Sunday, February 04, 2007

Sermon from Sunday, Feb 4

Based on Luke 5:1-11 (read it here: )

If you want to have a good time, next time you go to your doctor’s, disagree with what she says. Disagree with her diagnosis. And tell her that you know that the problem isn’t what she thinks it is; tell her that you know this because you saw it once on an episode of ER.

If you want to have a good time, next time you see your lawyer, tell them that you know how to get out of that traffic ticket because you saw it once on CSI (or Law and Order, or LA Law, or Perry Mason, depending on how old you are).

Fortunately, it seems like pastors mostly get spared this stuff, with the possible exception of the show 7th Heaven. I suppose the life of fictional pastor Eric Camden is like some pastors’, but it’s certainly not like my life. Since 7th Heaven is only on for an hour each week, it can’t capture all the paperwork I do as a pastor; nor does it capture the study, nor does it capture the listening; so much of a pastor’s life is spent listening, not counseling. Yet, still, sometimes, people come to me and expect me to be like Eric Camden, able to give answers that will resolve the problem in an hour, minus time for commercials.

I don’t know if you have a profession that is on TV very much, but if so, you know it can be a little frustrating when other people have expectations that they know your job, that they understand your life, because they saw it on TV.

But before you get too frustrated with those people who hone in your turf, pay attention to this text of Scripture, because Jesus once honed in on the turf of some fishermen. The fishermen had been out all night, doing what they do best, fishing. The fish ran best at night; fishermen knew that. The life of a fisherman was hard, real hard. You worked all night; you went home, and you crashed for a while if the wife could keep the kids quiet; you woke up and spent the afternoon at home, doing chores, knowing that all the while, a long evening on a boat was coming, sometimes alone, sometimes with your buddies, but always a long, long, night. And there was only so much you could do to make it successful. There were tricks to the trade, to be sure, ways to maximize your success, but when feeding your family depends on the stupidity of a fish, your life is kind of high-stress, because in a way, you have no control over it.

And Jesus gets up in the morning, not a fisherman, but a carpenter, and he goes down to the lakeshore, and of course there are crowds of people with him. The crowds are waiting with baited breath to hear the word of God. And Jesus rubs the sleep out of his eyes, and goes down to the shore; Capernaum was a lakeside city, a resort town on the Sea of Galilee; and there, he sees the fishermen washing their nets. And it wasn’t a great night of fishing. Simon is there, grumbling to himself as he washed away, scrubbing the nets clean after catching absolutely zilch, nothing at all. Jesus is now pressed around by so many people that he doesn’t have any room any more, and he sees his friend Simon and he asks Simon if he would mind if Jesus crawled up into his boat and preached from there. Simon could put out from shore just a little bit, and Jesus could preach from there without people being pressing up on him.

And so Simon agrees, though it’s the last thing he wants to do right now; right now he just wants to get some sleep. But he obliges his friend, and preaches while his friend is washing the net. Just as Jesus was done speaking (and just as Simon was done washing the net), Jesus says, “Put out your net into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” In other words, oh, that sleep you’ve been looking forward to for hours; let’s take a couple more hours and go back out to the deep part of the lake and fish some more.

I imagine I understand a little bit of what Peter is feeling. Peter knows that what Jesus is asking here is a lost cause. Have you ever reached the end of a long day of work and just felt like the whole stupid day was a lost cause, like everything you touch is a lost cause? Of course you have–we all have. Well imagine for a second that your work is overnight and you’ve already done your friend a favor by staying out a couple extra hours while he spoke. All you want to do is crawl into bed and sleep your misery off and you did your friend a favor and now he’s asking you to do something he knows nothing about. Look here, Jesus, you handle the saw and wood and hammer and nails of a carpenter, and I’ll handle the nets of a fisherman. You handle the preaching and I’ll handle the fishing. I know what I’m doing here, and we didn’t catch any fish. In fact, Peter says, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

Now there are two ways to read this. One is to commend Peter on his amazing faith, that he would obey Jesus just because Jesus says to, despite the fact it mad no common sense at all. The other way to read it is, of course, Peter rolling his eyes like kids do when their parents tell them what to do and saying, “Because you say so...If I have to...”

Truth be told, I think it’s a mixture of both emotions in Peter. On one hand, I don’t think Peter expected anything to come of this. I don’t believe Peter really thought anything would happen when he put the nets down there, so part of this is just forced obedience. But on the other hand, it took great faith. There are crowds of people down there watching Peter and Jesus talking. If Peter went ahead and put down the nets and he didn’t catch any fish–and there was a pretty good chance of that happening–then he would look like a fool for following Jesus. Both Jesus and Peter would look pretty dumb if they went out by themselves and then didn’t catch anything.

Now Jesus was used to putting his neck on the line like this. He was used to saying, “Demons, come out of him!” and “Be healed!” If the demons didn’t come out, if the people weren’t healed, Jesus would look pretty dumb. Jesus was used to risking it all in public. But this was the first time that Jesus had Peter out there on the highwire with him. This was the first time–and not the last time–that Peter had to risk something, had to risk his reputation for the sake of following Jesus.

Sometimes the call of Jesus is to something we just know in our heart of hearts is a lost cause. That’s what happens when you worship a God who dearly loves lost causes, in fact, loved each of us when we were a lost cause. When each of us were out there, alone, without hope, without sense sometimes, God looked at us and loved us. God loves you and God loves me and that is all the evidence that I need that God loves lost causes.

Of course, if you’re a lost cause, or remember when you were one, the fact God loves lost causes is good news. But the hard truth that accompanies this good news is that God also calls his people to believe in lost causes sometimes. Sometimes, God calls you and I to do things that on the face of it are extremely foolish and to believe that God is going to redeem that lost cause.

What lost cause is God calling you to today? What is it that God is calling you to do that you feel like you know better than God; what is it God is asking you to do that you feel like looking at him and saying, “Hey–why don’t you let me handle the fishing and you handle being God? Why don’t you let me handle my life since I know it and go off to smile in some painting somewhere?”

There are many lost causes that God calls us to. God calls us, for example, to the task of prayer. What a lost cause prayer is! God actually wants you to believe that part of the strategy for solving problems is to let go of controlling them and continue to give yourself up to God every day, every hour through the practice of prayer. God actually wants you to believe that if you want to know yourself, what you have to do is lose yourself in finding Him. What a lost cause!

Then there’s the practice of serving the poor–what a lost cause that is! No matter how much you serve, no matter how much you help, there’s more need, no end in sight, any sane person can see that! And yet still Jesus calls on us to serve, give ourselves away, and God actually wants us to believe that by serving the poor we actually make a difference and can make improvements in our own character! What a lost cause–the things God calls us to believe!

Then there’s the discipline of giving. What a lost cause! God actually expects us to believe that by giving to support his work, we do two things at once–support the ministry and we change our own hearts, setting ourselves free from possessions which would own us and control us. Are you kidding me? What a lost cause giving is!

There’s the whole discipline of the church. What a lost cause! God actually wants us to believe that it is when we give ourselves away to community that God can change our hearts. And he expects us to sacrifice our time, our spiritual gifts, our financial goods, for that community, that community that can so easily disappoint us–what a lost cause!

In fact, there are people in the world so sure that these are lost causes that they just won’t do them. It’s like they’re Peter, washing their nets, and Jesus says, “throw those nets into the deep” and they’re like, “Get real. I’m not doing that! I’m not giving myself to that lost cause, no matter who’s calling me to it.”

Well, fortunately, Peter doesn’t do this. He puts his reputation on the line, says, “Here goes nothing...” and throws his net into the water. And what happens? Fish start to hit the net, and Peter starts to feel that old familiar tug on his hands; and before long, the tug is stronger and stronger and stronger, and soon he has to call his friends over to help him with the net because the net is filled with so many fish that he’s worried the net might break. And they call over their friends in the other boat, sharing the wealth, sharing the love, and before long, all the fish are on board, two boats full, so many fish that the boats were in danger of sinking.

And Peter gets down and falls on his face and worships the God of lost causes. He knows in that moment that Jesus is divine–he knew he was special before, maybe thought he might be God’s special one, but he never realized until he saw it right now how powerful and good and loving the God of lost causes is. And Jesus looks at him and simply says, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch people.” Now that you’ve seen me, seen how I love lost causes, now I’ve got a job for you. Now you’re gonna catch people.

When you see those nets full of fish; when you see those boats begin to sink; when you see the surly fisherman fall on his face and worship; when you see the way that Jesus gives him a new job, a new life; when you see all of that, the way you look at lost causes changes forever. All of the sudden, all of the lost causes in your life, all the things you’ve given up on, all the crises you were sure could never be resolved, all of the disappointments you’ve gritted your teeth and lived with; once you’ve seen Jesus, all those lost causes look different. Now they are not simply impossible situations, but now they are alive with possibilities you never saw before. They become opportunities for God to step in, and for God to take the glory because He may just do something amazing, something no one expected him to do at all.

But what’s very interesting to me in this Scripture text is that Jesus does not merely snap his fingers and make fish appear in the boat. Instead, Jesus puts a test of faith to Peter first. Go ahead, put out the net. Right here, in front of all of these people. If it doesn’t work, you make a fool out of yourself and me, but go ahead, do it. Put out the net. And it is when Peter follows the call of God that he begins to see his way out of the lost cause. It is precisely when he says, “Oh, what the heck, I’ll do it,” that God answers in that powerful way.

The other thing that’s interesting is the way Jesus chooses to solve the lost cause. Because the solution, the long-term solution, the true gift he gives Peter, is not two boats full of fish. The real gift he gives Peter is a new identity, a new life. He says, “Don’t be impressed at two boats full of fish; that’s as high as you can get in this profession. Come with me, and I’m going to make you catch people. I’m going to give you a new job, a new life, a new meaning, a new identity.” That is the real gift.

I wonder what those lost causes are in your life today. Maybe you know what they are off the top of your head, just as we’re sitting here talking. Maybe you don’t know what they are; maybe they’re buried so deep, under years of disappointment, that you don’t even want to think about them anymore, because you don’t want your heart to break again.

When you think about your lost causes, I wonder if you might think of two things. I hope you will consider that there may be, somewhere deep in that lost cause, a call from God. Because I believe that most often God doesn’t act in our lives without our permission. There has to be an act of submission, a letting down of the nets if you will, in order to allow God to do something in our lives. I can’t tell you how often my lost causes are directly related to my desire to maintain control over them. I can’t tell you how often my frustration with life is directly due to my failure to pray and leave problems in God’s hands; it’s like I’m Peter, and I’m not willing to throw out the nets, and I’m surprised that I still don’t have any fish. We must be willing to let go of control and let God act if we want God to actually do something.

The other thing I wonder if you might consider is that God may have an unexpected way of handling your lost cause. Peter thought the problem was he didn’t have any fish; Jesus knew the real problem was he needed a new job. Often in our lives, we have one set of solutions for a problem and God might have quite another. And we spend all of our time chasing our one little solution when if we would just throw down the nets, God would have a whole different solution for us, one that will make us so much happier than our own little solution!

I’ve told you the story many times of when I went to seminary; I anticipated going straight from seminary into Ph.D. work, maybe in Old Testament Studies. So when I went to seminary, I started right in, taking the hardest courses I could, knowing I would have to work to get ahead, knowing that I would be one of hundreds of applicants for Ph.D. work, knowing that if I got in and graduated, I would be one of hundreds of Ph.D.s looking for new work. I was deadly serious, always trying to get the competitive advantage. And man, I’d pray to do well so that I could achieve this dream. I was convinced that that’s what would make me happy, being at the head of the class and achieving, achieving, achieving.

Then I met a mentor who challenged that perception I had of myself. She challenged me to explore my spiritual side, my pastoral side; she challenged me to enter into the world of prayer and worship and spirituality more deeply. Consequently, I left one dream and took on another–and I love the life I have lived thanks in large part to that mentor.

You know, there were many times my dreams for myself were high-stress. How would I ever achieve enough? How could I ever get far enough ahead of everybody else? I was convinced the only way God could answer my prayer was to make me smarter and achieve more. But God had a better way of answering my prayer. God gave me a new job, a new way of thinking, a new life. That’s how God answers lost causes lots of times–through giving us new lives and new dreams, dreams we didn’t even know to dream before.

Remember, this is a God who conquered the world not by subduing it, but by subduing himself to it, even to death on a cross; this is a God who gave new life through a criminal’s death. And he can give us new dreams, too; dreams to replace the lost causes, if only we will put down the nets and leave them behind.