INTO DEEP WATER
Luke 5:1-11 – The Rev. Helen Havlik
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time – February 10, 2019
After Epiphany our scripture readings help us think about Jesus, his ministry and how people responded to him. In the early days, Jesus preached and taught, performed miracles and gathered disciples. Our gospel text today is the story of the call of Peter and Andrew, James and John, all fishermen based in Capernaum, where Jesus lived for a time. Probably they’re young men, maybe late teens, no older than 22 or 23. They likely already have families to support—we know Peter’s mother-in-law lives in his house. And their lives are about to change. I’m reading from Luke, Ch. 5, beginning with vs. 1. Listen with me to God’s holy word.
My mom loved to fish. Nothing fancy—a bamboo pole and some worms were good enough. My dad took pictures of her on their honeymoon at Crystal Lake, holding up a string of fish. I remember her sitting by the Thornapple River, on 48th St. east of the airport, where people used to fish before they built a new bridge. Considering how active and outgoing she was, she actually was really good at sitting still watching fish flirting with bait. Then just at the right moment, she’d snap her wrist and catch one. Often it was just catch and release—the little ones, at least, she’d throw back. But the bigger ones we’d take home—enough for her and my father to eat while we kids enjoyed our Gorton’s fish sticks.
My personal fishing experience is limited to catching sunnies and bluegills. This was long before I became a vegetarian, and when I finally had to confront the worm issue, I stopped fishing. Things might have been different if I’d known about fly fishing. Fly fishing, of course, is entirely different—from tying the flies to casting the line. Norman MacLean, author of A River Runs through It, calls fly fishing an art and claims there’s more to it than catching fish. “In our family,” he says, “there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. Our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who…told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume…that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen…”
Now if that were true, Peter and Andrew and James and John would’ve had a much harder time making a living one fish at a time! But the fishermen of Lake Gennesaret caught tilapia with dragnets. The best time for this was night, with the winds up so they could raise a sail to push along the wooden boats that skim the surface of this huge fresh water lake. It’s hit or miss at best, with some sunrises revealing full-to-bursting nets, others with nothing to show for a long night’s work. These two sets of young brothers are workers with blistered hands, serious upper body strength, already working endless hours at an unpredictable occupation. What must it have been like for them when Jesus comes to town and begins preaching? Word appears to have spread quickly that he’s worth listening to—and the people who gather soon become huge crowds. How do these fishermen get anything done with all these people standing around on the beach?
Luke at least implies Jesus is well known both to the people of Capernaum and the fishermen. Or at least they know who he is on the surface. They haven’t been in the deep water with him yet. Simon Peter probably listens to Jesus day in and day out, not giving much thought to it—like having the tv on while you’re working in another room. Then something you hear gets your attention, and you pick up a towel to wipe your hands as you walk over to get a better look at the screen. What was in the background moves to center stage. And so it is with Simon Peter and the others. What may have been background noise in the scene of making a daily living suddenly takes on importance and the time is right for something to change. In the everyday life of the fishermen on Lake Gennesaret, Jesus and the crowds are part of the scenery until one day Jesus does something he appears not to have done before. After nothing to show for a night of fishing, he advises the fishermen, “put down your nets over there.” Simon Peter could have said, forget it. You may draw a crowd, but we’re the fish experts, thanks anyway. But Simon has seen Jesus in action long enough to be willing to show him some respect—well, at least to humor the teacher, and what do they have to lose?
Long after my fishing days are over, I’m 32 years old and working in commun-ications at an insurance company in Philadelphia. Every day I get to my desk by 7:30. There are deadlines to meet, interviews to conduct, stories to plan, and I like it well enough. Then the editor’s job opens up. Though I expect to be promoted, I’m not. Suddenly what seemed like background noise becomes very important and I start to wonder how much I really like my job afterall. At the same time, after being involved in my church for awhile, I had never considered it anything but back-ground noise. Church was where you went on Sunday—and not much more. Some-times you can look and look at something and never see the forest for the trees. Simon Peter and the others look at Jesus and see what? A popular teacher, maybe a person worthy of respect and deference. But more than that? They’re too busy fishing—I’m too busy working—to see the difference between respect and awe.
Then, like Simon Peter and the others, my day comes. To humor friends who think I need a change in my life, I go to a slide show about a mission trip to Central America, skeptical that it will even be interesting. Sometimes it happens like that. The “thing” that changes your life comes up out of the deep water, in the midst of your skepticism. Something you’ve never noticed before becomes the only thing in the world that matters—and as you let go to grab it, you are released to something new. It might be a spectacular vision like Isaiah’s—the Bible talks a lot about those. But it might be as simple as pieces of some puzzle falling into place. And as your life changes, you know nothing will be the same again. At the moment it might seem like a bolt from the blue, but looking back is when you see change was just a long time in coming. And you are caught.
What happens to Simon Peter and what happened to Isaiah and to me, and to a lot of people before and since is known as a “call and commissioning.” Or in fishing terms “catch and release.” Simon starts out a fisher of fish and becomes a fisher of people. It isn’t as sudden as it might appear. Simon Peter thinks he knows Jesus, but his experience that day fishing in deep water opens his eyes wider to see in Jesus not just another teacher, but the Almighty God. Just like that, Simon’s the catch as he falls to his knees to worship and to declare his unworthiness to be in the presence of the divine. That’s how a call from God happens. We meet God in a new way, a way that even might seem too good to be true—and because it’s God, we always feel inadequate. Usually we complain, “I’m not good enough” or “I couldn’t possibly do that,” but that doesn’t change the fact we’re called.
And that’s not all. Once called, we’re commissioned—released—thrown back into the world with a task to do in the service of God’s purposes. The task can be just about anything—but it always brings us and others closer to God. This kind of catch and release—where you and I and anyone else hear this call and answer—isn’t usually as dramatic as what happened to Simon Peter and Isaiah. I just go to hear about a mission trip and feel the urge to devote myself more fully to God despite my unworthiness to do so. Not long after, I realize my task is pastoral ministry. Actually not such a huge change—someone once told me, “it’s really not so different from what you were doing—it’s just a different kind of life insurance.”
That’s me—what about you? We can put down our nets in a lot of different places, but until Jesus Christ is more to us than just background noise, until we drop our nets into deeper water, until his call and his work are the things that really matter, you and I won’t have much to show for our long life’s work. It actually may take almost a lifetime for us to hear the call, but when we do, those words of assurance will fill our dragnets to overflowing. And the only response possible will be to leave what we thought we had, what we always thought we wanted, to follow him, even when he takes us into deep water.