I have mentioned in a previous sermon that I am participating in a one-year Ignatian retreat. Learning and practicing the various Ignatian spiritual exercises has been a true gift. My favorite practice from Ignatius is the practice of approaching Scripture with one’s imagination. Ignatius believed that God uses everything to speak to us, including our desires and our imaginations. There are many ways you can use your imagination to approach Scripture, but my favorite is imagining that either I am one of the characters in a story from Scripture or that I am present watching the scene unfold.
As I read our Gospel reading for today, I found myself drawn to approaching the story of Jesus, Simon Peter, James and John in this Ignatian way, so I imagined myself as Simon Peter. As I entered into the character in my mind, I felt myself feeling exhausted. After all, I had just finished a long night of fishing. A night in which my fellow fishermen and I had continually thrown the net over the edge of the boat and caught nothing. Over and over again, throw, drag, lift, nothing, throw, drag, lift, nothing. With no catch, I don’t know how we’re going to pay for the license to have the right to keep fishing here. I don’t know how I’m going to continue to support my family. Never mind. I can’t worry about that now. I just need to get my boat cleaned out and my nets repaired so I can get home to my family. I need to check on my mother-in-law, only recently recovered from a serious illness and then get some sleep, so that we can go out again tonight and try again.
But who are all these people? Why are there so many people hanging about? Oh, they are listening to that teacher, Jesus. He certainly is an interesting man. There is something different about him. People can’t stop talking about him and the healings he has performed. My wife says he healed her mother. I certainly know when I went to sleep yesterday morning, she was deathly ill, and when I awoke it was like she was never sick. I don’t know what to make of it. I’ve never seen anything like it before. I would like to hear more of what he has to say, but I’m too tired right now and too discouraged. Maybe another day.
Oh, but look Jesus is coming over to me. What? He wants to get into my boat? Is he kidding? I’m exhausted. Can’t he ask someone else who hasn’t been out fishing all night? No? Well, I guess it would make my wife happy if I took care of him. OK, Jesus, I’ll take you in my boat. Guess today is the day I get to listen to what he has to say.
I don’t really understand what he is talking about. Kingdom of God? Good news for the poor? I could certainly use some of that, I’m poor enough. Freedom for the prisoner? Recovery of sight for the blind? Release for the oppressed? Who is this guy? Isn’t he the son of a carpenter? My wife told me that the demons he cast out from the possessed called him the Son of God. That can’t be true. Sons of carpenters aren’t the Son of God. Messiahs aren’t born to peasants. Oh, wait a minute, he’s done talking and he’s now talking to me.
He wants me to do what? This carpenter’s son thinks he knows how to fish better than I do. We fished all night and caught nothing. What makes him think he can do better than me? The arrogance of the man. Doesn’t he know I’m dirty and tired and I just want to go home. Sigh. My wife thinks a lot of him. Fine, I’ll do it. Maybe once he sees how futile this is, he’ll leave me alone and let me go home. The other guys aren’t going to like it, but they’ll just have to go along.
Throw, drag, what’s happening. The net is so heavy. Come on guys we need all hands-on deck. Oh no the nets are breaking. Hey, you in the other boat, get over there, we need your help, we have too many fish. Yes, I know you don’t understand, it doesn’t matter. There are too many fish. Pull some into your boat. Oh my God. What is happening? How is this happening? He must be the Son of God! I am not worthy, Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man! I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. I am so afraid. I don’t understand what is happening.
Oh, he’s speaking to me again. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Yes, Jesus, yes. I will follow you wherever you go. I have no idea what you are asking me to do, but whatever it is, I know that it will be good. This guy is clearly of God and God would never plan anything bad for us. Come on guys, let’s go. Don’t worry about the fish. People will take them. Maybe some hungry people will be fed today.
God showed up in Jesus for Simon Peter, James, and John right where they were in the everydayness of their lives. Simon, James, and John weren’t feeling particularly spiritual or sacred that morning. As a matter of fact, they were probably feeling frustrated, disgruntled, and downright despondent after a night of fishing with no catch. I doubt any of them were expecting God to show up right there and right then. But of course, God does show up, and this is the central and distinctive claim of Christianity.
Frequently philosophies and religions focus on bringing people to God by escaping the messiness of life. But God shows us something different through Jesus. In the incarnation, God enters into our messy, conflicted, often painful and complicated world. In Jesus, God entered into a world in which most people were struggling just to survive. In Jesus, God invited these struggling, conflicted, messy and suffering human beings to see the world through new eyes and with new ears. In Jesus, God invited all to see that what God wants for the world, what God dreams of for all of creation. In Jesus God invites all to see that the divine dream is a world of justice and mercy, a world in which all may flourish.
When Simon Peter saw all those fish, he caught a glimpse of the world as God sees the world. He caught a glimpse of God’s dream for the world. What he saw was so compelling that he simply had to take a leap and follow Jesus. He had to find out more about this dream. He had to find out more about Jesus. He had to join God in what God was up to in the world.
And God enters into the messiness and everydayness of our lives too. Often, we think we can only find God here in a beautiful worship space or out in nature. But God shows up most often when and where we least expect a divine encounter. God shows up when we are holding the hand of our dying mother. God shows up when we are sitting on our bed crying after a horrible fight with our spouse. God shows up when we are lying in a hospital bed wondering if we will ever feel good again. God shows up when the bottom of the grocery bag breaks and our groceries spill all over the driveway. God shows up when we are doing the laundry, making dinner, shoveling snow. God shows up when we are tired, fed up, depressed, lonely, angry. And God shows up not to put a patch over whatever has broken or gone wrong. God shows up gives us the opportunity to embrace a new imagination. In the ordinariness of our lives, when things seem to be unraveling and falling apart, God shows up and invites us to see the world in a new way, in God’s way, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
God shows up for us individually and communally. In my annual report on Sunday, I said that the church reached its peak in terms of money, membership, programs and attendance numbers sometime between 1959 and 1963 and it has been all downhill ever since. It could be easy to conclude that God has abandoned us, but I think that is not the truth. To use analogies borrowed from others, the church is unraveling (Alan Roxburgh). The church has cracked open (Stephanie Spellers). And God is present. The Holy Spirit is in the midst of this unraveling and cracking open.
We have tried to patch over the cracks and tie up the unraveling, but it hasn’t worked. And this is good news. We can no longer hang on to the illusion of power that our alliance with empire for almost 2 millennia gave us. We can no longer pretend that we are in charge. We have to acknowledge that God is in charge and has always been in charge. We are more likely to embrace a new imagination about what God is up to in the world because we can no longer live under the delusion that God is up to aligning with empire and power. We are no longer in the center, but have been moved to the margins, which is exactly where God is and exactly where God is working. Maybe in the messiness and the complicatedness of unraveling and breaking open, we will finally have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Like Simon Peter, we also have no idea what God is asking us to do. And you know what? That is OK, because like Simon Peter, we too can trust that God wants only good for us and God’s dream for the world is always worth embracing. Amen.