sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 10, 2019
|Jorge Orlando Cocco Santangelo, The Call|
There’s a famous saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. By that definition, Jesus of Nazareth is insane.
“Really, Jesus?” ask the fishermen. “We’ve been fishing all this time and haven’t caught a thing. You really want us to try again?” In a different version of the story Jesus has them cast their net on the other side of the boat, which is silly enough. In Luke’s telling, he says, “Put out into the deep water and let your nets down for a catch.” Shallow water versus deep water … there’s a really nice metaphor there, but I’m not going to explore it, because I don’t think Jesus necessarily knew more about fishing than those who earned their living from it. If deep water is a more likely place, then that’s where they were before. So I’m assuming that Jesus asks them to do exactly the same thing they were just doing. And the result this time is very different.
It reminds me of the movie Mary Poppins. Remember when Bert tries to say some magic words to help the children jump into the chalk drawing? Nothing happens. But when Mary Poppins takes the lead, they all jump easily right into the drawing and spend the afternoon galavanting around the chalky countryside. This is one piece of evidence for my elaborate theory that Mary Poppins is the Holy Spirit, while Bert represents the institutional Church.
But more about that some other time. The point is that Jesus’ presence makes things happen. When Jesus is at your party, you’ll never run out of wine. And when you’re fishing, you’ll bring in a huge haul. But the fish are only a symbol, and Jesus says so: “Do not be afraid; for now on you will be catching people.” It doesn’t have the same ring as the old phrase “fishers of men,” but it is twice as accurate.
Well, fish and boats and chalk drawings are all very nice. But I don’t want us to overlook the real drama in this scene: Peter’s reaction. When the net full of fish begins to weigh the boat down, Peter falls at Jesus’ knees, crying out, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Does this reaction make sense to you? It does to me. Peter is genuinely afraid, and I get that.
The recurring biblical phrase “the fear of the Lord” does waaaay more harm than good when powerful people take it out of context. But there is a genuine fear here: an awe, a smallness, a terror in the human soul that comes from a more direct experience of the divine. Remember that on Mount Sinai, God warns the people to stay back lest they touch the mountain and die!
Today we hear Isaiah cry out, “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!” The prophet is afraid that this direct view of God’s glory will flat out kill him dead. But it’s not so much a perceived fear of physical injury we’re talking about here. It has more to do with feeling impure … unworthy.
C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that “the real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.” Well, with due respect to Lewis, I’d rather we be able to understand ourselves to be beloved children of God, and only then to forget about ourselves and go about serving others! But feeling like a small, dirty object is also a well-known and well-chronicled experience of God. When we stand in God’s presence, we just might feel as if we need to be made clean.
And so a seraph, a heavenly being, touches Isaiah’s mouth with a hot coal—“Here. Now you are pure.” In the Bible, fire is more often used to purify than to harm. But was this purification necessary for God’s sake, or merely for Isaiah’s?
In the same way, note Jesus’ reaction when Peter falls down in front of him. Listen to his words: “Do not be afraid.” When you feel like a small, dirty object instead of a beloved child of God, you will be reassured that you are clean and worthy, and then you’ll be made useful. Isaiah got a hot coal to the lips, and then God gave him a specific task to carry out. Jesus just told Peter—with a chuckle, I imagine—“Come on, get over yourself. I know exactly who and what you are, and there’s no time for depressing navel-gazing. So get your ego out of the way. I choose you. And we’ve got work to do.”
Now, about that work. Once we’ve set aside the noisy ego that demands constant checks on our worthiness, we can get to business … but we may find that business to be a different challenge than we were expecting. This is certainly the case with Isaiah. His direct experience of God convinces him to sign up to be a prophet. Now he will have a message to proclaim on God’s behalf. But what is that message?
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.” Basically, God says to Isaiah: “Go and tell the people that they don’t get it, and they never will.”
At this point, if I were Isaiah, I’d be asking some pretty pointed questions of God. Like, for instance, “If you’re so powerful, why don’t you give me both a better message and the ability to prevent this catastrophe in the first place?” God’s task for us is not the task we ourselves would choose. And indeed, Isaiah will not be able to prevent the invasion of his country and the exile of his people.
Now, we can tell from context that the Book of Isaiah was penned by two or even three authors. The first part of the book, from which we heard today, takes place before the Babylonian Exile and is the only part to mention Isaiah by name. The second part takes place during the Exile. And the third part happens after the Exile is over. Taken as a whole, the Book of Isaiah chronicles poetically the journey of the Jews through most of the 6th century B.C.E. It wrestles with the question of how God could allow such horrible things to happen to God’s chosen people.
Christians often claim that Isaiah saw Jesus coming from centuries away. And indeed, Jesus said and did many things that fell right in line with what Isaiah preached about. We should not make Isaiah’s work all about Jesus, though. Its value is not limited to the prediction of a new sect of Judaism that would then turn around and persecute Judaism! But within Christian circles, we can look to Isaiah and see and welcome the theological correlation.
Jesus brought the good news that the relationship between God and human beings is in the process of being repaired. From God’s perspective, it’s already repaired. All that’s left to do is to help us understand this reality and live into it. As this happens, God’s dream for the world is being realized. Well, it it’s true that is the best news ever! But again, what does it look like in reality? Jesus was captured and executed—and the Jesus movement, which had sprung up overnight like a sheltering broom tree, was chopped down in its prime, leaving only a stump. But wait … on the third day, what’s growing from that stump? Look! It’s still growing today. This is what resurrection looks like, and it’s the blueprint of creation.
Do you see Christianity as something that happened once, a moment in history, a static event, facts to learn, formulaic words to intone so you can get something that God might otherwise not want to give you?
Or do you see Christianity as something living, something not yet fully formed, a divine promise, a seed of a reality sprouting and growing into something we may not even recognize yet?
Which of these Christianities would you rather tell people about? The kind in which it’s about affiliation and appearances, and it’s every believer for himself, and we collect individuals so we can check off their salvation box?
Or would you rather tell of a Christianity in which together we build a community of human beings who give ourselves to each other in love, who walk with each other in joy and sorrow, who probably fail more often than they succeed, who never give up on each other, and who share this wild idea that somehow God is guiding us all into a better reality, even in this life, and not just in the next one?
One famous Episcopalian, the author Madeleine L’Engle, wrote this: “We draw people to Christ not 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.”
I want to go out and catch people. But more specifically, I want people to get caught, with or without me or my religion—scooped up in the arms of eternal love, caught up in a transformed life of joyful service to others, caught up beyond the worries of every passing day. I’m not nearly as invested in Christianity succeeding as I am in God succeeding. If those happen to be the same thing, so be it—but Love doesn’t need me to be certain of that. Love just needs me to love.
The earliest followers of the resurrected Christ called themselves The Way. Together with them, we Christians walk the Way of Love. We usually fail. We sometimes succeed. We let out our nets for a catch when we love with abandon, worrying less about our own success, less about how worthy we are and how we look to others, and remaining concerned instead with whether love is taking root. Will you walk the Way of Love with me?