Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday February 7, 2010 Epiphany 5C
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Text: Luke 5:1-11
Title: The Deep Waters of Following Jesus
This past week I had the deep privilege of speaking on the Senate floor to the joint committee on Public Affairs in support of the Domestic Partnership bill SB183 that is struggling to make its way into law in the State of New Mexico. If you have been following the news you may know that Fr. Brian wrote an editorial in support of SB183, Fr. Daniel spoke at a rally in Santa Fe, Deacon Jan has been to Santa Fe and many of our members here at St. Michael’s are actively involved in the support of this legislation. It was a moving experience for me as I sat in the chambers listening to heartfelt testimony about the struggles that my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters face in a society that has institutionalized discrimination against them and their families. As I listened to the stories, the pain and vulnerability of their lives overwhelmed me. I found myself crying in the Senate chambers, overcome by the real human struggle that shapes their lives. Just across from me sat a Catholic priest and a Monk in his habit who were both there to speak in opposition to the bill. It was strange, almost surreal to be sitting so close to people with whom I share a common story, many core beliefs, even a priestly profession, but to be so far away from their way of seeing the world, their understanding of the compassion of Jesus. I found myself smiling a lot thinking of what a good laugh God must be having. Look at my people, my friends, look how hard they work against each other, look how much energy they are wasting trying to keep the circle of the Kingdom small. The kingdom is meant to be growing, expanding, gathering more and more people into its loving and reconciling embrace and they keep drawing the circle tight.”
My mind wandered to the genius of C.S. Lewis’ book the Screwtape Letters in which a senior devil gives instructions to a devil in training about how to distract and ruin well-meaning Christians from really following Jesus. I thought of how perfect the debate on Senate Bill 183 would fit into Screwtape’s advice. Get those Christians fighting and arguing about almost anything, especially sex and they’ll be so busy bashing one another, loading up buses with protesters, splitting theological hairs, and denouncing certain human beings as unworthy of certain rights that they will forget all about the Kingdom of God.
When it came my turn to approach the microphone I did something that I suppose you might think predictable. I talked about Jesus. I didn’t want the religious right to claim Jesus for their own, for he belongs to us as well. I told the members of the Senate that I was a follower of Jesus and that I believed that if Jesus were there he would be asking them to act out of compassion rather than out of fear. To have compassion means to literally suffer-with. It means to recognize and pay attention to the pain and suffering of others and to do something to alleviate it if possible. I told them that I believe that the pain and hurt of the LGBT community is close to Jesus’ heart and that Jesus called them to a costly compassion. That he called them to make the beautiful choice of giving same-gender families their rightful legal protections rather than the ugly choice of fear and injustice.
As the day’s debate ended we learned that the SB 183 had in fact passed out of one committee only to be referred to two more committees including finance, evidently the kiss of death in a 30-day legislative session. One Senator on the committee shared that she had heard bills like this 19 times in her 20 years in the Senate and that she hoped we would finally do the right thing and pass the bill.
Returning to Albuquerque knowing that we had worked, and prayed and fought hard to respect the dignity of every human being, I couldn’t help but think of the phrase from this story of Jesus today that comes from the mouth of Peter, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” It is a phrase I had not really ever focused on as descriptive of the deep struggles of our lives. “We have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” How perfect that phrase is for big challenges that we face, battles that cannot be won quickly, struggles that do no yield easy results. There are times when we just have to admit the difficulty of our lives, to come clean about Love’s labors lost. There are moments when we have to face the immensity of the struggle in front of us.
What follows in this passage is worth lingering over. The second part of Peter’s answer is something I have always heard as a reluctant giving in, “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” However, from Peter’s reluctant yes comes a miraculous catch, nets alive with so many fish it seems as though the boats may be at risk of sinking.
With the catch secure Jesus and Simon Peter are left alone in the boat full of fish. (This of course is one my seven year old son’s dream experiences). They have shared an experience that has created a special bond between them, the kind of friendship that is discovered in the midst of accomplishing something difficult together.
In the quiet and exhaustion of the moment, Peter begins to recognize something extraordinary in his new friend. This young rabbi, has just bested him in a fishing contest. Peter’s response is un-nerving, he falls to his knees as a deep sense of humility overcomes him. He feels as though he is unworthy to be with this man, but at the same time he knows he would not want to be anywhere else. “Go away form me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” he exclaims, sensing the holiness of the moment.
Jesus’ response is compassionate, “Do not be afraid.” Yes, something new is happening to you. you are changing, alive in a new way, but don’t fear, welcome it, don’t let yourself be paralyzed. A clear invitation comes, follow me for I have bigger things in store for you.
This story is a word picture inviting us to follow Jesus. But what does following Jesus really mean? In the story it means doing what Jesus tells you, even reluctantly. It seems to mean that Jesus knows more about your area of expertise than you do. It means that in order to follow Jesus you must actually have the humility to follow. It means that you must trust that Jesus has more for you to learn by following than you have to learn by going your own way. It also means that you must see the attractiveness in following, that the beauty of Christ and the vision of God’s Kingdom are compelling.
The trouble with this story of course is that it is about following and we have made such a god out of leadership and our own personal agency that following is somewhat suspect. We treasure our self-initiative, our self-confidence, our self-promotion so much, that following seems like an admission of failure. I’m not sure that I can soften the blow. I can’t tell you that God wants you to be your own free agent. For following Jesus involves the considerable risk of binding yourself to Christ, as the baptismal rite says, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. Does that mean that Christ owns you? Well, yes it does and you can try to say it in softer more acceptable ways but it means that you belong to Christ, not just to yourself. Perhaps it is helpful to put it in more everyday ways. I hear people say things all the time that amount to following a person: “You know I really trust her,” or “She is such a good person I would do almost anything she asked me to do,” “After all they’ve done for me I wouldn’t think of letting them down,” “Working for him isn’t work it is chance to really contribute and that makes it fun,” “I’d follow him into any battle he chooses because I know his heart is in the right place.” All of these ways of expressing loyalty or a willingness to sacrifice on behalf of another illustrate something of what it means to follow Christ.
This past week in Santa Fe I stood in the halls of power and told Senators and the public of New Mexico that I was a follower of Jesus. I have never done such a public thing in all my life, to proclaim in the public square that I am a follower of Jesus. You may think that walking around with a plastic dog collar around my neck makes me a follower of Jesus automatically. But I am not talking about implied following or guilt by association. I made the daring claim that Jesus was right there with me in the room, cheering me on, telling me not to be afraid, and urging the Senators to live lives of compassion rather than fear.
To follow Jesus means that our lives are animated by Christ’s life, teaching, and ways, and perhaps most importantly by the Holy Spirit at work within us. It is a necessarily humbling path. There will be times when we have been fishing all night and caught nothing and Jesus simply tells us to “put out into deep water and put down your nets for a catch.” This is a beautiful image of the Kingdom of God. For the work of the Kingdom is not our idea, it is not our initiative, but it does invite us to do what Jesus asks, even if it is reluctantly. In all honesty our following of Jesus it is not about the results, for those we cannot be responsible, but we can take heart and put out into deep water and prepare for a catch.
Sometimes following Jesus is really difficult. Sometimes it is hard to see clearly enough to really know you are following Jesus. The whole enterprise requires humility, discernment and a supportive community. That is one of the key reasons we are part of a community of faith. Each Sunday you are surrounded by others who are in their imperfect and wonderful and hilarious ways trying to follow Jesus. Each week we come here and read selections from ancient biblical texts that we believe the living God uses to speak to us, to grab hold of our lives, woo us into friendship, and claim us for God’s work and purposes. Each week we open ourselves up to God’s voice and prompting through prayer and song and Eucharist. Each week we launch ourselves on a journey toward the Kingdom God, hoping to catch a glimpse of the glory and follow it.
And that is what following Jesus really means, getting in over your head with God. Daring to go deep, so deep you will need to depend on God to get you through, because you’re your own resources are simply not enough, only God will suffice. Following Jesus comes in all shapes and sizes, it certainly is not always a large public proclamation, in fact it is more often the simple everyday demonstration of love and care that the saints all around you are up to each day of their lives. But what is certain is that following Jesus will lead you into deep water and in those waters the abundance of the Kingdom of God awaits.