Peter is a little freaked out by the miraculous catch of fish. It is suddenly clear to him, weighed down by crazy-heavy nets on the shores of the Lake of Gennesaret (also known as the Sea of Galilee), that he is in the presence of the holy. This freaks him out, and puts him immediately in touch with his own brokenness. Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!
This happens, right? It’s explicit in the reading from Isaiah: In the presence of God’s glory and the seraphs who proclaim: Holy, holy, holy; the whole earth is full of God’s glory, Isaiah’s immediate response is: Woe is me! I am lost, a person of unclean lips, and yet my eyes have seen the Lord! What shall I do?? For both Isaiah and Peter, there is a disconnect between their own sense of sinfulness, and being in the presence of the divine. How can both things be true? How can I, a sinner, or you, a sinner, behold God’s glory, or rest in the palm of God’s hand? And yet, here we are.
From what we know of Jesus, we might think his response would be to say to Peter, on the ground, clutching Jesus’ knees: “Your sins are forgiven; stand up.” Right? We might expect the angel of the Lord to say to Isaiah: you have been made clean; go on your way. Or Paul’s story might well include the voice from the clouds saying: “I forgive you for persecuting me; now get up and be on your way. You’re forgiven.”
Instead, in each of these readings, the answer from God is: “I have work for you to do.”
All three of this morning’s readings are stories of call, and each of these stories has in common that element of so many call stories: unworthiness. It’s almost like unworthiness is a character in each story, a ghost or a demon that needs to be exorcised. What’s remarkable is that the way the demon of unworthiness for Isaiah, Paul, and Peter is slain, exorcised, is not through an act of forgiveness or absolution, but through vocation.
The Holy One’s response to sin and brokenness is a calling. Another way to say this, especially as we consider the scene with Jesus and Peter on the shores of Gennesaret, is that Jesus enlists as his helpers people beset with human failings.
Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.
Peter and James and John are not enlisted to catch people the way they caught fish, to kill and to eat. Nor are they enlisted—or are we enlisted—to catch people in order—as many of us irreverently say—to put butts in pews. The word that in this gospel is translated as “catch” means something like “rescue,” or save from death. This is what Jesus asks of Peter, Peter with all his anxiety and feelings of unworthiness. Jesus asks Peter to join in catching people, rescuing them from death and inviting them into new life. And this is what we are asked to do, not only what we are asked to do, but what we promise to do at our baptism and every time we renew our baptismal vows: We promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, and we promise to seek and serve Christ in all people, loving our neighbor as ourselves. Catching people.
Episcopalians in general, and people from St. Paul’s perhaps in particular, are markedly reluctant to proclaim Good News, in word or example. We share a distaste for such things, especially (and understandably) if we come from an evangelical background. I wonder whether this reluctance is actually our own version of unworthiness and brokenness. We have nothing to share, or we don’t know how to share, or we don’t trust our version of the Good News, and we cannot possibly be the ones Jesus enlists to catch people and to unveil the Kingdom he came to proclaim. And yet, we are who Jesus wants!
Sometimes I wonder whether this would be easier for us if we understood the commission to catch people as the instruction to say to them, as Jesus says to Peter, “We have work for you to do.” How many times have you heard someone say that they loved worshipping at St. Paul’s but they really became deeply connected to the faith community and to their own life of faith when they began serving in the liturgy?
I have a friend who realized, after a year of a catechumenal process, one day while she was driving around in her four-wheel-drive vehicle in ice and snow, that her Christian vocation meant that she would go home and make a huge pot of soup and deliver it to the nearby homeless shelter, because she could. Because this was work Jesus needed her to do.
Every month at Fatted Calf Café, there are always guests who want to help, who want to wash dishes or set tables or clean up. Part of our philosophy has always been: no, no, you’re our guests. Lately I have been imagining a different kind of Fatted Calf, that is more like a big huge Thanksgiving dinner where there are no guests, and everyone has work to do.
We may be the least likely people to be called, through baptism, to continue the kingdom work of Jesus and yet we are the ones Jesus wants.
As Peter and James and John are asked to leave everything—including their unworthiness—to follow Jesus, so are we. We are asked to leave our unworthiness, our doubts, and our reluctance there on the shore of our own version of the Sea of Galilee.
Emmylou Harris sings a song called “Thanks to you” with the refrain that goes
Now someday up in glory
Well I'll weep and tell the story
To someone who will smile and say
You're a mess but you're my child
I like to think that I am among holy, beloved messes, as I, too, am God’s beloved mess. If we believe the scriptures, holy messes make the best prophets and apostles and evangelists.
In a few moments, we’ll celebrate Eucharist, giving thanks for all that God has done for us in creation and redemption, and especially in sending us the Word made flesh. And then, after all this prayer and thanksgiving, we break bread. This breaking of the bread, this fraction, is one of the most solemn moments in our Eucharistic worship. Breaking is one of the most holy things we do. What God gives us every time we gather for mass is broken bread for broken people. May it feed us and nurture us so that we might, like Peter, leave everything and follow.