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The Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens The Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens

The Rev. Dr. B. Wiley Stephens is senior minister of Dunwoody United Methodist Church in Dunwoody, GA.

Member of:

United Methodist Church

Representative of:

Dunwoody United Methodist Church, Dunwoody, GA


Patterns, Prisms, and Prisons

Luke 5:1-11

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

February 08, 2004

We all live with patterns--patterns formed by the routines of our lives, patterns formed by pressures and demands of the world around us, patterns not always intentional or planned, but just the world we find ourselves in.

These patterns form out of how we live. They form out of how we react to the duties of everyday living. They often are not consciously examined but are just our routine. They are often helpful, for we can take care of the routine without a great deal of thought or planning.

In fact, these routines or patterns develop into our comfort zones. They become our own little world. They are not wrong in themselves; they are just the way we do things. Rarely do we question them or change them. Like a favorite pair of old slippers or easy chair, they are just ours.

Fishing was perhaps such a pattern for Peter, James, and John. They had grown up around it. It was the way they made a living; and, thus, it became the way they lived. The routines of sailing, casting, bringing in the catch, cleaning the fish, getting them sold, caring for their equipment were all an habitual pattern of living.

The danger of our routine patterns is they can become prisons for us. We can get so comfortable in our comfort zones that we dare not venture out of them. How quickly we begin to react to new challenges with "I don't do that" or even to thinking "I can't do that."

On maps that predated Columbus there were often written just west of Gibraltar, "Nothing beyond here," or a sea monster was drawn in to show the fear of the unknown. Without Jesus many of our life maps end with self. The patterns we live with appear to be the only possibility and our world seems to be set.

As Jesus approached the disciples-to-be, he challenged them with a call that was to break the routine, to see beyond their little self-constructed all and to try again. The routine said, "We've done what we always do and our nets are empty. We've already started cleaning up." But they had the courage to try again.

The photographer DeWitt Jones challenges us not to be afraid to make mistakes. Once in preparing a layout for the National Geographic, he used 400 roles of film. Once or twice is not enough; we need to have the courage to try again.

My father left me a little book in which he had recorded the ending thoughts he used on a daily radio program. One thought was, "Success is failure that tried one more time." Think of the excuses the disciples might have used:

"I'm too tired; after all, I've been up all night trying to catch something." or "Nothing seems to be working today. Maybe some other day." or "What do you know about fishing? I'm the one who makes his living this way."

But try one more time they did. And they had unbelievable success.

This is not to say that we will always have success, but it means new possibilities open up when we are freed from the prisons our routines have established. Listen to your own excuses that become barriers to taking action:

"My plate is too full." "I'm too old" or "I'm too young." "I've done that, been there, I have the T-shirt." or "I don't know how."

You can add to the list, but whatever the reason, the danger is they imprison us from taking the steps that will open up tomorrow.

There was a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine with the following caption: "This morning opportunity knocked at my door, but by the time I pushed back the bolt, turned the two locks, unlatched the chain, and shut off the alarm system it was gone." What we are talking about is the danger of bunker mentality. The disciples had to be open to the suggestions to try again as difficult as it was to accept. They had to be willing to listen in order to hear the call to go and fish for people.

Isaiah was drawn to the temple to seek God's presence upon the death of his beloved king. He felt a stirring of God's call in his heart, but he could not at first respond because he felt unworthy. "Woe to me I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips," but as the hot coal touched his lips, he could respond, "Here am I. Send me." And a whole new life was opened to him.

Let our prayer be the one written by Sir Frances Drake so many centuries ago:

Disturb us Lord when
We are too well pleased with ourselves
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to shore.

The power of Jesus' call to the disciples broke the patterns by which they lived. They were being challenged to sail further from the familiar shore, to cast a greater vision, to find new challenges.

Peter's first reaction in our Gospel as he sees the power of Jesus demonstrated in the simple act of showing the disciples how to fish is to be overwhelmed. He pleads for Jesus to go away from him for in the power of Jesus he sees his own weakness. He is overwhelmed with a feeling of being unworthy to be in Jesus' presence. We, too, can feel overwhelmed by a greater vision, a new challenge to sail further from the familiar shore. But Jesus would not let Peter or the others off that easy.

Too many times we think of worship as affirming. We think of worship as time for comfort and peace, and at times it can be. But at other times when we are confronted by the Living God we have come to worship, it can be a very threatening thing. Why can't God just leave us alone? What was wrong with Peter and James and John being fishermen? Nothing. Except greater things awaited them. Sometimes a pattern must be shattered, and at other times, revitalized.

There are those times in all of our lives, as with Peter, John, and James, that we need to move on to face the challenges of a new day. We carry with us what we have learned in our old patterns and apply them in new ways. These three carry with them the gifts that had made them good fishermen. They had learned to be patient as they would have to be with each other and the others that would come to be the church. They had learned to be persistent in building the church--sometimes they would succeed and sometimes they would fail--but their call was to be persistent in faithfulness. They had learned not to fret over the ones that had gotten away. They had learned the importance of knowing the territory they fished, and they would learn to do the same as they became fishers of people.

In the Gospel they sailed on without knowing at all what lay ahead. Faith doesn't wait for all the maps. Too often we don't respond because we have limited what God can do with us to what we can do for ourselves. Reinhold Niebuhr warned us, "In the beginning God created man and ever since man has sought to return the compliment." We may be unable to see any further than the prison of our current pattern, but God can. Just as he saw the prophet in the young Isaiah and the great church builders in Peter, James, and John, we would have only seen frightened young men or tired and frustrated fishermen.

An encounter with the Holy Spirit is a prism that breaks open the possibilities of our lives. Just as the prism breaks forth the colors of the spectrum, just as Isaiah felt the presence of God in the temple and the disciples found the Holy Spirit in Jesus' challenge to try again to catch some fish and then to drop their nets and follow him, we, too, can find a new spectrum of living.

Robert Fulghum in a Storyteller's Creed speaks of this great depth to living and saying:

I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge.
That myth is more important than history.
That dreams are more powerful than facts.
That hope always triumphs over experience.
That laughter is the only cure for grief, and
I believe that love is stronger than death.

Walt Disney once wrote, "All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them." While this might be an overstatement, it is true we cannot realize the potential of opportunities until we have pursued them.

If we are willing to let go of our nets, if we are willing to push for the hard answer, God will empower us. Faith ought not to be confused with feelings. Faith is to move in trust and with courage even when we feel uncertain. Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion says, "Faith is to get up and do what needs to be done." Pearl Buck wrote, "You cannot make yourself feel something you do not feel, but you can make yourself do right in spite of your feelings."

And so the disciples returned to their boats and their nets; and though exhausted from a night's work, they cast their nets again. And the return was tremendous. They had to cry out for help to pull the harvest in or their nets would have broken or their boats sunk.

Elie Wiesel once said, "It is a great privilege to be defeated by God." And so when the non-fisherman knew more than the experienced fishermen, it brought a whole new life to the emerging disciples.

For this is what God does in our lives. Our faith becomes the prism through which you see the potential of our lives. Through this faith we find new ways to use the skills that we have developed in life. We see new opportunities around us. When all our fears and excuses get crushed, we are open to the power of God to lead us.

The great missionary, David Livingston, always spent his birthday writing a special prayer to guide his actions and attitudes for the next year.

Peter, John, and James left their fishing nets behind them; they left everything--their routines, their comfort zones, their ways of making a living and marched off into history to find a new life.

They could do this for they saw themselves in a new way. They saw others in a new light. They saw the world as a new challenge through the prism of God's love.

It is not that everything was settled. There would be moments of uncertainty. Moments when they questioned their decision. Moments they didn't understand what Jesus was trying to tell them. Moments when Peter would tempt Jesus to compromise or even deny he knew Jesus. But this first step, the dropping of their old patterns of fishing the sea and going forth to be fishers of people, had been taken. And though there would be twists and turns in the road, they were to become the Church.

God is still confronting us, challenging the patterns we have fallen into--the habits and ways of thinking that have at times imprisoned us. He confronts us with what might be and though we might feel unworthy, God calls for us to be his.

God, as he did through Peter, James, and John, can work miracles through us. Are we willing to try?

O Father, just as the disciples of old felt the challenge to follow, let us see the possibilities ahead of us and have the courage to take those first steps. Amen.


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