God. But in any case Peter is suddenly stricken with awe and with a piercing sense of his own sinfulness in relation to the goodness of God. He throws himself before Jesus to the bottom of the boat, and there, with the smell of fish in his nostrils and the hot sun burning his neck, he whispers, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” [Luke 5:8].
And then the call comes, for this is a story about call. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus says to Simon. “From now on you will be catching people” [Luke 5:10]. The word translated “catch” means “to take alive in the sense of rescuing from death.” (2) From now on Peter and the other fishermen will be sharing with Jesus in the work of plunging sinners into the waters of baptism and pulling them out into new life, of reaching into the deep waters of the psyche and bringing forth healing and wholeness, of gathering up the least and the lost and setting people free.
It is good to notice when the call comes: in that electric moment when Peter perceives the power and goodness of God and understands his own sinfulness, his basic unworthiness. Peter knows that he is nothing compared to the glory of God. And yet he is called. The same power that casts him down is the power that will lift him up. Despite his fear, despite his reluctance, he is the one that Jesus calls.
The same pattern shows up in the other two readings, too. Isaiah is in the temple when his call comes. Isaiah is given a vision of God, of “the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty” [Isaiah 6:1] and of the space being filled with holy presences from another world, seraphs that sing to each other the words that we’ve carried into our Eucharist, “Holy, holy holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” [Isaiah 6:3]. In the blaze of that glory, Isaiah is overcome by his unworthiness: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips!” [Isaiah 6:5] Unworthy he may be, but God redeems him and sends him out to preach, and Isaiah’s hesitation and fear are transformed into quiet confidence: “Here am I; send me!” [Isaiah 6:8].
Or take Paul, who had a vision of the Risen Lord and who says in today’s reading from First Corinthians that he knew he was “the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because [he] persecuted the church of God” [1 Corinthians 15:9]. And yet by God’s grace his whole life has turned around and now he “[works] harder than any of them – though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” [1 Corinthians 15:10].
That is so often the pattern of call, whether it happens at the bottom of a boat, in the middle of worship, on the road to Damascus, or anywhere else: we are confronted by God’s enormous beauty and power and by a deep sense of our own weakness and unworthiness. And yet God calls us.
We try to object. It doesn’t make sense. Look, says Simon Peter, says Isaiah, says Paul, “You’ve got the wrong guy. I don’t know why you are talking to me or why you are showing me these things. I’m not up for this. I’m not good enough. I can’t do it.” Jeremiah says, as we heard last week, “What are you thinking, Lord? I’m only a boy.” Amos says, “Hey, I’m only a shepherd.” Moses says, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt? I’m no speaker. I am slow of speech and slow of tongue. O, my Lord, please send someone else” [Exodus 3:11, 4:10, 4:13].
Our new Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman to be elected primate in the Anglican Communion, spoke in a recent interview about her call to this position. She is a woman of many gifts, but she is also innately shy. She talked about how she lay awake, worrying, before making her first seminar presentation in graduate school, and then she added, “I think there is some incredible sense of divine humor in calling somebody who is that much of an introvert to do the kind of work I’m doing.” (3)
I’m impressed that she kept going despite her reservations about herslef. It is so easy when we hear a call – when God speaks to our secret heart, when we hear a world crying out for our help, when we feel invited to do something much larger and bolder than we imagined – it is so easy to pass the buck. Isn’t that true? I know that I do, anyway, half the time. “Look,” we tell God, “I’m too young. I’m too old. I’m tired. I’m an introvert. I’m no leader. I’m busy. I have other things to do.”
Have you ever heard the story of how Martin Luther King got started as an activist during the Montgomery bus boycott? I recently came across a short piece that tells the story: (4)
“In 1955, King was fresh from seminary, only 26 years old, and new to town. His church was one of the smallest, wealthiest, and most conservative of the two-dozen African-American churches in Montgomery. His personal ambitions at the time were to run a solid church program, be well paid for it, have a nice house for his growing family, write theology pieces for his denomination’s magazine, and do a bit of adjunct teaching at a nearby college. He was not dreaming of becoming a leader in the struggle for civil rights, economic justice, and a peaceful U.S. foreign policy.”
The writer, Steve Chase, goes on, “Indeed, if it had been left up to King, the Montgomery Bus Boycott would never have happened. The real organizer of this effort was E. D. Nixon, an experienced civil rights and labor activist who launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott within four days after Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to move to the back of the bus. It was Nixon who recruited King to the civil rights movement.” Nixon bailed Rosa Parks out of jail, and then he “went home and started calling local ministers to line up their support for his boycott idea.” First Nixon called Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and the man said yes. Next he called Rev. H. H. Hubbard, and he too said yes. And third he called Rev. Martin Luther King, who said to him, “‘Brother Nixon, let me think about it awhile, and call you back.'”
“When King finally agreed to come to a meeting, Nixon told King, ‘I’m glad you agreed, because I already set up the first meeting at your church.’ At this first ministers’ meeting, King was nervous about Nixon’s idea of conducting an illegal boycott campaign. Several other ministers soon began to side with King against the campaign. In his own memoir King recalls how Nixon exploded towards the end of the meeting and shouted that the ministers would have to decide if they were going to be like scared little boys, or if they were going to stand up like grown men and take a strong public stand against segregation. King’s pride was so hurt by Nixon’s comment [that] he shouted back that nobody could call him a coward. [To] prove his courage, King immediately agreed to Nixon’s plan for an aggressive community-organizing campaign to build up the boycott. Everyone in the room quickly agreed with King and the matter was settled.”
Then they had to decide who should lead the group. “Everyone present expected Nixon to lead. But Nixon said he wouldn’t be part of the group unless the man he named would lead. Who was he nominating? Martin Luther King. Having just announced “his courage to the whole group, King felt he had to agree to take on this responsibility. Then, Nixon told King [that] he would have to give the main address” that night at the rally to announce the boycott plan to the black community.
“King rose to Nixon’s challenge” – and, we might add, to God’s challenge, too. King served for the next 12 months as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and in the process he was changed. He learned about the courage of ordinary people to work together to resist oppression. He learned about the power of non-violent direct action. He learned about his own power to inspire people to become active citizens. As Steve Chase puts it, “King discovered just what kind of person he wanted to be in this life.” He embraced his mission as an activist leader to build what he called the “Beloved Community.”
I love that story. Hardly anyone feels up to the call. Sometimes we need a brother or sister in Christ to nudge us along – something that I know from my own life, too. It feels too hard – whether God is calling us to fight racism, or to take hold of the Millennium Development Goals and eradicate extreme poverty by the year 2015, or to face the catastrophe of global warming and to push our leaders to make a decisive transition to clean, renewable energy.
“Woe is me,” we may want to say. “I am not up for this. I am a man, a woman, of unclean lips. Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful person! Send someone else!” But here is Jesus, smiling at us in the sunlight, sitting with us in our small boat and asking us to set out into the deep and let down our nets for the catch. “Do not be afraid,” he tells us. “I will be with you all the way.” And through the grace of God, maybe we will answer, “Yes, Lord, I will do it. Here am I; send me.”
(1) G. B. Laird, Saint Luke, Middlesex, England; New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1963, p. 90.
(2) Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, et al., Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year C, Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, p. 98.
(3) Quoted in “Grace Under Pressure,’ by Diane Rogers, in Stanford, January/February, 2007, p. 51.
(4) “Martin Luther King’s Journey to Activism,” by Steve Chase, Ph.D., Director, Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program Department of Environmental Studies @ Antioch University New England; Steven_Chase at antiochne.edu; 603-283-2336 (office).