Monday, February 05, 2007

Feb. 4 sermon--Out of the Depths

Sermon Texts'
Psalm 130
Luke 5: 1-11

One afternoon when Lara and I lived out in California, I decided to take up an offer by a guy I had met recently to teach me how to surf. We drove up to Santa Barbara that morning, and met the guy at the beach. He was a student at UC Santa Barbara—the home of the Banana Slugs—where you can surf in the morning before class because the school is right on the beach. Lara sat on the beach as the guy pointed to a longboard and said—“those are easiest to learn on, lets go.” Let me tell you, surfing is a sport that the pros (and even those who have the hang of it) make look easy. Just paddling out into the water is a challenge! Speeding up with the wave enough to actually catch it exausts the arms. And then there is the matter of standing up!
Also, there is the hanging around to wait for the wave. You see, breakers are caused when the natural wave movement of the ocean comes into contact with the shelf of land we call the beach. Surfers (and yours truly) have to get used to hanging out on our surfboards, or letting our legs dangle off the boards into the deep blue below us.
I love the ocean—but I think it is jarring to just about anyone to swim out to that point where the water begins getting cold on our toes, and things unknown whip past our feet. I remember as a kid going to the Gulf of Mexico and trying to balance the desire to swim far enough to make my mother nervous and jumpy with my own terror at the seaweed licking the bottoms of my feet.
There in Santa Barbara, leaning on that surfboard, It took some getting used to knowing that the shelf plunged down into an abyss just yards from where I was waiting. The Santa Barbara Basin, an oddity of oceanography, is a deep channel between the mainland and the channel islands just off the coast. Its reaches depths that usually aren’t found so close to the mainland.
The depths can be terrifying to us, can’t they? They represent our fears, our pain and suffering, or the unknown. The Psalmist this morning uses the imagery to articulate his suffering. This beautiful Psalm is often used in the funeral liturgy, where it is a fitting song of lament for those who experience the fear and bewilderment that surrounds the loss of a loved one.
Our comprehension of Hell and suffering is inexorably tied to the idea of a pit, a deep crevasse, or at the very least somewhere “down there.” Our archetype for pain and suffering indeed provokes us to cast our eyes downward. We have the sense that the power of these difficult emotions is under our feet, unseen, troubling. Perhaps it is that sense we get in our stomach, that overwhelming feeling of discomfort and disorientation, when our toes come to the edge of a canyon, and our end is a footstep away.
Yes, the Psalmists love the metaphor of the depths—and it is used often in those songs of our faith to speak of the incomprehensible powers of fear and darkness and hopelessness. In Psalm 88 we hear, “O Lord, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, 2 let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry. 3 For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. 4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help, 5 like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. 6 You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep. 7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves.”
But into the deep, dark waters of our woe and misery, Christ comes with a boat. Into the world of the disoriented and despairing, Christ throws out a net. “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch!” Christ, the great fisher of people, has a particular catch in mind. He goes to the depths—God incarnate goes first to the shadowy depths of our most hidden vulnerabilities. Christ throws down his net into the depths and enfolds all of us in the strong net of his all encompassing love.
It is as if Christ gives his mission to his disciples. Go to the depths—go to the sinning world—go to the castaways, the dregs of society. Go to the lame and the suffering. Go and suffer with them!
Even in the abyss of our hopelessness and the fathoms of our sin and despair, we also find the “Depths of Mercy” that resounds in the mysterious heart of God. You’ve heard that sometimes it takes someone hitting “rock bottom” before they seek out help and community and love and healing. In Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians, he tells of a “thorn in his flesh” that kept him from dwelling on the heights of a divine encounter. He writes, “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9 but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power F46 is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. I’m not just preaching to people who feel like they’ve done something wrong and are in the depths of guilt, or have experienced great loss or difficulty and are in the depths of despair. I’m preaching to all of us this morning. I’m preaching to myself this morning too!
I tend to place a lot of confidence in my own profession of faith and my exemplification of spirituality. I find it hard to find fault in myself, and I end up coming across to those I love most as bull-headed, proud, and unconscious of my own faults. Why don’t I see that God’s presence and power are expressed in my weakness! Why don’t I see that the doctor is making house-calls, and I’m disguising a cough while pretending I don’t hear the doorbell.
The depths aren’t only despair in our tradition—they also convey the unfathomable mystery of God. God’s grace is sufficient for all of us, for power is made perfect in weakness. We can be most filled by God’s power and presence if we empty ourselves of the notion that we have any power or control to begin with. The more we empty out, the more grace can be put in.
John Wesley, founder of our tradition, found comfort in the following German Hymn that he translated into English as the following.
1 O GOD, thou bottomless abyss!Thee to perfection who can know?O height immense! What words sufficeThy countless attributes to show?Unfathomable depths thou art;O plunge me in thy mercy's sea!Void of true wisdom is my heart;With love embrace and cover me:While thee, all-infinite, I setBy faith before my ravished eye,My weakness bends beneath the weight;O'erpowered I sink, I faint, I die.
The mystery conveyed in this poem is certainly an apt description of the table that will be prepared before you this morning. The depth of this sacramental meal is unfathomable, but by the grace of God, we are given a taste of Christ’s real presence with us. Our God, that bottomless abyss, comes to us and swallows the depths of our sin and death and shame and suffering. The incomprehensibility of God becomes tangible flavors—everyday flavors that we typically encounter—and in so doing, we believe these elements, this simple bread and juice of the grape, nourishes our spirits in a literal communion with God.
The mystery of the Lord’s table is given to us in the context and remembrance of the unimaginable and irrational story of how God achieved the salvation that we could have never deserved. We hear a story where a betrayal, an executioner’s cross, and an all but unbelievable story of an empty tomb conquers the reality of our sin and brokenness and estrangement. Jesus pours out his life for us in the meal we are about to receive.
But finding Jesus isn’t just about being pulled up from the depths by the graceful nets of God. It is about being a fish and allowing ourselves to be caught up in the grace of God, but our call of faith doesn’t end with the image of us being fish flopping around in a boat, it is also about helping Jesus with those heavy nets.
Jesus calmly suggests to his new friends that they row out to the deep waters and cast out their nets. Though they hadn’t caught anything all day, they obliged him his ridiculous request. Astonished, they began hauling in so many fish that they had to call their friends from the shore to come and help take in the catch. Helping Jesus catch fish sometimes requires our obedience and determination in the face of repeated failure. It is from the places of unease that great things may come.
Peter stands and looks at Jesus after he makes his request. “Master,” he says “we haven’t caught anything all day, but I will let down my nets.” So many fish were caught by Peter and James and John that the two boats began to be swamped. Peter fell to his knees in devotion. “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” But Jesus pulled him back up. “From now on, we will be fishing for people.”
Christ is pushing out to the deep waters, he is fishing for people who are in the depths. May we be swept up in the nets of this Gospel—so that we shall know the greater depths: the depths of mercy which can bring joy and wholeness to our lives. Let us not stop there—may we bring this hope to others. May we make this hope real in love and fellowship and service.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of those kinds of sermons that i think i'll read over & over & over again. and surely.... i'll steal it too!
    God bless you preacher!