Despite the title of the sermon, “Going Deep,” this has nothing to do with football or the Super Bowl. (Although my pick is the Indianapolis Colts.) But I wouldn’t mortgage your house on my prognostication for I failed that course in seminary. I don’t know what is going to happen in five minutes.
Now that I have THAT out of the way, lets get down to business. My mother sent me the obituary, from the Washington Post . about the Rev. Dr. Jack McClendon. The headline read: “Longtime D.C. pastor and civil rights activist.” He was 83 when he died. He was also the pastor most responsible for me being here this morning. When I was growing up at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, just two blocks down the street from the White House, Jack McClendon was the Associate Pastor. He didn’t do youth work. Rather, he was involved in Christian Education and Mission. He WAS the face of the church in the city during the 1960’s and 70’s. Jack invited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to preach at NYA and he came twice.
Jack was a political activist who, in his later years, crusaded on behalf of the mentally ill, the homeless, and the powerless. Because of Jack the church opened its doors to the street people – which, as you can imagine cause a LOT of tension among the congregants and Trustees. I witnessed many interesting things!
Born in LaFayette, Alabama, Jack served in the Pacific during WWII . He received his MDiv. From Union Theological Seminary in New York where he was a student of Paul Tillich, received a PhD. From Glasgow University in Scotland and was one of the most brilliant men I have ever known.
He had this gravelly southern accented voice. He smoked too much. I wear the collar because of him and feel compelled to involve myself in the issues of the city and region because of Jack.
But the most important thing about Jack to me is this: he cared for me. He took me out to lunch every time I returned from college and seminary. He was the first to really get me to think deeper about who I was and what was important and who God was calling me to be. Jack made me trowel the deep waters again and again. Often times, just like I do now, I wanted to avoid the call, didn’t feel worthy, equipped, good enough – but nevertheless, Jack made me feel less afraid. Jack made the ministry seem like an empowering, powerful vocation. He was right.
I received my Mother’s letter and the obituary the same day I opened the Gospel of Luke and read the first 11 verses of chapter 5.
Well, Jesus sees something in Peter that Peter doesn’t see in himself. Jesus gets Peter to head out again on the already fished waters of the lake of Gennesaret and drop the nets one more time. Jesus calls Peter beyond his fear to a new vocation.
Peter was an experienced fisherman – he made a living doing this. He knew the lake like the back of his hand. He had spent a whole night fishing and come up empty. He was tired, dirty and disappointed. He was “washing the nets.” I don’t know what fishing was like in the first century of the common era but I suspect when one got to the stage of “washing their nets” this was the last thing one did before going home. And these nets were not like goldfish nets that you rinse in the sink. The nets Peter had to clean were big and heavy weighted things.
Think of the presumption then, when Jesus, as he was standing beside the lake, looks at Peter and says, “You, take me out.”
Now we don’t get the full dialogue (if there was one) and we don’t know what Peter was thinking internally, but I can imagine. “Are you nuts? Been there, done that. I just came in. I am done. I want to go to bed.” But Peter did what Jesus asked him to do.
And then only after Jesus finished speaking to the crowd, however long that was we do not know, Jesus told Peter to drop his nets in the deep water for a catch. Jesus made Peter go deep one more time on well-fished waters. “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet, if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
I can’t help it but think that in every walk of life and in every spiritual journey – which, whether we claim it or not, we are on – nothing important happens until we go deep once again on the well-known places of our lives. So much of life is lived on the surface. But you know, because you have experienced it, that real wisdom comes from depth – and sometimes deep is not the place you wish to go. Or it feels like the same old, same old, well-known path. And sometimes you and I might say we are discerning and contemplating and taking a good hard look at our lives and relationships and choices – but we really we aren’t, and we need help – a different set of eyes, another set of questions, an alternative perspective.
I don’t want to get beyond the shallow waters of comfort and denial. I will follow the path of least resistance. I am tired and just want to go to bed. It is hard to agitate one’s self to move beyond the rut.
It takes someone else to challenge you, to encourage you, to see in you that which you cannot see in yourself. Somebody else has to cause that tension within you to say “yes” to things that you want to shy away from – taking a deep look at life.
You see that is what Jack McClendon did for me. It is what Jesus did so profoundly for Peter. It is what we should be doing to one another. It is different from nagging – it is encouraging one another into deeper places. And it is what we need to be doing more of.
It is risky – sometimes going deep can open deep issues of pain and resentment. Telling the truth can get you in trouble. Following Jesus can get you killed. Sometimes going deep causes you to do things that your parents think are crazy – like going to the Peace Corp and turning down a “good job.” Or telling your friends “No. I don’t want to do that because it really isn’t what I want to do.”
But isn’t it true that it is only when you go deep that transformation can occurs. You get over the flirting and say “I love you.” You stand up and say: “My name is Joe and I am an alcoholic.” Think of the last time you went deep with someone you love and risked the hurt to get to the other side. That is powerful stuff. And sometimes you have to go over the same troubled waters again and again and again. And even sometimes when you have decided to give up, you go after it again. And most of the time it is crucial that someone else is pushing you: a friend, a spiritual director, a sponsor, a therapist, a community – forcing you to go deeper and face it, cast that net one more time. Somebody has to incarnate Jesus in our lives – somebody who can see what we cannot. We have to play Jesus to each other – make it real. “For the distresses of choice, are our chance to be blessed.” as W.H. Auden put it. And the spirit of Jesus is always pushing us to go deep and push through the distresses of choice to grab at the chance to be blessed – to pull something in.
After the massive catch that almost swamped the boat, Peter’s first remark is about feeling sinful: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” What is it about that? I guess when you realize there is more, you get to the truth, you realize that we haven’t been totally truthful until then and the weight of it all can be very heavy. It is sometimes hard to look at your life and the mistakes. It is better to ignore – and there is always a thin line between remorse or repentance and rejoicing, between sin and salvation. But it is precisely at the thin place (as Rev. Gomes calls it) that we meet our savior, that we catch a glimpse of something else.
Anyone who has had to go to the shadow places and has come out whole knows. I think of Yoda in “Star Wars” forcing Luke Sky Walker to go deep and he comes out a Jedi. I think of Rafiki, that Zen master mandrill in the “Lion King,” pushing Simba to get real and to claim his identity. It is heroic stuff, but it’s not just for heroes. It is for you and for me too.
But the good news is this – Jesus didn’t call Peter sinful. Jesus didn’t make Peter feel guilty. Jesus didn’t make Peter feel worthless. Jesus said: “Don’t be afraid.” And then he said “I have something new for you to do.” That is powerful.
There is, I believe, a direct connection between feeling sinful and fear – religion has made an industry of it. Fear is the opposite of faith, not doubt. And Jesus here speaks to the deepest fear of Peter that he doesn’t measure up somehow. I don’t know what Peter was afraid of. We don’t have the privilege of knowing his inner life. But the admonition “Don’t be afraid” is something. Sometimes I am not sure what I am afraid of, but I am scared nevertheless.
Just think what you would do if you were not afraid? Afraid of the crowd’s reaction, afraid of parental approbation, of friends scoffing, afraid of not measuring up, living up to? What if you were not afraid to step out and do what you have always yearned to do? What if?
I think Jesus is telling us – go into the deep waters. Recast your nets… do it again and again and again until you catch what you are seeking – don’t walk away when it comes to the issue of truth.
If only the church would emphasize Jesus’ words – “do not be afraid“and “come out.”
Do not be afraid! “Just do it.”
Do not be afraid! Hell isn’t what faith is about. Faith is about living life large in the here and now.
Do not be afraid to speak your truth. Do not be afraid to make a change.
Do not be afraid to let it go. Do not be afraid to look at it again.
Do not be afraid of love. Do not be afraid of others.
Do not be afraid of your own capacity to be powerful.
Do not be afraid of a new profession, a new vocation – like catching people, like sharing good news.
Do not be afraid of Jesus.
Do not be afraid. Fear is what hinders us. Fear is what destroys us. Fear keeps us shallow. Fear keeps us blaming. Fear keeps us from being creative and catching large nets of whatever you are supposed to catch. Fear keeps from changing our lives and finding our voices.
But going deep changes everything: how we look at ourselves and how we look at others. As Mary Williams writes: Have compassion on everyone you meet even it they don’t want it. What seems conceit, bad manners or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.
Or has Gene Hoffman writes: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we would find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
This is what is at stake in the little passage: nothing less than identity and transformation. – it is deep. It is about being called to go where you do not wish to go (at first), or didn’t think you could go, or had already been there and done that. It is about going over the same area one more time and not giving up until you come up for air and see yourself as you are – beloved, equipped and worthy – called to cast your nets a little wider.