Jesus tells his soon-to-be first disciples, “Push out into deeper waters.” I wonder today what deeper waters Jesus calls us to navigate?
My faith struggles are similar to Simon, the fisherman, who becomes Peter. Simon and his friends are doing ordinary work. The daily catch was not great, but it’s a living. They are washing their nets while taking in the warm breeze of Lake Gennesaret. It’s a simple and pretty good life.
That day Jesus of Nazareth generates some excitement passing through on his Galilee tour. People crowd the normally quiet beach, tourists really. We have mixed feelings about tourists. They are good for the economy, shops, and restaurants but a nuisance. Maybe Simon wishes he had a little T-Shirt shop to supplement his catch. It’s so crowded that Jesus can’t be seen or heard, so he asks Simon for his boat to use as a pulpit. Sound travels further over water. Its science. Air is cooler next to the water's surface than the air above it, sound waves change shape over water, and less is lost out into the air. More of it gets to your ears. When you sit by the water, notice how you can hear everything your neighbors say. There are no secrets by the shore. Jesus takes advantage of this phenomenon to teach a large crowd.
Simon is impressed. This guy knows how to take advantage of his resources and make things happen, and it is on his boat. Maybe a little celebrity rubs off on Simon. Jesus puts Simon in the spotlight. “Push out into deeper waters and let down your nets.” Simon’s skeptical. He’s worked all night, and the fish weren’t out there. By the way, they have already cleaned their nets. If they go out, they will have to do the work all over. Who wants to do fruitless work? Simon could have said, “We already tried that Jesus, and it didn’t work.”
But that attitude is a slippery slope. When does it become an excuse? We tried to reach out and welcome new people, but it didn’t work. We tried to work out our differences with one person, and it went nowhere, so why try dialog with anyone else? It’s always the same. I tried one publisher, and they said no, so the story isn’t any good. I tried to sail, but there was no wind, so I’m not going to try that again. I prayed once, and God didn’t do anything, so forget that. I worked on a justice issue once, and the world didn’t change. Nothing changes. Why bother. We fished, and there wasn’t any fish.
Peter is caught between his skepticism and the magnetism of Jesus. He doesn’t want to say yes or no. If Andrew or John urged him to go out, he would have gone home. But Jesus has pull. So, he goes. They throw their nets, and as they pull them up, it feels a little heavy. Simon thinks maybe they are all a little tired. Come on, everyone, heave-ho! “Maybe we are snagged on a sunken ship,” Andrew says. “Maybe we caught Jonah’s whale,” John quips. They pull so hard Simon worries the nets will break. Near the surface, they see the nets teeming with fish. Sardines were an important commercial fish, so they might have had thousands of six-inch fish squiggling in their nets. The Sea of Galilee is also known for tilapia, which are called St. Peter’s Fish in some regions. There are so many fish they call for another boat, and as they load the catch, both boats start to sink.
This is starting to sound like a big fish story. Someone says, “I caught a fish this big,” and their hands keep moving further apart as they tell the story again. Do you really want me to believe they caught so many fish it would sink two boats? That sounds embellished for the sake of humor and a good story. “We caught so many fish we almost sank!”
This is all prologue to the main action, the work of the Spirit, in the story. As Simon assesses the abundant catch, what do you expect him to say? “Jesus, thank you for the fishing tip. You nailed it.” I expect a display of gratitude, joy and celebration, and an invitation to Jesus for the community fish fry. But that isn’t what Simon says. Instead, he falls on his knees and says to Jesus, “Go away from me, for I am a sinful man.” Other participants, like James and John, are amazed at this catch, never seeing anything like it. They might have been thinking it was a miracle. But Simon has a different insight.
What leads Simon to this display of unworthiness? Was there some terrible sinful action we don’t know about in his past? Does he think he is not deserving of this abundant catch? I believe there is something more. Remember, Simon often has spiritual intuition. He is the first of the disciples to say that Jesus is the Christ, the messiah. Jesus says Simon knows this because the Spirit has revealed it to him. Simon is a man of intuitive leaps. He often fails to look before he leaps, but his mind is always jumping ahead. He is ready to walk on water out to Jesus, the first to say he will never deny him at the Last Supper. He is a man of impetuous action, and he knows a big moment when he sees it. Simon knows this is such a moment. It is not about a miracle of catching fish. He senses that he is the one caught in the net of something much greater than himself, and this scares him. His life is about to be pushed out into deeper waters, and he wants Jesus to go away before his life gets upended.
This is a natural reaction to a significant purpose coming into our lives. I see this through the eyes of a writer. Most books are a struggle against resistance, that our best work will be met with scorn and failure. E.B. White, the famous Maine author of “Charlotte’s Web,” was such a great writer he wrote the book “The Elements of Style,” which has defined generations of writers. But every manuscript he sent to his publisher was an act of courage. He would go to the post office, and his hands would tremble, and he thought about throwing the package away. Once mailed, he would get sick to his stomach, feeling he had just made a colossal mistake. Most acts of creative new beginnings are met with deep internal resistance.
This is the plotline of call stories throughout the Bible. God speaks to Moses at the burning bush, and Moses replies, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh?” The Old Testament reading from today is the call of the prophet Isaiah. He has a grand vision of God sitting on a throne, and mystical six-winged seraphs fly around. We get the song “Here I Am, Lord” from this story. But “Here I am, send me” was not Isaiah’s first response. He fell to his knees just like Simon and said, “I am a man of unclean lips, from a people with unclean lips.” You can see the parallels as both Isaiah and Simon sense they are being given a task by God, and their first reaction is, “I am not worthy.”
Henry Emerson Fosdick often said that we are not fulfilled unless we find a purpose bigger than ourselves. This is frequently quoted in self-help books, and there is some research showing that a higher purpose leads to a more fulfilling life. But the important part is left out. When you find that purpose bigger than your self-interest, it will scare you. It will scare you because it will stretch your abilities, your assumptions, maybe even change your sense of self and your understanding of God along the way. In that light, it makes sense that Simon would fall on his knees and say, “Go away from me because I am a sinful man.”
We need to hear the following line to set us free for the adventure ahead. Jesus says to Simon, “Be not afraid. I will make you fish for people.” Be not afraid, Simon. Why? Because this is not just about you, your skills, worthiness, and faith. It is bigger than you because you are joining the work of God’s Spirit.
“Be not afraid” is one of the most essential phrases in the Bible. It occurs more than 100 times. When a messenger comes from God, the first words are usually “Be not afraid.” Resistance to the great adventure of faith is normal. But you can take the first step because it is not about your willpower but God’s invitation to you.
At some moment in the future, we will have a moment; let’s call it a deep water moment. You will be called to push out into deeper waters. It may be a new creative enterprise, a calling to live compassion and justice in a new way. You might be called to the deeper waters of discovering God again amid grief, hardship, or a period of deep cynicism. Our congregation may have a new challenge in mission come before us. And at first, it may scare us, and we too are tempted to fall on our knees and say, “Go away from me. Go away from the Congregational Church of Boothbay Harbor.” I just want my daily catch, my daily bread. Don’t ask me to go into the deeper waters. Hear Jesus' words again. “Be not afraid.” Don’t fear the deep waters. That is where the fish are. That is where your deepest hope, need, and passion will be found. Be not afraid. Push out into the deeper water. Amen.
Art Attribution: Miraculous Draught of Fishes, Goldsmith John Reilly (1928-2010), Oil on canvas, Painted in 1978 Â© John Reilly artist