SERMON OF FEBRUARY 7, 2010
M. Bruce McKay
Pilgrim - St. Luke’s United Church of Christ
"Mission: Possible – Going Deeper"
Isaiah 6:1-8, Luke 5:1-1
I was talking with a friend a week ago about going fishing. He was getting ready for his annual ice fishing trip.
I’ve never been ice fishing, but I’ve been in one of the little huts where people sit with their line dropped down into the water through a hole in the ice.
Ice fishing, as I see it, is a cold, isolated enterprise with a lot of waiting around for the fish to bite.
It occurred to me this week that ice fishing isn’t all that different from how many churches engage in mission. There is a lot of waiting around for something to happen and when it does, it’s often an isolated individual who comes alive in a particular way, leaving the rest of the church community out in the cold.
In a sense, we’ve been guilty of seeing mission through an ice fishing lens in our congregation. We’ve focused on individuals getting a clearer sense of how God is at work in their life and then responding faithfully, even if it means leaving the rest of the congregation out in the cold.
We let people off the hook (if you see what I mean) when it comes to sharing in the excitement and energy of what God is trying to get done in the world through us.
We are happy to let Suzy lead the Pastoral Partner Program, Nancy run the Sacred Space Art Gallery, and Vicki head up our Christian Education Ministry without a clear awareness that we are all in this together and without the clear conviction that God has a job for each of us individually as we well as for all of us together.
That’s why, over the last few weeks, we’ve been focusing on what it means for us – individually and as a community of faith – to share in God’s mission in the world.
Three weeks ago, we reminded ourselves that we are all part of the Body of Christ and that we are all gifted, in some very significant way, for the common good.
Two weeks ago we reminded ourselves that our mission has to reflect and embody the mission of Jesus, whose compassion created not only the commitment to love others but the conviction that he couldn’t do this without “bringing Good News to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and letting the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4:18)
We learned, as the prophet Micah understood, that “doing justice and loving kindness” are both essential in our shared walk with God. (Micah 6:8)
Last week, listening in on the call of Jeremiah and seeing the consequences for Jesus after preaching in his home town synagogue, we reminded ourselves that engaging in God’s mission in the world can’t help but take us out of our comfort zones, whatever and wherever they may be, into God’s Kingdom zone, where’s God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
Today is the day we conclude this series on mission in worship and at our Annual Meeting.
Today is the day when we go even deeper than we have gone during these last few weeks by sitting in that fishing boat with Peter and entering the temple with Isaiah where we look God in the eye – and see ourselves as God sees us – and respond as God would have us respond.
Today is the day when what seems like an impossible mission becomes possible.
We’re in the temple in Jerusalem. It’s over 700 years before the birth of Jesus and we’re with Isaiah as he goes about his priestly duties – living his daily life, minding his own business – when he found himself in the presence of a God beyond his wildest dreams.
We then move from the temple in Jerusalem to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, over 700 years later. Peter and his partners have just finished fishing all night and caught nothing. A man named Jesus steps into his boat and asks him to put out a little way from the shore. After sitting down, he begins teaching the crowd from the boat.
He then tells Peter to go deeper and let down his nets for a catch. Here he is, a carpenter telling a fisherman how to fish.
Peter protests, saying, “Master, we’ve worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
Doing this Peter and his partners catch more fish than they’d ever imagined was possible. Going about his daily work – minding his own business – Peter, like Isaiah, finds himself in the presence of the same Holy God.
We now move from Peter’s boat on the Sea of Galilee to another boat – the one we’re sitting in this morning. The Latin word for our sanctuary is nave – it means ship or boat.
Here we are, across the world from the Sea of Galilee, nearly 2,000 years later, living our daily lives – minding our own business – wondering if God still shows up in any way at all like the way God showed up in the temple in Jerusalem and along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Here we are sitting in a pew – standing in a pulpit – or sitting in a choir chair – whether we know it or not – understand it or not – believe it or not - we’re in the presence of this same holy and majestic God who is beyond our wildest dreams and our most active imaginations.
Seeing what happened to Isaiah and Peter, it’s almost enough for me to consider finding another line of work. I mean who wants to confront a God whose presence and power makes you respond by saying, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!” (Isaiah 6:5)
Who wants to confront a God whose presence forces you to your knees saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8)
Now it’s clear here we aren’t just talking about Isaiah and Peter. And we aren’t just talking about men. And we aren’t just talking about those of us who happen to be standing or sitting in this church this morning.
We’re talking about every human being in the presence of the holy. We’re talking about what it means to be human and there is no way to avoid the word sin. There is no way to avoid the fact, as the Apostle Paul puts it, that we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said that the Christian doctrine of sin was about the only self-evident doctrine we had. Even if we don’t believe in the God of the Bible, even if we don’t believe in Jesus, even if we never set foot in a church, we know that we sin. We know that we think, say and do things that diminish or deny our own dignity and that of other human beings. We know that we think, say and do things that harm ourselves and others.
Now sin isn’t my favorite topic – any more than it’s yours – but we can’t move into seeing our mission more clearly without clearly seeing ourselves as God sees us.
“We are all sinners in the hands of an angry God,” proclaimed Jonathan Edwards.
Even though he was a rock star theologian in his day and a UCC forbearer Rev. Edwards only got it half right.
The half that he got right is the fact that we are all sinners!
If he’d been looking at today’s texts he would have seen that he’s wrong about the other half – dead wrong.
As Isaiah and Peter both realized, the truth is that we are all sinners in the hands of a forgiving God – a God whose abundant, steadfast love created us and calls us into the life God would have us live.
The truth is that we can only find the freedom to follow God’s mission for our own lives and our life together if we are willing to go beyond the shallow waters of being content with where we are and comfortable with the illusion that there is nothing in our lives that needs to radically change.
We will never fully engage in God’s mission without moving into the deep waters of our own sinfulness – acknowledge our own need for forgiveness - and discover that forgiveness in the tender mercy of a God who loves us more than we can ever imagine or deserve.
Isaiah is worshipping in the temple when he has a stunning vision. It was as if the heavens opened and he saw the very throne of God. “Holy, Holy, Holy,” sang the seraphs – the host of heavenly creatures.
And what does the prophet do?
He doesn’t assume he should have gotten a better night’s sleep.
He doesn’t look around sheepishly to see if others have heard these voices.
He doesn’t cry out, “Man, the choir is really getting down this morning!”
No. Isaiah declares, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips…!”
When Peter’s boat and his partners’ boat both begin to sink under the weight of all those fish, what does he do?
He doesn’t praise Jesus for leading him to the most abundant catch of fish he could ever imagine.
He doesn’t suddenly question his own credentials as a fisherman by saying something like -- "Why didn't I know where to fish? Or, "Why couldn't I do that?"
He doesn’t begin trying to figure out how he’s going to sell all these fish at the highest possible price so he and his partners can sock away as much money as possible.
He falls on his knees in the bottom of the boat, with fish flapping all around him, and says, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man."
It was the greatest moment in his career as a fisherman, and all he could see was his own sinfulness - his own need for the mercy of God.
Today’s Scripture passages demonstrate that the awareness or our own sinfulness is inherent in our being confronted by God’s holiness. Face-to-face with the awesome holiness of God, or the righteousness of Jesus, we can do nothing but fall on our knees confessing our sin. We can do nothing but see clearly the great gap between who we are and who God is.
God’s holiness puts us on our knees. But that’s not where God intends for us to stay.
In both stories we see what Rudolph Otto meant in his book The Idea of the Holy when he says that encounters with the holy (such as those experienced by Isaiah and Peter) both repel us and attract us at the same time.
They create what he calls a “`creaturely consciousness…the feeling that we are important enough to be invited to encounter the Holy but in its presence we are…made aware of our own smallness.’” (Quoted in Lectionary Homiletics, February and March 2007, p.13)
We see this in Isaiah when he follows his exclamation about his own and his people’s unclean lips by saying: “yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” (Isaiah 6:5)
We see this in Peter when he realizes that not only does Jesus not follow his advice when he says, “Go away from me, Lord!” but instead responds, “Do not be afraid; from now one you will be catching people.” (Luke 5:10)
God raises Isaiah and Peter from their knees to their feet through the grace of God’s forgiveness and in so doing frees them to follow God’s mission for their lives.
Then, and only then, does Isaiah hear the Lord say, “Whom shall I send…?”
Then, and only then, does Isaiah respond by saying, “Here I am; send me!”
Then, and only then, do Peter and his partners, leave everything and follow Jesus.
Then and only then, do Isaiah, Peter and his partners know that “the whole earth is full of God’s glory” and that the God who put them on their knees will raise them to their feet to share in what God is trying to get done in the world through them!
When Jesus tells Peter that from now on he will be “catching” people, he’s not talking about using worms or minnows as bait or catching people the way fishermen catch fish. The Greek word for “catch” means to “keep alive” or “to save from death.”
(Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 1, p.335)
Jesus is inviting Peter, his partners and each of us to follow him in saving people from physical and spiritual death - from the death of poverty and disease, and from the death of discouragement and despair – the death of living a meaningless and purposeless life.
Not all of us can leave everything and follow Jesus, but we can all go deeper in our relationship with God – we can all leave behind what is keeping us from living the life we were created to live and engaging in the work that God would get done in the world through our congregation.
The energy and passion for sharing in God’s mission comes from our own encounters with the Holy. These encounters may happen at work, as they did for Peter and his partners. They may happen in a sanctuary, as they did for Isaiah. They may happen anywhere and at anytime, but chances are they’ll involve God’s creation in some way – either the natural world or those like us who inhabit the natural world.
As Elizabeth Barrett Browning understood:
Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes,
The rest of us sit around it and pluck blueberries.
Engaging in God’s mission in the world takes us deeper into the world and into the lives of others.
Chester was a 65 year old alcoholic. His drinking made him unemployable and destroyed his relationship with his family. When he first arrived at a church shelter for the homeless, people had little hope that his life would change. One day he proudly announced that he hadn’t had a drink all day. People didn’t get too excited because it was only eight o’clock in the morning.
And yet his days without drinking soon turned into weeks and then months. He began working for the shelter where he’d been a client – and he began going to church. One day, at a gathering of his congregation, like the one we’ll have after worship, Chester showed up in a brown suit that he’d picked up at the church’s clothes closet. At the meeting they asked him to speak. Standing up, he said:
“`People ask me all the time how I was able to quit drinking after 45 years. They want to know how someone like me can spend his time cooking food for others, giving out clothes, studying my Bible. Well, it was easy. I found Jesus. I had heard about him for a long time. I heard he was in the Bible or in some church or another. Sometimes I would go looking for him in those places, but I never found him. Then one day I stumbled across him. He was in the faces of the people at the church. I knew right then that I wanted to be a part.’” (The Society of Salty Saints by Michael Elliott, p. 70)
So if you want to find Jesus, look around. Look at the person sitting next to you. Look at those that God has led here today. Go ahead. Look around at those here today.
And look at those to whom God would have you go. Look at those in this community and beyond whom God would have you save from death.
Look at those whom God would have us save from death.
Go deeper into the world that God loved enough to send Jesus and Isaiah, Peter and his partners, Pilgrim-St. Luke’s and each of us.
And “Do not be afraid!”
Simply say, “Here we are!” Send us!”
“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts,
the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” (Isaiah 6:3)
Once while Jesus* was standing beside the Sea of Galilee (lake of Gennesaret),and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats thereat the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3
He 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 to 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.