During this season of Epiphany, we, as a faith community, have been gifted with several experiences of grace. I would like to share two of them with you. Last Sunday we enjoyed the celebration of the Lunar New Year. Thank you, Linda! People of East Asian culture prepared delicious food to enhance our greeting of the new year and bid blessings on us all. They served over 20 dishes! They were so generous that when I arrived at the end of the table my plate was completely filled: As the Psalmist says, “my plate was overflowing” (Psalm 23:5). I was deeply touched by your generosity – the time and energy you spent to prepare the festivities. In this diverse community you blessed us as we journey into the new year. During the celebrations Joellen’s Ukulele United group presented a feast of music – with ukulele and song including the “Jasmin Flower,” a testimony to our experience of being “united” through the various differences we bring to this faith community we call home.
When I joined your ministry here last September we did not have any children in our Sunday services. At that time there was no sign that we might have children in the near future. However, Yoko volunteered for Kid’s church; she cleaned and sorted out all the materials used in the past in the drawers and cabinets and initiated a new programme called Godly Play, widely used in the United Church. In my previous church we found that the teachers and children enjoyed it. When there did not seem to be much hope for children’s ministry here at West Point Grey United, Yoko encouraged us to dream about Kid’s Church. Then, in December our music director, Eileen, suggested we start a children’s choir. At that time, we did not enjoy the regular presence of children in our Sunday services, but, when there did not seem to be much hope for children participating in public worship, Eileen envisioned the programme. Now we have children worshiping with us every week.
Have you ever had the experience of losing your courage or hope to carry on with something you have been deeply involved in, but then someone else gives you the courage you need? I expect, like me, that you too have had many experiences of being encouraged by others. Today’s scripture tells a story about encouraging others to practise God’s ministry. Let’s look again at the gospel story.
Simon was tired. He had been trying to catch fish all night long. But there didn’t seem to be any fish. For fishers, catching fish is of the greatest importance because the whole community, not just one’s own family, depends on the business. Here, if this scene of not catching fish were to continue, the whole community would be in a serious state. Simon is concerned about how he will feed his family. This is the same for James and John.
Just when the people, including Simon, were feeling disappointed at not catching fish, Jesus calls out and asks Simon, “How many fish did you catch?” “There aren’t any fish out there,” Simon grumbles. “Sure there are,” Jesus says, “Get out into your boat to where the water is deep. Then try again.” After starting out to fish again, Simon shouts, “Wow!” Look at all these fish. My boat is full. Look out! It might sink.”
Simon has never experienced anything like this before. His concerns fade away in a second and joy fills his heart. Even though he has heard the teachings of Jesus before, Simon feels disturbed. He does not think he has the courage to be a friend of Jesus. He thinks, “I can’t live in God’s way.” “I tell lies, I get angry. And when I’m angry I do stupid things.” He thinks he does not have the courage to be a disciple.
But the invitation of Jesus changes everything for Simon: “Get out into your boat and go out where the water is deep. Then try again.” Try again. This invitation and suggestion encourage Simon to leap out of his despair and to start the new journey of discipleship.
At this point I would like to draw your attention to the word, “deep water [bathos]” (5:4). The word is used in the Bible several times in connection with the primordial sea, a powerful Jewish symbol of chaos (see Psalm 68:2; Ezekiel 26:20; 32:18-24; Sirach 24:5; 51:5). In today’s gospel, Luke uses the word meaning “deep water” in Greek, bathos,to signify the “chaotic” situation where the community lives – the hostility between traditional Judaism and the followers of Jesus, the repressive behaviour of the Empire and the conflict within the church. Fear and discouragement limit and paralyse us.
Fear of failing prevents us from trying something new, from stretching and risking. Children humiliated by a teacher are afraid to speak up and ask a question – sometimes for the rest of their lives. This can happen in church too. Fear for the future and discouragement can paralyse someone, sometimes permanently.
You may remember the words Shakespeare gives to Hamlet in his lament: “O God! O God! How weary, stale and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world.” And then the lines that put the matter powerfully and clearly: “To be, or not to be: that is the question.” In our life journey the courage to be is unquestionably critical. The courage to be present, the courage to be a support, the courage to weep alone or with someone else. The courage to speak out for what is right or wrong or for the human rights of our neighbours can change the world and will change our lives too. Jesus’ courage and encouragement in inviting Simon, changed him – indeed it changed them both – permanently: Come and drop your nets into the chaos of life today. Do not avoid the conflict and problems of today, but face it and drop your nets into the deep water. This is the very moment when we see Jesus’ courage in inviting Simon to become a disciple. This is the very moment of the beginning of the Christian movement.
The threat of chaos is self-evident for us in early 2019, in national and international relationships. In the midst of our discouragement on hearing the daily news, we hear the challenge to “put out the nets into the deep water,” in other words, to pay attention to the chaos. We are not to be afraid to cast God’s nets into deep waters so that the voices of the oppressed will be heard.
In our faith journey we come across God’s grace in unexpected places and people. I am the recipient of grace from my colleagues and from you. I have no doubt that you also have received grace from unexpected people on your faith journey. So, let us not be afraid. Let us have the courage to care passionately for God’s mission by living and working together as companions on the way. Let us go out to be part of God’s mission, both near by and far away. Let us venture into the new year with courage. Thanks be to God who gives us the courage to be. Amen.