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Fifth Sunday in Epiphany, 8. February 2004
Sermon on Luke 5:1-11 (RCL, Series C) by David Zersen

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One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret , with the people crowding around him and listening to the word of God, he saw at the water's edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat. When he had finished speaking he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we've worked hard all night and haven't caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus' knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon's partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don't be afraid; from now on, you will catch men.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.


Wilbert Troike, may he rest in peace, used to wail these words regularly from the choir balcony in a high tenor solo in my home congregation. The women in the congregation, my mother included, fairly swooned over this oft-repeated solo, but it was definitely not my favorite. The music director in our Lutheran church had some revivalist tendencies, and Troike's call became a regular fixture for us: “Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me!” What made this appealing to some, I often wondered, and not at all to me? Was it the style, the emotional allure, the high-tenor timbre? Today's text raises the old question again. Why does the call of God call summon some so powerfully and seem to pass others by? For that matter, had you been in Peter's sandals, so to speak, would this call have attracted you-- bid you call him “Master” and “Lord”?

Biblical Calls and Answers

Today's text falls in a line of Biblical calls and answers. We refer to them as the Call of Jeremiah, the Call of Isaiah, and the Call of the First Disciples who, in this case, were Peter, James and John. And there are others in the Biblical witness: Calls given to and accepted by Paul, Elijah, Moses and Hosea. Those are all relatively dramatic ones, but surely other prophets and disciples felt invited in some way to leave what they were doing and take on a new way of life. The concept, the term, has taken on symbolic power in our language. When congregations want to hire a pastor in our own time, they extend to him a “Call.” Among people in religious professions of all kinds, teachers, deaconesses, priests, sisters—all of them carry out a “calling.” In some way, God confronted them with an invitation and they were moved to respond to it positively. Within the Lutheran community which likes to talk about the priesthood of all believers, it is common to say, following Luther, that all Christians have a vocation (a Latin-rooted word for “calling”), all are called to respond to God's own call to renounce old paths and take on new directions.

When I think of all the friends I have who at one time in their life had some opportunity to hear this call, but rejected it, I have to ask myself what it is that makes some of us disciples and other dissenters. It's interesting to ask why so many of our relatives or associates respond to God's call in different ways. This week I've been reading a fascinating book by Mark Haddon called Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time . It's a best selling novel in which the narrator is an autistic fifteen-year-old boy who thinks very differently from many people whom we know and uses his skills of careful logical analysis to solve a mystery. The story's impact on me is that I am challenged to ask how people look at the same realities differently, and why they do. Our experiences, our genes, the way our minds are put together, cause some to say “black” to what others call “white.” It's the same way with religious matters. The percentage of those who are violently atheistic is small. The percentage of those who find religious “callings” boring, however, grows increasingly. And those of us who wonder why Peter, James and John's astonishment was not self-understood, and why our own positive response to Christ as Lord in our lives is unremarkable, seem be find themselves in growing minorities. Why is this so?

World Perspectives and Personal Decisions

When I was a young pastor, I took members of my youth group to a rally at a local public high school where the “hero” of a popular novel was going to speak. David Wilkerson, a young New York street minister, had written The Cross and the Switchblade about gang life in urban New York , a rough and tough jungle in which Nicky Cruz had heard Christ's call and had his life turned around. As Cruz took the stage and told the huge teen-age audience about his dramatic conversion from a life of murder, rape and theft to a life of service to God, I wondered whether my own sermons lacked power because I had no such testimony to tell. At the “altar call,” all of my teenagers went forward, and I was bewildered as to how, in my own congregation, “calls” of such magnitude could be offered to parishioners. With time, however, I came to believe that our calls come in different ways. Just because they lack drama does not mean they are not powerful and life-changing. And just because our friends and relatives do not respond as we do does not mean that God's call lacks power and authority.

In the first place, a call from God requires that we have a perspective or focus that is broad and bold, that sees the larger world and has a vision for what it can become. If we are small-minded people who have interests only in bigger cars and houses and what can make our children popular and successful, then we have the door of our mind and heart closed to the call of God. However, if we see the physical needs of people around the world, the challenge to seek justice and peace in all lands and the prospect for bringing hope for the future to those who only despair, then we can understand why God is calling for you and for me. We can grasp what it means that the God we have come to know in Jesus does not seek to make the world right or feed the hungry by some kind of fiat or decree. He calls us and sends us out in the same way he sent Peter and James and John. He is an “Epiphany” God who makes himself known through our ministries of love and concern to all people everywhere. I, as just one person, would never surrender this larger view of our role in the world, even if friends and relatives have only that smaller focus which tends to place them center stage.

Secondly, it's amazing whom this Epiphany God calls. Peter's first reaction, after being in the presence of Jesus' power, is “get away from me for I am a sinful man.” All of us have times in our lives when we can say the same thing. All of us might wonder how God could possibly use us. This, of course, was the response of most whom God called in Biblical settings. Moses claimed he couldn't speak, Elijah said nobody would believe, Jonah was stubborn because the people converted, Paul was the “least of all the apostles.” Yet, for each of us, there is someone we can and must reach out to because we are the most significant person in that individual's sphere of influence. How many people do you believe think they are unimportant to you—when in fact you would count them as having had great influences in your life? In my case, a humble godmother who remembers me on all significant events in my life with a card, a Scripture passage and a wise thought. Or a thoughtful elderly man who always looked ahead and found something new in each day even when he was 95 years old. A funny story is told about a religious fanatic who approached a man sitting on a park bench with the question “Have you tried God?” “No,” came the quick response, “but he's tried me.” “Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling; calling for you and for me.” As just one person, I would never surrender this confidence which God places in me to be the one who may have the opportunity to be a “little Christ” in another's life.

Finally, this story about Peter's experience with Jesus emboldens us and clarifies our role as Christians. The church has a great many complainers on the inside these days, people who rant about conflict on the one hand and boredom on the other. With so many on the inside who have lost the vision to which we are called, who could wonder why those on the outside should consider a call, an invitation, a challenge from our God. But Jesus says to Peter, and he says to us, “Be not afraid. Your future is tied up with living the Good News, not the bad news.” Actually, he said “you will be fishers of men,” which is a great pun for a fisherman, but we are urban folk, or perhaps even rural folk, but not likely fisherman. Our work has to do with that quiet relational, conversational sharing which lets people know in their worst of times that God loves them so much that he destroyed death's and sin's power to give us life and hope. Such good news is often told one sentence at a time, just because you've chosen to be with and for these significant others in their finest and darkest hours. As just one person, I would never surrender to opportunity to live the Good News in Christ's church in these exciting times.

Launching your boats for the second time

On the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin , next to Concordia University 's campus, a bronze boat with fisherman, a sculpture by a Lithuanian artist, braves the great lake's winds and waves. Placed there to remind students that they are called to head for deep water and let down their nets for even bigger catches, it symbolizes for us today the calling of all Christians. We have tried many times, in our various ways, to respond to God's great love affirming us in Jesus' cross and resurrection, and at time we have felt like Peter, that we have fished all night and caught nothing. Today's text reminds us again that the excitement of being a Christian can very well escape those who focus only on themselves and their petty interests. Regardless of what our failures have been, however, Jesus calls us to set fear aside, to consider the impact that his love can have in the lives of those around us, and to enter the surf for yet another go at it. His love for us is the reason we can't wait to get our feet in the boat! It's almost a siren song, now that I've rethought the matter, and there are no dangers on the rocks; much more importantly, we set behind us our self-centered life on the beach: “Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling; calling for you and for me.”

Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus
Concordia University at Austin
Austin , TX