Good morning, and hello. It’s the first day of something new, for all of us. For some of you this will be the day you look back on as your first day of seminary. For me, despite a little bit of work behind the scenes, standing in this pulpit before this assembly feels like the first day of a new call. For others, for people who have worked and studied and taught here for years, this may not feel so new — and yet it is still the beginning of something new. This group of people has never been here before. This moment in time, in our own lives, in the life of the nation, in the life of the planet and the environment, this moment is new and will demand something new of us.
Being open to something new is actually quite challenging. Each of us has been shaped by lifetimes of patterned interactions, each of us has survived countless traumas, and each of us has learned how to read the room and assess the situation so that we can prepare ourselves, position ourselves, defend ourselves based on what has happened in the past.
When Jesus meets Simon Peter in the gospel of Luke, Simon has just recently survived a trauma. His mother-in-law had been sick with a high fever, which Jesus had cured. In response, people began to bring to him “all those who were sick with various kinds of diseases” and Jesus cured the sick and expelled the demons that plagued them. So when Jesus encounters Simon again by the lake at the end of a long night of work, at the dawn of a new day, they have just a bit of history, which might explain why Simon is willing to carry him out onto the waters.
I suspect each of us has a story like Simon Peter’s, something in our past that might explain why we’ve taken this first step, why we’ve loaned Jesus the little boats we call our lives, why we’ve been willing to set out from the shorelines of the comfortable and the familiar. Those are the stories I’m looking forward to hearing as we get to know each other. When did Jesus enter your home? Who did he heal? What spirits have been cast out for the sake of your liberation? What is it in your past encounters with God that prepared you to say yes when the invitation came for you to “put out a little way from the shore”?
Those back stories form the beginning of our call stories, which we all have. I remember the first time I shared with my father my sense that I might have a call to ministry. I was fourteen years old and we were out walking the dog, talking through the events of the day. To me, it felt momentous to say out loud this dawning suspicion that had been growing inside me, that I thought God was calling me to ministry. My dad quickly affirmed my sense of call by reminding me that we are all called to ministry — that vocation is the consequence of baptism. To set out on these waters is to begin to say yes to the life God is living through each one of us.
Sitting in that boat with Jesus, that’s where I imagine we are this morning. I feel the boat rocking beneath me as the waves roll into the shore. Two weeks ago it was the riots in Charlottesville, with their unapologetic defense of white nationalism. This past weekend it was racist, neo-Nazi graffiti spray painted on garages and sidewalks in front of schools and churches near my home on the north side of Chicago in a neighborhood called Lincoln Square. Someone spray painted the sidewalk in front of the entrance to a church recently served by a graduate of this seminary with the words, “diversity is white genocide.” I immediately thought about all of you, this moment we’re living in, this long shameful history we’ve inherited, this movement we’re building, the places you will be sent.
In the Hebrew scripture reading, the prophet Isaiah recognizes that he is in the presence of the holy and his response is to say, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Peter says something similar, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
I wonder if you have stories like these to share as well. What is the confession you hold in your heart? Do you, like the prophet Isaiah and the apostle Peter, worry that you may not be good enough for what lies ahead? Are you scared of what people might think once they really get to know you? Do you wonder if you have what it takes to make it in the classroom, or in front of the candidacy committee, or at the faculty meeting? Do you struggle with the language of faith you’ve inherited? Do you struggle with the English language? Does your past make you an unlikely candidate for your future?
Do you feel those waves under the boat, rocking hard?
That is what it feels like to be living in the present. That is the new moment in which God can do a new thing. That uncertainty, that instability, that water is the place where God meets us and asks us to take a risk. To become more than we’ve ever been. Not the solid land of steady footing and familiar relationships — but the shifting, fluid, ocean of life.
This is the moment we let down our nets for a catch. In the coming days, weeks, months, years you will feel those nets fill with schools of fish. We ourselves will be filled with new ideas, new relationships, new visions for our future, new passions and commitments — so much so that it may become difficult to tell the fisher from the net from the fish. We will get caught up in each other’s nets, each other’s lives. It will be amazing.
But for now, at the beginning of this new day, as we look at one another and sense that something new is beginning, let us take comfort in the words Jesus spoke to Simon Peter, just before he asked him to do something that would change his life forever. He said, “do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid.