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Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Luke 5:1-11 A Surprising Catch One way to approach this story might be to ask, "How big is your boat?" An extraordinary archaeological find, a first-century boat from the Sea of Galilee, is 26.5 feet long, 7.5 feet wide, and 4.5 feet high, giving us a pretty good idea of the size of Simon Peter’s boat. Since men of Simon’s time were about five feet, five inches tall, that makes the boat plenty deep. It would have held a lot of fish, and it would have taken a lot to sink it. And it would have taken something very big to get its crew simply to walk away from it and the livelihood it must have represented. In fact, we read in the Gospel of Matthew (this fish story is in all the Gospels) that Zebedee, the father of two of the fishermen-turned-disciples, stayed in the boat. After all, someone had to clean up all that fish and get it to the people who were hungry, and the everyday work had to go on. Our boats – our sources of livelihood and security – are substantial, too. It would take a lot for us to walk away from them. Like Zebedee, it strikes us as wholly unrealistic and perhaps even irresponsible to walk away from our work and the people it supports, including ourselves. But then perhaps that’s not the point of the story. What matters is the response of Simon, now Simon Peter already, to something far beyond his understanding, something that makes him painfully aware of his own limitations and unworthiness. His awe, translated so well by Eugene Peterson, "I’m a sinner and can’t handle this holiness. Leave me to myself," helps us understand better the phrase, "fear of the Lord." And yet Jesus’ first words are, "Do not be afraid." Consoling words, found often in the Good News, and followed closely by a reassuring commission that holds within it a risky invitation that makes a boat groaning with a load of fish look like a picnic in the park! We’ve already gotten a taste of the danger Jesus is in when the folks in his own hometown of Nazareth try to throw him off a cliff after he preaches in the synagogue, a chapter before this one. He had drawn on the words of Isaiah to lay out his purposes for the poor and the downtrodden, and he was very clear that this message was going to appeal to people outside the comfort zone of his listeners. It wasn’t a pretty sight when the synagogue crowd chased him to the cliff, but this compelling Jesus walked away from them, passing right through them and moving into other areas to continue his ministry of healing and teaching. In those places, he found an enthusiastic audience, and he needed a boat to get out in the water, just the shallow end, to address the great crowds. One might imagine that Jesus wanted to say so much that he needed more than words to express the abundance of God’s love and the overflowing power of God’s grace, "far more than all we could ask or imagine" (Ephesians 3:20). So he decided to show them as well, urging the tired fishermen to strike out into the deep rather than head safely home after a long day. The yield was more than enough to convince them that something really big was happening here, and in their encounter with Jesus they were keenly aware that life held much more possibility than fishing for fish. Some scholars say that the relationship Simon Peter entered into with Jesus was a "client-patron" one, where "family-like" bonds provided help when the family couldn’t. "A patron is someone who can get for you something you could not obtain by your own abilities, or on better terms than you could arrange for yourself" (Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, Cycle C). Like a boat groaning with fish, perhaps, or a mission field inviting us to leave our comfort zones and prepare for results beyond our wildest imaginings. Of course, there is more than one way to approach this text. We might also explore what it means to "strike out into the deep," when we’re tired and convinced that there are no more people interested in the good news we offer, especially when our popular culture offers such enticing invitations in other directions. "The deep" might represent those places we would rather not go, the places of discomfort and danger and unfamiliarity, where we might "get in over our heads." What if we become Open and Affirming and "too many" of "those people" show up? ("They" are, after all, the spiritually hungry and homeless ones.) What if we welcome people living with mental illness, and their families? How will we "deal" with the situations that may arise? What if we call a woman as our pastor? There are just too many things that could go wrong, and we may be better off just calling it a day and staying here, in the shallow water, drying our nets as we should, and disappointed by the results of our efforts. Today we have difficulty imagining what it means to "leave it all behind" unless we do something quite unusual, along the lines of becoming a missionary or drastically changing our lifestyle. And so we wistfully read this story once again this Epiphany season, and go back to our nets and our ordinary lives as if this story were not about us, and this call were not ours, too. But what if we can in fact clean the nets and strike out again in the morning to do the work of our lives and yet, at the same time, live lives true to the gospel, given to God, faithful to the Word that called Simon and his partners away? What if our lives could be transformed right where they are, with the people we love and know? Can our imaginations open us up to epiphanies all around us, wonders that challenge our expectations, as Renita Weems has described miracles (New Proclamation Year C 2001)? After all, she says, the last thing those "tired fishermen" were expecting was a showing of God’s awesome power right there, at the end of another workday. Why couldn’t the same be said of our workdays: that they hold the possibility of seeing God’s hand at work in our lives and all around us? Weems says that "Jesus still shows up and surprises us," and we can find our lives changed forever. It’s an intensely personal experience, and Weems challenges preachers to get up in the pulpit and speak from their own personal experience of such awe and wonder, instead of just making "dry homiletical pronouncements we pasted in our mind that evaporate in the sanctuary air as soon as we utter them because they are spoken devoid of passion and personal witness." If preachers get such a sharing started, perhaps the people in the pews and those who read our website and those who meet us wherever we are, at the nets or sitting in hospital waiting rooms, might hear a word of good news so compelling that their lives, too, would never be the same. It is somewhat fashionable to read the Bible through scientific eyes, checking out the "wonders" to decide whether there is some "rational" explanation for them. Fortunately, Simon had sense enough to be open to a wonder when he saw one. As we celebrate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the United Church of Christ, we might reflect on wonders in the history of our denomination and in the lives of our congregations. We might also consider the deep waters still calling us to new ministry, new insights, new experiences of faithfulness and wonder.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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