For another take on this passage, see this sermon, from three years back.
Go away from me! This is not the first reaction we think someone will have to Jesus. We expect people—we have been taught to expect people—to wordlessly drop everything and follow. That’s how these stories usually go. We’ve been taught about how inviting Jesus is—about how he wants to heal our broken hearts and bind up our wounds, about how we are all welcome to his table, about how he wants to restore our sight and release us from captivity and teach us to walk and restore us to new and better life. That anyone should find that threatening, even terrifying… well, perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us as much as it does. Go away from me, Lord. Don’t ask this of me. Don’t demand this of me. Don’t turn my life upside down like this.
Jesus, for the most part, finds us at work. It would be great for me, a religious professional, to say, well, of course, Jesus shows up in church, that’s where he finds us. That he will surely show up in the temple, in the shrine, in the holy place. And I suppose he does that too. We may find fleeting glimpses of him here, thanks be to God. But more often when he shows up in these places, he comes to prod and poke at us, to remind us that we always need to be mindful lest we fall into the role of the Pharisee, the religious hypocrite who holds others to standards we are not willing to meet ourselves. Jesus’ appearances in the holy places are the things that make religious professionals lose sleep, break out into a cold sweat. No. More often than not, Jesus finds us at work.
Jesus finds us in the midst of our mundane, day-to-day activities. He finds us there, and joins in with us, climbs into the boat, so to speak. Really, he climbed into the boat on that starry Bethlehem night, when the angels sang “Glory!” Jesus climbs into the boat with us, joins us in our ordinary projects and pursuits, in our places of skill and competency, the places where we more or less know what we are doing. We know how to catch the fish, or pay the bills, or rewire the lamp, or update the website. We know how to field the calls, and listen with empathy, and change the oil. Jesus finds us, doing all these things. And then, he says, put out into the deep water. Let me show you a new thing.
Now, it would be perfectly natural for us to respond with some measure of annoyance, or weariness, or defensiveness. I’ve been doing this all night, we might say, or all morning, or even all my life. I know what I’m doing. I know how to clean the floor, host the coffee hour, welcome the stranger. Lord, I’ve been doing this a long, long time. What do you mean, “deep water”? What am I going to find there that I haven’t found right here?
But that’s what he says, deep water, and so, grumbling, perhaps, we push away from shore, away from what is familiar, away from our zones of comfort and our dependable formulas for how to be. We push out into the deep water, the place where we’re not really sure what is swimming beneath the surface, and we’re not really sure we want to know. But we do it. We put out into the deep water, and we let down our nets, just to be polite, just to see what will happen, just to quiet that insistent voice, maybe, just so that we can say we did.
And then. Oh my. This… is awkward, because now something new is happening, and the nets are straining and our shoulders are pulling with the strain of it, and, wow, we need help. We need help. We can’t do this ourselves. We put out into deep water, we reach down below the surface of things, and we are not able to control the outcomes any more. We have listened to that word Jesus whispered in our ears, and now we are beyond our experience, now we are beyond the ways we’ve always done it before, and, oh Lord above, it is hard, hard work, and something’s got to give. And what gives is our sense of competency, our solo selves, our sense of completeness. What gives is the idea that we can go it alone. If we are going to do it Jesus’ way, in the deep water of life, we learn that we can’t go it alone.
And our first reaction is, Go away from me Lord. This is not what I bargained for. This is not what I want, this disruption to everything I know.
Then Jesus whispers another word in our ears. He doesn’t say, “Come, follow me.” Not here, not in this passage. Maybe he knows better than to expect that of us, right this moment, in our reluctance and in our dismay. No. He doesn’t say, “Follow me.” Instead, he becomes a prophet, a sage, he becomes Sybil Trelawney, telling us what we can expect. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus says; “from now on you will be catching people.” Literally, he says, “You will be catching-alive people,” but even that doesn’t convey something that would necessarily still our fears, we who probably feel at this point that we have been caught alive, and we’re still not sure we won’t make a break for it. But the deeper meaning, the meaning below the surface, the meaning that restores our courage, that gives us what we need to leave everything behind to follow, is this: You will be captivating people with life. You will be reviving them. You will be restoring them to life and strength. Catching them alive, and pouring even more life into them.
And something in that captivates us. Something in that whispered word awakens us to the fact that if we are restoring others to life and strength, then it must be that we will be filled with it too. You can’t pour from an empty bucket. And that’s how he does it. And that’s when we remember the inviting Jesus, the captivating Jesus, the one who wants to heal our broken hearts and bind up our wounds, who is longing to welcome to his table, who is ready right now to restore our sight and release us from captivity and teach us to walk and restore us to new and better life. And so, we do it. We drop the nets. We follow. Thanks be to God. Amen.