by Rob Saler
5Once while Jesus* was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ 5Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
When Ben asked me to come preach for this service of blessing our new composting equipment as part of our Earth Year festivities, the first question that we discussed was whether the appointed gospel lesson this week is sufficiently “earthy” for the occasion. And at first, to be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure how to respond.
Now, to be sure, as you heard, the story has lots of water. And lots and lots of fish. Not a bad place to start.
And even more to the point, as I’ve continued to meditate on this text throughout the week, I’ve been unable to shake the suspicion that the real point of this story has less to do with the miracle by which an abundance of fish were caught and more to do with the miracle by which three fishermen got caught, snagged by Jesus. Caught into a life of discipleship, as a long night of fruitless labor is followed by a morning of dislocation, of being plunged into the uncertainty of following this mysterious teacher. Caught in Jesus’ net so thoroughly, and with such force, that upon coming to shore all they could do is what Luke tells us they did: leave everything and follow him.
So this is, in other words, a story of vocation in the truest sense – answering the call, not just with the mind, but with the body. A story of human vocation. And as much as eco-theologians endeavor to move us away from thinking about biblical narratives in purely anthropocentric terms, and as helpful as that de-centering of the human often is, I for one have become convinced that you can’t finally talk seriously about earthkeeping, about care for God’s creation, without becoming clear about our human vocation within that larger task. We need a vision of our call to earthkeeping, and a vision of what to do with our hearts and bodies in response to that call.
If that’s the case, then this is indeed a sufficiently “earthy” story for our celebration today. In this story of the call to discipleship we get a sense of what I would call the logic – or perhaps the theo-logic – of our efforts at caring for God’s creation, a theo-logic that only makes sense within the larger context of God’s care for what God has made. A theology of our earth-keeping vocation.
Now, to speak about vocation is to be speaking, among other things, about movement, motion. And, as we know, nothing is more central to Luke’s vision than motion. As the author of the book of Acts, Luke is the gospel writer given to describing discipleship as “the way,” or “the road.” One gets the sense, reading Luke/Acts, of perpetual motion, both in Jesus’ life and ministry as described in the gospel, and in the growing vitality of the church in Acts.
But what I find striking about Luke is that the motion at play in his pages has a very particular rhythm to it. For instance, it’s different than in Mark. Theologically speaking, there’s a lot to recommend Mark’s rhythm, because it’s a frenetic kind of motion – things happen immediately, fragmentarily, and often with disruptive force. And again, there’s a lot to like about that. But when it comes to the rhythm of Earthkeeping, the kind of groove that this LSTC community has been into this year (by doing things like blessing composting equipment) is, I think, a bit more like Luke’s.
Luke’s motion is less frenetic, and more holistic. It’s based upon his conviction that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the hinge upon which God’s whole restoration of creation will swing, and on his conviction that, along the way to the culmination of this salvation, people will get caught. Caught up in the rhythm, caught up in the big picture. God’s people will find themselves going from the Simon Peter-like protest, “I’m not sinless enough, virtuous enough, or Christian enough, or “green” enough,” going from that to the motion of dropping everything and following God’s plan where it leads.
My point is that underneath all the motion, all the movement of Luke and Acts, one discerns a kind of serene inevitability to the progress of God’s restoration. Luke has no doubts that God will accomplish what God has, in Christ, set out do to; the only question is whether humans will come along for the ride. If Luke’s right about that, then that means that the human vocation in relation to the Earth’s salvation is not so much to “get the ball rolling,” (since God had the ball rolling long before we got here), or even to keep the ball rolling. The human vocation is simply to recognize that, by God’s grace, we are indeed invited along for the ride, and to use our minds and bodies accordingly. And this morning, I think that we can notice that, if we would like a picture of the serene inevitability of God’s motion, composting is not a bad candidate. As we know, you really can’t hurry composting. It is nature doing what nature does, recycling itself and transferring life energy to life energy, just with a little nudge from us. A nudge that takes the form of composting bins, and communal dedication, and patience. Like ministry itself, composting is a slow, unpredictable, and occasionally smelly process. That’s what makes it worth doing.
Thinking about what it means to follow Jesus in the restoration of creation presents us with both a temptation and a seduction. The temptation would be to think that doing things like composting and declaring seminary “theme years” somehow constitute efforts on our part to “save the planet.” While exhortations to “save the earth” may function well as t-shirt slogans, as a logic of Christian discipleship it is a three-step recipe for disaster. The first step would be the assumption of a sort of well-meaning hubris. While that hubris might well produce some quick and beneficial results, it would quickly degenerate into the second state, in which the urgency and size of the ecological crises that we face would force us into the sort of frantic efforts that would make sleeping, and dancing, and perhaps even worship into contemptible wastes of time. Such is the hell of works righteousness, which as Luther saw clearly can only lead to the final state: despair. Alienation from God, and alienation from God’s creation. That’s the path of temptation, and it must be resisted with all gospel force.
Instead, we should yield, not to the temptation, but to the seduction. The seductive beauty of the Bible’s vision of God making all things new. The seductive call of the saving one, Jesus Christ, who asks us to drop the life – and the lifestyles – that would exploit and harm creation; drop all those and come along for the ride as God fulfills God’s promises to every tree, fish, mountain, and Chicagoan that God has made. To engage in the act of blessing, blessing the tools by which we seek to follow God’s earthkeeping agenda, is to submit our efforts to the larger sweep of grace in motion. And, in so doing, we make ourselves a part of a miracle so large that it will take all of creation to bear witness to it, and to sing its praises. Amen.