Isaiah 6:113, Luke 5:111
If I were to ask you this morning, "What is the Bible about?," I would be interested in your responses. There are actually a whole raft of responses that would be correct but one answer to that question that you might not give is this one: the Bible is the story about the collision of the secular and sacred. Another way to say the same thing would be to say that the Bible is the story of the intersection between the holy and the unholy, or it is the place where the divine meets the human. Now we tend, sometimes mistakenly, to believe that the Bible is about how to worship and how to pray and things like that. There is a little bit of that in there but the vast majority of the Bible is about the overlap between the sacred and the secular, between the righteous and the profane, between the holy and the ordinary. We tend to compartmentalize our lives—this is the religious part of our lives and that is the family part, this is the work part and that is the fun part, this is the money part, and on and on and on. The Bible tends not to want us to get away with that. The Bible is primarily the story of the way in which God intervenes in that which is not normally considered to be holy or sacred or righteous. Our two scripture lessons illustrate this in an interesting way.
The first one is a very famous story, the story of the call to the prophet Isaiah. If you remember as it was read, it is the very dramatic story of a vision that Isaiah had in the temple, so it sounds like it belongs in the religious category. But don't be too quick to say that, for how does Isaiah tell the story? He begins with these words: "In the year that King Uziah died." Interestingly enough, Isaiah set the story of his vision in the temple in the context of a change of administration, in the context of a death of one king and the appearance, the coronation, if you will, of another. It's quite a story! Isaiah is in the temple and he has a vision of God's presence. God is so great and so grand that God's robe seems to fill the whole temple, just the hem of God's robe fills the temple. Isaiah smells the incense from the altar and then says: "It's like the very pivot of the foundation of the temple shook." Isaiah said: "Woe is me for I am a person of unclean lips and I dwell among people of unclean lips and I have seen the Holy One." Then there is this interesting dialogue; one of the seraphs, one of the attendants on the divine, takes a red hot coal from the altar and presses it on Isaiah's lips and says: "Be clean." Then a voice says: "Who will go?" and Isaiah says: "Send me." Notice, if you will, I want you to hang your hat on this for just a little bit, notice that Isaiah's response to the Epiphany, this vision of God, was that Isaiah felt unworthy. Isaiah sees God and says: Woe is me. I'm unclean, my mouth says the wrong words, I am among people that are that kind of people. Hang your hat for a moment on this notion that Isaiah felt he was not worthy, not equal to the task, not righteous enough, that he was too ordinary. The extraordinary, the divine, has intercepted. Remember that.
Let's talk about the Gospel lesson. Actually, the story of Jesus' call of the first disciples, as Luke tells it, is a story full of nuances that we can easily miss. According to Luke's telling of the gospel, Jesus was already working in his public ministry long enough to have a following but he still has no disciples. He has crowds that follow but no close associates. One day he is teaching along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and there people had come in such great numbers that, as I picture it and as Luke tells it, Jesus is threatened to be pushed into the water by the press of the masses. So he commandeers a fishing boat and pulls away just a little bit from the shore to a safe distance so that he could teach. He teaches and then dismisses the crowd. Then the interesting nuances begin. Jesus tells Peter, who is the owner of the boat and a professional fisher, to go out into the deep water and cast his net. When we read that we tend not to be struck by something that would have been very striking for first century people. You see professional folk who gained their living by fishing, fished at night, not in the daytime. Think about it. Now those were the days before refrigerators or newspapers, so what do you do with the fish? You fished at night; you took your catch to the market first thing in the morning; people bought what they bought and you threw the rest away because it quickly became inedible. You didn't fish in the daytime. You fish at night, market it first thing in the morning, you tended your nets, washed them and fixed them, and did those kinds of things. Then you got a little sleep and you started the cycle all over again.
Remember in the beginning of the story Peter and his partner were repairing their nets? They'd fished all night and hadn't caught anything, didn't have anything to take to market. It was morning and they were repairing the nets and Jesus says go out and fish. Not only does he say go out and fish at the wrong time of day, but what are you going to do if you catch anything? The market is closed now. Not only is that strange, but Jesus said go into the deep water. Fishing in the first century in the Sea of Galilee was a shallow water activity. These boats are not big schooners; these boats, to us, would be glorified rowboats. They are small vessels and the nets that they have are not great gigantic nets that stretch over a footfall field size piece of the lake; they are nets that can be handled out of an oversize rowboat and can basically be handled by a couple of people. So you fish along the shore where it is shallow, where your net could actually do some good, not out in the water so deep that the net was hardly significant. Jesus said in the middle of the day go out to the deep water and fish and they did and they caught lots of fish. Then, as you know, Jesus follows with his memorable statement: " Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." What happens with Peter? You notice, he falls down on his knees and says I am a sinner, I'm not worthy. Do you hear the connection there between Isaiah and Peter? Very different deals—Isaiah's grand vision, Peter fishing—but both of them experienced the power of the divine breaking into regular ordinary life and in response to that experience they felt dreadfully unworthy.
What I want to say to you this morning is that, just as Isaiah was called, just as Peter and his partners were called, so are you. Now probably you've not had a vision like Isaiah but somewhere in the course of your life, Jesus Christ has put a claim on you and I know that for the simple reason that you are here. You see, you—we—are a minority. In West County, in St. Louis County on this weekend, if you total all the people that worship in churches and synagogues, and mosques, you will have much fewer than half the people in our county. Those that worship are a minority, those that worship are rowing against the stream of this society. You are rowing against the stream by being here. Somehow, somehow out of the majority, out of the regular way that most people live their lives, you have been tugged in, invited here, you've been called. Don't try to escape it! Don't think it's just for the Isaiahs, the Peters and the James and the Johns of the world. You are here—there is no other evidence needed. You have been separated from the majority, called, claimed. If you're like me and like most, when you thank of it that way, you'll think: "Not me, I'm not much; I'm not very pious; I'm not very holy; I'm a person of unclean lips; I dwell among a people of unclean lips."
Well, I've been very serious about all this and I am serious about it. To lighten up things a little bit, this notion of being called, being claimed or chosen, is like being hired. There was an interesting article in Parade Magazine a few of years ago. They interviewed some people that do human research work in big corporations and asked them what was the goofiest thing that ever happened to them when they were interviewing people for a job. You wouldn't believe some of the things that people do when they are being interviewed for a job. For example, one of these human resource people said that a job interviewee asked him to arm wrestle. Have you ever done that when you applied for a job? I don't know whether it’s if I win I get the job! Another one reported that he was interviewing a bald candidate for a job. In the middle of the interview the persons says “oops,” gets up, leaves the room and comes back a little later with a hairpiece on. One woman reported that she was interviewing someone who came into the interview with headphones on. When the person was asked if she'd remove the headphones, the interviewee responded: "Oh, I can listen to you and music at the same time." One applicant interrupted the questioning to phone her therapist to ask for advice; another dosed off during the interview and one candidate muttered: "Would it be a problem if I were angry most of the time.”1 These folks weren't up to it, you see. The candidates for these jobs didn't have what it took to be successful. Isn't that the way you and 1 feel when anyone suggests to us that we are the people that are to be the fishers of humanity—not equal to it, not up to it, not worthy, not smart enough, holy enough, virtuous enough.
A man named Bill Wilson runs an evangelistic center in one of the most Godforsaken parts of New York City, a neighborhood that's called Hell's Kitchen. He has written of an experience when a Puerto Rican woman presented herself at the Mission saying that she wanted to serve in some fashion but she came with an interpreter because she spoke not one word of English. Wilson didn't really have any work to put someone to who spoke no English at all. The woman insisted and finally he hit upon the notion of asking her to ride the bus. You see, this is one of those missions that had about fifty old beat up school buses and they would go out in droves to pick up kids from all around the neighborhood for the children's program on Saturday morning. He asked the Puerto Rican woman to ride the buses and to just love the kids. Just ride the bus and love the kids. To do this the woman on her own learned two phrases of English: "Jesus loves you," and "I love you." That's the only English she knew. She'd ride the buses on Saturday morning and find the most droopy kid that she could find, put that kid on her lap and repeat over and over again in the only English she had: "Jesus loves you and I love you." She went from bus to bus to bus as she had been instructed, but after a while she became attached to one little boy who got on the bus every Saturday morning with his sister. This little boy was apparently mute, he never spoke; he didn't speak on the bus; he didn't speak at the mission; he never seemed to speak. He was a very withdrawn, very, very frightened little boy. She would hold him on her lap and would say to him over and over again: "Jesus loves you and so do I" One Saturday when he was about to get off in the neighborhood where he was let off the bus at the end of the day, she said to him again: "Jesus loves you and so do I." But this particular Saturday he squirmed around on her lap, threw his arms around her neck and said: "I love you too"—the first words he spoke to her or anyone at the mission. He got off the bus; it was about 2:30 on Saturday afternoon. At six o'clock that evening his body was found in the dumpster beaten to death by one of his parents. One of the very last things he ever heard in his life was a Puerto Rican woman who only knew a few words of English saying to him: "Jesus loves you and so do I" The boy went to his home where he was beaten to death.2
That woman wasn't qualified to fish for people. She didn't even know the language, but she was called, claimed by Jesus Christ. You know the world is full of little boys and girls that are beat up, some of them are beat up in all kinds of ways, physically and mentally. The world is full of people who are hungry, who are lost, who are confused, who are hurting, who are sick, who have been in a nursing home bed for weeks and weeks and years and years and no one has visited. On and on and on the list goes. We are the people, we are the people that, for some reason none of us can explain, have been chosen, who have been selected, who have been claimed to be the spokespersons for Jesus Christ. We are the ones who have the message: "Jesus loves you and so do I." If we don't say it, who will?
You see, friends, the Bible is not just about piety and worship. Very little of the Bible is about that. The Bible is about those times when the divine, when the holy, intersects real life; where real people hurt, and are hungry and are lonely, and are in need. God gets out of the temple and into the world where the deep hurt is. Jesus is still saying to each of us: "Come into the deep water." Come out a little further than you're used to going, take a few risks and throw out your nets. Jesus is still saying: "Follow me, follow me," and it is our ear that that invitation is directed to. The folks who are called are in this room. Hear the call where the water is deep.
Dr. Carl L. Schenck
Manchester United Methodist Church
1Parade Magazine, 122496