Monday, February 7, 2022

Encountering the Holy


Luke 5:1-11

Epiphany 5 / Year C

When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’s feet, saying, “Go away from me Lord for I am a sinful man!”  For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish they had taken in.

Perhaps you have noticed over the last few weeks our first lessons have been “call” stories – descriptions of the initial time God reached out to a particular person and appointed him to be a prophet.  Last week it was Jeremiah, this week Isaiah and Jesus’ first disciples.

The German theologian Rudolph Otto wrote the book The Idea of the Holy.  Published in 1917, its ongoing impact on theological thinking over the last century is incalculable.  Otto studied accounts of people encountering what he called “the Holy” and found these events typically contain two elements: one is a feeling of awe, majesty, and urgency and the other is an experience of something wholly other, distinct, and unlike anything else one has known.  While we are attracted to and fascinated by the Holy, he noted a typical initial reaction is one of fear and unworthiness; a sense of the possibility of divine wrath.  This, he observed, yields once a person becomes aware of the Holy One’s goodness and compassion.  It then inspires a person’s self-surrender to what is being encountered.

Do you remember a couple of weeks ago we listened to the account of Ezra reading the book of the Law to the people at the Water Gate in Jerusalem?  Hearing God’s word becomes a divine encounter.  Quickly, people realize the tremendous gap between what the Law calls them to do and what they actually have been practicing.  They weep and they mourn – Otto’s sense of fear and unworthiness.  But Ezra tells them to go home and prepare a celebratory feast because “the joy of the Lord is our strength” – Otto’s self-surrender to God’s goodness and mercy.

And we see this pattern emerging in today’s reading with Peter.  Clearly, he is attracted to Jesus and fascinated by him.  Why else would he allow Jesus to use his boat as a teaching platform and why else would he go out to the deep water and let down his nets when he knows darn well from a whole night’s toil there are no fish out there!  As soon as he apprehends the size and scope of the miraculous catch he realizes he is in the presence of the Holy and is completely overwhelmed with a sense of his own unworthiness.  But rather than departing from Peter, Jesus draws in closer and calls him to a higher industry – fishing for people.  Peter and his associates don’t even bother to take their fish to market.  They drop everything and immediately follow Jesus.  They have been caught.

Have you had an experience with the Holy which in any way mirrors what Rudolph Otto describes and what we see in our readings?

When a person is ordained to the deaconate in the Episcopal Church he or she kneels before a bishop who places his or her hands on your head and says a prayer to impart the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For me, this was a very powerful moment, a mixture of so many things happening all at once.  One thread present was a sense of unworthiness.  Who am I to be filling this role?  That feeling was also present (along with many others) at my marriage ceremony.  How can I possibly keep the vows and promises I am making and live into the person the ordination and marriage liturgy call me to be?  I realized at both occasions a person not feeling at least a little bit of self-doubt doesn’t fully grasp the gravity of the commitment he or she is making.

When a person is ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church he or she kneels before a bishop and all the priests in attendance stand around and join in the laying on of hands.  I had been told before the ceremony to keep my neck and back straight or else all those hands pushing down on me would crush me.  It was sound advice.  I can still feel the weight of those hands, not as burdensome, but as empowering.  It was a wholly other feeling.  A young person from the parish made my ordination stole.  On it are the words from today’s reading from Isaiah, “Here I am, send me.”  I had been caught.

What have your encounters with the Holy been like?

And here is another question: do these encounters come to us completely uninitiated by us or are there things we can do to invite the Holy into our presence?

Like Moses who turned and saw the Burning Bush, I think some of our most powerful encounters with God occur at God’s whim.  I have a sense God is a bit coy and is neither captured nor coerced.  Even at a seminal moment such as ordination, the Holy One engages the human on the Holy One’s own terms.  I can share with a person being ordained to the priesthood, “Keep your back straight”, and this will continue to be sound advice.  I can even share my sense of unworthiness and empowerment, but God will work God’s way independent of my insights.  Still, has Rudolph Otto observed, these encounters bear consistent, similar traits. 

I can also testify to the times I have engaged in certain spiritual practices which have invited the Holy to be present.  For example, I have walked a labyrinth only four times, each time in a different setting (such as on the holy Island of Lindisfarne on the shores of the North Sea and in our own Parish Hall).  No matter the location, each time has resulted in a deep encounter with the Holy and each time I received a clarity changing and shaping my life moving forward.  These experiences have led me to be judicious about engaging in this particular spiritual practice because I don’t want it to become ‘common.’

One final though about how and when you might encounter the Holy.  Let’s consider again Peter’s experience.  On the one hand, I love the image of going out into the “deep water.”  It suggests there is a connection between taking a huge risk and encountering the Holy.  I’ve seen this connection manifested, for example, in people or groups who go on a mission trip to a region or country entirely different from ours and encounter people of faith whose lives lack many of our basic amenities, but whose hearts are filled with the joy, peace, self-lessness, and thanksgiving we thirst for in ours.  When, where, and how do you set off for “deep waters”? 

I also recognize this metaphor is something completely different for Peter.  He is accustomed to the deep waters.  He labors on them night after night.  For him, what is unique in today’s reading is how he goes out to do the same-old-same-old, but in a new way.  Yes, he is fishing, but now he is doing it in the daytime.  It makes no sense.  Jesus is a carpenter… a land lover.  What in the world can he offer to Peter about the skill of fishing?  But Peter is open to new possibilities.  “OK, let’s give it a try!”  It suggests being willing to break with routine and experiment may be yet another way we invite the Holy into our lives.

One of the central themes of the liturgical Season of Epiphany is God’s calling – calling you, calling me, calling us a parish, as a Church, as a people.  I pray we will always be open to the presence of the Holy, filled with awe and a sense of something unlike everything else in our lives.  May this give us a sense of place and purpose deeper than anything else we can imagine or hope for.