A sermon preached at St. Francis by the Lake Episcopal Church, Canyon Lake, Texas.
The Lectionary readings for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany are here.
Do y’all remember ‘back in the day’ when Sunday School teachers used flannel graphs to tell Bible stories? I love flannel graphs, and often I’ve wished I had one when I preach. This is one of those moments, so you’ll just have to picture it in your heads.
I want us to start today looking at the main characters in both our Old Testament and our New Testament readings: The prophet Isaiah and the fisherman Simon (as we start the story he’s not yet a disciple and he’s not yet called Peter).
Imagine the felt cutout of Isaiah and a throne bigger than the flannel graph board as we hear Isaiah describe his grand vision of the glory of God on the throne. God’s robe fills the entire temple and these six-winged creatures are flying around singing praises to God with voices so strong, the building shakes. And just so no one misses the concrete reality of this vision, Isaiah grounds it in history: In the year that King Usiah died. This isn’t just some wishful imagining but the reality of God seeking a relationship with God’s people.
As you imagine Isaiah’s vision, can you feel the presence of God in this place? Can you hear the heavenly voice harmonizing with ours? What is your reaction when you feel surrounded by God’s presence?
Isaiah’s first response it to proclaim himself unworthy. Isaiah is fearful that all of his sins will bring about his death in the presence of God. Yet, far from condemning Isaiah, God purifies that which Isaiah says is unclean and asks him to go and proclaim healing to the people of Isreal. Isaiah learns that God is a God of redemption and restoration.
OK, quick change of scene – let me switch out the temple flannel graph with the one of the Sea of Galilee. Can you see the boats and the empty nets? Can you see and feel how tired the fishermen are?
Simon has been out with his crew fishing all night and has caught nothing. He has nothing to sell, nothing to feed his family. And instead of letting him go home in defeat or despair, Jesus asks Simon if he can use his boat to speak from. Jesus steps into Simon’s workspace, fills it with his Presence and when he has finished speaking, asks Simon to try again.
I love Simon’s response: “well, ok, we tried all night but IF YOU SAY SO, I’ll do it again. Do you think that Simon really expected things to be different or is his tone more like “I’ll show you, you’ll see I’m right. You may be the master teacher but I’m the master fisherman.” If you were in Simon’s sandals, what would your tone be?
And when Simon sees the haul of fish, sees the glory of God revealed, he responds in the same way as Isaiah, “Go away from me, Lord, I am a sinful man.” Just as Isaiah did, Simon believes himself to be unworthy of God’s presence.
Jesus doesn’t walk away as Simon asks but instead invites Simon, and those with him, to join him in ‘fishing for people.’ Simon declared himself unclean and Jesus heals his self-doubt with the words, “don’t be afraid.”
And here’s a helpful side explanation: in the ancient Hebrew world, catching people like fish was used to describe the vengeful actions of an enemy out to get you. Jesus takes this old way of thinking and transforms it. ‘Learn from me,’ he offers, ‘how to gather all of God’s people together in liberating, life-giving love. Let go of the ideas of a vengeful, condemning God and live in the abundance of God’s Love.’
The Story continues to reveal to us that God is a God of redemption and restoration and relationship.
In both of these in incredible scenes, the one who says ‘I am unworthy’ is offered an invitation to participate with God in the same restorative and redemptive actions they themselves receive.
“Who should I send, and who will go for us?”
“Follow me and I will show you how to fish for people.”
These men were afraid of being condemned because they condemned themselves with their own feelings of guilt. God created us and declared us ‘good’ knowing we’d make bad choices in life. Throughout our holy scriptures, from the very beginning, we have story after story of God’s tender mercy. When the first humans ate from the forbidden tree, he dressed them warmly as he sent them to face the consequences of their behavior.
God worked with the actions of Abraham and Sarah to bring about God’s plan even as they, over and over again, took matters into their own hands.
After his brothers sold him into slavery, God used Joseph to save Jacob’s entire family from famine.
Throughout the history of ancient Isreal, God sends prophets to remind the people of his mercy and yet they chose the path God said would lead to his wrath. And still, whenever they returned, God welcomed and cared for them even as they faced the consequences of their choices.
As we dive deeper into God’s story through our BibleProject groups, my prayer for all of us is that we find a deeper relationship with the God of mercy and grace. Some of us may expect condemnation because we don’t feel worthy of God’s love, but God says ‘you are my beloved.”
Henri Nouwen, a twentieth century Dutch priest and theologian, focuses so much of his writing on feeling worthy of God’s love because for much of his life he felt unworthy. He himself suffered from depression and self condemnation and the effects that has on all of our relationships.
Henri says this about self-rejection:
“Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”
Henri goes on to say “Often we are made to believe that self-deprecation is a virtue, called humility. But humility is in reality the opposite of self-deprecation. [Humility] is the grateful recognition that we are precious in God’s eyes and that all we are is pure gift. To grow beyond self-rejection we must have the courage to listen to the voice calling us God’s beloved sons and daughters, and the determination always to live our lives according to this truth.”
God is a god of mercy, The One who created each of us in love, to love and be loved. God’s greatest desire is to restore and to redeem that which we have broken. How can we condemn ourselves or others when God calls us good?
Before we pack away our flannel graph, let’s go back for a minute to Simon’s abundance of fish. Do you see it? Think about it – this would have been a great windfall for his business. And yet he walks away from it. He leaves the haul for the other fishermen who hadn’t caught anything either, sharing this abundant bounty with those who need it, demonstrating that yes, Jesus has come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Perhaps there were those who were one bad night away from losing their boats or their homes or their families. Their night of nothing has been redeemed, their livelihood has been restored. Peter, even before he makes the choice to follow Jesus, has participated with God in healing the world, at least his little shore-line of it.
In our collect for today we ask God to give us the “liberty of the abundant life made known to us in Jesus”. The liberty of abundant life. The liberty granted us in our relationship with God is the freedom from having to solve the world’s issues ourselves; it is the liberty of knowing that God is God and we are not; the freedom that comes from knowing we are loved and that God deems us worthy to participate in the restoring of all things to goodness, knowing the abundance of the ever flowing mercy and grace of God, flowing through us into the world.
When we respond to God’s question of “whom shall I send,” when we answer Jesus’ invitation of “follow me” we are doing so to participate with God in the healing of this world, or at least our little shore-line of it.
Being God’s Beloved is the core of our identity. Living in the fullness of God’s Presence, trusting and knowing we are worthy of God’s love, can we give any other answer but ‘here I am send me?” Amen.