Audio is here.
Reveille United Methodist Church
21st Sunday After Pentecost – October 14, 2018
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
It is said that from time-to-time, it is good for clergy in congregations like ours to share the story of our respective calls to ordained ministry, so I would like to share mine.
I was born here in Richmond at the very end of 1970, and when I arrived in this world, I was uniquely surrounded by the warm glow of bright, heavenly light. In the delivery room, the doctors and nurses remarked how beautiful I was, almost as beautiful as the sound of angelic harps being plucked above me by the heavenly host.
Ten months later, I was baptized in a small congregation, where the pastor ascended to the top of a high mountain and presented me to God, like Simba in The Lion King, and everyone in the congregation remarked how it was at that exact moment that they knew for certain that I was destined for service in Christ’s church, even before they heard the voice from heaven proclaim “This is my Doug, the beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.”
When I was twelve and participating in Confirmation classes, it took only the first fifteen minutes of the very first class session for the pastor to decide that what was best for both our class and the Kingdom of God was for me to take over the teaching duties, not only because of my vast knowledge of Christian history and theology, but because of how wise I was; “Like the boy Jesus at the Temple in the Gospel of Luke,” they said.
“Chapter two, verses forty-one through fifty-two,” I added.
Throughout high school and college, I made straight-As, was never tardy or sick, and had to be repeatedly reminded to allow the other students an opportunity to answer the instructor’s questions. I then completed a three-year seminary degree in six months, which only took so long because of all the time it took me to construct a school in South America and the first hospital on the continent of Antarctica.
After seminary, the Board of Ordained Ministry actually apologized for having to examine me. “Fear not,” I told them. “This must be done to fulfill all righteousness.” They only acquiesced after I reluctantly agreed to allow my paperwork to be copied for the multitudes, with the originals enshrined in the Vatican, at His Holiness’ request.” I will confess that it was rather awkward at my ordination service to have to convince the Bishop to ordain me. “It is I who should have been ordained by you!” he proclaimed. It was only after I convinced him that I was, in fact, the most humble clergyperson in my class of ordinands that he finally agreed.
You see, they do not allow just any pastor to be appointed to Reveille.
The fact of the matter is that I was a generally kind-hearted young person, but a mediocre, unfocused, and unmotivated student in high school and college. Yet inspired by several excellent instructors, I enrolled in college with the original intention of teaching high school, and later, college. I majored in four subjects in four years. I had bought into an older generation’s belief that all one needed was a mere undergraduate degree to have the skeleton key to unlock all doors. I graduated in 1993 into an abysmal job market to be offered a job pushing a broom at the Tredegar Iron Works. I called the University of Richmond to ask what I would need to do to finish my teaching licensure, only to be told “I was the 212th person to ask [her] that question.”
Like the Prodigal Son, desperate and defeated, I returned to what had been an old summer job, pushing shopping carts from the parking lot back into the building at a big box store in Short Pump. One night, when the janitor had not shown up for work, I, sweaty and exhausted, was directed to go to the vestibule and clean a soda spill, which was when I accidentally tipped over a very full mop bucket at the exact moment that every young woman I had ever asked out on a date, and who had said “No,” came through the door and saw me with a look that said, “This is pretty much what I expected.”
And it was then that I prayed one of two prayers to God that changed my life: “If you ever give me a chance to do it again, to go back to school, I will do it right this time.”
Three months later, my last grandparent died, my dad’s dad, and I was asked to speak at his funeral, and something happened in that pulpit, something miraculous, yet real. Something that felt so right.
That afternoon, I prayed the second life-changing prayer: “Lord, if you will just promise to keep your hand on the wheel, I promise to keep my foot on the gas.”
And it made all the difference. In a few short months, I got out of a bad relationship, left the Urban and Regional Planning program at VCU where I was taking classes as a non-degree student, and enrolled at Wesley Theological Seminary. After two solid semesters, I transferred to Duke University, where I graduated after two more years, not before being ordained in the United Methodist Church when I was twenty-five years old. By 1997, four years after this journey began, I was serving a congregation in Newport News.
Still, standing here in this pulpit, part of me actually wishes the first telling of this story was the true one. And yet most of me is so glad that it isn’t. I am glad because although this notion of being born to the music of the angels and living in a bubble of perfect piety throughout my life conforms to the expectations of many people, that is not how God works.
I absolutely love this morning’s text, and I love it for a number of reasons. I love it because I can see myself in it. I love it because it involves watermen, and I am the descendent of Chesapeake Bay watermen. I love it because with the miraculous catch of fish, Jesus is clearly having some fun with Peter, and I love it because of how beautifully it reveals exactly the kind of God we have.
Simon Peter is sweaty and exhausted. He, along with James and John, have been fishing all night long, and having caught nothing, they hear from this know-it-all in a boat still close to the shore. “GO INTO THE DEEP WATER! NO, NO, THE DEEP WATER! THAT’S WHERE THE FISH ARE!”
There is not much voice inflection in scripture, but it is difficult to not hear some in Simon Peter’s response: “IF YOU SAY SO…”
When the nets begin to break, and the boats begin to sink, Simon Peter knows, he knows that something is up. No one can be as lucky as this stranger in the boat by the shore was. No one can call a shot like that without some measure of divine power. Luke’s story of the call of Simon Peter is not the story of a man who needs some back-and-forth with the divine to ascertain that this is indeed the voice of God, as is so often the case with the Old Testament prophets. Simon Peter knows. He knows that he is talking to the Lord, and it makes him feel not merely self-conscious, but naked, revealed, with the kind of fear that only comes from having someone see through the pretense, the facade, and know you exactly as you are.
How often does it happen to us? How often do we make the call of God upon our lives all about us and not about God, as if everything were all about our power, and our might, and our resources, and our talents, as if God were not with us? In Peter’s case, he strikes me as someone who composed two resumes, one that was all truth, and one that was all padding, with fake references to boot, and then in the interview, realized that he mailed the wrong one, only to have the hiring manager exclaim, “You are exactly who we are looking for! Can you start right away?”
Groucho Marx famously said that he would never join a club who would have him as a member, yet our God is the God who calls the misfits, the has-beens, the used-to-bes, the rejects, the failures, because our God is the God who by grace can see mystery in the mundane and beauty in our imperfection, even hope in our own woundedness, even when we pull down our sleeves and zip up our jackets to hide those wounds, when we apply the foundation to cover the blemishes. Our God regards all that is broken and imperfect and sees beauty and promise. Through all that we are, and all that we do, God sees that divine image in each of us, even when it seems to us that only its remnants remain.
And the scars and the wounds? God uses them too, so that our perfect God may be revealed in and through imperfect people, people like you and like me.
In this October sermon series, we are discussing what we are calling “the next faithful step,” the very next thing that God is calling you and me and us to be and say and do, to consider what life would look like from that new vantage point, with all of its challenges, and all of its blessings.
For Peter, the next faithful step actually began before he left the boats and the nets on the shoreline behind him. Peter’s next faithful step began when, after a night of working his own way and catching nothing, he tried God’s way for once. His next faithful step occurred when he, exhausted and sore and hungry and ready to do probably anything but fish for a while. rowed out into the deeper water, and fished one more time, yet this time trying God’s way.
For Peter, the next faithful step was not to immediately fix all that was imperfect in his life. He did not hire an image consultant. There were no grand speeches about how things in his past were taken out of context. There was no apology tour. None of this happened, because Christ did not and does not demand it. “Leave those nets, broken from this grand harvest from the sea. Leave this miraculous catch. Leave them there on the shore. Just leave them, and follow me for a while, and trust me when it comes to whatever is next.”
In my mind, what makes Peter a hero of the Bible is no more all that he would do in the gospels and in the Book of Acts than what he does in this morning’s text: leave the old, broken ways behind and be willing to do God’s next new thing, trusting in God’s protection and provision for all he knew and loved, come what may.
What makes Peter a hero is how he, with God’s help, did not allow who he used to be determine who he was going to be. What makes Peter a hero, is how he rooted his identity, not in his work or his wealth or his accomplishments, or even his sins. Peter instead decided to give a chance to what Jesus saw in him, even when he could not see it himself.
It is when Peter realized the truth of that old Leonard Cohen lyric of that spirituality of imperfection: “Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”
There are as many ways to run from God’s call, as many ways to avoid that next faithful step as there are legs on which to run. Yet I can tell you this: you and I will never meek or sin or inadequate ourselves outside of the reach of God’s grace and God’s call. We will never completely fail the job interview, and no matter what our references say about us, God will see in us what God will see, and God will see you and see me for what we are: God’s adopted children, all of us, chosen by God, still bearing God’s divine image, even when the world cannot see it.
And here is where Luke’s story of the call of Simon Peter intersects with last week’s story of the call of Gideon in Judges 6, and let’s face it, almost all of the biblical call narratives: God has never, ever once called a qualified person to do anything. It’s true. Instead, our perfect God keeps calling imperfect people to change the world, because in the wonderful scheme of things in this marvelous, amazing universe, that is who God has chosen to work with.
Yet hear me when I say this to you: your imperfections make space, space for God to be revealed in you. The God who spangled the heavens, who set the planets in their courses, who spoke creation into being, revealed in and through you and what you do each day.
The very fact that none of us can do what God has set before us is exactly the point, for when we allow ourselves the vulnerability to be available to the work of the God who sees us as we are, we reveal nothing less than the presence of the living God in our midst. With apologies to Leonard Cohen, the cracks in our facade are the places where the divine light within us shines forth.
What is God calling you to leave on the shoreline behind you? For Peter, James, and John, it was their well-worn nets, their boats, their livelihood, their…everything. What is God asking of you this day? Maybe it is not “leaving everything behind,” as Luke tells it. Perhaps it is a portion of who you are, a portion of your income, a portion of your gifts, a portion of the time and talents God has given you that make you who you are.
Hopefully by now, you have received in the mail an estimate of giving card. In this envelope is an opportunity – an opportunity to take one faithful step forward in your giving to God through the transformative ministries of this church in 2019. Please pray over what you are going to write on this card, ask God to show you what your next faithful step will be, and then bring this card to worship on October 28 so that we, as an act of worship, can consecrate these next faithful steps to God. What you write on these cards is between you, our Financial Secretary Candice, and God, and they represent your best estimate of what you will contribute to the work of this church in the year to come.
Imagine those things, given to God, blessed, consecrated, and combined with the talents, time, and resources of the people sitting around you, people who also call Reveille their home. Imagine it, and let’s birth it into being, and let this holy seven acres set apart be a place where the world can join us, and see what God can do.
Our offerings need not be perfect, just one faithful step in God’s direction. “Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.