Fourth Sunday of Lent
Preacher: Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking
Scripture: Luke 5:1-6
Message: Cast Off: Solidarity with Those Who Suffer
Mother Teresa, the great saint of Calcutta, through her work living and serving among the destitute, poor, and ill, is seen as one who surely was very close to God. She founded the Missionaries of Charity, a religious order whose members take a fourth vow in addition to the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. Their fourth vow is to “give wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.” Saint Teresa exemplified for many the selfless service to those who suffer that Christians equate with the life of the suffering servant, Jesus, the life we strive to emulate. And yet she wrote this in her private writings, “They say people in hell suffer eternal pain because of the loss of God—they would go through all that suffering if that had just a little hope of possessing God.—In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss—of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not really existing…In my heart there is no faith…I don’t believe.” [Saint Teresa of Calcutta, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta]
If ever there was an articulation of what being unmoored can feel like, this is it. How is it possible that one who has been sainted, who lived what appeared to be such a holy life, so seemingly close to God, could express this deep sense of despair and disconnection? There is no question that Saint Teresa’s days were filled with suffering. In her healing work, particularly that which focused on persons suffering from HIV/AIDS, she saw again and again the arbitrariness of physical suffering and the harm inflicted on the innocent through injustice, hate and discrimination. I think we have this perception that the most faithful, even as they serve at what seem like super human levels, always have something left at the end of the day to find God, to receive a sense of blessing at having done the Lord’s work. For Mother Teresa, this was not so for a stretch of many years. As she wrote in her private letters, for many years, at the end her days caring for the poorest among us she felt just emptiness.
And Saint Teresa was not without her critics. She was human, after all, and some of her stances and choices, very much reflected that in spite of her fame, she was a Catholic nun from a small village in Macedonia faced as we all are with imperfect options and limited knowledge. This nun who soothed the suffering of so many, also suffered much herself.
In our scripture today from Luke, we find Jesus teaching a large multitude at the shore of Lake Gennesaret. Then he sees Simon Peter’s boat and decides to get into the boat with some of the disciples and teach the crowds from the boat. When he is finished with his teaching, he asks Simon Peter to go out farther into deep water and drop his nets from there. But Peter is reluctant. Some commentators say that this is because Peter doesn’t want to take a risk, he wants to play it safe and stay in the shallows. But I don’t see Peter’s reluctance to go into the deep water that way. I think Peter is pretty transparent about the source of his reluctance. He and his fellow fishermen have been fishing all night, time and time again, they’ve come up empty. They are dealing with cumulative disappointment. They’ve been in deep water, they’ve been working hard, and still they have come up empty.
I think all of us can relate to Peter. When we try, again and again, to repair a relationship, to tend to suffering, to work with integrity and perseverance for peace and yet the relationship does not heal, or new instances of suffering surface even as we may feel progress in some areas, or peace seems so elusive, someone’s suggestion that we go and try again can be hard to take. It can be like adding a sum of more to that which already is too much. Suffering upon suffering. In these moments, we can feel the temptation towards cynicism, and even despair. We can almost see Peter’s raised eyebrows at Jesus and his internal monologue of, “Come on Jesus, you’re not the one who’s been up all night with nothing to show for it!” Or worse, we can see the disconnection in Peter’s eyes and slumped shoulders at Jesus’ seeming lack of empathy.
I think it’s this dislocated place out of which Mother Teresa was speaking in the quote I shared earlier, when she expresses her profound disconnection from God. Jesuit Paul Crowley, the author of The Unmoored God says, and “this takes us to the heart of the problem of locating God. What fundamentally unsettled Mother Teresa was not some philosophical doubt. It was rather the insuperable reality of suffering. This, even more than a shift in cosmological outlook, is what has led to much existential and spiritual dislocation.” [Paul Crowley, The Unmoored God]
It’s curious to me that Jesus wanted to stop his teaching on the shore and instead go out in a boat on Lake Gennesaret and teach from the water. Definitely not a place I would want to teach from or be taught. I tend to get motion sick if the waves are too rough, though Jesus’ own disciples, being fishermen, were probably impervious to that. The scriptures tell us that Jesus was pursued relentlessly by the crowds who wanted to listen to his teaching, but instead of positioning himself on some stage or even an elevated part of the shore so the throngs could see and hear him well, he goes into a boat with only his disciples, and teaches the crowds from this distance. When he asks Simon Peter to head into the deep water, he is basically insuring that it is only they and he who are together once they reach the depths.
Why would he do that—first teach from a boat, then go farther off with his disciples into deep water? It seems to me that he needed to be just with them, his disciples. There is something different between these who have given their lives to him, are following him even though it’s already beginning to prove costly, and lonely, and at times even frustrating and unfruitful, and those who may more casually engage his teachings. What’s important to remember is that the deep water wasn’t new for the disciples. They’d been out there all night. Trying to be faithful. Persevering in the face of disappointment. All in. Their work hadn’t been visibly fruitful at that moment, but Jesus needed them to go back to the deep water with him, so that he could be with them in the place where they had begun to lose hope. These were Jesus’ beloved, and they had made themselves uniquely vulnerable to despair through their choice to believe and follow him. It is in this dislocation he wanted to be with them, and so he asked them to go back to deep water with him and cast their nets again.
Beloved, you who are part of this community of faith, who pray for those who are sick or ill or lost, who spend your time, money and talents in service to others, who faithfully attend worship whether in person or online, who take your Saturdays to care for our church building, you who have great faith and have experienced the blessing of community and have felt the presence of God and God’s spirit, I believe that what Jesus is expressing here is that you are also uniquely vulnerable to despair, because you have made yourselves vulnerable by acting in faith, by believing, by hoping, by loving.
Though it may feel like you are unmoored in deep waters, I want to suggest to you this morning that this is because you were already located in the depths of life. You face suffering, your own as you lift up prayers and voice your struggles and pains, you face suffering as you serve at the shelter and accompany families who have endured pain and violence just for a chance to breathe freely and get away from that violence, you face suffering as you carry each other’s burdens.
In the deep water, Jesus sees fully Peter’s faith and his doubt, his hope and his despair, and asks him to put his nets in again. And in spite of the brokenness Peter is feeling, the nets come up full. Abundant. Now please don’t misunderstand. This isn’t an “If at first you don’t succeed try and try again” story. This isn’t a “take a big risk and get a big payoff” story. This is an invitation to an orientation of living that finds abundance even in despair. Even when the nets come up empty.
My friend Tom Locke whom I’ve mentioned to you before, who serves as president of Wesleyan Investive has said, “As long as we continue to defiantly act with abundance, we will stay on the path to the way things could be.” As long as we continue to defiantly act with abundance, we will stay on the path to the way things could be. I love this phrase. In it I hear Jesus’ invitation to Peter, “Put your nets in again.” It is an invitation to an orientation of spirit that invites us to participate with God in defying despair, and instead to live in a place of abundance with God. It does not say that scarcity doesn’t exist or suffering does not exist, or that we can avoid suffering. It takes us away from the idea of grasping, or of locating somewhere fixed to a dislocated God who transcends time and space and is always with us, offering us and everyone abundance.
Interestingly, this is not unlike the four noble truths of Buddhism which affirm, that 1) there is suffering, 2) suffering comes from grasping and attachment, or perhaps in the words of this series, trying to be located and in one place, moored 3) there is a path through suffering 4) that way is the dharma. The dharma is the practice of faith, and in asking Peter to drop his net again, Jesus was saying, “engage the practice” whatever the outcome of each day’s practice, keep engaging the practice, and in that there is abundance. I am the way, the truth and the life. May we have the courage to keep dropping our nets, to engage the practice of faith, and defiantly act with abundance, knowing that in that we embrace a dislocated God, and path that leads to life. Amen.