Into the Deep
Homily delivered by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson
February 10, 2019
Church of the Intercession, NYC
Text: Luke 5:1-11
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Many of you here today have heard me tell stories of my very poor swimming skills. You’ve heard me tell of the time I was mistaken for a drowning victim while snorkeling in very shallow water off of Aruba, and, most famously, of my having to be pulled from the Dead Sea because I was taking on water – making me possibly the only person to nearly drown in the Dead Sea in all of human history. Needless to say, I am not fond of any water but I’m especially not fond of deep water. On the rare occasions that I do swim, I can reliably be found right by the shore at the beach or in the kiddie end of the pool.
So I can certainly sympathize with Peter’s reluctance in today’s gospel to follow Jesus’ suggestion to go out to the deepest part of the Sea of Galilee to fish (that’s the Lake of Genneserat by a different name). To be sure, there were plenty of good reasons for Peter to object to Jesus’ recommendation: he and his fellow fisherman had already worked all night; they were tired and discouraged after a poor catch. Then, following his rotten night at work, Peter had hosted Jesus for a long teaching session held from his own personal boat. That certainly felt like enough for one day. Plus all the fisherman had by then engaged in the “wrap up” work of cleaning and mending their nets, their final job before quitting time when they could look forward to going home, getting some food, maybe watching a little TV.
But Jesus then asks Peter to do exactly what he didn’t want to do: go right back to work, in the toughest and scariest place possible, the deepest part of the Sea of Galilee. Remember that being a fisherman in Jesus’ time was a dangerous, even terrifying way to earn a living: the sea was subject to sudden, violent storms that had taken the lives of many fishermen, and worse than that, it was known to be the place where demons resided. Remember the story of Jesus casting out a legion of demons that then enter a herd of swine and cast themselves into the sea? That sea was the Galilee – so when fishermen sailed out onto the sea, they were very conscious of being on a watery cemetery inhabited by the spirits of the drowned, and on the home of demons who lurked there, awaiting their next victims. At the end of the workday, Peter and his cohorts had to be relieved to jump out of their boats onto safe, dry land.
Now we know that the Bible is meant to be read on levels beyond the literal, and that is certainly true of this story, where “the deep” is a stand-in for many things, including our lives. Most of us don’t like going into the deep of anything, not only the sea. “The deep” is always dangerous – by definition it is dark, with a bottom that is beyond our ability to see or touch. It is far easier and much more comfortable to stay on the surface, or in the shallows – in other words to be superficial – both on the water and in life. And it has become both less culturally acceptable and more counterculture to express any desire at all to plumb the depths of anything, let alone to live our lives in the deep. Instead, many of us spend much of our time endlessly stimulated – and as often enraged – by the most superficial, shallow thoughts imaginable, usually transmitted to us via a Facebook post, or God forbid, a 280-character tweet.
We may grumble about this, but the truth is that this shallow kind of life suits most of us just fine – because we are so afraid of what we might see in the depths, anything that can distract us from it we welcome eagerly. This is not a new phenomenon – listen to this first, then I’ll tell you who wrote it and when:
It is possible to conceive of a world which should offer the material and opportunity of nothing but superficialness – nothing but the making of money and eating of bread and playing of games . . . it is possible to conceive of a man (meaning a person) who had no capacity for anything but superficialness and frivolity and dealing with second causes, and that (person) might live superficially even in this deep rich world in which we live. . .But – here is the point – for this (person) with his capacities to live in this world with its opportunities and yet to live on its surface and to refuse its depths, to turn away from its problems, to reject the voice of God that speaks out of it, is a demoralizing and degrading thing.
That was written in the late 19th century by the great rector of Trinity Church Boston, Phillips Brooks in a sermon that is almost shockingly current today, entitled “The Seriousness of Life.” In it, Brooks bemoans the deterioration of history from the days when humankind lived in constant contact with the divine depths of existence; he addresses particularly the slide of history from the days of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt up to his own day, when God could increasingly be comfortably ignored in favor of various distractions. Brooks notes that even during the Exodus, when all of Israel was saved by God’s splitting of the Red Sea, when every one of them was sheltered by a pillar of cloud by day and led by a pillar of fire by night, when all were fed by manna that fell from the skies – even then, the Israelites began pulling away from God and up out of the deep, insisting that only Moses and not they be subjected to hearing God’s voice. This manifested itself near Mount Sinai as God prepared to give the nation the Ten Commandments, when they cried: “Let not God speak to us, lest we die!”
What happened to Israel during the Exodus and what Phillips Brooks saw happening in his day has only continued to worsen in our own time. The explosion of technology – especially social media – has created a 24/7 smorgasbord of entertainment and distraction. While of course technology is a godsend in many ways, it has also literally remade us in ways that make it much harder to go into the deep. There is a wonderful book by Nicholas Carr called, “The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains.” It says something about our time that this book was written only in 2011 yet it already feels dated – in it Carr talks a lot about MySpace (the defunct predecessor of Facebook) and he wonders at length about the future of a new little company called “Twitter.” Never the less, Carr’s point about how the Internet changes the very structure of our brains is still worth hearing. He grew into adulthood as a deep reader of novels and essays, yet Carr says this about the way he reads now:
What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation . . . Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words, now I skip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
Make no mistake – that loss of the ability to read with single-minded concentration has a tremendous effect on our lives and on the life of our church. As people’s attention spans have shortened and scattered – particularly among young people – attendance in church has dropped, and even many who do attend shorten the activity as much as possible – yes I’m talking about some of you who come late and leave early. And while folks are here in church there is much less attention to what is actually going on – my own sermons have shortened dramatically from 20-25 minutes when I first began preaching in the year 2000, to about half that length now. And although many people in all churches are actually paying attention and praying, there are others – including some clergy – who carry their phones with them during all church liturgies and check them frequently. Such is our fear of falling from the surface into the deep.
Doing what God asks of us first – even if it means doing something arduous or unpleasant – is what today’s Gospel is pleading with us to do. After Peter grumbles about going back out to do more work, which he didn’t feel like doing, to the deepest part of the sea, which scared him terribly – he does it anyway, and the results are spectacular. The enormous haul of fish threatens to destroy his boats, and with it his livelihood. The sense that his life is about to change drastically in ways beyond his control terrifies Peter to the point where he begs Jesus to go away and leave him alone: “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” – this is the same cry as that of the Israelites at Mount Sinai – “Let God not speak to us, lest we die!”
This is what terrifies us about the deep – that we might be shaken, that our lives might be turned upside down by God and spin out of our control into God’s hands. If we take a deep breath, close our eyes, pinch our noses, and dive, we must put our entire trust in God for our very lives, and make no mistake about it – our lives will change.
My sisters and brothers, as the church we are called on to what Peter did – listen to the Lord when he calls us into the deep, despite our misgivings, our fatigue, our fears. While the world around us is busy skittering on the surface of complex issues the way a dragonfly skitters on the surface of a pond, we are never the less called to live in the depths. Think about it: There is not a person in this world whose richness and complexity is not worth a deep dive to get to know, there is not a problem in this world that is reducible to black or white, and there is not a joy worth knowing in this world that is not made the richer for plumbing its depths.
We can only truly taste, enjoy, and wrestle with both our inner and outer worlds if we are willing to sail far from shore and put out our nets. It is there that we can bask in the presence of God, and it is then, and only then, that we can truly experience what God has in store for us in the deep.