Professor Adam Copeland teaches Pastoral Leadership at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He knows a thing or two about how to motivate people to make a change. February is African History Month and it would appropriate to lift up one of lessons Copeland offers his students when it comes to liberation. I don’t need to tell you that music can affect us deeply. In fact, a song or a hymn can do as much to instill deep faith in a disciple as any sermon. You can all say Amen to that! Copeland says that many African American spirituals were “code songs” or “signal songs” that slaves used to send messages of freedom, messages of hope to one another that their masters didn’t understand. Slaves would sing about getting to heaven, but they were also singing of getting over the Ohio or Mississippi River, or some other large piece of landscape to a place of freedom.
Like Exodus 14 with its emphasis on Moses and his long march to freedom African Americans envisioned a time and place when freedom would be theirs, when the tight grip of the oppressor would be no more. But they were also aware of the risks. If the slave did escape a plantation, one would be pursued by dogs and bounty hunters and, if caught, would meet a horrible fate. But the slaves sang freedom songs, songs of faith. Their deep Christian faith kept them anchored in the Lord even when they lived in squalor and captivity. Even while enslaved, they sang of their freedom in Christ and their hope that one day they would find their way home.
Many of us live our lives in relative abundance. As a society, we have more stuff than any could ever need. But how is our faith? I recall a preacher one challenged us in the congregation to ask upon our pastoral visits, “How are you with God?” Perhaps a little intense for our sensitive ears, too direct for our typical conversations. But I ask you this morning, where is God pushing you? How is God challenging your faith in a way that is uncomfortable or scary, but ultimately helpful and holy? Where is God calling you to journey, to be set free from that which enslaves you, that which is holding you back from exercising your God-given spiritual gifts? Perhaps it has come time to “push out from these shallow waters, into the deep end, into the places of deeper conversation, where we talk about what really matters.
Let’s take this story from Luke in particular. We pick up with Jesus standing by lake Gennesaret and the crowds pressing in on him to hear the Word. Imagine, if Jesus had been preaching in a church, the congregation would be filling the front pews and pressing in at him in the space between the pews at the pulpit. So Jesus gets a bit claustrophobic, and gets in the boat of a fisherfolk and puts out a little-ways in the lake to get some elbow room. And Jesus preaches sitting in the boat. Now those fisherfolk had just returned from a long night of fishing, and they hadn’t caught a thing. Jesus met them when they were failures. As usual, Jesus had something up his sleeve and he tells them to put the boats out a little-ways in the deeper water and try again. We know the result, nets filled with fish. And, once they got to shore, the text says, “they left everything and followed him.”
I have heard this text preached many times. Often the preacher uses it to focus on how we can bring people to faith, whether in an evangelical context with more converts or a mainline church, drawing people to our cause of justice and peace. But what if this text this morning is not about the manipulation of numbers, the numerical growth of the movement, but rather the pursuit of deeper connections with others, a deeper connection with Jesus? Pushing out to deeper waters would then be less a place of “capture” and more a place of removing fear (Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid”) and transformation (they left everything and followed him).
And what does Luke tell us about Jesus after he has pushed his followers to deeper waters? What does he do next?
Jesus Cleanses a Leper. Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “Be made clean.” Jesus Heals a Paralytic. Jesus said, “I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home. Jesus Calls Levi. After this Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up, left everything, and followed him. But then things get very interesting. Luke goes so far as to say, “Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen strange things today.”
Things get stranger. Then Levi gave a great banquet for Jesus in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician... What I love about this transition in Luke 5 is how a text that began with fisherfolk being pushed to go to deeper waters, to find what they are looking for in that scary and mysterious place in the deep, ends with a banquet meal that includes persons around the table others label sinners and outcasts.
Deeper conversations that include the question, how are you with God and where is God pushing you, will inevitably take place in deeper waters, around tables that include people you might not necessarily invite to your dinner table. The focus is not ease or familiarity, it is deep and diverse. Maybe the time for us to push ourselves in the deeper water, around table with people not like us. Maybe the time has come to ask where God is with you or where God is pushing you?
I am eager to have those conversations, those connections, with you. Whether it is at the church, at a coffee shop or at a banquet table. And most importantly I hope you will have these deep conversations with each other, at coffee hour, at a coffee shop or restaurant, at one of our community meals. We need not be too intense, people don’t react well to a conversation that begins with “so how are you with God?” If I spoke like that with everyone I met on the bus it would be one lonely ride! Even sitting next to Jesus on a boat need not start like that. Surely we would begin by talking about the weather, after all this is Nova Scotia. Then perhaps we might ask Jesus “who’s your father?” “So what do you do?” “You come here often?” But at some point all conversation get to a place where we need to talk about what matters, “what makes you happy?” “Where is a place you feel deeply connected?” “When do you feel truly alive?” Listen as well as talk. God gave us two ears and one mouth. And listen to where, in these deep conversations, you feel God is pushing you.
Like our sisters and brothers from African heritage there is a song in our heart that is reminding us of our freedom, freedom not only from something but for something. We are free from the chains that hold us down, free to connect with others, free to be “fishers of people”, not as converts, but as fellow travelers with Jesus; cleansing, healing, calling. In Jesus we are free, we are healed and we are called to leave behind what enslaves us and follow. Thanks be to God, Amen.