Epiphany 5 (C)
The Deep Water
Isaiah 6:1-8, [9-13];
Psalm 138; 1
This week I had the pleasure of spending some peaceful social time with Bonnie. One of the many topics we discussed was the joy, but also the fear, one feels when they first learn they will soon become a parent. I commented that I believed the truly frightened young people about to embark in parenthood turn out of be the best parents. I base this on the idea that the more frightened and genuinely humbled one is to the enormous task of raising a human person from birth to adulthood, the more this new parent profoundly understands the enormous task and responsibility of being a parent. This kind of fear is at its root about love and care. This fear fuels parent’s willingness to learn from others, listen to elder’s advice, and explore creative ideas for raising healthy and happy children. They want with all their hearts to do right by their little person for whom they are custodians for the next twenty-five or more years.
The message of all the people in our scriptures today is:
“This is too great for me.”
“I am not able or worthy.”
“I’m not very good at this. I don’t think this is working.”
Isaiah, who is known as a wise sage and prophet for many years says, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!"
“I am the least of the apostles,” Paul says, “Unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
“Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing,” Peter says.
“I’m not very good at this. I don’t think this is working,” our scriptures say. Have you ever felt like that in life, your career, or your ministry?
There is one word that describes the feelings of all our scripture writers this morning: futility. There is an overwhelming sense in these texts of wanting to give up. And futility is perhaps a feeling we can all identify with in year 3 of pandemic along with ever-growing cultural conflicts. Many of us are perilously close to giving up on ourselves and those with whom we disagree. We’re starting to believe that change is not possible. We’re starting to believe our efforts are futile. This is the situation in our scriptures, and this is all too often the situation in our lives.
Futility is a dangerous state. It robs us of hope, of possibility, of faith itself. This is where Peter is one early morning on the Lake of Gennesaret. He and his companions have been out all-night fishing and have caught nothing. They will have nothing to eat that day and nothing to sell that day. They also may be doubting their skills and capability as fishermen. This is where the slow-rising tide of futility can land us. We don’t just begin to doubt what we can do. We begin to doubt who we are.
Then Jesus comes into the situation, and everything changes. “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.’ When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.
So, 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.” This story is about far more than just, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
One thing Jesus says here jumps off the page: “Put out into the deep water.”
Let that phrase pierce your heart. “Put out into the deep water.” When we are feeling swamped by futility, we need to go deeper. When you can’t figure out what to do next, go deeper. When you are mad at everybody and everyone is mad at you, go deeper. When the tasks placed before you seem insurmountable, go deeper. When you feel like you have nothing but failure to show for your very best effort, go deeper. “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets.”
What is the difference between beating our heads against a wall, i.e. doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, and following Jesus’ advice?
- Jesus asks us to return to the ground of our futility, the place of feeling stuck and stymied and sad, and go deeper there.
Go (fish) beneath the same assumptions and habits and patterns that we have used before.
Ask ourselves harder questions.
Give ourselves and others more time and more commitment. And then do something radically different. Take Jesus with us.
That is what changes the disciples’ action from “doing the same thing and expecting different results” into a sudden and bountiful harvest. When Jesus is with us—in our minds, in our hearts, in our conversations, in our discernment, in our priorities, two things happen.
First, we are empowered to go out into the deep water. We can take risks and stretch ourselves and each other toward something new.
And as a result, we can let down our nets and find fish.
What was once the site of futility is transformed into the site of abundance, discovery, and sustenance.
Notice one more interesting detail in this gospel text. At the end of the fishing part of the story, we read this sentence:
“And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.”
Really, did they begin to capsize?
That sounds problematic.
Seriously, did the boat take on water and start to get alarmingly low in the frighteningly deep water? If they go down in the deep water, they’re in trouble. They’re a long way offshore. It might be hard if not impossible to swim back, and the disciples may not have the “walking on water” skills that Jesus has. We don’t know how they dealt with it. Luke doesn’t tell us that they started rowing pell-mell for the nearest shore, or maybe they had to chuck some of the fish out of the boat, or who knows what. Peter, in fact, is so overwhelmed by the miracle that he either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care that the boat is about to sink. He falls to his knees before Jesus and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!
We do find out by the end of the story that they make it back to shore, but that detail that Luke includes is important. The boat begins to sink. Notice the significance of that in the context of the end of this story. This is Peter, James, and John’s call to ministry. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people,” and “When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.” The boat begins to sink.
- Which is the second difference between a risky fool’s errand vs the intrepid act of choosing to follow Jesus. The sinking boat is a symbol for leaving your old life behind.
The boat was the fishermen’s primary tool of the trade, the economic engine of their lives. They needed that boat, and they needed it to stay afloat, so they and their families could stay afloat.
But when Jesus showed up, the bounty and abundance his presence brought into their lives completely overwhelmed their old worldview, their old tools, their old ways of living their lives. “Business as usual” just couldn’t stand up to following the call of Jesus.
Saying yes to Jesus means we now give up all our most cherished sources of security, to find true security and freedom in him. And remember what the call is to Peter and his friends: to become fishers of people. This is mostly about evangelism.
And that is surprising. We don’t expect energy and vocation around evangelism to be sparked out of being swamped by futility and fear. Peter and his companions begin this story sad, frustrated, afraid, and almost hopeless. They don’t believe there are any fish, and they don’t believe that they have what it takes to catch them. But Jesus says, “Put out into the deep water, and let down your nets for a catch,” and everything changes.
The shamefaced group of failed fishermen are courageous new evangelists and followers of Jesus by the end of the story.
So, ask yourself: where do I find futility in my life?
Where do I feel like a failure?
Where am I ready to give up?
Where have I lost hope?
And then listen to the call of Jesus: “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch… Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”
The road from overwhelmed expecting parent to wise dedicated parent is in some ways a boat ride with Jesus at the helm. Jesus leads us into the deep water where the boat might take on water, we might get seasick, anything can, and does, happen out there; and yet, the whole thing miraculously works out.
Sometimes the boat ride representing the road from failure to evangelist is quite short, or other times we feel we are on a boat floating adrift for many years before we gain the courage to say yes to Jesus and saying yes to depth.
Today we are asked to contemplate the complex task of be simultaneously fearful and fearless in the face of God.
Today we are asked to ponder the challenge of going deeper despite ourselves.
To say here I am Lord, I can’t see what you see, but I trust you to take me to the deep end.
The Rev. Canon Whitney Rice (she/her/hers) is an Episcopal priest who serves as the Canon for Evangelism & Discipleship Development for the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School, where she won the Yale University Charles S. Mersick Prize for Public Address and Preaching and the Yale University E. William Muehl Award for Excellence in Preaching. She has taught undergraduate courses at the University of Indianapolis and has contributed to Lectionary Homiletics, the Young Clergy Women’s Project journal Fidelia’s Sisters, and other publications. She has served as a researcher and community ministry grant consultant for the Indianapolis Center for Congregations and is currently a member of The Episcopal Church’s Evangelism Council of Advice. A communicator of the gospel at heart, she writes and teaches on a wide variety of topics, including rethinking evangelism, stewardship, leadership, women’s theology of the body, mysticism, and spiritual development. When she’s not thinking about theology, particularly the intersection of evangelism and justice work (which is all the time, seriously), you’ll find her swing dancing. Find more of her work at her website Roof Crashers & Hem Grabbers (www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com)