Mr Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 10, 2019
‘Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid.”’
In the name of God: + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
As some of you know, I am in the middle of my final semester of seminary. One of the best parts of being at the end of a degree program is that, having completed the numerous degree requirements in previous semesters, all of my remaining courses are ones that I selected based on my interests. One of the courses I’m taking this term is in Christian spirituality. I was especially interested in this course because while my seminary experience has been rich in theological training, I have been surprised to find how infrequently my courses have discussed the basics of spirituality, spiritual practices, and discipleship. Our professor is a Roman Catholic religious who has a wisdom and grounding that only comes from decades of life in the faith. In a recent session she looked at us intently and spoke with a candor and sincerity that rarely emerges in everyday conversation: ‘we all long for connection,’ she told us. ‘We long to be connected to God and to each other. From there emerges true happiness.’ Consider the impact simply smiling at someone can have, she told us. Something as simple as a smile immediately invites connection between people. The class discussed how rare it was for people to actually look at each other when passing on the street or on public transportation. In my experience, people are much more likely to be looking at their phones than they are to be looking at other people. I know I am guilty. My phone serves as an easy cover if I feel nervous or don’t want to interact with anyone in a particular social setting.
Encouraged by the advice of our instructor, I decided to give this practice a try as I moved around the divinity school in the days after that class session. It is a small school, and I
know the vast majority of people there, even if only tangentially. As I passed people in the halls, I resisted the temptation to look down or at my phone and instead actually looked at people and greeted them if I knew them, and I smiled even if I only knew them tangentially. Now, I can say from personal experience that this sort of behavior is perfectly acceptable, even normal, in the South, but in New England people will just think something is wrong with you. Two and a half years in Connecticut has changed me. It may sound hokey, but it actually made a difference. I actually did feel happier, even in the simplest act of acknowledging another person. We are not isolated beings who just happen to be inhabiting the same earth. We do a disservice to ourselves when we do not seek the connections we are wired to seek. As humans, we long to be recognized and seen.
We witness a scene of great intimacy and connection in today’s gospel passage from Luke’s gospel. Before we get there, we need to contextualize today’s passage. In this season after the Epiphany we are reading sequentially through Luke’s gospel. In the last two weeks we heard the story of Jesus’ visit to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth where he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and after an exchange in the synagogue was violently rejected by a crowd who tried to hurl him off the cliff on which their town was built. Luke’s gospel tells us that Jesus passed through this violent crowd and continued on to Capernaum, where he healed a man possessed with a demon in the synagogue. He then proceeded to Simon Peter’s home, where he cured Peter’s mother-in-law. By then word had spread of Jesus’ healing, and many came to him and he healed them. After all of these accounts of healing, today’s passage begins with Jesus standing by the lake shore. Once again a crowd of people thronged to him. Some probably sought healing, but the Scripture tells us that the crowd had come to ‘hear the word of God.’ They wanted to hear Jesus’ teaching, for they knew he was no ordinary person. The crowd was so great and the people were pressing so close to Jesus. Perhaps you know that terrible feeling of being in such a dense crowd of people that you can’t even physically move. Jesus spotted two boats by the shore and decided to get in one of them to teach the people. In what might seem like a bit of a presumptuous move, Jesus just got into the boat belonging to Simon Peter and asked him to push a little way off the shore. Once he was off the shore a bit, Jesus began to teach the great multitude who had come to hear him. He did not dismiss those who came seeking him; he offered them what they sought. But then Jesus turned his attention from the crowd to an individual, to Peter who was in the boat with him. Now, it would seem that Jesus’ request to use Peter’s boat for his teaching interrupted Peter’s work as a fisherman, but in truth it actually didn’t really matter very much. Peter had been at work for hours and hours and had caught nothing. Discouragement had likely set in. If any of you have ever been fishing, you may know this discouragement. Fishing sometimes requires long periods of waiting for very little return. For Peter, of course, fishing was not a hobby; it was his occupation. His livelihood depended on a successful catch. So on this day his discouragement might have bordered on desperation as he had no food to provide for himself and his household.
Jesus had come to Peter in the midst of his discouragement after a long and unsuccessful night of work. Peter welcomed him on to his boat so that Jesus could teach, and when he was finished teaching, Jesus turned to Peter and said, ‘put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ Can you imagine how infuriating it must have been for Peter to hear this from Jesus? He had been hard at work for hours with no success, and then this person comes along and has the nerve to try to tell him, the fisherman, how to fish. Peter tells Jesus ‘we have worked all night and caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ Sometimes, when I am
frustrated and admittedly not at my best, I will agree to do something just to prove that whoever told me to do it is wrong. Perhaps Peter was feeling that way, or perhaps he had some belief that this person in his boat might actually be able to help. Whatever he was feeling, Peter followed Jesus’ instructions and let down his nets. And then something amazing happened. When he let down the nets, he caught so many fish that the nets were so heavy and sagging with weight they began to break. There were so many that he couldn’t get them into the boat. Peter called for his friends to come and help, and when they pulled up the fish they filled both boats so full that they began to sink. It made no sense. They had worked all night and caught absolutely nothing and now they suddenly found themselves with an abundance so great that their equipment couldn’t handle it. It was an abundance they could never have imagine.
Whatever frustration or confusion Peter may have felt quickly melted away. When he reached the shore he came to Jesus, fell down at his knees and worshiped. ‘Go away from me, Lord,’ Peter says, ‘for I am a sinful man.’ He didn’t need to question how this great catch was possible. He knew that it was the working of God. Peter was so overwhelmed by Jesus’ presence that he proclaimed his unworthiness to stand before him. But then Jesus came and spoke those words that we hear so much in Scripture: ‘do not be afraid.’ Do not be afraid, Jesus tells Peter; ‘from now on you will be catching people.’ Peter need not fear because Jesus had seen him and invited him to journey with him and become part of the very core of his followers. Along with his friends James and John, Peter brings his boat to the shore and then drops everything, his life, his possessions, his occupation, he drops it all and follows Jesus.
In the midst of the bustle and confusion of a great crowd, Jesus chooses to come to one person, to Peter, and meets him in the particularities and the struggles of his life. Jesus meets his followers as they are going about their daily routine, as they work and go through the everyday
things of their lives. He does this same for us, meeting us in the ordinary and transforming it completely. Jesus sees us. There is, I think, a temptation of some danger in our tradition to hold God at arm’s length. We worship God in the beauty of holiness and dwell in the great mystery and transcendence of God, who is beyond all knowing. We can experience God in incredibly moving and powerful ways through our liturgy. Yet, if we are not careful, an exclusive focus on God’s transcendence can obscure the fact that God also loves us so much and comes to us in a very personal way.
Just as on that day beside the lake of Gennesaret, Jesus still comes to us. Jesus meets us in our wearied states, in the midst of our struggles and sorrows, in our work and in the things of our lives that seem so ordinary. Jesus meets us when, like Peter, we have been working for so long and nothing seems to come of it. Jesus comes to us in these very moments and opens to us an abundance we could never have dreamed of. Jesus comes to us and tells us those words we long to hear, ‘do not be afraid.’ I am here; I am with you. Bring me your burdens and your fears. Come with me, and I will give you life. Perhaps we may feel like Peter, completely overwhelmed by the radical personal connection God seeks to have with us. Perhaps we might wish, like Peter, to say, ‘go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinner.’ But God sees us, reaches out to us, and longs to be in relationship with us. Do not be afraid, Jesus tells us. May we hear Jesus’ words of comfort, even if just for today, and open ourselves to our God who waits to embrace us.
In the name of God: + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.