Scouring our deep waters

Luke 5:1-11

            In the original Mary Poppins, one of my favorite scenes is a conversation between young Michael and the iconic nanny. They have just concluded one of their marvelous, imaginative adventures, and the children are just getting ready for bed. In the midst of that process, one that goes much faster than the normal children getting ready for bed process, I might add, Michael and Jane are talking about the wonderful things they will see the next day when venturing on an outing to the bank with their father.

            The children are getting more excited about the outing, a first for them with their father, and Mary Poppins strives to encourage their joy while also tempering their wild enthusiasm. To one of the comments made by Michael about the things they will see, Mary Poppins responds, ‘Well, most things he can see. But sometimes our loved ones, through no fault of his own, cannot see past the end of his nose.’

            Michael does not understand this idea, until the very next day, when he and Jane are on the way to the bank with their father and the two children see a sight they were so excited to witness – a homeless lady, selling bird seed, with flocks of pigeons and other bird friends flying around her. The children are transfixed and call attention to their father. Michael asks if he sees the bird lady, which of course he does, but then he sternly calls their attention to continue their walk. Michael and Jane walk away slowly and sadly. They realize, in that moment, that their father may have seen the bird lady, but there was so much more he didn’t see, including their excitement and wonder. He missed the obvious and couldn’t see past the end of his nose.

            This snippet of story has some parallels with our gospel story. In the fifth chapter of Luke, Jesus is standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd is pressing in on him to preach. At the shore of the lake, he sees two boats — empty because the fishermen had left them to wash their nets. Jesus gets into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asks him to push the boat away from the shore. There Jesus keeps a safe distance from the smothering press of the crowd and is able to teach them.

When Jesus finishes his speech, he decides to extend his lesson with a dramatic illustration. He says to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” You can imagine the response from the fishermen. Frustration. Fatigue. Feeling unappreciated. They are the experts in this field. Not Jesus. They are the ones who would sail these seas and cast their nets every day. Not Jesus. They are the ones who know the best and worst places and ways to catch fish. Not Jesus. They are the ones who just spent the night out on the lake and are exhausted from the physical effort and lack of sleep. Not Jesus.

So, imagine if you were in the disciples’ sandals? You had just brought in your boat, and didn’t expect to take it back out, much less to the deepest part of the waters, especially after not catching anything the night before. What would you do? What would you say? A stark ‘no way?’ Roll your eyes? Fall over from exhaustion? Or offer a tepid affirmation, which is exactly what Simon said and did?

The result? Simon and his fellow fishermen catch so many fish that their nets are beginning to break. They call for their partners in the other boat to come and help, and they end up filling both boats to the point that they’re beginning to sink.

It’s an unexpected, amazing and overwhelmingly abundant catch. All because they’re willing to follow Jesus’ words and scour the deep water. That’s the challenge for us today: to venture beyond our comfort zones and put out into the deep water in of our spirituality. Too often we stay close to shore, safe and comfortable, when the Holy Spirit invites and encourages us to be active, adventurous and willing to explore new territory. That’s where the fish are. That’s where the growth happens. That’s where we can make surprising discoveries about ourselves and the world around us.

There is an ancient Greek legend that when the gods made the human species, they fell to arguing where to put the answers to life so the humans would have to search for them. One god said, "Let's put the answers on top of a mountain. They will never look for them there." "No," said the others. "They'll find them right away." Another of the gods said, "Let's put them in the center of the earth. They will never look for them there." "No," said the others. "They'll find them right away."

Then another spoke. "Let's put them in the bottom of the sea. They will never look for them there." "No," said the others. "They'll find them right away."
Silence fell .... After a while, another god spoke. "We can put the answers to life within them. They will never look for them there." And so they did.

There is great irony in not being able to find the question that eludes us within us. But it happens far too often. How frequently have you been puzzled by a problem and stepped away from it for a day, then returned and found the answer sitting right in front of you? How often did you worry and stew over what you need to say or meant to say to another person, in order to resolve a conflict, only to find out that often what matters most is not what you say, but that you cared? How quickly do we find ourselves so focused on what’s right in front of us that we miss the joy, wonder, heartache, peace, love and messiness of a world all around us? That we, like Jane’s and Michael’s father, through no fault of our own, cannot see past the end of our noses?

Even with this text, the Christian church often misses the point. Too often, the takeaways from this text are summarized as the miracle of the fish and that Jesus is making the disciples fishers of people. The story becomes an object lesson for evangelism, which has become a focus on saving souls, which becomes more about the person doing the encouraging than the person in the spot of being encouraged or coerced.

But what if instead of trying to build bigger church membership, as many churches interpret this text, Jesus is really encouraging his disciples to build a bigger table? Does that sound familiar to many of you? Over the past several weeks, a number of us have scoured the deep waters of John Pavlovitz’ book on his own faith and life journey. We continue to ponder his wisdom and insight, as we seek to model our own path as a congregation and people of faith.

But the heart of John’s book, at least what I’ve read thus far, is in perfect alignment with the lesson Jesus intended from this text. The focus of our following Jesus is not creating the latest and greatest innovations in church ministry, but is intentionally crafting Christian community. Building a bigger table doesn’t mean we build a table because so people are taking up space at the old one. It’s building a bigger table so that when people do come, the table is not only ready for them, but the people who stand ready to welcome them are already there too.

We are challenged to build bigger tables, not for our own sake, but for the sake of those who have found previous tables to be an unwelcoming, unforgiving, uncompromising space. The food may taste fine, but the spirit around the table is poisonous. The fish may be plentiful, but they are not biting on this side of the boat. But the other side, in the deep waters, where we meet ourselves in one another, who knows what promise and possibility may lie there? We know that Jesus is there. And that’s enough to scour our deep waters and start building a bigger table together. Amen.