A Force, Not Merely a Presence
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
February 10, 2019 Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Psalm 138; Isaiah 6:1-13; Luke 5:1-11
The gospel passage has a lacuna in it. Lacuna comes from the same Latin root as the word lake, but means a gap in a narrative where the reader has to fill in some part of the story. Readers have to take their boats out into the lake and put down their nets and see what comes up.
The story in Luke takes place not long after Jesus emerged from the wilderness after his baptism by John. Jesus has been teaching in synagogues and performing miraculous healings and already crowds are gathering wherever he goes. But there is no internet or television or radio, so the fishermen Simon Peter, James and John had never heard or seen him when he appeared on their stretch of shoreline where they were washing their nets after a long, frustrating night of catching nothing on the lake.
The crowd was pressing in on Jesus, everyone wanted to touch the spiritual healer, so he asked Simon to row him out in his boat so he could teach from there. Maybe Simon figured he needed some good karma, or maybe he was curious, or maybe he was just a good guy, but whatever his motivation, he did not know what he was in for, and three years later we can imagine him standing in a Jerusalem courtyard hearing a cock crow wondering if he should have had gone home to bed instead of letting Jesus in his boat—a doubt that the light of Easter dawn dispelled forever.
Luke says, “Then Jesus 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.’”
Did you notice the lacuna?
Something huge has happened in the story between the lines. Jesus sits down in the boat and teaches, then turns to this tired fisherman who wants to go home to bed and tells him to go back out on the lake and try fishing again. We are not talking fishing poles, these are huge, heavy nets and if they use them they will have to be cleaned all over again. The story gives no reason why Simon should agree to such an outrageous order from a stranger. We have a gap and don’t know what Jesus says or does.
So we have to go out into that lacuna, put down our nets and see what we come up with that might have won Simon over. The gospel narrative has told us very little of what Jesus has been teaching. So far all we have heard him say is that he has been sent to bring good news to the poor and oppressed and bring healing to the blind and proclaim the realm of God on earth.
Next week we will finally hear more content when he gives the Beatitudes, blessing the poor in spirit and those who mourn and those who are meek and all kinds of ordinary, struggling people. We can imagine he spoke them from Simon’s boat, and talked about love and light, too. We can imagine him saying, “You are the light of the world…. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God.”
Was that what made Simon open to what happened next? Was it because of Jesus’ teaching that he took the leap of faith and set out in his boat onto the lake to cast his nets?
I am sure those beautiful words resonated with him, but I do not think they would have been enough to change him.
The Little Prince author and pioneering aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
The author Madeleine L’Engle said, “We do not draw people to Christ by…telling them how wrong they are…but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said that the teachings of Christ are about living and need to be modeled by the people who proclaim them in order to shine the light and stir the longing for it.
We need words, but just as faith without works is dead, words without works are dead, too.
Jesus was an ordinary man who revealed in his life the purest manifestation of the light of God’s love, a light so lovely that people wanted with all their hearts to know the source of it, a light that made them want to build a ship and get in it and set out into deep waters and cast their nets because they longed for the endless immensity of love they heard and saw in him. Jesus had a message about living, about how to live on this earth in a way that is just and peaceful and equitable and sustainable and beautiful and full of all goodness and light and joy, and he not only taught it, he lived it.
Simon Peter would not have set out into those deep waters without both the words and the light and love that flowed through the words, and through the tone of voice, and through the eyes of Jesus, and through his healing touch and everything about him.
As a result of it all, Simon opens himself to receive the miracle of bringing in so many fish that the boat starts to sink. Simon responds as Isaiah did, confessing that he is not worthy to be in the presence of the divine, but like Isaiah, Simon is chosen just as he is, with flaws, weaknesses and his history of wrongs, and a future certain to have its share of wrongs as well. Jesus calls him to go forth and catch people in his nets and bring them into the boat of God’s realm, bring them into the way of love and light, transforming them and transforming the world.
Peter and James and John had been out on the lake as a presence, but now they were being called to be “a force, not merely a presence.” They felt trepidation and a feeling of unworthiness. They had no idea how they would fulfill their calling, but they overcame their hesitation and responded with faith and commitment, and the Spirit guided and empowered them miraculously to “effect positive social change” in a suffering world.
We are in a congregational process of discernment right now about how to fulfill our Future Directions Vision statement, particularly where it says, “We intend to be a force, not merely a presence, effecting positive social change for peace, justice and the care of God’s creation.” That statement was the result of a year of reflection. In the end we adopted it unanimously. There is no question that we hear it as our calling, but we have many questions about how to do it, and maybe also questions about how much we will be able to do, and how much of a difference we will be able to make.
The Isaiah and Luke passages promise us that the result of fulfilling our calling will be new and abundant life. Isaiah and the disciples may have felt inadequate, they may have wanted to run the other way, but stronger than their doubt or fear was their attraction to the beauty and goodness and power of what they saw. They saw an epiphany of the force of love and life and light that created the universe that we name God, they saw its manifestation revealed, and it moved them deeply.
The disciples went out and shone that same love, life and light to the world, and others had an epiphany through them. They were just fishermen, not professors, not rabbis, not professional organizers, but they became superheroes and built a movement for personal and social transformation around them.
I think one reason for their success is that the same force of love and light that created the universe is in all things and every lacuna. That force we call God is in the substance of our hearts and minds and every cell of our bodies. The living God in us responds with joy and hope and attraction to the God in others or in nature or art–nothing moves us more deeply than being in the presence of that pure love, if we will only look and listen.
God warns that people will not listen, they will harden their hearts, much suffering and loss will come, but out of the charred stump of that tree a whole new world will sprout because of the word we speak and the way of living we show and the light of love we shine. We need to have a vision of the realm of God on earth that we are trying to create and we need to articulate that vision in beautiful, persuasive words and in actions that model it for others, but it is not up to us alone to change the world. We do not need to worry about how successful we are. We just need to keep taking this boat out into the deep waters and casting our nets for the sake of beauty and goodness and love, and then feel the joy of the superabundance of meaning and gifts that fill our nets because of what we help the Spirit do.
Let us pray in silence…