When I was growing up, my grandparents had a large pond in their backyard, and my grandpa was fond of catch-and-release fishing — a hobby he tried to get me into. I actually really enjoyed fishing with him. I had my own mini-tackle box and my own mini-fishing pole, and he and I would frequently go down to the pond to fish. One day — I was maybe six or seven — we went fishing in the backyard, and he was giving me tips on casting out. After a little while, I thought I had nailed it: I cast out into the water… and hooked my line squarely on the seat of my grandpa’s pants behind me. So I’m not exactly an expert fisherman. That’s about where my wilderness survival skills peaked, and it’s only gone downhill from there.
By contrast, the newly called disciples in today’s gospel story are expert fishermen. Fishing is their livelihood. And that’s about all they know. They were probably uneducated and illiterate — certainly not the kind of people you’d expect Jesus to call to be his disciples.
That’s the good news right there, isn’t it? Jesus calls the most unexpected, unqualified characters to follow him. Sermon over. Except… there’s something much more fascinating going on.
Now, certain things just go together, right? Fill in the blank with me: Peanut butter and [jelly]. Romeo and [Juliet]. Love and [marriage]. This next one should really show us the church nerds from the TV nerds: Law and [Order / gospel]. And speaking of church: Confession and [forgiveness].
Confession and forgiveness. We know from our liturgical tradition that those two things just go together, right? But when Simon declares he is a sinful man, where we might expect a word of forgiveness, we get a word of call, an invitation to follow Jesus. Confession and call. It’s a remarkable thing: Simon is called to be a disciple despite all his flaws and brokenness and screw-ups.
This is a story of grace: Jesus knowingly calls the unqualified and the “sinners” — those who miss the mark, those who fall short, those who no one would expect — to do the work of God. Jesus calls even us into this work, too. Jesus calls us into the deep waters.
It’s uneasy, even downright scary, to think about going into the deep — to go into the places we’d otherwise prefer to stay away from and to encounter the kind of people we’d normally try to avoid. But there can also be beautiful moments in the deep.
For some time, before I started seminary, I regularly met up with the folks of South Loop Campus Ministry every Sunday night to pack nearly a hundred sack lunches and hand-deliver them to our neighbors experiencing homelessness on the streets of downtown Chicago. Often, our nights out on the streets would take us to places like Lower Wacker Drive, literally below the city, into the deep. But it was there where we most experienced God’s grace in beautiful, unexpected conversations that would come after handing someone a bag of food.
God not only calls the unexpected, but God calls us to unexpected people and places.The world tells us that some things just don’t belong together. But Jesus calls us into the deep. Into relationship with the people we least expect.
Today, at Unity, we’re gathering for our annual congregational meeting — a time to celebrate the ministries of our community and the ways God is working in and through us. Unity is a community that continues to hear and live God’s call into the deep — crossing barriers and bridging divides. In our partnerships with places like Cross and Hephatha Lutheran Churches and even Rutilio Grande and Cordero de Dios in El Salvador, our mutual ministries are a witness to the world — a witness to the ways that God calls us into the deep, into unexpected places and encounters, bridging the divide between Waukesha County and inner-city Milwaukee, between southeast Wisconsin and Central America. As we celebrate where we’ve been, we are also called to wonder: Where is God leading us next?
And are there times when this call is hard? Most definitely. There are even times when this call downright sucks. Times when we are in deep trouble or in deep stress or just feel deeply unqualified. There’s even a phrase for that: imposter syndrome. For times when we, like Simon, feel like yelling out, “Go away from us, Lord, for we are a sinful, flawed, unqualified, broken people!”
But the thing about being called doesn’t mean that all of those doubts and worries and anxieties disappear. Isaiah is quick to point out his uncleanness and his woeful lack of qualifications to be God’s prophet. I hardly think those feelings suddenly went away, even after the whole live coal episode. What if we read Isaiah’s words at the end with less of a declarative confidence we so often imagine (HERE I AM!) and more of a hesitant, reluctant stammer: Here… I… am?
My friends, God calls Simon and Isaiah and us, even and especially when we feel unqualified or when we wonder what on earth we think we of all people are doing here. Especially in those moments, God calls us into the deep.
And perhaps most especially, God calls to us in the deep, deep waters of baptism — where the waters rush over us and wash us, brokenness and failures and doubts and worries and all. And from those waters, God calls us out — out into the world, into the deep, to be followers of the one who goes before, with, and behind us — to do the work of God that takes us to unexpected but beautiful places.
Thanks be to God.