Epiphany 5: Isaiah 6:1-8, (Jeremiah 1:4-10), Luke 5:1-11
February 6, 2022
When I was growing up, I had elder cousins, grandparent-like figures in my life, with whom I spent time in summer months at Lake Tahoe, sleeping in a tent pitched on a wooden platform. Many mornings well before dawn, the husband of this couple would take me fishing. He was such an avid fisherman, everyone joked about how apt it was that his name was Rod. Sometimes we fished out on Lake Tahoe, starting well before dawn. But more often by my request we drove up over Luther Pass to the remote, breathtakingly beautiful Blue Lakes to fish from the rocky shore. So much of this experience was a waiting game, and all too often the waiting was not rewarded with fish. The worst was losing one. There was the thrill of the sudden tensing of the line, the scooping up of the pole with a deliberate yank to set the hook before the laborious reeling in…. until the fish swam through an old, submerged stump, or some underwater crevice, some mysterious thwarting force, and the line would break. It wasn’t just me—good as he was, Rod often didn’t do any better. But then one summer my cousin Daniel, one of Rod’s grandsons, visited from the east coast. He was my age but a much more experienced fisherman. Rod and I took him to the Blue Lakes, delighting in sharing the scenery with him while also carefully lowering expectations about the fishing itself. We made our way to our starting spot and watched as he cast out into the deep water. A minute went by. Suddenly, the rod practically leapt off the rock. He grabbed it and before we knew it, he’d brought in a fish. He baited the hook and cast it out again. Bang! Another. And another. Rod and I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t seem to be doing much different than what we had been doing for the last several years, but something clearly had changed.
“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch,” Jesus says to Simon Peter in our reading from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 5:1-10). Jesus says this to his friend and follower just after he had finished teaching crowds who had gathered along the Gennesaret lake shore (the Sea of Galilee). So large were these crowds, and so hungry – “pressing in on him to hear the word of God,” as the text puts it – that he needed some distance to be heard. Perhaps even to hear himself think. I recall, too, how sound can carry over water—it can be hard to remember when you’re in a boat far away from others, how easily your commentary can disrupt the quiet reverie of other fisherfolk. I wonder if the water served as a kind of natural microphone for Jesus, carrying his voice out to the crowd. But now Jesus was pivoting, calling them to into something different – and yet not so different. Simon’s initial comment is all too easy to understand: “we have worked all night long but have caught nothing” (Luke 5:5a). It was now morning in the wake of an exhausting, dispiriting night. Fishing was no leisure activity for Simon and companions, but their livelihood. They used nets, not poles. Those nets were being cleaned in preparation for their next usage in several hours, but not now. Inertia would have moved Simon in the direction of the day’s routine, hopefully including rest before returning later to the boat. But now Jesus was telling him to turn around, to both disrupt his pattern and return to it, to try the same thing he had done before and expect a different outcome. How could Simon not resist such a call, at least initially?
The pattern of God’s call prompting resistance before leading to transformation is well worn. Last week in our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-10), God calls Jeremiah to “go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.” But Jeremiah was not prepared for such a charge: “Ah, Lord God!” he declared, “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." But God was not impressed. “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy.’” And if the issue for Jeremiah was a sense of overwhelm, of being too small for such a large task, God was full of assurance: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” The prophet Isaiah in this week’s first reading (Isaiah 6:1-8) is also initially completely overwhelmed. To be before the throne of the living God, to see the Holy One who had once declared to Moses, “no one shall see me and live” (Exodus 33:20), evoked a response of woe from Isaiah. But as with Jeremiah whose mouth God touched, Isaiah’s mouth is made ready to answer God’s call by a live coal carried by a sci-fi worthy Seraph. That both Jeremiah and Isaiah hesitate significantly when God calls them, that it takes significant intervention before saying “here am I, send me,” makes complete sense.
God bless him, Simon’s resistant reply to Jesus about having already fished with a less than successful outcome was not a standalone statement. He quickly follows it with, “yet if you say so, I will let down the nets” (5:5b). Exhausted limitation followed by an expansive yet. What is it about Jesus that could inspire such a yet? Perhaps it helps that he’s sitting right there with Simon in the boat, very hard to say no to. But there was something more. Something that caused people to drop everything and follow him. And so Simon maneuvers the boat further out, into the deep water and lets down those nets once again. As we know, they fill with fish, so many that the nets threaten to break. Simon’s companions James and John, the sons of Zebedee, are quickly called to come help—I wonder how long Simon and Jesus had to wait in precarious, sinking limbo during this scramble? But even with two boats there are so many fish that both start to sink. What a scene. All of them, especially Simon, are beside themselves, amazed. How could doing this same action, performed amid exhaustion after a fruitless all-night effort, have brought about such a radically different result?
As I consider the disciples’ reaction to this turn of events, it strikes me that their amazement contains multitudes. I find myself thinking how I react to situations when I’m trying to do something, beating my head against it, and whatever it is, is just not working as it should. You keep trying to make the thing work, and then someone else comes along, tells you to do the very same thing you’ve been doing (which can be rather irritating), and then the thing suddenly works? (Which, even if you’re happy about the outcome, can be, if we’re honest, even more irritating!) If you think about it, in Simon’s case, Jesus was asking him to return to the thing that hadn’t been working after Simon had stopped doing it for the day. This is not a situation where Simon was out fishing and Jesus called from the shore with advice. (That actually does happen as a resurrection story in John – John 21:1-14.) Here, Jesus was asking Simon to pivot at a moment when he had been headed in a different direction—the exhaustion followed by the expansive yet. When Simon Peter (as he is referred to in this moment) falls to his knees in what I imagine as a now lopsided, sinking boat among a ton of flopping fish, he isn’t simply amazed. He says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” What a response. This is not some version of “wow! thank you!” This is a truly human reaction. I read it as a combination of Is this what following you will be like? What have I gotten myself into? I’m not sure I’m either worthy or capable of answering your call. It’s just too much. Go away from me. This is an amazement that contains so much—exhaustion, futility somehow overturned, and fear. Jesus directly addresses this fear: “do not be afraid.” But I wonder, did the next phrase help? “From now on you will be catching people.” This is not an invitation, as Justo Gonzalez notes in his commentary on Luke: it is a declaration. You will continue to fish, my friend. Follow me and you will continue to do what you do and be who you are, but in different, new ways, in unexpected, inconvenient times and places. You will extend beyond your comfort zones, and your life in and with me will be wildly abundant. I’m not sure how comforting Jesus’ statement would have sounded to Simon Peter and the others, but it was clearly deeply compelling. After they got to shore, that little band “left everything and followed him.” That expansive “yet” had opened a door to new life.
St. Aidan’s friends, as we make our way in this glorious season of Epiphany, and as we turn later today to our Annual Meeting, Jesus’ call comes to us: we like Simon are called out into the deeper water, to let down our nets anew in this place. This place, 101 Gold Mine Drive. This neighborhood, Diamond Heights, in which we have both continued to minister and to which we have returned more fully as the waves of this pandemic have allowed this past year. Already, we have been leaning further into this call in a variety of ways. I think of our pivoting the Food Pantry back to the Farmer’s Market style over the summer, and our Good News Gardening days spearheaded by our Margaret Dyer-Chamberlain. And of course I think of our worship that shifted into a hybrid mode over the summer, rooted here and also joining those among us who cannot be here in person. We have traveled far. We have done much. We may well be tired, and at times overwhelmed amid the waves of this moment in our world and in our own lives. And yet, even so, even now, we are invited, urged, charged afresh: put out into the deeper waters. Let down your nets. See what I have in store for you, fishers of people.
To return to my story of Rod, Daniel, and the Blue Lakes, I am glad to say that Daniel was not the only one who caught fish that day or subsequent days when we fished together. Rod and I both caught them as well. We caught so many fish that summer. It was as if Daniel had opened some sort of portal, cast some kind of magic, caught an abundance that opened something new for all of us. What a breathtaking privilege. Friends, so too is this call. So too is this life we have together. Jesus calls us out of our fatigue or overwhelm, amid our shortcomings and gifts, out of our anxieties or certainties, indeed out of the familiar even in its midst. We are called into deeper waters together, right here, into the mystery and amazement of abundant life. Thanks be to God.
 Justo Gonzalez, Luke: A Theological Commentary (Westminster John Knox, 2010), 75.