Sermon for February 6, 2022

Epiphany 5, Luke 5:1-11

I always marvel at the stories of the call of Jesus’ disciples, and the reported immediacy and totality of their response. Listen again to what we just heard in Luke’s report: “When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed Jesus.” Mark’s version of the story adds the word “immediately” – “immediately they left their nets and followed [Jesus].” (Mark 1:18)

If indeed the telling is as it actually occurred without editorial hyperbole, it is a remarkable thing so quickly, so completely to leave everything to follow Jesus.

That leads me to ask, what would it take for me, for you, for us to make such a life-course-altering transition in our lives?

We can leave this as a rhetorical question for now so that we can turn our attention to the biblical passages appointed for today and what they have to say about the question. Each of today’s readings is a story of call, of God calling servants to do God’s work. In the first reading from Isaiah, it’s the call of the prophet Isaiah. In the second reading from 1 Corinthians, Paul references indirectly his story of call on the road to Damascus while addressing the church at Corinth. And, of course, today’s gospel from Luke recounts Jesus’ call of his first disciples.

Each call story ends with a total redirection in the lives of those called, Isaiah, Paul, Simon Peter and the other disciples.

A common theme in each story that provoked the abrupt change is a dramatic encounter with the divine. For Isaiah, it was the vision of the Lord sitting on the throne, high and lofty, with seraphs (the highest order of angelic beings) attending to the Lord, calling to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of the glory of the Lord.” Those words should sound familiar because we sing them every Sunday at this table. This holy drama ultimately resulted in Isaiah’s response to God’s call – “Here am I; send me!”

Likewise, Paul, on the road to Damascus was struck blind temporarily and heard Jesus’ voice. This sacred encounter finally led Saul, persecutor of the church, to become, Paul, another apostle sent to proclaim the gospel he had tried before to eradicate.

Then for Simon Peter and the others, it was the dramatic and surprising catch of fish, a sacred sign, a miracle, that ended in their leaving everything to follow Jesus.
But here’s the thing. The dramatic encounters with God are merely the beginning of the story, not the end, and not even the point. The point of the dramatic sacred encounter is simply to get the attention of the ones called – Isaiah, Paul, Simon Peter and the others.

If we leave it at the drama, without recognizing the other aspects of the call stories, then we’re left with something resembling a prosperity gospel or simply religious entertainment. If we stop with “the pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke,” then we’re going to try to replicate those experiences again and again – hence, perhaps, the churches that in their worship seek to put on a good show for the audience Sunday after Sunday.

Or let’s take the great catch of fish. If we’re stuck on the drama of this sign, then we’ll want to follow Jesus as a means to gain, maintain, and perpetuate our prosperity. Jesus can make us wealthy. Just look at all those fish. Jesus, follow us, and together we’ll make tons of money. That is to say, we’re left with some form of prosperity gospel.

But again, the sacred drama is not the point, only the attention getter. What comes next in each story is the recognition of the sinful limitations of the ones called in distinction from the utter holiness of God that the dramatic encounter reveals.

Here’s what Isaiah said in response to his holy encounter: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” – this is an acknowledgment of individual and social or communal sin and shortcoming.

Then there’s Paul who said, “Last of all, as to one untimely born, Christ appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

Finally, Simon Peter. When he saw the boats begin to sink because of the incredible catch of fish, Simon Peter “fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’”

In short, holy encounters, however they come to us, serve to get our attention, and they reveal our mortality, our finitude, our fallenness in comparison to God’s glory.

But that, too, is not the end of the story. Next comes the communication of God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, God’s embrace.

In the case of Isaiah, this happened through the mediation of one of the seraphs. “Then one of the seraphs flew to [Isaiah], holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched [Isaiah’s] mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’” This is a striking moment of forgiveness, of absolution.

For Paul, formerly Saul, it was the visit of Ananias whom God sent to Paul after he was struck blind that conveyed God’s grace. According to the report in Acts, “[Ananias] laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” (Acts 9:17b-19a) Paul in today’s second reading summarizes all of this theologically in this way: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and God’s grace toward me has not been in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:10a)

In the case of Simon Peter, Jesus himself offered the grace with these simple, reassuring words: “Do not be afraid.”

So, thus far, we have holy encounters that are attention-getting that reveal our sinfulness which we acknowledge and then grace and mercy are offered. Then, and only then, is the commission, the sending, and finally the acceptance of the call with the resultant leaving everything to follow where God calls.

To Isaiah, the voice of the Lord said, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then Isaiah’s response once again, “Here am I; send me!” And Jesus’ invitation to Paul actually came to Ananias: “Go, for [Saul] is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before the Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.” (Acts 9:15) This is a commission which Saul who becomes Paul passionately accepts. And then, finally, there’s Jesus’ commissioning of Simon Peter and the others: “from now on you will be catching human beings.” So it is that they left everything to follow Jesus.

So, in sum, what does it take to leave everything to follow Jesus? A holy encounter that opens us to acknowledge our sin, to receive God’s mercy and grace, and then God commissions and sends us on a mission. Then finally is our response of leaving everything behind to engage our calling, our ministry in and for the world.

The pattern revealed for Isaiah, Paul, Simon Peter and the other disciples is the same for us even now in these latter days.

It is likely the case that few of us have had the kind of dramatic God encounters described in today’s readings. It is also likely that the stories we have received in the Bible have a lot of added editorial hyperbole. The historical reality may be that Isaiah and Paul and Simon Peter had more mundane experiences, not unlike ours.

That said, I believe that we can recognize in our lives the patterns we have discerned in today’s call story readings. We do occasionally have those attention getting experiences that draw us to consider the transcendent bigger picture, major life events that we cannot ignore. And these experiences may result in our compunction and humility, honest appraisals of our frail humanity that are followed by profound experiences of divine grace. And this results in a recognition of God’s call, which issues forth in our response in re-directing our lives for the sake of the world.

In twenty-five or so years of working with candidates preparing for ordained ministry, I’ve seen this kind of pattern again and again in their reported stories of call. Maybe you recognize similar patterns in your own life.

But it’s also true that our Sunday worship follows this pattern. It is here in this place, this time of assembly, that we are encountered by God, and confess that we are a people of unclean lips, but then receive grace – “your sin is blotted out” – and we sing “Holy, holy, holy” along with the seraphs, and the hot coals are touched to our lips in the form of bread and wine. And here we also discover that our ship of the church is filled abundantly with gifts, not unlike the huge catch of fish for the disciples. And then we hear the call and respond, “Here am I; send me!” Here we are; send us! And our lives are redirected to be sent from this place to serve the world in need with our abundance. The fact that you are here Sunday after Sunday, month after month, year after year, is a sign that holy encounter has redirected your life in fundamental ways to keep you coming back for more.

May our eyes and ears of faith be opened such that we can more fully apprehend the truth that what happened to Isaiah and to Paul and to Simon Peter and the others also happens to us, here in this place, and in our lives.

And all of this in service of our share in Jesus’ passion to be fully present with people in need in life-giving ways in our desperately suffering world. Amen.