“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Luke 5:1-11
I’d like for you to think about a time when you took a big risk. Jumped off a diving board for the first time. Tried out for a team. Asked someone out. Moved to an unfamiliar place. Started a new job. Trusted someone with a secret you’d been holding close.
I can think of many risks that I’ve taken in my own life, and every single time I was scared. It’s not that I didn’t trust God. It’s just that I would have preferred to know the outcome ahead of time. I’d like to assess at the outset whether something will work out successfully. I’ve often longed for some version of a crystal ball so that I could know how things would unfold after the big leap.
But that’s not how it works. We can’t know where those leaps will land us. Maybe that’s for the best – because knowing what the future will bring might keep us from doing the very things through which God helps us grow. In reality, if we never took risks, our lives would be much smaller. We’d never make friends. We’d never travel or move to a different place or change jobs. We’d never fall in love or have children. We’d never try anything new.
One of the riskiest things we can do is to listen for God’s voice in our lives and try to follow where it leads. In church we often talk about that in terms of vocation – or calling. What does God call us to do? That might sound like a lot of religious mumbo-jumbo, but what it really means is that we believe God can work through the roles we inhabit in daily life to make the world a more peaceful, just, and loving place. Our commitments as parents, as siblings, as children, as friends, as colleagues, as supervisors, as citizens, as volunteers – all of those roles can be lived out in a way that embodies our commitments as people of faith.
But it’s risky. Relationships of any kind can be messy. They take work. It would be more comfortable to hold back, to play it safe.
In today’s readings we have several examples of people responding to God’s call in their lives. Isaiah’s call story in the First Reading has all the elements of a dramatic movie scene. There are angels with six wings and a smoke-filled room and a voice out of nowhere. Notice that Isaiah initially responds by claiming he is unworthy: “I am a man of unclean lips,” he says. But when he realizes that God has removed his guilt, Isaiah has a different response. When God asks, “Whom shall I send?” the answer is there: “Here am I. Send me.”
Here am I. Send me. Isaiah has no idea how the rest of his life will unfold if he says yes, but he says yes anyway. And believe me, his life turns out to be a bit crazy at times. Being a prophet is not easy work.
And then there’s Simon Peter in today’s gospel. After a long and weary night of fishing without success, Jesus tells Peter to go out to the deep water and try again. Peter’s first response sounds like what any of us would say when are tired down to our bones: “Master, we have worked all night long and caught nothing.” Why do you want me to do this thing that sounds foolish and unproductive, Jesus? I am exhausted. I not doing the job I already have very well, and you want me to do something more?
But Peter gives it a try. Without knowing what will happen – and probably feeling a little grumpy, maybe even a tad resentful about it – Peter goes out to the deeper waters. He and his comrades haul in so many fish that their nets start falling apart.
The risk pays off. But still Peter tries another excuse to keep Jesus at arm’s length: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” I’m not really worthy of doing this thing you want me to do. There’s probably someone with a better track record to do whatever it is you have in mind. Pick somebody else, Jesus. By now Peter is starting to see what Jesus makes possible, and it must have been both thrilling and terrifying.
This strange fishing expedition is just the beginning. Jesus asks Simon Peter, James, and John to come with him, to follow him into the deep waters of a life of discipleship. To leave behind the familiar and try something unimaginable.
They do it. They leave everything behind and follow Jesus. Just like that.
I don’t know what the deep waters are for you right now. Maybe there’s something your family is trying to figure out. Maybe you’re contemplating a change of some kind. Maybe there’s a difficult conversation that you’ve been avoiding. Maybe you or someone dear to you is facing some scary medical decisions. You know what those deep waters are in your life, even if you don’t know what will happen when you venture there. You can’t know. None of us can. We know only that God is with us.
In the midst of our uncertainty, it can feel risky to live and speak and act as followers of Jesus. We worry about getting labeled as a “Jesus freak.” We worry about how people will look at us if they know we are one of those churchgoing Christians. So we can be full of excuses to keep our spiritual life undercover. I’m not worthy, we whisper. Choose someone else. I’m just too tired.
A writer named Debie Thomas has this to say about following Jesus:
We don’t follow Jesus in the abstract. We don’t heed his call “in general,” as if Christianity comes down to nothing more than attending church or being a nice person. If we’re going to follow him at all, we’ll have to do it in the particulars of the lives, communities, cultures, families, and vocations we find ourselves in. We’ll have to trust that God prizes our intellects, our backgrounds, our educations, and our skills, and that [God] will bless and multiply the daily stuff of our lives for [God’s] purposes.[i]
I know that God prizes the gifts and talents and backgrounds and heart and experiences that each of you brings to the needs of the world. I have seen it again and again. What I hope and pray is that you will trust those gifts that you have – trust them so much that you’re willing to climb back into the boat and head out for deeper waters – even when it feels risky.
One of my favorite prayers is sometimes called the Prayer of Good Courage. It’s in our cranberry-colored hymnal Evangelical Lutheran Worship as part of a service called Evening Prayer. I invite you in this moment to breathe deeply and pray with me:
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.[ii] Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“Truly, I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” Luke 4:24
We talk a lot about expectations. The best teachers have high expectations for their students. Parents have certain expectations, both spoken and unspoken, for what their children might do with their lives. You can say what you want about today’s Super Bowl match-up, but we all expect that Tom Brady will have another incredible game.
Things can get tricky when we face competing expectations. Maybe your job places certain demands on you that get in the way of being present for your family. It’s hard to negotiate the expectations of your boss or your colleagues alongside the expectations of your children or your spouse or your parents.
Perhaps the worst feeling is when we have high expectations of ourselves but keep falling short. We want to meet some imaginary standard that we’ve created in our own minds, but for whatever reason, it just doesn’t seem to happen.
When we meet up with Jesus in today’s gospel, it’s an immediate continuation of last week’s gospel in which he stood up in front of his hometown synagogue and declared that he fulfills a Jewish prophetic text promising good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. He is essentially saying to a crowd of people who have known him his whole life that he is the messiah, the Savior who has been anticipated across centuries of Jewish history.
If you had a chance to read the first four chapters of Luke this week, perhaps you noticed how this gospel sets up some high expectations for Jesus.
When the angel Gabriel comes to announce to Mary that she will be the mother of this holy child, the angel says about the baby: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” This baby will have a royal pedigree, descending from King David as the messiah was supposed to do (Luke 1:32).
When Mary sings her song of praise after meeting up with her relative Elizabeth, she sings of a Savior who has the power to topple the powerful and lift the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty – a bold vision, but one that, as she reminds us, is “according to the promise [the Lord] made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1:55).
An old man named Zechariah speaks another prophecy about Jesus before he is born: “The Lord God of Israel…has raised up a mighty savior for us…that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (Luke 1:69-71). Zechariah reminds his listeners that the arrival of this Savior is a fulfillment of that long-ago promise that God made to Abraham – to be rescued from all enemies, to receive forgiveness and salvation.
We see scenes of Jesus growing up as a good Jewish boy. He is brought to the temple at eight days old to be circumcised. His parents bring sacrifices to the temple according to the law. When Jesus is twelve, his parents take him to Jerusalem for the Passover, and when he goes missing, they find Jesus having deep conversations with the teachers in (where else?) the temple.
Before he is born, when he is a baby, when he is an adolescent, when he is a grown man – so many expectations to be all that the Jewish people throughout time have been waiting for.
With those weighty expectations as a backdrop, imagine the crowd in today’s gospel as they try to bring together this man they’ve known for years with the messiah he claims to be. They have watched him grow up. He played with the neighborhood kids and loved his parents and occasionally got into trouble. But now he’s standing before them declaring that he is going to free the oppressed.
At first the people seem pleased. All spoke well of him, it says. All were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. But five minutes later they are trying to throw him off a cliff, filled with rage at what they’ve heard. What happened? What turned Jesus from hometown hero to heretic?
One possible answer is in the two stories to which Jesus refers. In the first story he reminds them of a time when there was a great famine throughout the land, and the prophet Elijah was sent to help not the widows of Israel, but a widow in Zarephath. Zarephath – a Syro-Phoenician town in Sidon, along the Mediterranean Sea. So Jesus is pointing out that Elijah assisted a Gentile woman, a non-Jewish person, saving her from starvation.
In another story a different prophet – Elisha this time – guides Namaan the leper, a Syrian, to some healing waters that remove his disease. There were plenty of lepers in Israel, but it’s the Syrian who is cured. God is healing and blessing even the enemies of Israel.
It’s almost like Jesus is taunting his audience, deliberate riling them up by challenging their expectations of him. You’re supposed to be our guy, they must be thinking. Surely there will be some perks to knowing you. Surely we will get some preferential treatment.
But instead Jesus seems to be saying: I am more than what you expect me to be. I am not limited to what you want me to do for you. I have come for all people – even the ones you can’t stand.
We can dismiss the fickle nature of Jesus’ audience all those centuries ago, but what happens when we try to understand Jesus’ expansive love in our own time? Imagine if Jesus showed up here and reminded us that he is not here just to hold our hands and tell us everything is going to be OK. He’s also here to move beyond the boundaries of nations and denominations that we’ve drawn so firmly. He’s here to defy the categories that we’ve created. He’s here to care for the neighbor who is nasty to us all the time. He’s here to love the adversary who brings out the worst in us. He’s here for the KKK member. He’s here for the homophobe. He’s here for the drug dealer.
We don’t like to hear this part of Jesus’ mission. One of my favorite writers Anne Lamott has famously quoted her priest friend Tom, who says, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.[i] Picture the person who makes you the most angry – someone you know personally or someone you know only by reputation or from the news. Jesus is here to love that person too – to pursue that person’s redemption and transformation.
And Jesus would go on to tell us that he’s here for the people we often overlook – the homeless and the hungry, the prisoners, the addicts, the victims of violence and abuse and all of the “isms” of our own making. He asks us to join him in standing with them and for them.
Jesus comes to change our way of seeing and responding to the world around us. In spite of all that we’ve done or not done, all the expectations met or unmet, all of the hatreds and prejudices that we hold in our hearts – Jesus is here to transform us.
We may not always like it, but that’s why Jesus is Jesus and we are not.
Before we throw him off that cliff, maybe we should let him do his thing. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ