Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Real Question: Sermon for Epiphany V, Year C

 This sermon, or something like it, was preached February 7, 2010, at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri.

When I was a boy, I spent a lot of time fishing. I grew up in the heartland of the Tennessee Valley Authority. For some, TVA is largely of historical interest. I suppose, too, that some of its recent headlines have been a bit messy.  But for those of us who grew up with it, TVA was important for the many lakes on the Tennessee and its tributaries. We called them “the Great Lakes of the South.” Oh, yeah, there was all that power generation; but for many of us the lakes were more important.

So, I spent a lot of time fishing, mostly with my father. Now, in most ways we weren’t spectacular fishermen. We didn’t spend our time running up and down the lake looking for the best location, where we might find the biggest bass. We were more into production, really. Back in the days before creel limits we kept what we caught, all of which found its way into the skillet.

I think that was why we were really at our best fishing for bluegill. Really, we used that term for all of the pan-size, roughly hand size sunfish – bluegill, warmouth, green sunfish, shell crackers. We called them all bluegill, and we caught them with enthusiasm.

We particularly liked to fly fish for them. This wasn’t the dramatic stream walking of the trout or salmon fisherman. This was no “A River Runs Through It.” We would move slowly along the edge of the lake, paddling slowly in those days before trolling motors, using nine foot rods to cast popping bugs and small wet flies into the shallows. The nice thing about it was that in the heat of the summer, in the middle of the day when nothing else would bite, the bluegill would be hot and hungry.

When I was a teenager, we developed our best technique. We bought a couple of surf mats, the heavy-duty rafts of rubberized cloth. We would choose a long stretch of the bank that we wanted to work. We’d anchor the boat and then climb out on the rafts with our rods, a few spare flies, and a couple of stringers. We’d sit on the rafts, and begin kicking with our feet, moving along the bank.

Most days we’d move in opposite directions, working out and back, and meet again at the boat. We were often out of sight of one another. Which was how it was, I imagine, that the two guys trolling by saw me and didn’t see my dad.

Now, I want you to imagine what they saw. Here was this teenaged boy, wearing a hat and a pair of shorts, sitting on this mat with the water rising toward his waist. He was a bit chunky, and his back was sunburnt despite a heavy tan; and he sat there, casting with a fly rod, at a bare, rocky bank.

They were maybe twenty feet behind me as they passed, and I raised a hand and waived. They laughed, and said, “How’s it going”

“It’s all right,” I said,” You catching any?”

“A couple of cats, and a few crappie. How about you?”

“Not bad,” I said. And I reached down to the front corners of the mat and lifted up two chain stringers, each with two or three bluegill on each hook, maybe 35 or 40 in all. I must have sunk six inches just lifting them up. I remember those guys moving down the lake, their mouths hanging open. I wondered if they told the story and what they said. “Did you see that kid? Did you see all those fish? I would never have believed.”

Jesus was walking along the lake in the morning, with a crowd following behind. The crowd was insistent, pressing. So, when Jesus found some fishermen and a couple of boats, freshly landed after a poor nights’ fishing, he stepped aboard one and asked them to pull away a bit, to let him have a little room. There he sat in the front of the boat, teaching the crowd that stretched along the shore.

He came to the end of his lesson and turned to the fishermen. “There are fish out there,” he said. “Move out where it gets deep and let out your nets.”

You have to wonder what Simon thought. This guy Jesus didn’t look or sound like any fisherman they had ever seen. Still, there was something impressive about him; and what could it hurt? “Well,” Simon said, “we were out all night with no luck, but if you say so….”

And when they did, the fish were there – so many that he and his brother in their one boat couldn’t handle the net. They called to the others, to James and John and their father Zebedee for help; and even with their help it was almost more than they could handle. The nets were filled to the point of breaking, the boats to the point of sinking.

Now, it would have been no surprise at this point if they had just managed to pull the catch into the shallows where they could handle it, and said, “Did you see that man? Did you see all those fish? I would never have believed.” But, they did believe. Indeed, Simon believed so profoundly that he fell in the boat and crawled to Jesus and said, “No, no, Lord, get away from me. I’m not worthy.”

But Jesus didn’t go away. Instead, he said, “Don’t be afraid. I have a new task for you. From now on you’ll be catching people.” And once they’d gotten the boats and the fish ashore, they went. They left it all, and followed Jesus.

Time and again in Scripture, when God calls someone the first response is, “Not me, Lord. I’m not worthy.” Isaiah was in the Temple to worship, and had an overwhelming vision of the presence of God. His first reaction was, “I’m a man of unclean lips, of a people of unclean lips. I’m not worthy.” Paul told the Corinthians that the risen Christ had called him to be an apostle “last of all, like a premature child. I had persecuted the church, and I wasn’t worthy.” From Moses at the burning bush to Paul in the Damascus Road, God called and the first response was, “Not me, Lord. I’m not worthy.”

And for all the honor we show for the heroes and heroines of the people of God, in fact they weren’t worthy. God called whom God wanted, not waiting until they were ready, much less until they’d earned it. He purified Isaiah and gave him a voice. He gave Paul new vision, and showed him a new way. He showed a group of fisherman his anointed Son. God called whom God wanted. Then God gave them the grace and the skill they needed to participate in God’s plans.

And what about our call? We do believe we all have one, don’t we? Isn’t that one of the consequences of our baptism, of the share we receive in God’s Spirit, that each of us has a vocation, a call from God? Isn’t that one of the purposes of the Eucharist, that we are nourished and empowered for the vocation that God has given us?

But, how often do we think about that, really? And when we do, how often do we also react, “Not me, Lord. I’m not worthy”?

Now, you might say to me, “That’s easy for you to say. You’ve found your vocation. You’ve been living into it for a long time.”

Well, yes, and no. For one thing, I know where God has called me – so far. One of the things I tell those exploring a call is that the question of vocation isn’t simply “where is God calling me.” It’s “where is God calling me now?”

But more important is this: I’m not worthy, either. I don’t need to make any great revelation to tell you that. None of us is worthy, any more than Isaiah or Paul or Peter and Andrew. Paul would say in another letter, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

No, God calls whom God wants, and then gives the grace and the ability to participate in God’s plan. And so for each of us, the question isn’t whether God calls. The question is, when we stand in God’s presence, will we respond? Will we leave what we know, even in the midst of success, to follow Jesus? And when God asks, “Who will go,” will we answer, “Here am I. Send me.”

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