Sunday, February 06, 2022

Going into deep waters

I remember a book that I used to read to my kids when they were young (and I can’t wait to read to my granddaughter!) called Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. In the story, (which I understand is also a film, but the book is, to me, the "canonical" text!) Alexander goes to sleep with gum in his mouth and wakes up with gum in his hair; he dropped his sweater in the sink while the water was running; Alexander’s two older brothers both find toys in their cereal boxes when Alexander just finds cereal. They don’t have the shoes he wants at the shoe store; he messes up in class in front of the teacher and his classmates; and his friend Paul tells Alexander that he doesn’t want to be his best friend anymore because he found two new best friends, and that now Alexander was only Paul’s third best friend.  At the dentist, Alexander was the only one of his brothers with a cavity. His brother pushes him in the mud, then he got scolded by his mother for being muddy. That night, he gets soap in his eyes during his bath, which was way too hot. 

Alexander is exasperated and wants to move far, far away… to Australia! 

Alexander is truly having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day... and no one seems to care! 

The punch line of the book has become something of a catch phrase for me: at the end of the book, as his mother is tucking him in, she says, “Some days are like that. Even in Australia.” 

In our Scripture lessons today, everyone seems to be having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day!

Isaiah says “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!"

The Apostle Paul says “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

In the Gospel, when Jesus tells Peter and his friends, who have been fishing all night without so much as a nibble, to put the net down on the other side of the boat, Peter says says in exasperation to to Jesus “[But] Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing!”

“I’m having a no good, horrible, very bad day!” is our scriptural theme of the day. Have you ever had a day like that? Have you ever felt like that in life? Have you ever felt that way In your ministry?

If there is one word that describes the feelings of all the scripture writers this morning, it’s futility. We can hear discouragement in their words and feel their exhaustion. They are about to give up and throw in towel.

And I get it! I mean, here we are entering year three of a pandemic, there are tensions brewing around the world, and at home division and ill-humor up against one another is served up as entertainment.

I don’t know about you, but it sure seems to me as if we are all having one very long, continuous terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day!

And that puts us in a spiritually fragile time! 

Futility is a dangerous state. It robs us of hope, of possibility, of faith that looks forward. And this is exactly the situation where, in today's Gospel, we find Peter early one morning on the Lake of Gennesaret. He and his companions have been out fishing all night long and have caught nothing. Nothing to eat and nothing to sell… zip, zilch, nada! They’ve tried every fishing trick in the book and come up empty. I wonder if they were beginning to doubt their skills and capability as fishermen. I wouldn't be surprised if they were muttering to themselves that maybe being a sandal salesman might be a better occupation than breaking your back fishing for nothing!

Futility does that to a person. We don’t just begin to doubt what we can do; we begin to doubt who we are.

Then along comes Jesus, and everything changes!

Jesus says to a tired, dejected Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” You can almost hear Simon’s exasperated whine in reply: “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” Still… it’s Jesus. The rabbi. Maybe out of grudging respect, or maybe to show this land-lubber a thing or two, he sighs and rows out and lets down the nets.

And then, where there has been nothing, now there are so many fish that their nets were beginning to break! Where there had been scarcity, now there was abundance!

They called over their partners in the other boat to come and help. And soon both boats are filled to the point of sinking!

But this wasn’t dumb luck or mere perseverance. Jesus told them to “put out into the deep water.” And that’s where they went. Deep water.

Jesus’ invitation when we are feeling swamped by futility, is to go deeper. When you can’t figure out what to do next, go deeper. When you are mad at everybody and everyone is mad at you, go deeper. When the tasks placed before you seem insurmountable, go deeper. When you feel like you have nothing but failure to show for your very best effort, go deeper.

“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets,” Jesus says.

What is the difference between simple, every day craziness—you know, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results—and following Jesus’ advice to go deeper?

Two things. Jesus asks us to return to the place where we feel stuck, stymied, and sad, as the place to go deep. Fish beneath the same assumptions and habits and patterns that we have used before. Ask ourselves harder questions. Give ourselves and others more time and more commitment.

And all the while, do something radically different. Take Jesus with us. That is what changes the disciples’ action from “doing the same thing and expecting different results” into a sudden and bountiful harvest.

When Jesus is with us—in our minds, in our hearts, in our conversations, in our discernment, in our priorities—two things happen. First, we are empowered to go out into the deep water; we are able to take risks and stretch ourselves and each other toward something new.

And then, we can let down our nets and actually find fish! What was once the site of futility becomes the site of abundance, discovery, and sustenance.

I think that it’s significant that as they “filled both boats,” they were so full “that they began to sink.”

They began to sink? That’s not good, right? But look again! They are pretty far from the shore. They’ve left their safe zone, and we also know that the disciples don’t have the “walking on water” skills that Jesus has. The moment has activated all their skill, and all their teamwork, so that the abundance of the miraculous catch, has also transformed and energized what they knew best, but had been pretty hum-drum. Their very work has been changed!

Somehow, we don’t’ know how, they manage to bring the boats ashore; but even before they get there, Peter is so excited, so astounded, and so overcome by the miracle that he either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care about the sinking boat. He falls to his knees before Jesus and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

But not only does Jesus not go away, Jesus invites Peter, James, and John to join his ministry. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Jesus offers them both peace and a purpose. And so, “When they had brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.”

To follow Jesus, they will leave behind everything they knew--their boat, those fish, even their families. Most of all they will also leave behind their old worldview, their old tools, their old ways of living their lives. The call of Jesus will take them way beyond “Business as usual.” Saying “yes” to Jesus will mean giving up the familiar security of the everyday, to find true security and true freedom in Christ.

Jesus’ call to Peter and his friends was to become fishers of people. To share their abundant bounty of grace with others. They are called to share “good news!”

Is it odd how evangelism sprang out of futility? Peter and his pals were sad, frustrated, afraid, and almost hopeless. They don’t believe there are any fish, and they don’t believe that they have what it takes to catch them.

But Jesus told them to “Put out into the deep water, and let down your nets for a catch,” and when they listened, even grudgingly, even half-heartedly, everything changes! Those tired and discouraged fishermen became courageous new evangelists and followers of Jesus!

All the time, we encounter places where we find futility! Some days are and some places are just like that! But that is exactly where Jesus takes us: to the places where we feel like a failure and the most hopeless… and is into those deep waters where he urges us to let down our nets.

In our baptismal living and in our daily living and ministry together, Jesus calls us to do as the disciples did: to do something crazy and fearless for God. To “Put out into the deep water” and “let down your nets;” to “not be afraid” and, from now on, to “be catching people.”

Jesus meets us and all his followers where they are those most tired, the most dejected, the most ready to give up, the most vulnerable… and he invites us to go deeper, and in saying “yes” to Jesus—no matter how confidently or grudgingly or skeptically—we experience abundance!

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Here is a link to the bulletin for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany.

Here is a link to a video of the liturgy at St. John's Episcopal Church, Clearwater

Here is a link to a video of the sermon.

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