The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 10, 2019
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 138; I Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11

From the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke, “(Jesus said to Simon Peter) ‘Put out into the deep water.’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     At one time our family owned a wonderful residence on the shores of Lake Huron that became our summer home year after year. It was on those shores that I fell in love with fishing. Now I would like to tell you that I always had a big catch, but more often than not, truthfully, most times I caught nothing or anything I did catch was rather small in size. You see, even though I knew that the big fish were farther out, I preferred to stay close to the shore. Oh, I might wade into the waters up to my knees, but that was about it. See, there was something reassuring about staying close to shore, to fishing from the safety of standing where the water was clear enough to see the sandy bottom below me.

     I thought of those fishing days while reading and saying my prayers over today’s scripture lessons, especially our gospel. You see, Luke tells a different kind of fishing story, one that invites further reflection. And it is made all the more intriguing when it is read in the context of our other scripture lessons that appear to be about calls to ministry but are much, much more than that.

     Isaiah was content in his work as a Temple employee in Jerusalem when he had an incredible experience of the presence of God. Today’s Old Testament lesson is usually described as Isaiah’s call to ministry and yet that is not true. See, in the midst of Isaiah’s vision of God’s glory complete with Seraphim flying about, incredible sights, sounds, and smells, God calls out, “Who will go for us?” Isaiah steps forward and says, “Here I am, send me.” He volunteers. This lesson is not about a call, but rather, it is about responding to a need and volunteering to help. The truth is that Isaiah has no idea what his ministry, his service will be and yet, he gives himself to it just the same. He steps forward in faith knowing that God will supply his needs and will not let him down.   

Now, the message that Isaiah will bring to the people is a difficult one to hear. Rather than urging a change of course, rather than warning that destruction is coming, he tells the people to just keep on doing what they’ve been doing because it’s too late! Their nation’s fate is already sealed. His generation will be defeated and exiled. Their hope will lie in future generations who will recognize the folly of their ancestors and choose to live differently. They will be a remnant and testimony to God’s faithfulness to those who choose to embrace God’s values and make those values their way of life. In so choosing, that future generation will reap the benefits of God’s mercy and grace. Isaiah’s message is difficult for him to pronounce and for the people to hear and yet, for those who will believe, it is a promise of God’s faithfulness. Isaiah’s words, “Here I am, send me” serve as a reminder that we may not understand how God will use us in the course of daily life and yet, we have the assurance that in stepping into the unknown in order to serve as God wills, God’s redemption, grace and mercy will always follow.

     St. Paul has been urging the Corinthian Church to stop their bitter arguing. The church was fracturing into various groups with the tongues folk over here, the prophecy folk over there, the poor at the back, and the wealthy up front. Each group claimed to have a special revelation from God, a special experience of God’s grace and so, each claimed to be more important than the other. In today’s reading from his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says the church is called to proclaim one thing and one thing alone: Jesus Christ, who lived, died and rose again. All else, all signs and wonders mean nothing without faith in Christ. What is fascinating is that each group professed that same faith and yet, they allowed their God-given gifts and abilities to get in the way of life and ministry that is supposed to proclaim and demonstrate that faith, a faith born out of God’s mercy, love and grace for all who believe regardless of one’s gifts, skills and abilities. Paul says what matters most in this world, what has the greatest impact in this world, is our choosing to live the gospel – our choosing to be people who embody and demonstrate God’s forgiveness, love, mercy and grace in every word and deed. Paul urges the church to step forward and be that good news of the gospel to whomever we meet. 

     Now how do these stories fit with this morning’s gospel lesson? Well, we tend to look at this story as Peter’s call to ministry. In the context of his career as a fisherman, it comes across as a metaphor for all of us to become “fishers of people” as Jesus says at the story’s end. But, I find this lesson is so much deeper than a man’s call to ministry, even deeper than our own calls to ministry.

     We know the story well: Peter and his friends have spent the entire night fishing and caught absolutely nothing. Jesus appears on the shore and says “put out into the deep water and let down your nets.” Now, think about that a moment. Peter has been fishing all his life. He knows the sea. He knows how to fish just as he knows that big fish live in deep water. And suddenly, a carpenter, a preacher, dares to tell him what to do? “Look, Jesus, I know what I’m doing. Who are you to tell me otherwise?” Hmmm. Have you ever said that to God? “Look, Lord, I already know what you want me to do, how you want me to live. I’ve read all the stories in the Bible. I come to church every week. I say the prayers. I make my Communion. I even share coffee and fellowship afterwards. I pledge and even tithe. And don’t forget, I serve on this commission and help that ministry. I am very busy here at this church. I know what I’m doing because I know all about what it means to tell people I am a Christian.” Jesus hears us and yet he still says, “Put out into the deep water …” Hmmm.

     You know, all my fishing adventures on the shores of Lake Huron were undertaken from the safety of the shallows. Wading into deeper water was scary. It still is. The water is darker and you can’t see the bottom. Staying in the shallows with the minnows circling my feet didn’t take much courage. But minnows don’t feed people. The bigger fish, the greater need, is out there in the deep, in the dark, in the unknown. Jesus tells Peter, “Put out into the deep water…” and Peter starts to respond, “Look I know what I’m doing” but he catches himself. He realizes who Jesus is. And his response changes to “Yet, if you say so I’ll let down the nets.” Like Isaiah’s “Here I am, send me”, like St. Paul’s “I am the least of the apostles … and yet God’s grace to me is not in vain”, each of us is asked to “put out into the deep water.” Sometimes, like Isaiah found, venturing into the deep reveals a need to change, or as St. Paul found, sometimes putting out into the deep means recognizing where one has been caught up in “doing church” and grasping once again what truly matters and makes a difference in this world is “being church.”

     See, today’s lessons are about far more than one’s call to ministry. They offer a spiritual truth. There is a time for classes and learning and listening, to hearing sermons and worshipping together as people of God. And this parish worships beautifully and our self-giving, dedicated service to this community is an example to the entire diocese. This congregation not only understands, but we try to embody and demonstrate every day our commitment to seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and we truly strive to uphold the dignity of every human being. And yet, those words “put out into the deep water” have gnawed at my heart and mind all week because our lessons are more than an affirmation of our ministry and life together. They are an invitation for each of us to leave our own shallows, wade into those deep waters that surround our own hearts and minds, and seek to deepen our personal relationship with God in Christ. For some, that might mean a renewed commitment to daily prayer. For others, more time spent in Bible study and personal reflection. I don’t know what that deep water will reveal for you and in you. But this I do know: just as Peter discovered an abundance of fish, if we will put out into that deep water we will find an abundance of God’s grace, the abundance that comes from a renewed and deeper relationship with God. An abundance that will help each of us not only do church together, but be the church in this world, to live and be the gospel. For as St. Paul said, that is what matters most.

     Beloved, our Lord forever calls God’s people to “Put out into the deep water.” May God grant us the grace and the courage to leave our shallows and follow him. Amen.