Sheepscott Community Church February 7, 2010
Isaiah 6: 1-8
1 Corinthians 15: 1-11
Luke 5: 1-11
There is such an accessible unity among the readings this week. When I read them, I felt as if the Spirit had rolled out a red carpet for me and said, “Now, walk it. And enjoy the view.”
Last week we heard Tony read from Jeremiah where the prophet protests he is too young to speak for God with these words, “Ah, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.” But the Lord admonishes him not to say that, but rather, he must go to everyone the Lord sends him to and say whatever he is commanded to say, and then not to be afraid of them, as the Lord would rescue when there was need of rescue. “Then the Lord reached out and touched my mouth and said to me,” the book of Jeremiah reports, “’Now I have put my words in your mouth.’”
In fact Jeremiah was not a child chronologically, but in life experience––about 22––he knew he was young to take on the task he was being called to at that crucial moment in Israel’s history. He was from a priestly family, as was Isaiah, whose call we heard C.J. read this morning. There is an interesting parallel we can’t help noticing in the calls of these two prophets. God made Jeremiah’s response to the call possible by touching his mouth. In something of the same way the seraph, one of the bright angel seraphim who minister in God’s presence, took a coal or ember with tongs from the altar before God and touched the lips of Isaiah, who had expressed horror at his own sinfulness as a man of “unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips,” and yet he was beholding the glory of the Lord. The seraph said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for,” or purged.
Then could Isaiah hear the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’” And respond with, “‘Here am I. Send me!” There is an exclamation point after that “Send me!” which gives an indication of the elevated state of inspired excitement Isaiah was in when he offered to go. Isaiah was not being spoken to directly in this vision. He is like an observer, but when God asks who will go, he volunteers. He was not impressed into service. As I indicated, both of these prophets were from priestly families, and it was therefore in that milieu of God’s glory in the liturgical world that God revealed himself to the two men because that was how they would recognize him.
By contrast, in this morning’s gospel, Simon Peter was an everyday fisherman, who with his brother Andrew fished the Lake of Gennesaret––another name for the Sea of Galilee or the Sea of Tiberias––along with the brothers James and John, the sons of Zebedee. God met them in their milieu of fishing boats by the sea in the person of Jesus, who issued the call to these men, no less than the Sovereign Lord had called Jeremiah and Isaiah. And just as Isaiah had protested about having unclean lips and living among a people of unclean lips, and so was not worthy to be in the presence of God, Simon said to Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Simon had no illusions about himself and recognized that this person in his boat was at the least someone very special in and by whose company he was undone. The reason for his exclamation, as the gospel relates, was the netbreaking catch of fish he and his brother had at Jesus’ word to drop the net, and that, after a night of completely unsuccessful fishing.
An interesting sidelight about this alleged miracle of the fishes comes from Barclay in his commentary on this gospel. Because it’s one I never heard before, perhaps you will not have heard it either, and, as always, more food for thought can be nourishing in multiple ways. Barclay suggests that there is no need to believe that Jesus created a shoal of fishes just for the occasion. In the Sea of Galilee he pointed out, there were phenomenal shoals that filled the sea and made it look solid in areas as big as an acre. Certainly we can imagine that from the run of the alewives right over in Damariscotta Mills each year. Smelts, another observable shoaling. Barclay suggests that Jesus might have spotted just such a shoal because he had eyes to see. I like that idea: we need the eye that really sees, and Jesus is just the one to show us the way to develop that eye to see the grace and possibility in every situation as it is, not that a situation has to be made extraordinary to know God’s presence and activity in it
Barclay goes on to use the examples of James Watt imagining a steam engine when he saw steam rising from a kettle, and Isaac Newton was the first to think out the law of gravity when he saw an apple fall. The earth is full of miracles for the eye that sees. Currently medical research abounds with discoveries. Louis Pasteur occurs to me. Imagine, his common sense understanding of the importance of the role of hygiene in medicine. Simply washing the hands between operations. How many lives has that saved? And penicillin from mold in a pe(e)tri dish? Some of our own lives have probably been saved by penicillin, or the lives of members of our families. Eyes that can see the possibilities in our everyday lives for improvements for all of us. This is grace. This is the moment of the great number of fish that threatened that day on Lake Genneserat to sink Simon’s boat. Lord, give us eyes to see.
So, getting back to Simon and to Isaiah and Jeremiah as well, all were called in their lives as they were living them into deeper, wider service, whose final outcome they did not know. What they did know is that God would catch them, as I quoted earlier from Jeremiah, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you.” In the same vein, Jesus said particularly to Simon because he had protested about his sinfulness, but also to his brother Andrew and to their fishing partners, James and John, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.”
It needs to be remarked on that Simon was willing to make the effort, to do what Jesus told him to do. I think that he must have been impressed by whatever the teaching was that Jesus did from the boat––the gospel doesn’t tell us the substance of that teaching––and also, he must have been impressed at some level that this local celebrity chose his boat to sit in, to teach from. He might have had a little justifiable pride in that, something he could brag to the neighbors about later. Whatever was behind his decision to put out into deeper water and drop the nets again as Jesus urged him to do, he did make that effort, no doubt tired after having been out all night long fishing. Because he made the effort, because the massive numbers of netbreaking fish were caught, he fell on his knees before Jesus, recognizing that he was entirely out of his league and invited the Lord to leave because he was a sinful man. Impulsive, headstrong, a natural leader with a good heart. Jesus knew what he was doing in calling Simon Peter.
Which brings us to the reading from First Corinthians. There is an echo of the prophets’ and Simon Peter’s protests of unworthiness in Paul’s words this morning. “I am the least of the apostles,” he says, “and do not even deserve 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 to me was not without effect.” There aren’t many things more convincing than a convert from one end of the spectrum who hurtles down to the other end. There are also sometimes not many things more obnoxious than such a convert, whatever the basis for the conversion, as in a smoker becoming a nonsmoker. Much to celebrate there, but patience with other smokers is not always the outstanding virtue of the newly smokeless. There seems to be more of a built-in humility with those who are newly sober. They know what went into getting that way and goes into staying that way.
But I digress. Paul is the man at whose feet were placed the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen to death––the first martyr for the new Way, as it was called. A pharisee, Saul, as he was then called, was a zealot in persecuting this new Way, which he saw as a blasphemous violation of the Law of God as revealed in and to Israel. As you know, in his zealotry, he went from house to house, dragging out followers of this new Way, and bringing them before the courts of Law for the meting out of justice. In fact he was on his way to Damascus to persecute more of these followers of Jesus when he was knocked off his horse by a blinding light and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul replied. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting, Now get up, go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” That was it for Paul. He didn’t pass Go, he didn’t collect $200, he obeyed and became the apostle to the Gentiles.
I don’t know whether to consider it God’s humor or irony in Paul’s story, perhaps both. In any case, he was instantly converted to the Way he had been persecuting, and became the missionary to end all missionaries. While I think he was a product of his time and culture as far as what I would call his fundamentalist ideas about women are concerned, I yet appreciate deeply his travels and teaching, his work. Each time I reread what he wrote to the churches he and his helpers established, I learn something new––and helpful. It’s important to note that yes, these are inspired words, but that inspiration comes through a faulty vessel: a human being with limited reasoning power, and limited experience and perspective. Important that we reason and think for ourselves when we come up against something that just doesn’t feel right––like women being silent. Trust your gut is my advice.
With Paul we can say about ourselves that we are the least of the apostles, but like him, by the grace of God, we are what we are, and it is enough. God’s grace to us in the midst of our lives as we are living them does not have to be without effect. And where does that call come from? Do you hear it today in church? In the music? In the readings? In the sermon, the sign of peace, the communion? It can come from an individual, from God himself––true thing––out of the circumstances of our lives, from a conviction out of our reading, from seeing a disaster like Haiti or a celebration of human achievement, like the Olympics on television. The sources of the call and the form it takes are as varied and numerous and individual as the people who are called. And we know it when we hear it, not necessarily with our flesh-and-blood ears, but with our inner ears, if you will, our very souls, responsive to the Spirit of God who is the parent of those souls.
Where in our lives are those shoals of fish? Whatever those fish translate to––perhaps opportunities already present to serve our families and communities––when the Spirit of God gives us that enlightened eye to see, and when we are willing to say yes, even when we are tired and would rather not, then our eye can be opened and we will see. This constitutes an act of faith, at least partly an act of faith in our own selves, least of the apostles that we are, God being greater than our leastness and able to make us utterly useful.
An undeniable help in saying yes and in satisfying the deep hunger behind our response and service, the help that can nourish and enable is the communion we share with each other. Today it is the living bread and the cup of life of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. And we are blessed in that. But every Sunday we have the opportunity to come together to strengthen each other in trying to live the Way that Jesus taught. A third time I remind you what the Lord said to Jeremiah. “Do not be afraid of them for I am with you and will rescue you.” And from among the wonderful last lines of this morning’s psalm 138: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me.” For us. Amen