Push out into deep water

By Rev Elizabeth Raine

The readings this week share a common theme, a theme centred around whom God calls, and whom God chooses to be God’s followers and disciples in the world. In addition, the readings also particularly highlight the weakness, sinfulness or unworthiness of those who are chosen. Isaiah, when faced with God, immediately proclaims his own uncleanness, and the unworthiness of his own people. And Peter, faced with Jesus’ presence and power after a miraculous catch of fish, falls to his knees with the cry he is a sinful man.

It would seem that when God calls someone, the normal criteria for job fitness or suitability don’t seem to apply. In a nice biblical paradox, those who least expect the attention of God and a call to mission, are the very ones most likely to receive it.

Peter, along with other biblical characters such as Moses and Isaiah, doesn’t think he is worthy. He responds with fear, no doubt driven by shame and feelings of inadequacy. This is a bit surprising, as the experience of God is supposed to lead us to forgiveness, joy, and peace, not fear or shame. We have been taught to expect peace and stability in the presence of God, not being made to feel deeply disturbed and uncertain. Yet the biblical stories maintain that the presence of God disturbs, unnerves and foreshadows change, and the chosen one is never the same again.

The story started with a group of fishermen who have been working all night. They are no doubt wet, sweaty, smelly, and very tired from their fruitless night of fishing. Then along comes this man, who commandeers one of the boats, then tells them to try again. The initial response of these fishermen was probably not very enthusiastic. But Peter, perhaps impressed by the teaching he has heard, at least agrees to give it a try. Peter is about to learn there is a difference between just listening to Jesus’ teaching, which he was doing initially, and becoming an active follower or disciple.

Jesus does not accept that the fishermen are done. He does not accept that they can do no better. He challenges their acceptance of the apparent tatus quo. He challenges them to do something different from their normal routine. He says:

“Push out into deep water and let your nets down for a catch.”

Jesus is asking them to move away from the safe waters that they knew well. He is asking them to abandon their familiar habits, and try something different.  

But we tried this only last night, they are probably thinking. Why should we bother again? And who are you anyway to be telling us how to fish?

Then, everything changes. One minute Peter is sitting in a boat with some other sweaty blokes and then the next minute is not only overwhelmed by fish but has been zapped by the power of the divine and finds himself prostrate on the bottom of the boat. At that point he decides he is a poor excuse for a human being and Jesus is a holy man, and as God’s eye is upon Jesus it must now be also looking at him. No longer is Peter just sitting in a boat, he is in the presence of the Holy and it freaks him out. Yet despite his doubts and his stumbling, Peter goes on to lead the early church. So it is with us. We often underestimate our gifts and our abilities and deafen our ears to the call of God.

It is only when the fishermen abandon what seems like good sense and learnt practice and beliefs, and risk themselves in the deep water that they become disciples, hauling in an impressive catdch symbolic of their future mission. Despite their fear, they carried a glimmer of hope from the words of Jesus, enough hope to take a risk and gain a reward beyond their expectations.

This story reminds me of St. Brendan the Navigator (c. 486-c. 578), an Irish monk who was born in Ireland about 489 and founded a monastery at Clonfert, Galway. According to legend, he was in his seventies when he and 17 other monks set out on a westward voyage in a curragh, a wood-framed boat covered in sewn ox-hides. The monks sailed about the North Atlantic for seven years, according to details set down in the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, written in the tenth century.

St Brendan was eager to spread the Gospel to unknown lands, so with few provisions and little else other than than the winds of the Holy Spirit in his sails, he traveled on the seas for seven years, allegedly reaching places like Iceland and North America. Some even say it was the legend of St. Brendan’s Voyage that prompted Christopher Columbus to launch his own attempt to discover the New World a thousand years later. St. Brendan was a risk taker, not afraid to sail into deep and unknown waters, trusting that God would guide and provide for him.

Today, like he did with the disciples and St Brendan, Jesus still calls to us as a church to “push out into deep water and let your nets down for a catch.” This is particularly relevant for the Uniting Church at this present time. As we work through the decisions of the last Synod, and work through what it means to be a church engaged in growth and on mission, we are being called into a new way of being. This may well require us to think outside of our established patterns, and like Brendan, trusting that God will be with us, take the risk of entering into unfamiliar and deeper waters.

Our readings today invite us to answer God’s call and walk a new path of discovery and revelation. The story of  St Brendan and the fishermen in Luke give us abundant hope in the rewards of taking risks and sailing into deeper waters. Can we answer the call of Jesus today?  Can we set aside many of the things that make us secure and comfortable and happy, and follow Jesus into uncharted waters?

I am going to finish with the prayer of St Brendan the Navigator. May it also be our prayer.

Help me to journey beyond the familiar

and into the unknown.

Give me the faith to leave old ways

and break fresh ground with you.

Christ of the mysteries, I trust you

to be stronger than each storm within me.

I will trust in the darkness and know

that my times, even now, are in your hand.

Tune my spirit to the music of heaven,

and somehow, make my obedience count for you.

AMEN.

Photo of Rev Elizabeth Raine

Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine

Elizabeth was minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, between 2018 and 2023. Elizabeth retired in December 2023 and has moved to Dungog in the Hunter valley, with her husband Rev Dr John Squires.

Over the years, Elizabeth has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister. 

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