Sermon - 5th Sunday After Epiphany (2/10/2019)
Is. 6:1-8; Ps. 138; 1 Cor. 15:1-11, Lk. 5:1-11
The gospel readings over the last few weeks have painted a consistent picture of the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. Three weeks ago, we read about a wedding in Cana where there was no wine, and what kind of wedding is it where there is no wine? But Jesus gave some instructions about filling stone jars with water, which didn’t make much sense, but they did it, and then there was plenty of wine for everyone. And those who saw what had happened knew that the kingdom of God had become present in their midst. Today the fishermen had worked all night long and caught no fish, and what kind of fishermen are they who catch no fish? Jesus gave some instructions that didn’t make much sense to them, but they did it, and then there were more fish than they knew how to handle. And they knew that somehow the presence of God had come into their lives.
Over the last two weeks, we read about the return of Jesus to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. Where he proclaimed the arrival of God’s kingdom: sight to the blind, release to prisoners, the year of God’s favor, good news to the poor. But he was unable to work any signs there, because it turned out that the people of Nazareth wanted God’s favor only for themselves – and when Jesus told them that God’s favor was just as much, if not more, for the outsiders as for them, they said No, and drove Jesus out of town. The people of Nazareth were happy to receive God’s gift, but only if it was God’s confirmation of how special they were. But if Jesus is announcing a free gift of God that God offers to just anyone, if it’s about how good God is and not how deserving the people of Nazareth are, then they needed to immediately get Jesus out of town and out of their lives.
Today, Jesus announces the same good news of God to the people of a small fishing village in Galilee. And Jesus demonstrates to the fishermen of the village the abundance of God’s goodness and care for God’s beloved children, just as he had done at the wedding celebration in Cana. And the initial response of Simon the fisherman to the good news announced by Jesus, is like the response of the people of Nazareth: No. Leave me, Lord. I do not want this gift. Please go away.
Notice that, in the text we read today, Jesus is not asking Simon to take on any leadership role or special position among his disciples. Jesus will ask those things of Simon, who of course we know better as Peter, but those come later in the story, not in the passage we read today. Jesus had not even asked Peter yet to become a follower. At this point Jesus has only asked Peter for two things: one, to let him stand in the boat so he could speak better to the crowd at the lakeshore, and two, to put his fishing nets into the deep water. And Peter did both of these things. But when Peter sees a living demonstration of the abundant love of God that Jesus has come to announce – before Jesus can ask anything more of him, Peter takes the initiative to say No. This gift is not for me. Leave me, Lord. Please go away.
Now Simon Peter was a faithful Jew of first-century Galilee, and he knew how according to his tradition one politely says No to God. Simon knew the story of the call of the prophet Isaiah that we read today. Woe is me, said Isaiah, for I am a man of unclean lips. I am not worthy to be in the presence of God or to speak God’s word. So this is what Simon echoes to Jesus: Leave me, Lord, I am a sinful man. You don’t know me. The gift of God’s abundant presence is not for somebody like me. Really. Please go away.
Why? I mean, there is no doubt that Simon was a sinner. In the way that all of us are, none of us is perfect, none of us measures up to God. And if you know the rest of the story, Peter in fact gets a lot of things wrong. He tries to stop Jesus from going to Jerusalem, he denies Jesus once they get there. The Scriptures do not hide Peter’s flaws, his misunderstandings, his betrayals of Jesus and the gospel. But Peter’s mistakes are not really much different than anybody else’s. We all have our flaws, we all fail to live up to the gospel, and if Peter isn’t worthy of God’s love revealed in Jesus, then none of us are worthy of it.
So, really, why does Peter say No? Jesus comes proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of God has arrived. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim good news to the poor. Release to captives. The year of God’s favor, forgiveness of debts, freedom for slaves, return of ancestral lands to their rightful owners. People living in right relationship again with God and their neighbors, people living in the good world that God created for them, free from fear, free from scarcity, free from everything that prevents them from living into fullness of the beloved children of God they were made to be. Who would not think this is good news? Who could say No to that vision and that gift?
A lot of people, as it turns out. A lot of people heard the good news Jesus announced and said No. The people of Nazareth who said to Jesus, No, and get out of here before we throw you off the cliff. And – at least in his first reaction – Simon Peter, who said to Jesus, No, and please go away and leave me alone. Why? What is it in us that makes it so difficult to accept the good news that God wants to renew us, and renew all of creation, and to make us all whole and reconciled with one another? Why is our first impulse so often No?
Part of it, I think, is that our culture is shaped by a sense of scarcity. There isn’t enough money, there aren’t enough jobs, there aren’t enough spots in the school you want to go to, so make sure you work hard and be one of the lucky ones who gets in. And if you do, you’ve earned it, so don’t feel bad about the people who didn’t make it. Well, it doesn’t work that way with God. With God there is plenty of wine and plenty of fish and more than enough love for everyone. There is no competition to earn God’s love, which is freely offered to everyone. That’s not the way the world usually works, and at first it may seem strange and somehow even wrong that God would love everyone for Christ’s sake and not just the ones who deserve it. But God does.
And for many of the same reasons, our world is shaped by a strong sense of fear. If there isn’t enough for everyone, I might lose out, and then what will I be worth? And if I’m not one of the lucky ones – if I’m not strong enough or rich enough or smart enough or thin enough or masculine enough or straight enough or healthy enough beautiful enough – well then I need to know my place and not make waves. We learn that in middle school and it doesn’t get much better. Don’t tell me that I’m God’s beloved just as much as anybody else – if I start acting like I believe that, there will be trouble.
When Jesus announces the good news of God’s grace and then demonstrates the abundance of God’s love to the people in the fishing boats, and Peter says No, not for me, I don’t want it – the first thing Jesus says to him is: Don’t be afraid. Jesus knows that God’s love is so powerful and so transforming and so different from the scarcity and fear that shape our lives, that our natural first reaction will be fear. Fear of what we might lose, if God gives us everything. And then Jesus reassures Simon. Simon, you know a lot about the kingdom of God. You know about fishing – you know how to put your net in the water and not to be afraid to let God do the rest. You can do this. Don’t be afraid. You can fish for so much more. And slowly, Peter’s No becomes a Yes.
The story of Simon Peter is the story of all of us. We have gone with Jesus in the deep waters of baptism to be taught that we are beloved children of God. We have heard the word of the good news of God’s abundant love for all God’s people. And we come here to this table, where everyone is welcome, where is food and drink enough for all. To see and taste, if only for a moment, the good things God has prepared for God’s beloved, reconciled, at peace with one another and with God, united in giving thanks to the God who makes all things new and freely gives us everything we need. Don’t be afraid. The gift is also for you, and you know how to receive it. So don’t say no. Say yes. Yes. Amen.