Sermon, February 5, 2022
Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC
My niece was baptized last Sunday morning. It was in one of those large, ampitheater-like churches where the stage holds a full praise band that leads song in something reminiscent of a rock concert. The pastor, pacing the stage in a button down shirt and dress pants, invited a line of baptism seekers to come forward on the stage, receive the microphone and share their baptism commitment to the crowd. There were a lot of stories of people who knew of God their whole lives, but didn’t necessarily know God - and now they want to make real commitment to God’s call on their lives with this Baptism.
I watched it on my computer with a mix of aunty approval, collegial jealousy at the ministry formula that compelled that long line of college age baptism seekers, and, honestly, inwardly, some misgivings. I wondered what had led some of these young people to choose this pivot in their spiritual lives. What kind of epiphany or conversations precipitated this event? Was my skepticism unfair, based in my experiences with some types of demonstrative Christianity that demanded an epiphany experience to validate faith? How would each of these newly baptized interpret what God’s call meant?
Our scripture today is what we in ministry refer to as a ‘call story’, a passage depicting the calling of the disciple Peter, a phrase we use to describe our own journeys to ministry. But this is a very peculiar call story. It’s peculiar because of the order, the way it happens, and that it’s mostly about the fish…with the twist at the end with the classic line, ‘I will make you fishers of men.’
First, after a long, long night of hard work and despair on the water, the fishermen are exhausted and dejected because in the face of poverty, hunger, and oppressive taxes, they still don’t have any fish to show for their hard work. And then Jesus says, ‘let’s go out again.’
Jesus asks them to do something very unwelcome after hours of exhausting labor. Jesus asks them to pause their cynicism and give a little more. Jesus asks them to suspend their despair and open themselves, once again, to hope. It begins with a risk. They could have said no. They certainly had good reason to. But he asks them a favor, putting himself in their debt, opening the story with vulnerability to them in his request.
When the fisherman have suspended their doubt and taken a risk on Jesus, Simon sees something beyond his wildest imagination - fish. Fish coming out of their ears. Enough fish not just to feed all their families for the month, but enough to sell and pay off their debts, therefore receiving some freedom. And then, Simon’s immediate reaction is to fall to his knees and proclaim himself a sinner in the presence of God.
Do you think Simon needs to see the miracle in order to repent? Do we all need to see a miracle to have an epiphany experience - to feel God’s nudge, or call, or presence?
About a decade ago, I took a long car ride to an out of town wedding with a stranger who was, like me, a friend of the bride. I was in Seminary and he, also, had been through Seminary but had not pursued ordination. And he said this thing that continues to demarcate my understanding of church. He said, ‘you know that saying, ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’? He says, well I call myself religious but not spiritual. Confused, I gave him a sideways look and he continued; I haven’t have a spiritual conversion, an epiphany experience. I can’t pretend that I’ve had God interrupt my life in that way. But I keep the traditions, I hold the space, I bind myself to the religious tradition because I believe that it ties me to God. And maybe I’m holding space for God to break in someday - or maybe not. Either way, I’m fine with it.”
I loved that, because I, too, have not had a moment I can point to where God interrupted with an epiphany experience. I can’t point to a moment of being saved, when I went from knowing *of* God to actually knowing God and God’s call on my life… at least not in the moment. It comes down to how God works in your life. For me, I’ve come to accept that God speaks to me through other people - probably because I’m too stubborn and skeptical to hear it myself.
And perhaps this call story provides some insight for those of us who, like me, protect ourselves with skepticism. Simon’s first reaction is to fall to his knees and proclaim himself a sinner in the presence of God. Simon is very aware of his own brokenness, and immediately upon witnessing this miracle, discounts his own worthiness to have a holy experience. His first instinct is to push Jesus away - to say ‘I am a sinner; go away from me.’ But Jesus says, “do not be afraid. I’ve got you.’
Is it possible that Simon Peter needed that reciprocity from Jesus to take a leap of faith? We see over and over again in scripture that those who are fearful are called by God, called to life - abundant life doing God’s work - but often they run away from the call. They feel unworthy. And with doubting our own worthiness, skepticism breaks in and constructs a wall. For those of us who are also skeptics - do you think we protect ourselves away from having Godlike experiences? Are we unwilling to let those things happen - experience those epiphanies - because being vulnerable is a scary thing?
In our small group book study - in which we’re studying a book that’s a bit over all of our heads - one of the upsides has been our weekly discussions that sometimes turn spiritual. One of the participants has shared how the mantras of AA and Al Anon have become a bedrock for their life. They said in AA, it’s important to constantly ask yourself, “am I being humble, grateful, and vulnerable in this moment? And that struck me - because we often talk about being humble. Micah tells us all God requires is to love kindesss, do justice, and walk humbly with God. And gratitude is all the rage right now - the secular mantra is that you can change your emotions by being grateful, and so people have gratitude journals, or daily they will list 3 things they are grateful for that day. But I am not familiar with any other mantra, religious or secular, that impresses the need for vulnerability in all things. And really, what could be more healing and countercultural right now in our moment of history than a cultivated effort towards vulnerability with each other? Taking a risk to ask for what we need, explaining what we are really feeling, listening with our whole heart. Jesus began this call story by asking the fishermen to take a risk, and then was there in Simon Peter’s moment of vulnerability to say - ‘I’m here - don’t be afraid. I got you. It’s going to be ok.’ Since vulnerability tends to inspire more vulnerability, imagine what kind of ripple effects might be created in our world if we all tried to live into vulnerability in all our interactions.
Similarly, can we as a church attune ourselves for the vulnerabilities in the world? This church has attended to some amazing vulnerabilities in our history - the vulnerable teen moms who attend school across the street. The vulnerable moments in history, when men with HIV were forsaken by their families and society at large. When Jesus calls, Simon Peter thinks that what Jesus asks of him is both unnecessary and too demanding. Nevertheless, he responds, and discovers that life has a surprise in store for him when he lives into the vulnerability of risk. Simon Peter experiences an epiphany of God. What are the vulnerabilities presented in our church, our community and our world that compel us to take the risk of walking humbly with God?
Where has God called to you in your life or have you had an epiphany experience? Did it coincide with a time of great vulnerability?
Do we, as a congregation, have the ability to respond to vulnerable places in our community? Where is God calling to our congregation?