Luke 5:1-11

Joel D. Kline
Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren
July 7, 2002

God’s Surprising Call

Most of us have family stories we’d just as soon not get shared too widely. In my early years, according to my folks, I had little interest in television watching—except for commercials. When there would be a break in programming, so the story goes, I would run from wherever I was, stand on my head on the corner of the couch, and watch the series of commercials. I’m no longer very adept at standing on my head, but I must confess that the advertising industry often intrigues me. It’s a real gift, isn’t it—this ability to encourage and influence others, but it’s a gift that can be used for good or for ill.

Perhaps you remember a Heinz ketchup advertisement from some years ago. Slowly but surely the thick ketchup inches its way down the spout of the bottle, and we find ourselves watching and waiting for the ketchup to makes its way onto a juicy hamburger below, all to the music of a hit song entitled, "Anticipation."

Anticipation. It’s been about six months since we spent a discernment weekend together and I responded affirmatively to the call of this congregation to serve as your pastor, and the ensuing months have included a whole host of emotions. There have been moments of intense anticipation—the promise and excitement of something new, the energy that comes from pondering new challenges, new opportunities, new relationships, new experiences. But there have also been moments of questioning, of uncertainty, of doubt, and occasionally of dread. There have been times when I’ve wondered whether, for all of you here, the anticipation of my coming might prove to be better than the real thing! And there have been times when I’ve asked myself why I would choose to leave a vital and vibrant congregation of people I have come to love, and why I would leave a community where I have had unexpected opportunities to share my gifts and to provide meaningful leadership and ministry. It’s been something like leading a double life these past few months. Each time we came to Elgin—to look for housing, for Janice to explore teaching opportunities, to bring a load of boxes to our new house—or each time I talked with a member of Highland Avenue, the sense of "rightness" of last January’s decision re-emerged. But when I got involved in the tasks of ministry at Beacon Heights and in ongoing responsibilities in Fort Wayne, I began to wonder, "What was I thinking last January?"

Only days after last January’s discernment weekend Jim Lehman sent me an email, and with some frequency these past months I found myself considering the gist of Jim’s words, words that have helped me keep the sense of anticipation in focus. Wrote Jim,

I am really looking forward to the future. I hope you and Janice and the people at Beacon Heights have a lovely last six months. I hope you are able to say all the good-byes and to grieve with the love and respect for one another that you have held through all the years of your ministry together. I hope the prospect of a new life with us fills you with joy and anticipation and some plain old curiosity. I hope there are some interesting surprises ahead for all of us. I hope we let God do something new here at Highland Avenue that fills us and the community around us with pleasure and gratitude. I hope you survive the trauma of the move. And at those moments when you wonder why your said yes to leaving your friends at Beacon Heights and to having to make a whole set of new ones up here, I hope you can just sit down and luxuriate in your misery, knowing the joy will come back because God is always with the ones who are willing to move out in faith.

The willingness to move out in faith, to listen for and to respond to the promptings of God’s Spirit—this is at the heart of Christian living. And it is at the heart of this morning’s Gospel lesson—the story of Peter, James, and John responding to the invitation of Jesus to embark upon a journey of discipleship. Luke tells us that these early disciples are so drawn to Jesus and the way of living Jesus encourages "that they left everything and followed him" (Luke 5:11).

Consider the familiar story. Jesus is standing by the Lake of Galilee, with crowds pressing in upon him to hear his message. Seeing two fishing boats at the shore, Jesus makes himself at home, entering one of the boats—Simon Peter’s—and asking Peter to put him out a short distance from shore, so that he could be seen and heard by the whole crowd as he teaches.

When Jesus finishes sharing with the crowd, he turns his attention to Peter, urging Peter to "put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch" (5:4). Peter begins to object, for apparently it had been a long and frustrating night, with little to show for his efforts. Yet there must have been something in the way Jesus spoke that made Peter listen, intuitively sensing that this is a moment for obedience.

And with that act of obedience, incredible results follow. So many fish fill the nets that they nearly break. Peter and the others respond with amazement and astonishment, as they sense that they are in the very presence of the power, the mercy, the grace, and the goodness of God. As New Testament scholar William Barclay reminds us, "The more we know of the love of God, so amazing, so divine, the more we must stand astonished." Peter expresses his own unworthiness in the face of such goodness, but Jesus responds with words of encouragement, "Do not be afraid, for I have something new in store for you." Not fully grasping where their decision will lead them, Peter and his two companions nevertheless answer the surprising call of God and move out in faith, trusting that God will be with them.

Andrew Young is known to many of us for his civil rights leadership and for his service as ambassador to the United Nations, as a member of Congress, as mayor of Atlanta, and as an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Several years ago he wrote his spiritual memoirs, entitling them A Way Out of No Way, based on the title of an old African-American spiritual. Andrew Young captures something of the experience of those first disciples of Jesus, when he writes in his memoirs:

I have found that when God calls anyone to a task, there is usually a larger plan of which any one person is only a small but significant part. The way is already prepared. There are problems and challenges to be faced, but these are often there to help us grow stronger. . . . I have come to understand that all of these obstacles are but a part of the divine process. Just as weightlifters get stronger by increasing the weight and strain on their muscles through practice and repetition, so spiritual strengthening comes as we learn to follow the plan of God and spiritually discern the hand of God guiding our lives.

When the Lord calls any of us to a task, there is usually a moment in which everything seems to work itself out.

It is with that kind of conviction that I am seeking to approach new beginnings here at Highland Avenue, and I sense that that’s the way in which you as a congregation are responding as well. We come together in the faith that God is with us in these times of transition and change, and indeed, that God stands in the very midst of the turmoil and the challenges of life. We come together with significant questions in our hearts and minds—questions no one of us can fully answer alone, but together, much insight and wisdom can be gained. Among those critical questions: What does it mean for us to be faithful to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ in this place and at this time? Who is God calling us to be as a community of God’s people, and where is God leading us in this new relationship? What are the challenges of ministry and service to which we are being called? And what is the small but significant role each one of us is being called to embrace, as part of this new chapter in the life of Highland Avenue Church?

These kinds of questions flow out of a commitment to live and walk in the presence of God. I taught a class in recent months at Beacon Heights entitled "Companions for the Journey," sharing about writings that have significantly impacted my life and ministry. Among those writers that most influenced me is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose story never ceases to fascinate and challenge me. Bonhoeffer, as you may know, was a leader of the Confessing Church in Germany during the days of Hitler—a part of that minority group of Christians who resisted the rise of the Nazi movement out of a desire to remain true to the spirit and teachings of Jesus. In 1939, as the Nazi menace was growing, a number of leading theologians in America convinced Bonhoeffer to come to the United States to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. But Bonhoeffer remained in the states only about six weeks, for he could not let go of his belief that faithfulness to the gospel demanded that he stand with those in his homeland who were resisting the evils of the Nazi movement. While on the voyage home to Germany Bonhoeffer wrote in his diary, "Since I came on board ship, my mental turmoil about the future has gone."

An odd way to discover peace, or so the world around us would assert. But Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one who took it as his very purpose to live and walk in the presence of God. Payne Best, a survivor of the concentration camp at Buchenwald where Bonhoeffer was later imprisoned by the Nazi government, writes that "Bonhoeffer was different; just quite calm and normal, seemingly perfectly at ease. . . his soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison." A few months later, when Bonhoeffer was being taken away to be hanged to death, he asked Payne Best to deliver a simple message to an old friend, the Bishop of Chichester. The message: "This is the end—for me the beginning of life."

Compared to the calling placed upon Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life, the call to move from Indiana to Illinois seems quite tame! And so, perhaps, does our shared task of coming to know and trust one another, learning to respect and work with one another, and jointly seeking to discern what it is that God would have us do, in this place, at this time, as a community of Christ’s people. Nevertheless that is our calling, and that is the challenge God now sets before us—to discern what this new chapter in the life of Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren means for each of us as individuals, and what it means for us as a congregation and for the community that surrounds us. May we be open to the God who is in the surprising business of making all things new. May we together embrace the Spirit who empowers us to continue the work of Jesus—Peacefully. Simply. Together.