“Even When We Feel Inept”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
10 February, 2019
On this Annual Meeting Sunday, it’s worth noting during the worship service, before the business meeting, that the 2018 year reviewed by our reports was an exciting one for us. God’s been busy with us—the Spirit has been moving among us! We celebrated eleven baptisms—babies, youth, adolescents, and adults. Including those newly-baptized, the confirmands, and a number of other adults, we welcomed close to 30 new members last year. Our Sunday School program underwent a complete overhaul, and the new curriculum and approach has been very positively received by teachers and students alike. The Trustees have been ambitiously revitalizing their approach, and have had to roll their sleeves up several times to address unexpected challenges with our aging facilities. Our Christmas Fair and the growing Luminaria event were both fantastically successful, and showcased the joy there is in sharing God’s loving welcome with the wider community.
Our relatively new Personnel Committee has been pleased with how amiably our staff have responded to the annual review process, which has each staff member setting goals and stretching themselves to try new things. This in itself is a new practice for this church, and the entire congregation has benefitted from the ways the challenge has been embraced. For example, the Christian Education curriculum changes I mentioned. But you’ve also noticed new kinds of music introduced by Sylvia and the choir. An original composition by Ed Scibilia debuted on Maundy Thursday (and he’s written more!). Janet Sterritt has done some fantastic work with our youngest members on the chimes and the bells. And our Administrative staff—Eileen and Sue—have been indispensable in facilitating communications and helping everything to run as smoothly as possible. These are just a few things that represent the overflowing abundance of God’s active work with us and through us.
But that’s not all. I think one of the most compelling demonstrations of the Spirit’s movement happened in October, when our congregation voted overwhelmingly to proceed with a $2MM capital campaign that will allow us all to continue to grow: to stretch ourselves as those already committed to growing spiritually; and, to reach out to new people in our community with the joy, peace, and purpose that a life in Christ provides. We’re off to an amazing start to our campaign—though I’m going to let others tell that story later on, at the Annual Meeting.
You might say our nets have been bursting, and those who have been actively supporting all of these programs—the lay members as well as the staff—have been trying to signal to others to come and help, just as Simon and the others in his boat had to do after he followed Jesus’ instructions to trust him, and go out a little deeper. We need more people to accept the summons, the invitation, to help with the bounty—and it can be hard to discern what’s holding some folks back. What can we do about the fact that, although our programs are getting stronger, we’re still struggling to recruit enough teachers and committee members to help our programs flourish without burning out a minority of volunteers? Why does fully funding a sensible church budget persist in feeling difficult to do in our church—how do we help everyone understand the spiritual and communal importance of making a pledge? How do we all most effectively and compassionately reach out to members old and new, whose participation in the life of this community seems to have drifted from their former commitment? I admit: many of these questions and realities leave me, at least, feeling a bit out of my element.
One of the things I appreciate about our gospel story, is Jesus’ response to Simon Peter. After spending the entire night out fishing and having caught nothing, Peter was on the shore with some other fishermen, washing their nets. Jesus had stepped into Peter’s boat and taught the crowds from the platform he found there. “When he had finished speaking,” Luke tells us, “he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’”
Imagine it: Peter (a fisherman) hears Jesus (a carpenter by trade turned spiritual teacher as far as they knew at that point) telling him how to do his job. It may have been because he was exhausted, completely spent and feeling inept at his own trade that Peter barely protested and almost immediately complied: “Master,” he answered, “we have worked all night and caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
They head into deeper waters, and the fish practically jump up into the boat to greet Peter. They’re hauling in fish so fast and furiously that they had to signal to another boat to come help. The other fishermen arrive and they fill both boats so full that they started to sink. And “when Simon Peter saw it,” Luke says, “he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’”
Why did Peter say that? Was he acknowledging that he had doubted Jesus, and he felt guilty or ashamed for his lack of faith? Was he telling Jesus to go away because he suddenly realized that life with Jesus would change his life completely—and it was too much for him? Was Peter afraid he wasn’t worthy to be accompanying Jesus—even though Jesus had called himand invited him to be his companion? Maybe he was weighing up whether he could cope with such abundance in his life on a regular basis.
Whatever was going on in Peter’s head, Jesus didn’t judge him or condemn him. He didn’t allow him to feel any shame about his past, about what he’d done or left undone. He says first, “Don’t be afraid.” And then he says, focusing on the present and future in which Jesus would always be with him, “From now on, you will be catching people.” He offered only reassurance and confidence in Peter’s ability to live and love in more expansive ways from that moment of decision forward.
The same was true with Isaiah, in our first reading. Like Peter, Isaiah recoiled when he realized he was in God’s presence. “Woe is me!” he cried. “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips…” Actually, Isaiah’s reticence doesn’t seem to be rooted in feelings of inadequacy or ineptitude so much as in a recognition of his sinfulness. He’s acknowledging that sin—both individual and social sin—has kept him from hearing and responding to God’s call up to this point. And he knows that beyond the divine vision he was having—once he returned to full presence in the material or mundane world—his human experience might once again prevent him from hearing God’s call. But in his vision, one of the seraphs flew to him and cauterized his lips—held a live coal to them and said, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Reassured of his forgiveness, and newly confident that God loved him despite his ineptitude and human failures, Isaiah responds to the voice of God asking, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” by saying, “Here am I; send me!”
Have you ever noticed that the most amazing things can happen when your ego gets out of the way, and you just let go of the outcome? That’s usually when God’s best work can happen through us—when we abandon any personal need for reward or glory from what we do. When we have less confidence in our personal ability to do what needs doing, and instead place our confidence in a power greater than ourselves. When we grasp the opportunity to play a role in something much bigger than a narrow personal agenda.
Jesus’ invitation to put out into the deep for a catch is more than a physical description of what he was encouraging Peter to do. That same invitation for you and me is to push out beyond what we feel comfortable with, to trust the call and believe that God is going to be with us and won’t abandon us as we undertake whatever ministry God is calling us to embrace just now.
That’s the promise that Jeremiah heard in our Old Testament lesson last week, when God assured the young prophet that he’d have the words he needed when the time came. And it’s the experience Peter was having: Jesus never left his side while as ventured into deeper, less familiar waters. It’s the assurance Isaiah had that gave him confidence to volunteer, “Here am I LORD; send me!”
What about you? What is God calling you to do—where is God inviting you to take action, get involved, or do something differently, to commit to something much bigger, far greater, than your own agenda—and up to this point you’ve been recoiling or shrinking from it, or in some other way retreating or avoiding?
And what about our church? How can we, individually and collectively, go deeper—so that we’ll experience even more profoundly how faithful God’s blessing and abundance is, how reliable are the promises that God IS with us, and will not abandon us, as we venture forward into a future intended to bless us and others through us?
On this Annual Meeting Sunday as we reflect on the year just gone, and make faith-filled, hopeful plans for the year unfolding in front of us, it’s worth noting how busy God has been with us. That has only happened because faithful individuals have allowed the love and hope, the grace and transforming energy of Christ to flow through them. It’s worth acknowledging how actively the Spirit IS at work among us, and how brazenly we are being called to put out into deeper waters.
The good news is that we’re not being beckoned to go there alone, nor to undertake things beyond our ability or resources. The One who is calling us will accompany us, and has equipped us with everything we need. And when we respond with obedience and trust, the One who has called us and who abides with us will reward us with an abundance that fills us to overflowing. Even when we feel inept. Amen.