Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He 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. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who are partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:1-11)
Several years ago, I went on a mission trip to Bosnia. I traveled with a group connected to UMCOR (The United Methodist Committee on Relief), rebuilding barns and giving farm animals to families who had lost nearly everything during the civil war that ravaged Bosnia in the 1990s. Before the trip, I had never been to that part of Europe. I was excited about what I would see, where we would travel, and what we were going to do. Although, I was not excited about one particular aspect of the trip: coffee!
I do not drink coffee. The idea of sitting down to drink a hot cup of black bitterness is not my idea of a good time. If I am going to sit down to drink anything hot, I prefer something chocolate.
To my alarm, we were told to expect lots of coffee. It is part of Bosnian culture. OK, saying coffee is part of Bosnian culture is a significant understatement. It is a central and frequent part of Bosnian culture. Regardless of the weather—hot, cold, sunny, or rainy, Bosnians stop many times during a day to share a pot of coffee.
Now, the coffee Bosnians drink is not your standard, American coffee. The coffee Bosnians drink is Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee is served in small, espresso-sized cups filled with a substance having a consistency closer to syrup than water. Turkish coffee is strong, dark, and full-bodied. When you drink it, the coffee seemingly slides down the back of your throat the way milkshakes do. What makes it so viscous? Sugar and foam.
Turkish coffee is not only strong, dark, and full-bodied; it is sweet! And, the coffee is foamy because brewing Turkish coffee involves several steps, including re-boiling the liquid two or three times.
Therefore, the first time we sat down to share coffee with our hosts and beneficiaries, I was a little uneasy. Yet, as Alisa passed out her cups and we settled ourselves under a large shade tree, even though I do not like coffee and do not fully comprehend the attraction of drinking hot liquids in the middle of a blistering late-summer’s afternoon, I recognize generosity when I see it. I understand the importance of hospitality and of receiving hospitality. I appreciate the significance of sharing life together. Under that tree, drinking unseasonably hot, tooth-dissolvingly sweet coffee, I remembered that the first (and possibly most important, transformative) part of any endeavor is being willing to participate.
When Jesus arrived on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and asked Simon to put his boat in the water, little did Simon know how true this notion about participation was to prove for his life. Simon’s first encounter with Jesus did not involve intellectual assent to doctrinal postulates. It did not involve confession of belief in who Jesus was or what kind of life he was committed to pursuing. No, that first encounter with Jesus for Simon involved, principally, the simple willingness to participate. Moreover, this new participant was not the most respected, influential, or effectual of men. Rather, Jesus asked Simon—a confessed, incredulous, impetuous, under-qualified sinner—to respond when asked.
Despite Simon’s feeble resistance—“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”—Jesus persistent request confirmed that the most important part of faith is not first about a perfect fit but about willing participation. The whole of scripture affirms this conclusion.
Think of Abram and Sari—the old couple who laughed at God. Think of Jacob the trickster, Joseph the arrogant, Moses the murderer, Rahab the prostitute, David the adulterer, Mary the pregnant teenager, and Paul the persecutor. Repeatedly, the scriptures witness to a faith populated and promoted by a less than ideal bunch. When it comes to the work of the kingdom, this witness from scripture reminds us that God does not wait for someone better to come along. God does not wait for a better opportunity. God does not need the perfect candidate to start the in-breaking of the kingdom.
God requires participants.
We see this in the encounter between Jesus and Simon. When Simon protests, Jesus prompts. And, as we know from the stories about Simon to follow, this is not the first or last time Simon proves less than the perfect ambassador of faith. Think of Simon’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Caesarea-Philippi or attempt to walk on water or denials at the crucifixion. Time and again, Simon falls short of perfection, yet, regardless of these shortcomings, Simon remains a participant. Faith, it turns out, is far less about adhering to right doctrine or possessing perfect credentials or holding the right office than about willing participation.
In addition to the importance of participation in the journey of faith, we glean from Simon’s encounter with God that faith is not a onetime commitment but a repeated proposition. In this story by the lake, Jesus asks Simon three times to respond to different requests. Each time, Simon affirmatively responds, despite lingering hesitancy and some incredulity. With the final request to “leave everything,” we witness a microcosmic summation of our macrocosmic journeys of faith. Faith demands all of us, not just a partial commitment or a general adherence or just-this-once confession.
Rather, a full-bodied faith is a faith that demands an engagement by and transformation of all that we are. Dietrich Bonheoffer called this “costly grace.” Costly grace is grace that costs us our whole lives. This wholeness is what makes faith full-bodied! A successful journey of faith is one to which we regularly and intentionally attend. John Wesley called these regular, intentional commitments disciplines. Like an athlete in training, disciplined living reworks who we are into who we must become.
Returning to my experience with Turkish coffee, the coffee’s strength of flavor and complexity of texture only come from the repeated boiling of the brew. A onetime action is not sufficient. Simon’s life is an illustration of this need regularly to rehearse his place and function in the story of salvation. If we do not regularly rehearse our own commitments to the journey of faith, then our faith commitments become artifacts of who we were at one time and not a present expression of who we are. Like any artifact, a faith that is an artifact is interesting to examine but not presently efficacious or useful to who we are, what we do, and who we are to become.
Finally, the story of Jesus and Simon’s encounter at the lake reiterates the importance of God’s meeting us where we are but not leaving us there. Frequently, in the gospel stories, Jesus meets people in midst of their lives. He meets a woman by a well, a tax collector in a tree, a woman caught in adultery, John in the wilderness, the faithful in the synagogues, the paralytic by the city gate, and Simon by the sea. Imbedding this very point in the story, many commentators see the process of fishing described in the story as illustrative of how God does not first call us to some other life but initially meets us in the life we are living. The method of fishing described in the text is a type of fishing that does not use lures to entice fish but, rather, is a style of fishing that reaches fish in their home habitats. In other words, God initially seeks us. Yet, once caught, everything changes, as must we.
As I sat there sipping my coffee, listening to us chat about the mundane and the immediate, I began to consider the profound and transcendent character of our conversation. We were an interesting bunch: Christians and Muslims, Americans and Bosnians, Bosniaks and Serbs. Like Simon who said “yes” to a request by an unexpected stranger for a seat in his boat, in sharing this coffee our lives would never be the same. Our beneficiaries would have a new barn, providing a means for a new livelihood and life. We would have new perspectives on life and faith and war and grace.
Yet, also, to be transformative, I know that those memories cannot be left alone but needed regular remembering and sharing. As the liturgy of the church reminds us, this rehearsal can be transformative, changing everything about who we are and making our lives of faith full-bodied experiences. Such transformation begins simply by our willingness to meet each other were we are: in my case, around a pot of coffee under a shade tree.
Being transformed under a tree seems like as good a place as any. If I remember correctly, scripture begins and ends with life changing under a tree. It might be asking too much for our shade tree coffee break to be so comprehensively transformative, but odder things have happened. Simon was just finishing a day of fishing and look how his world changed. If we are willing to lift up our eyes from our daily work long enough to greet the unexpected, we too might have the chance to met God in the unexpected, i.e., a friend, an opportunity, an idea, an event–changing our world too!
Have a wonderful week!