February 10, 2019
The Rev’d Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:”Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “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!”
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” Isaiah 6:1-8, NRSV
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. Luke 5:1-11, NRSV
If you are discerning a call, this week’s readings are for you! And in a year when we are actively discerning our calling as a community, this morning’s scripture feels almost divinely delivered. We get a double dose in both of our readings from the Book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible, and from the Gospel according to Luke. Both are narratives of prophets and apostles answering God’s divine call.
The former is the account of God’s call to the prophet Isaiah. A sort of atypical call, because in contrast to the calls to Moses and Jeremiah (both of whom immediately question the wisdom of God’s choice of them as prophets and mightily protest) Isaiah just volunteers himself for the position that God is looking to fill. God states the mission and asks “whom shall I send?” And up pops Isaiah’s hand; Isaiah is sort of the Arnold Horshack of prophets (you remember Welcome Back Kotter?) and so he says: “Here I am!” ….Oh, Oh pick me! And God does. Unlike most of the prophetic call narratives in our scripture, there is no coaxing or cajoling or convincing needed for Isaiah. He is in from the get-go!
Likewise this morning’s Gospel reading is Luke’s version of Jesus’s call to his disciples is a different version from the call narrative recounted in the other two synoptic Gospels. In Mark and Matthew, Jesus is walking by the Sea of Gallilee, he sees a few guys fishing, he says, “follow me and I will make you fishers of people,” and they drop everything, immediately, and do as he says. Without question or qualm they leave their boats and their nets and their wives and their lives and follow Jesus as instructed to….God knows where.
Luke however, tells it a bit differently. Luke combines the call of the disciples with a preview of the miraculous work that is in store for them. In Luke, Jesus does not call them to follow blindly. First, he performs a miracle by exponentially increasing the fishermans’ catch, beforehe suggests that they drop their previously empty nets to follow him.
This is sort of the sister story to the post-resurrection story in John’s Gospel when the disciples encounter Jesus on the beach and catch more than they can possibly carry.
In Luke’s version, the disciples witness Jesus’ power and glory before they make their commitment to drop everything and enlist. I say enlist rather than follow to emphasize Luke’s omission of Jesus’ command. The command to follow him. Because unlike Mark and Matthew, in Luke Jesus never verbally calls the disciples to follow. In Luke, following Jesus is just what they do. They hear the explicit call from a different place….like from the Holy Spirit that is written on their hearts.
Maybe because they are already familiar with the power and promise of this miracle-maker. Jesus has already healed Peter’s mother-in-law. It is curious that Peter is so astonished at the size of the catch that Jesus delivers. But he has already seen the power of this rabbi in action.
And so without prompting, the disciples drop their nets on the spot and go with Jesus leaving the enormous catch of fish, maybe the largest of their lives, on the beach. It would be tantamount to walking away from a winning lottery ticket. That is how strong was their internal call to follow.
Luke’s story feels much more authentic to me than the similar versions in Mark and Matthew. The versions where Jesus says out loud, follow me. Maybe because I have spent eons of my own life waiting to hear God speak in such a clear voice. Waiting for God to tell me what to do. Where to go. And when. And I myself have never heard the words with my ears. But I have felt them in my gut. Clearly. Emphatically. Indubitably.
I suspect that these fishermen who become the disciples of our Jesus, followed their gut, thusly. This is how it is done, says Luke in this passage. You take all of the information you have. All of the miracles you have witnessed. You trust your intuition about the leadership that you are folloing. And you listen to your gut. When it says follow this one, you have the courage to say yes. Even if you have to leave the largest catch of your life on the beach. Even if you have to leave the boat that you have spent your life building and repairing and relying upon. Even if you have no idea where the path might lead from here.
Frederick Beuchner says that we know when we have met our true calling when our deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.– That is, when the work that we most need to do fits with what the world most needs to have done.
This is the best definition of call I have ever come across. Because in this definition, our own desire is only half of the equasion. The other half is God’s need. This morning’s reading from Isaiah is a perfect example. Because the key to Isaiah’s eagerness to go, I think, is that God needs someone to go. Isaiah does not apply for the job before it is needed. He does not say “Here I am, what can I do that feeds my bliss?” He offers himself up only after God asks: “whom shall I send?”
There is no discerning a call in a vacuum. Any inward assessment of what we want to do or are meant to do or are needed to do must be matched with an assessment of what is wanted and needed in the world around us. Its not enough to want to fish for cod because we’re good at it and we already have our own boat. Because maybe the world needs us to fish for people and we will have to leave the boat on the beach. Both sides of the equasion must be honored.
For Christians, the point of following any calling, the point of discipleship, is to join the transforming mission of God. And that means that we must be opento the transforming mission of God. As were the first disciples. I am guessing that following an itinerant rabbi had never entered their minds as a viable vocational option. Or at all. But when the door that had never been on their radar, never, opened, they were willing to walk through. They were the blueprint for the way of faithfully following a true calling.
The disciples are our role models. Discipleship is our Christian goal. But I hardly ever feel like I am measuring up to those fishermen. And yet I don’t think that they followed because they were any better than the rest of us. They were not the crème de la crème of the faithful crop. They were not even Christians. They were fishermen. They did not follow because they were particularly good, or faithful or righteous….there is no mention of any of these things in this passage, or anywhere in the Bible, with regard to them, for that matter.
I don’t think this is a story about how human beings can turn our lives to God if we only have the strength and the courage to blindly follow the call like Peter and John and James. The good news is that this story of discipleship is not a story about the power and capability of human beings at all…..it is a story about the power and capacity of God….a story about the way God works in us and in the world.
For these fishermen had no reason to drop their lives and follow Jesus….no reason except the spirit of God that swept in and created an unquestionable faith where none had existed…..This is a story about the power of God’s grace, and God’s timing. About the way God creates disciples of Christ from fishers of cod in the blink of an eye. Immediatley. But in God’s time. And without a word. With only a feeling in one’s gut that the Spirit is ready.
This passage is not a yardstick for our own faithfulness. It is an epiphany of hope….a reminder that God not only works in mysterious ways, but in powerful life changing ways as well. Albeit when God is readyt. A reminder that God’s call is always accompanied by God’s grace. The grace that has compelled countless apostles through the ages to abandon their personal catch of the day for nothing less than the struggle for wholesale peace and justice for all human beings. Some of them are among us now. Here in this sanctuary. The kind of grace to which our hearts must stay open if we are to be ready to respond to God’s call, immediately; if we are to take our personal places in God’s divine love story.
Most of you know that I traveled to the holy land this summer on a JCRC clergy study tour. Every year the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston takes about a dozen Christian clergy to the holy land to better educate us about the exigencies of that religiously-charged segment of our wider world. It was a fabulous trip. Among many other amazing experience, a full week of walking in the footsteps of Jesus. From Nazareth to Jerusalem.
On our Jesus tour, we started at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. And from there to the Jordan river where Jesus was baptized and tourists can today baptize each other in the same muddy water. Then we stayed in a kibbutz on the Sea of Galillee called Nof Ginnosaur in Tberias. And before we left there for Tagbha to see the church of the loaves and fishes and then on to Capernum where there is the house of Peter’s mother-in-law, and then the mount of the beatitudes, we walked along the shore of the Sea of Galillee to a small museum simply called “The Boat Museum.” We almost skipped it. The day ahead was filled to the brim with Christian holy sites and time was tight.
But for my two cents, the Boat Museum was among the most powerful moments of our trip. The whole museum wasn’t much bigger than this church. A café, a gift shop and the exhibit space which would have fit in this chancel.
And the exhibit was simply the shell of the 1stcentury boat that was raised from the bottom of the lake in 1986, and is now supported in a stark metal frame in the middle of the room. The boat was discovered when drought caused the Sea of Galillee to recede enough for the hull to stick out of the water. The small vessel is 27 feet long, 7 and a half feet wide, and has the remnants of four oars. In the sparse carefully climate-controlled space there is also video showing the painstaking process by which the boat was raised and radiocarbon dated. It took several years.
On another wall, there is a wall chart identifying the 10 different types of wood that were used in making and repairing the boat including cedar , sycamore, hawthorn, carob, laurel, willow, Aleppo pine, Judas tree, and couple more. Clearly this boat was well-used and repaired repeatedly. These fishermen took good care of their vessel.
And finally, there was a large hanging display with this morning’s reading from Luke in English and in Hebrew.
We were there first thing in the morning and so our small group of about 15 clergy were the only ones crowded into the small dark space around the cadaver of the ancient vessel. We stood there in utter silence – for this first time in the four days that we had traveled together no one uttered a word. Silence. But we could all feel it. The connection. The emotional connection. Not with Jesus. With the disciples. And maybe even just with the story of the disciples. We could feel ourselves in their shoes. In this rickety little boat. Listing under the weight of a catch that was far bigger than they could handle. On seas that might have been too rambunctious to safely navigate. This was the boat that had provided their livelihood and then been abandoned for their calling.
There is no evidence that this is THE boat, other than the dating and the location of its discovery. But the tears on our cheeks were evidence enough of its authenticity. And I can only speak for myself, but I imagine that every one of us that morning felt called in a new way. Every one of us could hear the still small voice of God say, in the depth of our bowels: follow me. And it is going to cost you.
I think the reason this experience was so powerful was that we were sharing the call stories of the disciples whom we hope to follow. Sharing our stories is a huge part of the process of healthy discernment, I think. And when that sharing is accompanied by a deep listening for the intersection of our hunger and worlds need, and very intentionally listening to what the Spirit is telling our gut, I have utter faith that we will each and all end up exactly where we need to be. Albeit, only when God is ready for us to be there.
And so as we discern whatever call we are discerning, let us remind ourselves that we must walk without fret or fear forGod’s call is always accompanied by God’s grace.
© February 2019, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
Freerick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Harper & Row Publishers, 1973. Pp. 95.