Stories of God calling individuals into a new mission, or “call narratives,” as we label them, are some of our most beloved stories from scripture. They are all pretty dramatic: God speaking to Moses from a burning bush, God having Jonah thrown overboard and swallowed by a fish, God sending an angel to Mary, or today, a seraph placing a burning hot coal on Isaiah’s lips. At first, almost everyone one of the characters resists – with protests about how they are not good public speakers, how they do not agree with God’s mission, how the thing God is proposing is biologically impossible, or how they are so full of sin, they could not possibly do whatever God has proposed. And yet, after much arguing with God, each individual usually agrees – and often says the words we hear in Isaiah today, “hineni,” or “Here I am;” send me. The whole process is very dramatic and awe-inspiring. We love to hear and reread these stories and we love to see individuals rise to the occasion.
But here’s the problem with call narratives. The stories are so dramatic and the responses are so confident and selfless, that we cannot see ourselves in them. Those are stories that happen to those people. We are not Moseses, Isaiahs, Marys, or Jonahs (ok, maybe we are a little like Jonah, but even his story is a bit extreme!). We can certainly relate to the resistance each servant offers to God, but the call is a bit harder for us to imagine. God doesn’t come to us in dramatic ways, and we definitely do not feel like God is doing something dramatic in us to change the world. The last time we checked, we were not being asked to lead a people out of slavery from a dictator, use our bodies for immaculate conception, or even go around proclaiming judgement to the world. Those sorts of dramatic things are things other people do; not us.
I think that is why I like Luke’s version of Simon Peter’s call narrative. This pericope, as Bob taught us last week, or this piece of scripture might be the story we need to help us see call narratives are not just about those people. The way we get there though, is not jumping right to overflowing boats, full of fish. The way we get there is looking at all the seemingly innocuous parts of the story.
The first small detail of the story that can sneak past us is how Jesus starts teaching. The text says, “while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him … He got into one of the boats.” Jesus does not ask permission of Simon to get in his boat. Jesus does not negotiate the terms of using Simon’s boat for a period of time. Jesus literally just gets on the boat. He does not seem to care that Simon and his crew have had a total failure of a night of fishing, and are probably both exhausted and frustrated. Jesus just gets on the boat with a word to Simon. As scholar David Lose argues, what we learn about in this brazen action is “sometimes God doesn’t ask our permission to get involved in our life, to encounter us with grace, God just goes ahead and does it.”[i]
Then something even more odd happens. When Jesus finally does get around to asking Simon to push the boat out a bit so he can teach, Simon just does what Jesus asks. We have no idea why. Perhaps he simply responds because he knows this is just the way Jesus is. We know that Simon Peter already had an encounter with Jesus at this point in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus healed his mother-in-law. Maybe Simon was so grateful for that healing that he pushed the boat out to sea out of a sense of gratitude or obligation. Or maybe Simon Peter was just that kind of guy – the kind of guy who even when he is bone tired and frustrated would still lend you a helping hand.[ii] Regardless, his immediate and silent acquiescence tells us something.
Then another funny thing happens. The text tells us when Jesus is done teaching, Jesus speaks to Peter. That half sentence almost seems like a throw-away transition. But even in this transition, we see something special. What we see in this transition is even “when he’s all done teaching, Jesus isn’t actually all done. In fact, that he’s just getting started. Because God’s like that, always up to more than we imagine.”[iii]
Then comes Jesus’ request – to put the nets back out again. Now, remember that Simon Peter and his crew have just spent the early hours of the morning cleaning all those nets. So already, Jesus is asking a lot to this worn down, frustrated crew. But Jesus’ request is funny in another way. Jesus does not suggest they try his new and improved fishing method. Jesus does not suggest a new body of water or a different location. Jesus does not give them new nets to try. He just asked them to do the exact same thing they had been trying all night. The only difference this time, as Lose points out, is “… Jesus spoke to them and they do what he says and the word Jesus spoke makes it different, because God’s Word always does what it says, even when those hearing that Word fall short or even have a hard time believing it.”[iv] God’s Word changes everything.
Now what happens next is pretty typical. When the miracle of all those fish happens, and Peter senses Jesus offering a call to him, Peter protests as many a servant has – saying he is a sinner. But what is interesting in this call narrative is Jesus’ response. Jesus does not say that Simon’s sins are forgiven, or do some symbolic act to cleanse Simon’s sinfulness. No, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” Sure, Jesus offers forgiveness of sins. But Jesus offers so much more. Jesus offers encouragement and comfort. Instead of simply insisting Simon can answer the call, Jesus instead offers the words of a pastor. Those words, “do not be afraid,” will be words we hear over and over again in Luke’s gospel. Part of this call narrative is a reminder that we do not have to be afraid anymore!
Then Jesus tells Peter something even more incredible. This miracle he just witnessed is nothing. Peter is going to do something even greater – be a fisherman of people – “catching people up in the unimaginable and life-changing grace of God.”[v] Simon Peter really was not someone special. Simon was not so gifted that he was already a leader in the community. No, Jesus just picks an average fisherman for this incredible new mission. That’s something else we learn about God in this passage; this is “how God works, always choosing the unlikeliest of characters through whom to work, putting aside all their doubts and fears and excuses and professed shortcomings to do marvelous things through them.”
And this is how we get back to each person in this room. Despite the fact that call narratives can be dramatic, call narratives are also full of ordinary little things that remind of us the kind of God we have; the reasons why we trust this incredible, loving God; how woefully unprepared and unworthy any of us really are; and how through our relationship with God we find ourselves saying yes, saying hineni, without an exclamation point, but with scared-out-of-our-minds trust.
We may think call narratives are something that biblical heroes experience. But the reality is, each one of us here has a call narrative. Sometimes they are dramatic, but most of the time, they are gradual calls that evolve as we deepen our relationship with Christ, as we slowly, quietly keep saying hineni, as we try, fail, and try again to figure out what God wants us to do with our lives, and as we suddenly realize we are doing it. We are leaving boats full of fish to follow Christ. We changing the course of our lives in incremental ways. We are finally able to see ourselves as Christ sees us – as individuals gifted with special gifts that enable us to share God’s love in our own little piece of this big world. Do not be afraid, friends. The secret of you already following God’s call is safe here. Just keep saying yes, keep saying your quiet hineni and God will keep using you in powerful, dramatic ways. Amen.
[i] David Lose, “Epiphany 5C: Lots to Love,” February 5, 2019, as found on February 6, 2019, at http://www.davidlose.net/2019/02/epiphany-5-c-lots-to-love/.