If Jesus were to instruct a modern-day Peter and his fellow fishermen to “Put out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch,” chances are that along with fish they would bring up a horrifying tangle of plastic bags, six-pack rings, articles of clothing, tires, and bottles. All you have to do is type in “trash in the ocean” in Google Images on a computer, and you will see picture after stomach-turning picture of marine life caught in plastic nooses, islands of trash as big as many cities, beaches strewn with piles of human refuse. “Put out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
This story that Luke tells about the calling of the first disciples is a Sunday-school favorite. Here is Jesus, walking along the lake, or elsewhere, “the sea.” Luke calls it Lake Gennesaret, a fresh-water lake, and elsewhere in the gospels it’s identified as the Sea of Galilee; but as one commentator explains, “in antiquity, both bodies of water–salt seas and freshwater lakes–were viewed as a part of the same great subterranean reservoir that fed springs, rivers, lakes, and oceans.” (Theodore Hiebert, “The Living Ocean,” workingpreacher.org, 8/1/13)
Jesus sees the fishermen, washing their nets, having failed to catch anything overnight, and asks one of them, Simon, to take him out a ways so that he might teach the people pressing against him on the shore from out on the water. When he’s done speaking, he tells Simon and his companions to set out again and “Put out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Against the protest of an experienced fisherman who knew that sometimes you come in with nothing, Simon does what Jesus tells him and the catch is so huge he has to call his partners to come out quickly to help them bring in the haul.
When Simon finally has a chance to catch his breath upon safely reaching shore, he realizes that this stranger has access to wisdom far deeper than his own experience, which completely unsettles his sense of what is what, makes him question whether 2 plus 2 always equals 4, whether the constants and truths he relies on are all that constant. And so he is afraid, and tells Jesus to get away from him. Jesus just laughs at him and tells him, “From now on you’ll be catching people,” or, as many of us learned, “I’ll teach you to become fishers of men.” And Luke tells us, “they left everything and followed him.”
It was Sir Francis Bacon who first said that “God has in fact written two books–…the Bible… and creation.” And it could be argued that the first book–the Bible–was written–or, “God-breathed through people,” as some put it–largely in response to human beings’ experience of creation, which was, like they perceived God, beyond their control, beautiful, terrifying, awe-inspiring, more complex and varied than they could ever understand. From the very first lines of the Bible, God is involved with creation, God’s spirit brooding over the face of the deep.
We now know that life on earth most likely emerged from the oceans, and not only does Scripture say that the sea is God’s, but the ocean has been a primordial archetype or image for God, the primary giver of life. “The most widespread cultural image for EL, a major title of God in the Hebrew Bible, [one writer explains] was as the Father of Waters, dwelling at the root and spring of the worlds.” (Weavings,Mar/Apr 2001, pp. 13-14)
The oceans contain more than 97% of the earth’s water and more than 95% of the earth’s living space. They literally make the earth more habitable for us by absorbing about a third of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans.
“The living ocean
[writes Sylvia Earle, Chief Scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from 1990-92] drives planetary chemistry, governs climate and weather, and otherwise provides the corner-stone of the life-support system for all creatures on our planet, from deep-sea starfish to desert sagebrush. That’s why the ocean matters. If the sea is sick, we’ll feel it. If it dies, we die. Our future and the state of the oceans are one.”
Alas, we know that the state of the oceans is not good.
[Earle goes on,]“Due to indifference, ignorance, and greed, we’ve placed our oceans under extreme stress and compromised their ability to sustain a healthy planet.” (Cited by Hiebert, op cit.)
We’ve overfished, upset the fragile balance of animal life; dumped our trash, put out more CO2 so that as the oceans have absorbed more they’ve become more acidic, becoming hostile to marine ecology. And of course as the oceans have become warmer, they’ve spawned more violent storms, accelerated the melting of the polar ice caps, and their levels have risen at an alarming rate. “The sea is God’s,” the psalmist declares, and with concerned scientists across the planet, we affirm, the ocean matters.
But let’s get back to this story by the lakeshore, or seaside. “Put out into the deep water,” Jesus told Simon, “and let down your nets for a catch.” The Sunday School version says that Jesus performed a miracle and the disciples followed this miracle-worker. But on another level, “This story [as one pastor writes] says that God breaks down walls (or breaks open the nets) of what we think is possible, and points us toward a future we think is impossible…and that future is the new reign of God.” (Linda Pepe, Theological Stew.com) We can either keep doing what we’ve always done, holding on to the same equations that we’ve always relied upon–2 + 2=4, or success = happiness, or bigger=better, or more=better; or we can stop long enough to ask, “How’s this working for us?” And not just for us, as individuals, of course, but for the wider community, and really, for the world.
Isn’t it interesting that when the fishermen had brought their haul onto shore, their nets bursting with the catch, a professional fisherfolks’ dream come true, that “they left everything and followed Jesus.” “So,” as one woman put it, “having all we can, …all we want,…all we think we need…perhaps that’s not all there is…” So, we might ask, What really matters? “What would your net need to be filled with that would blow your mind enough to leave it all behind and follow?” (Pepe, op cit.) And then, of course, we need to figure out, what does it mean to “follow Jesus”?
“Put out into the deep waters and let your nets down for a catch.” In dreams, the sea or ocean waters often symbolize everything that is overwhelming. Robert Morris, an Episcopal priest and observer of his dreams, affirms that “the sea is God’s, and like the ocean, God is not always manifest as a comforting, personal presence, but as unknown, immense, and deep, to be approached with due respect…Mystics and saints warn that deepening skills of humility, compassion, faithfulness, self-control, and courage are needed for the pilgrimage into God.” (Weavings, op cit., p. 12)–and we might even say, for the pilgrimage into our future.
The image that seems appropriate for many of us right now is the experience of being adrift–in our personal lives, the life of the church, the state of our nation, and the state of the planet. It’s a state of not knowing. “Being adrift comes after the storm and before landfall,” one writer says, [Stephen Doughty, Weavings, …] It’s not a state we choose. So here we are, actually probably more likely in the midst of the storms, that will no doubt be coming more frequently and more violently, in the weather, in the political climate of our country and the nations of the world, and it’s hard to imagine where we’ll end up. Or rather, all the places we can imagine are pretty scary. Who knows where the ship of the Church is headed?
Those deepening skills that saints and mystics teach us–of meditation, of humility, compassion, faithful-ness, self-control, and courage–are not the most valued in our world, but they may be the most necessary as we drift along. One sage advises, “Watch for what quickens your spirit.” In the midst of so many things that would overwhelm us, when much of the time we are simply swept along and need to wait, we must stay alert for what quickens our spirit, what opportunities appear before us for action and response, grounding those actions in the depths of God.
Judy Cannato, in her important book Field of Compassion, tells the story of Nate Sears, which may well be the model of how we are to “put out into the deep waters and let down our nets for a catch” in this fearful, yet potentially awesome, world in which we live.–
One of the responsibilities of Nate Sears, a landscaper working at a housing complex on Cape Cod, is to check the piers at the adjacent beach for storm damage. One morning he was doing just that when he spotted a 10-foot pilot whale coming toward shore. He watched for a moment. He then saw a second whale, then a third, each one heading for land. Stunned at first, Nate watched the approach of the whales with awe. Then his concern took over. Since it is not unusual for whales to beach themselves on Cape Cod, Nate knew that this was probably intent of these large, gentle mammals. He summoned a neighbor, who ran to call the National Sea Shore Service. Knowing that the whales were coming so fast they would be on the beach before help could arrive, Nate quickly threw off his shoes and socks, rolled up his pant legs, and waded out in the direction of the first whale. He caught up with it in waist-deep water on a sand bar. The whale was thrashing about, and he could see cuts on its body from its batter with the sand. Moved solely by instinct, Nate placed his hands on the whale and held them there. The thrashing stopped. The whale became completely still. Nate said in that moment he became aware that this was the whale’s first encounter with the human species. It seems that both human and whale were operating on instinct, each trusting the other in an encounter that neither had experienced before.
After the whale had grown calm, Nate gently turned it around and pointed it away from shore. The whale began to swim back out to sea. Losing no time, Nate approached the second whale. Again, he simply placed his hands on the creature and its thrashing stopped. Once this second whale grew still, Nate turned it away from shore. It too began to swim out. By this time members of the National Sea Shore Service arrived, and they helped Nate turn the third whale back.
Frequently, whales that threaten to beach themselves and are rescued come ashore in another location. That does not seem to be the case here. For whatever reason, the whales returned to their natural habitat without further incident. Although there is no proof, I think it was their encounter with Nate’s energy and his willingness to simply hold them in their travail that made the difference.
…We find ourselves in a world with whale-sized issues,
[Cannato writes], huge matters that seem unrestrained, threatening to not only go out of control, but take us down as well…Set in this context, Nate’s story is instructive. Finding himself in an unfamiliar and unique situation, nate responded in the moment, acting out of his own experience, following his instincts, intuitively doing the next right thing. Recognizing that time was of the essence, he trusted his ability to respond to the unknown in a way that was not only life-saving, but life-giving, both for himself and the whale. [Judy Cannato, Field of Compassion, pp. 1-4, sel.]
We do have immense resources, both technological and material, available to us, but also, perhaps like at no other time in human history, we have resources of expanded consciousness and creativity, as Cannato says, the ability to connect with one another and work together. We are part of the problem, yes, but we can also be part of the solution, opening ourselves up the One who is deep and wide, ever creative, full of mystery beyond our imagining. We can each become energy fields of compassion, joining with others to spread that field of compassion throughout creation.
Following Jesus in this day and age may mean “going out into the deep,” as Nate did–”wading out to the cusp of the known/unknown, responding in care and kindness to the challenge of the moment, holding the tangible manifestations of the challenge in [our] hands, imparting [our] energy, and redirecting the movement” (Cannato, pp. 4-5) of the forces that would take us and our world closer and closer to destruction. Following Jesus includes becoming his body, taking his consciousness into ours. In this bread is the whole loaf, in this cup the whole cup. We are part of it, part of everything, so let us take and eat, take and drink. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark