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Normalcy Derailed: Following God's Call into Deep Water

Ronald Rolheiser, in his book The Holy Longing, wrote that to consecrate someone or something is not simply to transfer that person or object into the safe world of what is holy. On the contrary, there are lasting consequences to consecration. Rolheiser said, “To consecrate means. . . to derail from normalcy.”[1] Indeed, when God calls to us, whether it is to ordained ministry or lay ministry – Junior Warden, Senior Warden, Outreach Committee Member, or Christian Formation teacher…no matter to what God calls us, it is safe to say, that normalcy is derailed. 

Simon was a fisherman and had been making a living out of it for all of his adult life. He’d had a rough string of days and was a bit down in the mouth about it.  There, on the Lake of Gennesaret, or the Sea of Galilee, he and his fishing buddies had cast their nets repeatedly…and gotten nothing for their efforts.  Then, God called.  God, in the form of a Jewish carpenter, who commandeered their boat, preached a sermon, and then told the fishermen where the fish were.  Then, after hundreds of pounds of fish were caught…so many that it threatened to sink their fishing boat, Simon immediately resigned from fishing and started fishing for people. He left everything he knew to follow Jesus. What is that about? Such a big haul would mean job security….hope for the future in the fishing industry? No, normalcy is derailed when God calls.

 

Why would Simon walk away from fishing (and everything he knew) after such an abundant catch?  And why wasn’t he catching fish up until then?  It may have had to do with where he was.  

The Sea of Galilee is an enormous inland body of water! It covers about 64 square miles, which covers the same area as the city of Washington, D.C.,  does.  Along with Dennis and Mary Ann – and hundreds of thousands of other pilgrims – I have been to this sea/lake. And, we also visited the hill on which folks sat to hear the sermon Jesus preached from the water – a good-sized hill as well.  I had a hard time thinking that one could be heard preaching from a boat on such an enormous body of water to folks who were sitting on a fairly large hunk of hill, and all spread out.  If I were preaching from a boat on such a lake and without the aid of my pocket mic, I don’t think you could have heard me, so they must have been rather close in. Jesus may have chosen to make the boat his pulpit simply to separate himself from the crowds...I don’t know. But as I remember the size and distances of things and imagine what may have happened, I’d guess that he was rather close in – where the water was relatively shallow, at least while he was preaching.  But, once he was finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water…” (You’ve been here, in the shallow water, now it’s time to move out into the deep) and they did, and we know what happened.  

Fish happened.  Everybody knows the big fish are in the deeper water. The other piece of fishing wisdom is that you’ve got to go where the fish are. But, let’s be honest, deep water isn’t where most people want to be.  Even though deep water is where the fish increase in size and number, most of us, fishermen or not, would rather splash around in the shallows.  It’s safer there, less of a risk. I’d guess Simon was much the same. 

Shallow water is pleasant. It’s where you go with your kids. Shallow water tickles our ankles when we walk in it and can even cool us down on a hot day. The little fish, minnows and half-grown fish, hang out there. You can see all the way to the bottom in shallow water. But deep water offers the abundance that God offers once God gets our attention.  

Some fisher folks don’t catch fish because they stay in shallow water, but some don’t catch fish because they don’t expect to. They believe they know more about fishing than God does. So, when God gives a nudge to them (to us), they (we) ignore that nudge: I know what I’m doing here. I don’t want to change or go to the deep water. I’m busy. I’ve never tried that particular ministry before (and I don’t think I’d be able to do it.) I think it is safe to say that each one of us has said that to God.

I have. I was ordained to the priesthood in 2009, but I heard God calling me to ordained ministry years before that – and I just kept on doing what I was doing. I was busy teaching elementary students in Sedro-Woolley. But, then in about 2004, I began to turn around and listen to that call, so that in 2006, when I was 59 years old (and a bit older than most seminarians) I retired from teaching and went to seminary. I went out into the deeper water. I suppose it’s never too late, but I’ll always regret that I didn’t turn and listen a bit sooner. I continued on because I was comfortable and busy, and probably because I doubted I really heard God’s call to ordained ministry. I often had the sense of “Who… me???” But the good news is that God is persistent, and so, after 7 or 8 years of resistance, I turned around and said, “I’m listening.” Normalcy derailed.  

We heard Simon telling God that he knew more also. In his resistance, Simon seemed to be saying, “Hey, we’ve been fishing all night. We know fish. The fish don’t run in the day. Aren’t you a carpenter moonlighting as a preacher, anyway? What do you know about fishing?” But then, in wisdom, Simon followed those thoughts up with the words, “If you say so, I will do it.” Some say that this is a miracle story, but many disagree with that. The miracle, if it can be seen as one, is that Simon decided that God was God and that he, Simon, would live that way beginning immediately. Normalcy derailing.

And there was the abundance, nets full, boats full of fish. Abundance surprises us – even when we go out to where the fish are swimming. God surprises us with abundances and with something else, and that is God’s faithful love for us, even when God knows everything about us – everything that we think might disqualify us. 

God’s abundance of forgiveness and acceptance. There in the boat filled with writhing fish, Simon could not believe the bounty, and must have considered his own unworthiness; and, kneeling in front of Jesus, Simon begged for him to get away from him, a sinner: "I cannot be with you because of my sinfulness." And Jesus’ response was, “Eeeehhhh, not so much. I think you’re wrong about that.” God’s response to Simon, and to us, is a call: Don’t be afraid; from now on, you will be catching more than fish. Jesus, who ate with tax collectors and sinners, with folks with horrible contagious skin diseases like leprosy.  Jesus knew about forgiveness. He surrounded himself with those who were forgiven.

Jesus saw something of value in those first disciples and continues to see things of value in us, even when we cannot or will not see them in ourselves. 

God’s call to us, just as it was to Isaiah, is much like this. Like Isaiah, God’s call often elicits from us a response that we are not worthy. Isaiah confessed that his lips were “unclean,” and not necessarily on a personal level. He felt himself being pulled into the vortex of a lost and unclean culture, and we may feel the same – personally unworthy and surrounded by a culture in mayhem. 

But God bothers to speak with us about this matter, and God provides the means to remove the guilt. Isaiah did nothing to heal himself: he didn’t screw up his courage or try harder to be good. He simply was healed by a power beyond himself.

Though not in a boat, Isaiah countered with “Woe to 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.” And God, derailing normalcy for the prophet, told him that his guilt had departed, and his sin blotted away.  

We read that Isaiah responded, “Here am I; send me!” There is an exclamation point there in our NRSV Bible, but the original Hebrew would not have had such punctuation because in Hebrew punctuation like that was not used. And so, we might have heard the prophet responding, “Here am I. . . send me?”… or, even better, the line I heard this week as I prepared for this sermon: “Here am I. Send someone else!” The great prophet Isaiah, like us, doubting God’s call and his own abilities and weighed down by sin.  

God calls us to go out to the deep water, and we are often reluctant, because we are happy in the shallow water. We are happy doing what we are doing. Or, we do not think we are worthy. We do not perceive our own gifts and talents. God forgives us and provides us with a way to both access and use the gifts God gives to us.  

We are a growing church. St. Stephen’s is experiencing an abundance in many ways and I wonder where God will call you, in the future, both as individuals and as a congregation. I’m guessing it will be to where the fish are – out a way, out in the deep.  

Rev. Peter Rood is part of the abundance in the future of this congregation. From your perspective now, it may seem like a derailing of normalcy. One priest leaving, another coming. How will this person do things? Will I be happy? And I get that. I’ve been through clergy changes in the past myself. But I have always found it more difficult before the new cleric arrives than after. We do like to stay in the safe shallow waters of where we have been. And God calls us to set out to the deeper water, where the abundance is.

From my perspective, Rev. Peter Rood is the right person at the right time for this congregation. I have met him in person, and we have had one lengthy phone conversation and several emails. We will have lunch together in a few weeks while he is here briefly doing business. I am very impressed with him. With his experience, he knows what it is to set out for deep water where the fish are running, but he can’t go without you. Simon couldn’t manage without help from the individuals in the other boats, and Peter will not be able to manage without you responding to God’s call to serve as a lector, warden, outreach committee person, diocesan committee member, Sunday school teacher, coffee hour provider, Eucharistic Visitor, vacuumer, vestry member, maintenance person, office volunteer, nursery helper or – you name it. God sees your gifts, knows you intimately, forgives you, loves you, and calls you to serve in the world. So, "set out for the deep water and let down your nets.” Normalcy is overrated anyway… and the fish are running.  

To God be the glory.

Rev. Rilla

[1]Rohlheiser, Ronald, The Holy Longing:  The Search for a Christian Spirituality (New York:  Doubleday, 1999) 123. 

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