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

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GOSPEL: Luke 5:1-11 (NRSV Text from Words for Worship - Augsburg Fortress Publishers)

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.

4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." 5Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

This Week's Sermon:

Peter reminds me today of that old saying: "It's not what he doesn't know that bothers me. It's what he's absolutely sure of!" Peter knows so much about fishing that his experience is an obstacle to his success.

When he comes to these fishermen, the Lord Jesus knows where the fish are. He knows that there is more than an abundance of fish to be caught. He knows that Peter and his coworkers are capable of bringing in a huge catch. But his problem is that Peter and the rest are absolutely convinced there are no fish to be caught! They the professionals have been out there all night fishing. They have caught nothing. Therefore there are no fish!

If Jesus is going to be able to help them, he has to overcome their pride. And that's a tall order, because Peter and his coworkers know all that there is to know about fishing. They are the authorities. Jesus is the well-meaning but dumb preacher. Why should they even waste a moment listening to him?

This scene reminds me of the persistent problem of cultural Christianity. So many lifelong church members "know" what it means to be Christians. This leads to the kind of lives and the kind of churches that Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King and others have so eloquently attacked. It leads to the kind of cynicism and despair that engulf so many pastors. It leads to the kind of general perceptions from outside that the Church of Jesus Christ is a moribund institution  the creature of an entrenched clerical elite who seek only to control culture through Machiavellian machinations.

Of course, the more profound diagnosis is that in all this "knowing"  this certitude  is a shallowness of the soul. Like Peter and friends, so many don't want to go out into the deep waters. For clergy, academics, and well-read laypersons going out into the deep requires what Paul Ricouer called "second naivete." What we "know" gets in the way of a deeper commitment to the Lord of the Church, indeed the Lord of the Universe.

Wiser exegetes and pastors have much sooner and more eloquently stated that the biblical critic usually says more about her or himself than about the Lord. And there's a reason. Like Peter at first blush, we "authorities," we "knowers" can remain in control of the exploration if not conversation  like forensic pathologists examining the bodily fluids and the innermost reaches of a corpse.

Comedian David Steinburg said it much more scatologically some years ago. He said critics were like eunuchs at an orgy. They can understand what's going on in a technical sense, but they just can't get involved! (Apologies to the more visual reader/hearer that may find the comedian's image too revolting.)

The turning point in the story is in that small moment, that half-hearted surrender, in which Peter grants Jesus' authority. This is a holier moment than the first hearing affords even if Peter's first intent is to prove to this neophyte rabbi that "he don't know nothing about catching no fish." Peter's use of the word "master" suggests that Peter might be ready to be taken into deeper waters simply because he's exhausted by all the fruitless hours spent in the shallows.

This is the throwing down of the gauntlet to everyone who "knows" too much for her or his own good. This is the moment in which you have to ask yourself, "What if Jesus is truly alive and truly Lord of heaven and earth? What if Jesus' name is the name above every name at which every knee must bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of his Abba? What if there really is no place else to go, at last, but out into the deep because the lifeless, fruitless shallows no longer work?"

Perhaps just perhaps, we great "authorities" and great "knowers" will find ourselves suddenly exposed by Jesus in the same way that the little boy exposed the naked Emperor who had been sold new clothes made up only of foolish pride masking childish doubts and insecurities. Perhaps it's time for us to look into the mirror to see the flesh that is wasting away. Perhaps it's time to say, "Master, take me where I'm not sure I'm ready to go, for if I don't go I will surely perish from the fruitlessness of these shallow waters."

When they go out into the deep and let down their nets, these authorities and knowers are suddenly gripped by the surprising truth. How little they know after all! The catch is beyond their imagining and almost beyond their capacity to take into their boats. Then comes the great "Aha!" The Master is more than Master. The Master is Lord. They are not equals. They are not authorities. Like Job at the end of the great poem, they must confess the limits of the creature in the face of the Creator. Peter leads the way for them and us as he models the new posture, as he falls to his knees saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"

Of course, this pericope cannot be divorced from the rest of Luke or the rest of the canon. Sudden conversions ought not to be mocked nor should they be given more weight than such moments deserve. The "metanoia" (new heart/new mind), the "shuv" (turning) which conversions entail are repeated again and again throughout this life's journey or we stay in shallow waters exhausting what is there to be had.

Peter and friends and all of us must go all the way to Golgotha. Until we see that the Lord Jesus is no bread king, no fish market king, we are yet in shallow waters. Indeed we must see him stricken, smitten, and dead before we understand that going out into the deep means more than great catches. It means more than the possibility of drowning, the possibility of drowning. By God, it means dying with Jesus. Being buried under the water again and again until at last when our lungs are filled with water and there is no life left in this wasted flesh, we draw the new breath of endless life with God.

If we keep going with him into the deep, we will never get back to the demonic security of shallow waters. We will certainly drown out there.

J.R.R. Tolkien got it right (and so did Peter Jackson in "The Return of the King") when Gandalf says to one of the hobbits that the adventure doesn't end in death. That death is, in any of its forms, the end is most certainly the big lie. It keeps authorities and knowers in shallow waters where they waste away to nothingness. It causes pastors to lose their passion. It causes academics to lose their faith. It causes churches to waste away with incessant whining, pissing, and moaning over nothing (hours spent on budget arguments, etc).

But even such miserable deaths can lead to a new moment, a new occasion, for each of us to hear another calling  to remember whose we are and why we are here at this time and in this place.

Have you lost heart? Have you all but given up? Are you exhausted from the fruitlessness of your life?

Hear the call of the Lord of the Church, "Do not be afraid; follow me!" And as you go out into the deep and become (as Frederick Niedner says in his Christian Century glimpse into this text) the net, the Lord Jesus will give your life new fruitfulness. You will become a partner in drawing all people to the One lifted up on the cross! He is the Resurrection and the Life!

The Rev. Dr. Samuel D. Zumwalt
St. Martin's Lutheran Church
Austin, Texas USA