Sermon: Saying Yes to Impossible Abundance

Sun Ra. Photographer uncredited on the publicity photo itself; most likely Francis Ing, who is credited for the photography on Astro Black. Originally published as a publicity photo included with the 1973 press kit for The Magic City reissue. In its originally distributed form, the photograph was printed and published without a copyright notice. Photo retouched by uploader based on high-res scans., Public Domain,

The link to the audio of the sermon is here.

Luke 5:1-11

My husband, Jerome’s, brother was a commercial fisherman. About twice a month, he would depart from Boston and head out to Georges Bank, often traveling several days to get there. It was hard physical labor, and they’d work almost 24/7, with very little sleep. They were tired and wet and cold a good part of the time. Jerome almost joined his brother working on the boat one summer, and I think he might have been glad he managed to find another job. Fishing is hard, exhausting work, even with all the technology fisherpeople have at their disposal.

So, it’s not difficult for me to imagine the physical and emotional exhaustion of the fishermen from our story. They have been up all night, throwing their heavy, wet nets into the water again and again and again. Each time they pull up their rope nets, the somewhat salty water of the Sea of Galilee irritates the cuts and scrapes they undoubtedly have on their hands and bodies. And each time they pull up the nets, they are empty. What would they eat? What would their families eat? And once on shore, they can’t yet lay their wet, weary bodies down and sleep. They have to mend the nets. Fishing is hard, exhausting work, then and now.

This is the setting into which Jesus  enters. He’s there, near the lake, with a large crowd forming around him, wanting to hear his teaching. They are “pressing in on him,” according to the text. They’re so eager to hear his teaching that the crowd seems to have the faint air of danger around them, like soccer crowds pressing into a stadium. So, Jesus looks around, sees the guys mending their nets and asks an exhausted fisherman, Simon, to row him just a bit off shore so he can teach from there. As one commentator said, the story from the start reframes what holy space looks like — the lake and boat become a makeshift place for Jesus to sit and teach. Who needs a synagogue or a church? Sacred space is anywhere, everywhere, in the most mundane, workaday places of our lives. 

For whatever reason, the exhausted Simon says “yes” to Jesus’ request. It’s possible the Simon mentioned in our story is the same person mentioned in the story right before this one — where Jesus heals many people, including Simon’s mother-in-law. If that’s the case, it’s understandable why Simon would say yes to his request. But then, after he’s done teaching, Jesus makes an even more outrageous request. He tells Simon to go out to the deep waters and start fishing again. 

What? I wonder if Simon inwardly — or outwardly — groaned. All he wants is to get some rest after a night of repeated failure. You can hear the ambivalence in his reply. “Master,” he says — and the Greek word used here means something more like “Boss” or “Jefe” than slave-owning master. (Insight from here.) “Jefe,” he says wearily, “We tried that before, many times. Yet (long pause, deep breath) if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 

The writer Debie Thomas says she loves the honesty of this response. She can identify with it, and I’m guessing we all can. “Sometimes,” she says, “I feel like I’m suspended in the gap between those two… sentences.” Between weariness and defeat— “we’ve tried that so many times before and it didn’t work” — and hope and faith — “okay, one more time, if you say so. I will trust you one more time.”

And, of course, this is when the miracle happens in our story. Maybe we have to get to the end of our rope, or rope nets, before miracles can happen. Maybe, as Thomas says, “we’re most open to epiphanies when we’ve exhausted our own resources.”  That is the wisdom of AA, isn’t it? I have reached the end of my powers to help myself, to make my life work, and now I need to begin relying on a Higher Power.

Simon and his fellow fishermen now have the opposite problem of scarcity. There are so many fish their nets were beginning to break! So many fish, the boats are beginning to sink! Whether this is a fish tale or an eyewitness account, it nonetheless communicates the same sacred truth wherever Jesus goes, abundance follows. In Jesus’ day, the Roman Empire controlled the fishing industry. (Insight from Thomas’ article, above.) Fisherman couldn’t legally fish without a license issued by the Empire, but the terms of this license mandated that a certain portion of their catch was exported to the cities— possibly leaving local communities hungry. (This still happens all the time today, by the way, where the resources of the “hinterlands” get exported to the cities, like farming communities where you can’t buy fresh produce in the supermarkets.) So, one meaning of this story might be: Imagine a world of abundance, not Empire-imposed scarcity. Jesus announces and enacts the abundant realm of God, as opposed to the stingy realm of Caesar, and he invites people to taste and see this realm where abundance is the norm.

Simon Peter’s reaction to this miracle of excess is to fall on his knees before Jesus and say, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am sinful.” While this might seem like Simon Peter just has low self-esteem or something, it makes sense to me. Christian mystics speak of how our sinfulness gets illuminated, gets brought into full consciousness when we are exposed to the abundance of God’s presence. In the light of the sacred, we see the ways in which we have missed the mark, the ways we have missed seeing and experiencing the abundance of God around us and in us.

I  know I’ve told this story before, but I’m going to tell it again. I had an experience of this more than 20 years ago when I was driving on Route 93 through the Nevada desert in my Chevy Metro. Talk about sacred space being anywhere. I was looking to my right at this beautiful desert sunset that took up almost half the sky.  It was the most luminous, radian peach color I had ever seen. And just then, I saw a man in a pickup truck coming toward me, and it was like I got this glimpse of his radiance. That luminous, glorious peach light that I was seeing out there was in him, as well. And as he went past me, I felt that divine radiance that was in him go through me. And I immediately started crying because I knew that man didn’t know how glorious he was, and because — until that moment —- I didn’t know how glorious he was, how radiant all of us are, how that radiance is in all of creation. And I wept for my lack of seeing. If Jesus had been there before me, I may very likely have said, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am sinful.” 

But notice how Jesus responds to Simon Peter: “Don’t be afraid, from now on you will be catching people.” As Biblical scholar Mark Davis says, “Jesus does not call him to repent; he does not tell him to go and sin no more; he does not tell him to sell all that he has. Simons says that he is a sinner, and Jesus calls him to become (one of his disciples). Boom.” 

In other words, Jesus is saying something like: “Yeah, I know that was pretty awesome what I just did, and I get that you’re overwhelmed. I kind of trip people out that way. But, take a deep breath and then come with me. I want everyone to experience this abundance, and you’re going to help me do that. Together, we’re going to announce and enact the realm of God, and invite people to taste and see this realm where abundance is the norm.” And I think Jesus means that abundance in very literal ways — like, people need food to eat — but also in spiritual ways — like people need to have their imaginations expanded about what is possible in this world. They need to believe another world is possible rather than the oppression and Empire-imposed scarcity they are experiencing.

I was reading recently about this visionary, not-well-known Black jazz artist named Sun Ra. Sun Ra, born Herman Poole Blount in the Jim Crow South, spent part of World War II in jail as a pacifist. He was warning folks about the harm humans were doing to our ecosystems long before the modern environmental movement was ever founded. He formed a big band called Arkestra. He and his band mates wore these amazing space costumes and capes of gold lame and elaborate headgear — you can get a taste of this in the photo on the cover of our bulletin (and at the beginning of this blog post). And, this costuming wasn’t a stage persona — it was who he was. He would dress like this to go grocery shopping!  His 30-piece band would put on mind-bendingly creative shows — complete with electronic sound collages, ecstatic dancers and fire-eaters. Sometimes, the shows would burst out of their venues and parade, Mardi-Gras style, down the streets.

Sun Ra once said, “The possible has been tried and failed; now I want to try the impossible.” His Arkestra band kept working long past the time when big bands were in. Almost no place would book them, yet somehow, Ra kept his band together for almost 40 years. Rob Hopkins writes, “No one knows quite how he did it. In New York and in Philadephia, the band lived together in the same house, surviving on Ra’s famous ‘moon stew.’ While there wasn’t a lot of money around, it worked, just. For Ra there was no such thing as impossible.”

Sometimes I imagine that Jesus was someone like Sun Ra. Like Sun Ra, he knew how to take very little food and feed a lot of people. Like Sun Ra, he announced and enacted a new way of being in the world, and he invited others to dance along with him. Like Sun Ra, he didn’t believe in the impossible.

Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that Simon Peter, James, and John immediately leave everything behind to follow Jesus. They bring their boats into shore, laden with fish, and just go. There’s no deliberation, no pondering, no weighing the pros and cons, no clearness committees, no going to talk to family or friends first. No thinking, just acting. The theologian Robert Scharelemann says that the people who respond to Jesus in this immediate way are using a different kind of reason than we normally use, something he calls “acolouthetic reason.”  The phrase is based on the Greek word for “follow” that’s used many times in the New Testament, which is akoloutheo. Unlike the kinds of reasoning where we reflect and ponder and deliberate, this kind of reasoning is an immediate, non-reflective response that quickly says yes to a call without weighing the cost or considering the options. “The costs and the options come, in time, but the call and response is prior” to doing that. No thinking, just acting. No thinking, just following some sense of rightness, some sense of call from deep in our gut or our heart. 

I am really pondering this kind of immediate response. (And I get the irony of what I just said.) Some of the most faithful people I know, people whom I really admire — they do this. There’s this key moment or moments in their life where a call comes to them, and they just say yes, without thinking. Without thinking, they lay down their nets and follow Jesus, or follow some inner truth. There’s definitely costs, which they realize later, but they say yes without carefully thinking about that.  I’m all for clearness committees and discernment and deliberation. But I also wonder: What if I, sometimes, just said yes quickly? 

As it turns out, I wrote a poem by that name years ago, and I will end my sermon with it. Without knowing so, I think I may have been writing it about this story. “Say Yes Quickly” is also the title of a Rumi poem, from which I riffed to write this poem.

Say Yes Quickly

Say yes quickly, before you think too hard 

or the soles of your feet give out. 

Say yes before you see the to-do list.

Saying maybe will only get you to the door, 

but never past it. 

Say yes before the dove departs for, yes,

she will depart and you will be left

alone with your yes, 

your affirmation of what you

couldn’t possibly know was coming. 

Keep saying yes. 

You might as well. 

You’re here in this wide space now,

no walls and certainly not a roof.

The door was always an illusion.