Monday, February 8, 2010

The Ones that Got Away

Today’s story is one I remember hearing often as a child. Our Sunday school teacher relived the tale with flannel graph. After sticking the people to the felt background we’d sing, “I Will Make You Fisher’s of Men,” a tune I still have stuck in my head.

But even as a child this image of fishing for people always struck me as odd. It made me think of bait, lures and hooks. I had a hard time connecting with this story. I asked Janelle what the story elicited in her and she said she thought of people heads on fish bodies wiggling about. This didn’t help.

But as I’ve been living with the story for the past week I have found new points of connection and I want to walk through the story with you.

The story begins after Jesus has been run out of Nazareth. The community there liked the message of good news for the poor, release for the captives, and freedom for the oppressed. They liked it up until the point Jesus mentioned that such newness of life was not only for them but for everyone, including their enemies. At this point they wanted to throw him off a cliff.

Jesus escaped the crowds and continued to teach the realm of God in both word and deed in the neighboring village of Capernaum. It wasn’t long before a large crowd had gathered pushing in on him from every side.

At this point Jesus sees a couple of fishermen cleaning their nets on the lake shore after a long night of fishing. Jesus convinces one of these fishermen, a man named Simon, to let me use his boat.

Now Jesus wouldn’t have been a complete stranger to Simon and his pals. Just prior to this story Jesus had healed Simon’s mother-in-law and I’m sure word of this wandering rabbi would have spread.

Once in the boat Jesus sets off a little distance from shore in order to teach the crowds. It’s interesting that at this point Luke (the writer of this gospel story) completely skips over the message Jesus was teaching. Instead, the story says that when Jesus was finished teaching he told Simon to go out into the deep waters.
Now this detail of the “deep water” might very well simply be Luke’s attempt to let us know the location where Jesus wanted to go on the lake. Yet this inclusion of this simple detail may also represent something more.

In the ancient Jewish world, water was often a symbol of chaos and deep water is often dark water. It’s in deep water where we often can’t see the bottom. It’s in deep water where we’re concerned about getting in over our head. Perhaps the deep water represents those places we would rather not go, the places of risk, discomfort, and uncertainty.

The call to go into the deep water sounds very much like something God does. God often calls us to go deeper; deeper in relationships risking vulnerability and intimacy; deeper into issues of justice risking the bliss found in just not knowing; deeper in our trust and deeper in our faith.

Deeper is where Jesus calls Simon to go.

Once in the deep water Jesus calls Simon to let down their nets. I can only imagine the sideways glances and sighs of the fishermen. They had probably fished this lake for many years. I’m sure they knew the best times to fish, the best locations around the lake. They had been fishing all night and caught nothing and now this wandering rabbi wanted them to send out the nets again. But then again, Jesus had healed Simon’s mother-in-law so they play along and lower the nets.

The story goes that as they pulled up the nets they were astounded with the catch. Their nets were on the brink of tearing apart they were so full of fish. As they hauled it into the boat the sheer weight of the fish nearly sunk their boats.
In a moment of awe Simon blurted out, “Master, leave me. I'm a sinner and can't handle this holiness. Leave me to myself.”

Jesus responds with the four words that comprise the most repeated command in the Bible, “Do not be afraid.”

And like a flick of a switch Jesus switches their profession with a turn of phrase, “From now on you will catch people.”

Perhaps this pronouncement foreshadows Luke’s sequel, the book of Acts, when Simon and the others will continue Jesus’ teaching and many people are gathered together as they catch this vision for this realm of God.

The story ends with these heavy laden boats coming onto the beach and the fisherman leaving it all behind to follow Jesus.

It’s at this point in the story that my heart is hooked; when it says they leave everything and follow.

I can only assume that as fishermen they had good days and bad days. Days when their nets were torn and they spent the entire day mending. And I’m sure there were days when they caught enough fish to feed themselves, their families, and maybe even some left over.

Yet on this day, this fantastic catch would certainly be a high water mark for them. The story sounds as though if there had been one more fish the nets would have snapped and the entire catch lost. Had one more fish jumped into the boat the weight would have been too much and the boat would have sank. The image is that this was the best possible catch imaginable and at this high point of success, they walked away.

I have to wonder what would have thought or felt as they let their catch get away. Would they have looked back over their shoulder as the catch lay upon the shore? Would they have felt a twinge of doubt or even regret? What would they have felt as they followed Jesus into the unknown, into the deep?

When the fishermen left their catch, they also left their nets, and their boat, in a sense they felt their very identity, their very role in that society behind.

One thing I can be sure of, no one would have said they expected this. Not a single one of them could have said, “Yeah, this is pretty much how I figured today would play out. I totally figured we’d catch nothing all night, quit for the day, then have some rabbi tell us where to fish and we’d bring up the biggest catch ever only to walk away from it.”

None of us can claim to know what we can expect out of life, much less out of a day. For we worship a God of possibility. We worship a God of surprise whose call can reorient our entire day, our entire identity. We worship a God of surprise, a God who, after a night of nothingness, brings forth a bursting abundance

But the story doesn’t end with the abundance; it ends with them leaving the abundance behind. It says they left everything and followed Jesus. What does it mean to leave everything and follow?

This idea of leaving all to follow Jesus is common throughout the gospels, and to be honest each time I come across it I’m not sure what to make of it. It seems overwhelming and in the face of such a daunting idea it’s tempting to believe this call isn’t mine. I mean, what am I supposed to do?

Does it mean Janelle and I sell everything and we take Winston and go into the wilderness like the ancient monks? Maybe, but somehow this feels like I’m taking it too literally.

So what does this calling mean for me, for us?

At the risk of sounding like I am singing someone else’s song I have to mention the domination system. We talk a lot about the domination system here. It is a way cultures orient themselves that seeks control, a mechanisms that seek to manipulate. It is a system of governance that defines power by the ability to force people to conform to one’s will; that defines significance by fame; and that defines wealth by what we can hoard.

Each Sunday morning in our call to worship we speak of coming out of this system. We say:

“Come from the world of extravagance for a few, which causes suffering for many…Come from the world of rich over poor, one race over another and one nation over all…Come from the world so full opinions that we become deaf to cries of those who suffer.”

Perhaps this coming out of the domination system is the “leaving it all behind.” But if I’m honest, sometimes it’s not that easy.

For just as the principalities and powers of the domination system want to take a hold of me and conform me to its image, sometimes I want to be embraced by it for all the empty, temporary privileges it promises. It’s a Stockholm syndrome of sorts, a becoming comfortable with your captor.

Let me give you an example. I remember the first time I saw a video on meat packaging slaughterhouses. If you’ve seen something like this, you’ve witnessed the savagery cows, pigs, and other animals can be subjected to by certain meat packing companies. After watching the documentary I couldn’t help but feel as though by purchasing these products I was contributing to this savagery. I knew I didn’t want to be a part of something so cruel, but at the same time, I like beef, I enjoy bacon. I felt a tension; perhaps you have felt a tension like this as well? Now I know that for this specific example, thankfully there are other ways to get meat products without the cruelty such as organic or free range farms. Yet this is simply one example of the tension I’ve felt in wanting to “leave it behind” and the temptation for the temporary privileges.

We live in a culture, a country of comparative wealth where at this time we receive many of the unsustainable benefits of the domination system. And sometimes it’s tempting to plead ignorance and stay in the shallows.

Perhaps leaving it all behind, leaving the nets full of fish, is a learning to let go of these unsustainable benefits of an unjust system.

Thankfully this calling to let go and follow doesn’t belong to any one of us in particular but to all of us as a community and together we will support, we will encourage each other as we will walk into this calling and follow Jesus into the deep.

No comments: