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Beyond The Shallows

Sermon – 7/24/05
Linda McCrae
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 5:1-11

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He 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. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ 5Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So 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. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and 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.’ 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

I'd like to take a moment of personal privilege to thank your pastor, Dan, for the invitation to share some reflections on God’s word this morning.  In 1974, when Dan came to Indianapolis to work with our general offices as a youth ministries intern, I was 14 years old.  Dan stayed with my family for a time, and he became like a big brother to my two sisters and me.  My older sister, who ran track in high school, still owns the pair of cleats that Dan bought for her.  Dan was a gift to us, as I know him to be a gift to this congregation.  I know as well that you are a gift to him, and I thank God for the opportunity to be present here this morning in this community.

Last year I went on vacation to Mexico, a country that I absolutely love.  A couple of decades ago I spent about three years living in Mexico and working as a Global Mission Intern for our church, but not very much of that time was spent on any of the numerous beautiful beaches that Mexico has to offer.  But on this trip my friend Christy and I decided we would spend a couple days at the beach, and on one of those days we went snorkeling.

I’d never been snorkeling before, and to be honest, I’d never gone out looking for opportunities to go snorkeling, because I’m pretty much of a chicken when it comes to the ocean.  I love the ocean, the sound and the smell and the feel, but to actually get in it scares me.  But since the opportunity was right there, I decided I might as well try it.  I rented the snorkel and mask and flippers, and went down to the part of the beach that was best for snorkeling.  We had a guide for this snorkeling experience, named Jose, and he gave us a two-minute orientation…the best place is right out here, try not to go over there because the waves might push you into the rocks.  Great Jose, thanks a lot.

As I adjusted the strap on my mask and got the rocks out of my flippers, the question “why am I doing this?” crossed my mind, but by that time I was committed to it, and I finally made it into the water.  It took about two minutes to get used to breathing through a tube, to realize that water was not going to come down through the snorkel and choke me, and that the undertow was not going to pull me under and out to sea, never to return.   A couple minutes for me to relax, to go under water without tensing up, and from then on it was an awesome experience. 

It was like swimming with Nemo.  We saw bright blue angelfish about this big, and we saw the babies which have even brighter blue spots, almost neon blue.  We saw some smaller ones that were purple and yellow, we saw rainbow-colored fish, we saw bright yellow and orange and green fish of various sizes and shapes.  Hundreds and thousands of fish.

A whole new world was opened up to me once I got underwater.  A world I’ve learned about, seen pictures of, heard people talk about…but as long as I stayed on the surface of the water, I didn’t have a clue what it was really like.

It was morning of that day when Jesus came to the shore of Lake Gennesaret.  The fishermen had been out all night and were scrubbing their nets – cleaning up, getting ready to go home and get some rest.  Even at that early hour a crowd followed Jesus.  He was getting pretty famous by now, after all the hubbub at his home synagogue in Nazareth, and then from the exorcisms and healings he was doing.  The crowd pressed in on him – listening, wanting to hear more.  It made it a little hard to talk, so Jesus borrowed the boat of one of the fishermen, Simon, and pushed out a little ways from shore so that he could do his teaching.

After he was done, he said to Simon, Why don’t you put your nets down?  Simon said, We’ve been fishing all night, haven’t caught a thing.  Jesus said, Why don’t you try again and go a little deeper?  Simon shrugged his shoulders, didn’t really think this was going to be worth his time, but…what would it hurt?  Maybe the stories he’d heard about Jesus, and the words he’d heard him speak that morning, made him feel inclined to do what Jesus was asking, even if they didn’t catch anything, and just had to clean their nets again and miss a couple hours of sleep.

So they went out into the deep waters, put their nets down deep, and drew up a huge catch of fish, so huge that their nets were stretched and strained and about to break.  So huge a catch that they had to call over their partners in the other boat to help them, and they filled both boats with fish.  So full that they were dangerously low in the water as they made their way back to shore.

“Why don’t you go a little deeper?” is a question that I need to hear on a regular basis.  We live in a culture that, generally speaking, encourages us to live broadly and shallowly.  Where major world events are covered in 30 seconds on the evening news.  Where to be considered well-rounded and successful, we should have a job, and a family, and a social life.  We should keep up on current events, take in some concerts or plays, and go see the Ducks  play from time to time.  We should read, exercise, eat well, entertain, decorate our house, travel, and shop.  Trying to cover all these bases leaves us frustrated and anxious and exhausted.

“Why don’t you go a little deeper?” Jesus says when he calls his first disciples.  Go a little deeper into yourselves and into the life of the world.  Go beyond the shallows, go beyond living shallowly, and into the depth of creation, into the depth of human experience.  Find the richness that is abundant in the depths of life, see what you can gather if you are willing to go a little deeper.

As Disciples of Christ gather during these days in Portland, we are reminded that the church is far bigger than all we personally have seen, far broader than all we personally have participated in, far deeper than all we personally have experienced.  We see Disciples from Oregon and Texas and Kentucky and Alabama and Nebraska and New York.  We hear of brothers and sisters in Korea working for reconciliation between the North and the South.  We learn about how children and youth and adults can work together as peacemakers.

As Christians living in the 21st century, Jesus calls us to go beyond the shallows, to move into the deep water where life is teeming.  And because we don’t always know what’s there, and aren’t entirely sure that we won’t drown or be swept out to sea, for me one of the best parts about this call is that it’s not a call to do it alone.  As the General Assembly theme reminds us, Jesus calls us into community.  Jesus calls us out of our sense of ourselves as one individual trying to make his or her way in the world, and into a vision of brothers and sisters – working, growing, living, loving – in community.

One of the reasons, I’m convinced, that we are called into community is because there is a strength in community that we cannot muster as an individual person.  When Simon pulls up his nets overflowing with fish, he calls over his buddies to help carry this huge load of fish.  It’s dangerous to do it himself, but together they’ll make it.

I heard Jane Lawrence, who works for our Disciples Home Mission, once tell a story about a horse pull, a contest at a state fair or someplace like that to see which horse could pull the most weight.  The winner pulled 9000 pounds.  The horse that came in second pulled almost 8000 pounds.  Then they hitched the two horses together to see what they could pull as a team.  Adding up what they did individually, they should have been able to pull about 17,000 pounds.  But in fact they pulled over 30,000 pounds.

Which of us individually could shelter and clothe the homeless and naked in Eugene?  Which of us could run a Helping Hands ministry?  Which congregation on its own could run a camping program, or start a seminary for training future leaders, or send missionaries to Botswana and El Salvador and the Philippines?  There is a strength and a power in community that allows us to put down our nets and reap harvests beyond our imaginings.

But strength in numbers is not the only reason Jesus calls us into community.  God knows that we need community to en-courage each other, to give each other courage to go beyond the shallows and into the deep water.  In a society that idealizes pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and blames the poor for their predicament, it takes courage to not only feed and clothe and house the poor, but advocate for and with them for fairer treatment.

In a culture that is pulled toward the right by Christians who would claim that their way is God’s only way, that their political stances are the only Christian stances, it takes courage to say that we can respectfully disagree, and that our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers have a share of God’s wisdom as well.

In a world that is attracted to easy answers, it takes courage to embrace complex questions and wrestle with them from the perspective of the gospel, and come out saying, “This is what I believe, but I might be wrong.”

Elaine Prevallet, of the Sisters of Loretto says: “We need a community – a church or a covenant group within a church – some group of friends committed to Christ who are willing to risk grounding their lives in values that may make them marginal to the larger culture, who are willing to be responsible with and for and to each other, who are not afraid to ask hard questions…The pull of individualism is so strong that we cannot afford to go it alone.  We have to find or create communities – containers – if we are to be faithful to God’s call.”

As Christians, we find great strength and encouragement in community, when we gather together to celebrate the ways God is at work in our lives and our world.  But of course, the point is not to stay here.  The point of Christian community is to scatter as well.  Jesus calls the disciples to COME (follow me) but then to GO (become fishers of people, go two by two to the towns and village to tell them the good news).  And we are always in this dynamic of gathering and scattering, gathering and scattering.  Gathering together to worship and study and support each other, and scattering to be disciples of Christ in the world, to be expressions of God’s love in every way we can possibly think of.

I’ve heard my father, who’s a retired Disciples preacher, say on occasion that the test of discipleship is not how many people come together on Sunday morning, or how well we sing, or even how powerfully or sincerely we pray and preach and listen.  The test of discipleship is to follow the members of the church around Monday through Saturday, and see what kind of life they are living as they are scattered in the world.

In my own life, there was perhaps no time or place that taught me more about the power of the gathered and scattered community than the years I spent in Guatemala as your missionary.  My job description was pastoral accompaniment – providing physical and spiritual accompaniment to Guatemalan refugees as they returned and resettled in their country following more than a decade of living in refugee camps in southern Mexico.  Their return was not easy, it was marked not only by the anticipation of going home but by anxiety, as the same army that had driven them from their homes years earlier remained in place to “welcome” them home. Tensions ran high, and the refugee community put out a call to churches and to other organizations, for people to come and accompany them as they returned to their country.  Your Global Ministries responded to that call and shipped me off to Guatemala.

In February of 1994 I walked with a group of Guatemalans along a muddy dirt road toward the village of Santa Maria Tzeja in the northwestern part of the country.  Twelve years earlier, at the height of a bloody civil war, the army had entered their village and burned every house and building to the ground.  They killed the animals and went looking for the people, who had fled into the surrounding forest.  A group of 13 women and children was massacred when some soldiers came upon their hiding place.  For weeks the families remained in hiding, but when they realized that the army was not leaving the area, and they were either going to starve or be discovered, they made their way to the Mexican border and relative safety.

Twelve years later, these representatives, one from each family, were making their first trip home.  They would spend just a few days on this visit to check out the conditions before coming back for good with their families and belongings a few months later.  As I walked with them toward the village I wondered, how in the world can a bunch of Indian peasant farmers stand up to the Guatemalan army?  How will they ever eke out a living in this rain forest so isolated from “civilization,” so far from all the amenities I consider basic to a decent life?  How can people without even a 6th grade education ever hold their own against those who would continue to exploit and oppress them? 

I have had the good fortune to visit Santa Maria Tzeja many times, while I lived in Guatemala and since I returned to the States.  They’ve now been back over 11 years, and each time I go I witness the power of the community working together.  Concrete-block houses, new schools, shops, community buildings, a church, a health clinic, people wearing glasses, children carrying books, young people doing theater, a new computer lab.  There’s only one community phone in the village, yet they’re now connected to the internet!

All of this has been gained through a great deal of struggle and hardship, with many setbacks, and only by banding together.  Nobody got a concrete-block house until they had enough funds for everyone to get one.  No family had a water-storage tank, meaning that the women and girls did not have to spend hours a day carrying water from the streams, until there was enough money for every family to get a tank.

They learned the power of the gathered community and as time went on they heard the call to scatter as well.  With some help from the church gathered together in places like Eugene and Indianapolis, our Week of Compassion offering has provided scholarships to several students from Santa Maria Tzeja.  These young people were the first in their village to leave their homes and go far away, first to high school and then to college.  Scores of others have now followed in their footsteps.  Now Edwin is almost finished with his university studies to be a lawyer.  Cesar will be a doctor in a couple more years.  Benjamin is well on his way to a degree in agronomy.  Every one of these young people is committed not only to the welfare of his own community, but to sharing what they have learned with other rural villages in Guatemala, empowering them to go beyond the shallows, to claim and live deeply their status as children of God, and become the community that gathers and scatters.   And when they talk about what they’ve learned, when they talk about their hopes and dreams for the future of their community, there is a light in the eyes of these young people that will reach the deepest depths.

Here in Eugene, and in Indianapolis, and in places all over our country and world, the community called by Jesus gathers and scatters.  We gather each Sunday and we scatter, back to our jobs and schools and homes and circles of friends and acquaintances.  This church of 300 people in one location becomes the church in 300 locations, as we go out to be students and teachers and scientists and social workers and construction workers and waitresses and bankers and garbage collectors and doctors and parents and friends.  We gather in General Assembly every two years, and we scatter, back to Georgia and Ohio and Arizona and Nova Scotia to be the people of God.

So let us go today from this gathering, renewed and refreshed in the depth of God’s spirit, to live and love and serve as Jesus calls us.  Amen.


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