Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
In Carl Reiner’s 1977 film, O God, the lead character, played by John Denver, slowly drives past a ringing phone booth in his ugly, orange-colored AMC Pacer. He stops, backs up, and answers the phone. It’s God of course –played by George Burns—whom we suddenly see in the phone booth next to him dressed in khakis and a pith helmet. God just called to talk before leaving on safari.
John Denver thinks he must be going crazy, of course. It’s an in-your-face, God will not be denied, call story to rival the one we have today from Isaiah in the temple of God, or Paul on the Damascus Road, or Peter, James, and John beside the Sea of Galilee. What’s your call story? It’s a question every pastor hears again and again. I’ve heard quite a few. They seldom include such cinematic visions. Like you, pastors don’t see flying seraphs when we pray or receive absolution via tongs and live coals. If God were to appear to you in such dramatic fashion, would you respond with gratitude, or, like John Denver, with fear for our mental health? Like Isaiah, Paul, and Peter might you be overwhelmed with unworthiness at standing in the presence of God?
It is difficult to imagine such dramatic call stories, and yet I wonder, why are you here? Why have you tuned in on YouTube or Facebook? Whether you have been coming here to Immanuel for three weeks or sixty years, whether this is your very first time, or the first time in a long time, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest you were called. Called, prompted, urged, provoked, invited, cajoled, or bribed, each of us is somehow or other drawn here by the Divine lure of the Spirit. We are drawn together like a miraculous catch of fish. Like fish out of water, we are lifted into a life we could not have imagined or nor sustained by ourselves.
As the sun rose over the Sea, Peter and his helpers, James, and John, were simple fisherman. They lived their lives moving between ship and shore following the feeding rhythms of fish. Peter was a husband, a homeowner, a businessman, and a resident of Capernaum in Galilee. When he returned to shore, he would also become the first member of Christ’s church, a fisher for people (Luke 5:11).
Each of us, in our own way, is called to leave the shallow comforts of the familiar and put out into the deep water. Much of what is called Christianity today is shallow. It may have more to do with keeping the peace, feathering our nests, or avoiding treading too deeply into matters of injustice, systematic racism, xenophobia, fear mongering, deathly materialism, and ecological ruin. Religion’s constant temptation to self-righteousness and moralism can make religious life feel like a cosmetic piety. It only goes so deep.
“There are two utterly different forms of religion: one believes that God will love me if I change; the other believes that God loves me so that I can change. The first is the most common; the second follows upon an experience of indwelling and personal love” (Richard Rohr, The Enneagram, p. xxii). The gospel of Christ is an invitation to transform our fragile egos.
Here, we are called from death into life. Here, in Word and Sacrament, we behold God’s promise to be always with us beyond these walls. Here, we slowly understand God’s call doesn’t come from outside –like a phone call from a distant far away heaven—but from inside from God who is at once, immanent and transcendent, incarnate, dwelling within us. We encounter this God in one another, in people of other races and religions, in solidarity with the poor, in the intricate ecology of the earth, and in weakness. God is with us in our brokenness, in our mortality, and in our aging and inadequate bodies.
Peter could feel the pressure mount up in him until it overwhelmed him, and he cried out, “Go away from me Lord!” (Luke 5:8) In Greek, he said “Get out of my neighborhood!” It was the same thing we heard last Sunday when the people of Nazareth drove him out of the synagogue and meant to throw him off the cliff. Get away. Leave me alone. Except Peter’s reasons were different. The people of Nazareth wanted Jesus out of their neighborhood because he was unwilling to grant them special treatment, while Peter ordered Jesus away because he was not special enough.
God doesn’t withhold love from you until you are changed; God’s love is what enables you to change. The indwelling of God’s love makes us worthy. Yet beware, answering the call may require us to change our definition of success. God choose Isaiah to preach to people who will not listen. God asked him to speak in ways that “make the mind of the people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes.”
“The promise that ends Isaiah’s vision isn’t the promise of a packed out mega-church. It’s not a promise of prosperity or popularity. It’s the promise of a “stump.” A remnant. A “holy seed.” It’s the promise of not much — but exactly enough…There’s a price to pay when we say “yes” to God. There’s a recalibration of success we have to make when we accept the divine call and say, “Send me.” What matters after the “yes” is strange and countercultural. What matters is integrity. Truthfulness. Long-suffering. Patience. What matters is believing wholeheartedly in the divine economy of stumps and seeds. Because this is how God works. This is how God measures success. Out of the tiny, the hidden, and the barely discernible, God’s life springs. The wasteland becomes the garden. The stump becomes a mighty tree. God takes the palette of dread and desolation, and turns it riotous with color…It might not happen soon. We might not see it in our lifetimes. But the vision remains, and its promise sustains, enlivens, and fills us. Dare we trust the God of mere seeds?” (Debi Thomas,” I Saw the Lord!” Journey with Jesus, 1/30/22)
Answering Jesus’ call led Peter to embrace a mission that was well beyond his imagining, that far exceeded his own strength or capacity to achieve. We are like fish drawn in a net, pulled out of the life we know, and deposited on the sandy shores of a new kingdom, called Incredibly, unbelievably, to become like fish living out of water. We seek out other fish struggling to breath and gasping for life because they don’t know yet how to live. We engage in a kind of fishing that is life-giving rather than life-taking. We use the bait of grace and forgiveness, rather than threats or intimidation. We set sail to journey deeper into suffering and pain. Out of our depth, God’s indwelling love somehow empowers us be more that we could have imagined. God’s people are diverse, but see, we are all becoming part of the One Life, and what joy there is this Life Together. May God be praised!