Fifth Sunday in Epiphany: Belling a Cat

First Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8 [9-13]

1In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said:
 “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
 the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5And I said: “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!”
  6Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” [9And he said, “Go and say to this people:
 ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
 keep looking, but do not understand.’
10Make the mind of this people dull,
  and stop their ears,
  and shut their eyes,
 so that they may not look with their eyes,
  and listen with their ears,
 and comprehend with their minds,
  and turn and be healed.”
11Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
 “Until cities lie waste
  without inhabitant,
 and houses without people,
  and the land is utterly desolate;
12until the Lord sends everyone far away,
  and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
13Even if a tenth part remain in it,
  it will be burned again,
 like a terebinth or an oak
  whose stump remains standing
  when it is felled.”
 The holy seed is its stump.

Psalm: Psalm 138

1I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart;
  before the gods I will sing your praise.
2I will bow down toward your holy temple and praise your name,   because of your steadfast love and faithfulness;
  for you have glorified your name and your word above all things. 
3When I called, you answered me;
  you increased my strength within me.
4All the rulers of the earth will praise you, O Lord,
  when they have heard the words of your mouth.
5They will sing of the ways of the Lord,
  that great is the glory of the Lord.
6The Lord is high, yet cares for the lowly,
  perceiving the haughty from afar. 
7Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe;
  you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies; your         right hand shall save me.
8You will make good your purpose for me;
  O Lord, your steadfast love endures forever; do not abandon the      works of your hands. 

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Paul delivers in a nutshell the story of the gospel that was given to him. In the lineage of the Christian faith, we have received the good news of God’s love from generations of believers before us, and we continue to tell this story to the world.

1Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.
  3For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

Gospel: Luke 5:1-11

1Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He 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. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So 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. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

CHILDREN’S SERMON:  Belling the Cat is one of my favorite Aesop fables.  Let me share it one more time!

  The Mice once called a meeting to decide on a plan to free themselves of their enemy, the Cat. They wished to find some way of knowing when she was coming, so they might have time to run away. Indeed, something had to be done. They lived in such constant fear of her claws. They hardly dared stir from their dens by night or day

A very young Mouse got up and said: “I have a plan.  All we have to do is to hang a bell about the Cat’s neck. When we hear the bell ringing we will know immediately that our enemy is coming. In the midst of the rejoicing over this good plan, an old Mouse arose and said:  “I will say that the plan of the young Mouse is very good. But let me ask one question: Who will bell the Cat?”

Let us pray:  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock and my Redeemer.

SERMON

We have arrived at the fifth week in Epiphany.  Epiphany looks at the life of Jesus incarnate and hopefully we have epiphany moments, “ah ha” moments, as we learn more and more about our God who took on flesh and blood, became true man, to restore relationship with us.  We saw in the last two weeks as we listened in on Jesus’ State of the Union Address in the synagogue in Nazareth that some people “bought in” to his message while others “checked out’.  We see a divided audience.  What stopped them and us from a step of faith?  That text tells me there is a cat in the room.  I want to suggest that fear is one of the cats that stalks our faith.  Fear of not-enough, fear of failure, and fear of our past all cripple us.  We know there is a cat in the house and like those mice, we try to figure out ways to bell the cat.  Let’s dig in.

Fear of Not-Enough

         Our text opens at the lake of Gennesaret.  That is the Sea of Galilee. We are still in northern Israel, not far from last week’s text in Nazareth.  “The crowds are pressing in on him to hear the word of God.”  Do images of half time at the Super Bowl that we rush home to watch next Sunday come to mind, people crowded around a stage? But we do know that “crowds” turn to mobs and we know that scenario can become dangerous.  Jan 6 is a sad reminder to us today as we sort out what went on.  My family lived through the social chaos at elections in Kenya when church yards became refugee camps as people fled to safe areas.  It happens today.  But our text says that this crowd was pressing in to hear the word of God.  In Kenya a world renowned evangelist, Bonke, visited and healings were sure to happen.  The crowds gathered and pushed toward the stage.  Guards kept the crowd back but we all wanted to get close.

         Why would those people at Jesus’ time be pressing on Jesus and backing him up to the lake?  It could be that the people brought others to be healed and wanted to make sure they were close enough to be noticed and helped.  Jesus did not just pass out blanket healings!  Maybe it was like the lining up for the sales on Black Friday or camping out to get tickets to a visiting concert.  But then, I think if I could just quiet myself, pray enough, listen more closely that even I will draw nearer to God and hear the voice of God and move his heart.  Somewhere deep in our hearts I suspect is the fear that there just is not enough wealth, love, blessings or whatever to go around.  We fear we will miss out and be forgotten.  Somehow there is never enough in our world.

         Interestingly, Jesus did not have them sit down in groups.  Jesus did not have disciples make them lineup.  Jesus did not get a megaphone.  Jesus did not pass out tickets to the next showing and tell some to come back tomorrow.  Jesus did not manage the crowd.  Jesus did not try to contain the need driving the people.  He did not stop the people from coming!!  May I repeat that.  Jesus did not stop the people from coming to him!  Instead, Jesus stepped into a boat nearby and sat down in the pose of a teacher and taught.  Luke does not give the sermon because that was not the point.  Luke wants us to know that Jesus allowed the crowd to press in on him.

         So… when was the last time we were so hungry to hear the word of God that we were willing to join a crowd or inconvenience ourselves to get close to Jesus.  We live today in the land of TV, radio, churches, Bibles, study guides and groups.  Accessing the word is not our challenge.  But I would suggest the fear or thoughts about whether there is enough love, forgiveness, or compassion still plague us today.  Like Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof, we look to heaven and say, “Lord, I know you are busy with wars and famines and plagues and things that draw people to you but while you are in the neighborhood, my horse is lame!”  Faith that there is enough grace for even me might be our challenge this morning.  Jesus did not remove the problem, the search for grace, but allowed the people to come to him.  Jesus then teaches. God wants to speak into our situation today, maybe as a teacher on a boat off shore, maybe as truth from Scripture, maybe in music from our radio or maybe through a friend but for sure he wants to speak to us today!  Lord grant us hearts hungry to draw near and ears tuned in to you.

Fear of Failure

Our text does not tell us what Jesus said to the crowds.  The content was not important but the hunger to hear was.  Jesus then turns to Simon Peter and tells him to cast off, to head out to the deep and to let down his nets for a catch. “Houston, we have a problem.”  Peter and crew fished all night and failed to catch fish.  I can identify with Peter and I might have said, “We’re tired and we’ve failed all night so this is not that good an idea, boss.”  I have whined that I have prayed for one of my daughters for so many years and she still struggles with mental illness and blames me. It sounds like Moses reminding God that he, Moses, is wanted for murder in Egypt so returning to Egypt is … scary.  Send someone else.  Perhaps we think of Namaan being told to bath in the Jordon seven times to be cleansed of leprosy and he objects because there are cleaner rivers in his country.   Excuses. Then there’s the response “We’ve always done it this way” justifies not trying a new idea like going fishing midday.  You fish at night.   

         But Jesus requested and Peter tried.  God’s ways are not our ways and are not the way our world works.  Forgiving those who hurt us is not being preached on the news now.  Giving our unwanted clothes to Good Will and sharing our surplus is ok but often New Testament advice is theoretically good but practically not to be taken literally and just plain hard.

         So let’s stop and reflect a moment.  What is God saying to us today through this text?  Perhaps there is a failure that the evil one keeps reminding you of that slows you down from stepping forth in trust.  Often this “trusting Jesus” talk just does not make sense because we’ve tried before and gotten burned.  The marriage did not work.  The children became rebellious.  Chemo didn’t work and there was not a miracle healing as much as we know God could…but he didn’t.  As a chaplain I have visited countless people and so often heard the story of their crisis of faith and God did not appear on a white charger and rescue them so they have allowed faith to grow cold.  I love the saying by Winston Churchill, “Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

         May the fear of not enough and the fear of failure not cripple us.

Fear of our Past

Now we come to the heart of the matter.  Peter casts out and pulls in a huge catch.  Peter does not fall on his face in worship.  No, Peter falls on his face and cries, ““Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”   Isaiah gifted to be in the presence of the almighty God laments, “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!”  We start our service with confession because we are in God’s house and aware that we have not and cannot do it right.  We are sinful and need to be cleansed.

Who is qualified to bell the cat?  Not me.  In God’s presence I am creature and he is creator.  The cat is too big and too dangerous and I am too small and too flawed.  I come needing healing.  I have failed and am afraid.  Actually, I am a sinner.

         Can we hear Jesus’ word to Simon and to us, “Do not be afraid!”  Let me repeat that again and let it get past our ears and soak into our hearts, “Do not be afraid.”  Jesus does not give assignments of deeds of penance  that we need to do to earn salvation and favor in his sight.  Jesus will take care of that on the cross.  Luther parted with Rome over indulgences, the doing of good deeds to work off years of punishment for our sins.  We are saved by grace.  That grace has no limitations for it is available in abundance to all sinners – even you and me.  Our failures are not a problem.  God does the miracle and our part is to obey.

         Jesus continues, “From now on…”  Wow. God has a plan for our future as significant parts of his kingdom.  God has a plan for this church.  The cat does not have the last say.  Jesus bells the cat.  When the cat comes and whispers in our ears that there is not enough grace for people like us, we know it is a lie.  When the cat comes and whispers in our ears about our failures we know that is true that we have failed.  But we are forgiven.  We may fail again but that is in God’s hands.  When the cat comes and reminds us of our sins, we can turn our eyes to Jesus and thank him for salvation.

Who will bell the cat?

Jesus

The people of God said, “Amen.”

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