Aaron: there are a few holy moments I’m remembering today. The night hike without flashlights was supposed to be a silent, prayerful walk in the woods, an invitation to enter in to sacred darkness. But the group broke apart and people got lost. Someone, stumbling over a tree root, let out a shriek, and we all began to laugh. We sat in the living room in the stillness of midday. The clock ticked loudly, as we listened with our whole being to the silences and the words that made up the terrible, beautiful journey through the loss of a spouse. We greeted a fresh and sunny morning on the stoop of our little hotel in Guatemala, taking in the morning parade. Stray dogs hobbling along on three legs; school children in their neat uniforms, shyly smiling at us; women, greeting one another on their way to grind corn for the day’s tortillas, “Buena Dia.” Then there was that Easter, when, as we belted out “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” to the organ’s roar a child wiggled loose from an anxious parent, and tumbled down the aisle. He leapt with sheer Easter joy in front of the communion table and then he was gone.
Narrative is what unites us as followers of Jesus. That’s one of the things I’ve learned from Aaron. We have a story to live. The sacraments of baptism and communion, and the scriptures, give us a tangible entry point into this narrative but it goes beyond the power of words to express. I find that the living of our faith story is not a linear experience. It is a path that winds and wanders: through hard times and good times, through seasons of boredom, and the terrors of the unknown, by way of soul-searching and deep peace. But most of all, the story we live seems to hang on moments of blessing that surprise us when the time is not at all right. Holy moments. Gospel moments. Moments that change everything.
Jesus said to Simon: “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” You can hear it in Simon’s response: he wanted to refuse. The nets had already been washed and put away. The fisher folk were exhausted and near despair after a full night’s work with nothing to show for it. Would their families get to eat that day? How many nights of futility had they already been through? What was the point of one more try? They were ready to go home and go to bed. It was not the right time for fishing, not at all. What a shock it must have been to Simon to feel the heft of the nets tugging hard against his hands, stretched to the breaking point! Did he panic as he realized he that he could not even pull them into the boat without help? Imagine the chaos of that moment: fish spilling out of the nets and flopping around in the bottoms of the boats, fishermen shouting and swearing, feet slipping on wet wood, bodies crashing together and falling overboard, boats sinking deeper and deeper until waves lapped over their bows and they began to take on water.
C S. Lewis called the Gospel a “good catastrophe.” It was, for him, a sudden reversal, an instant when everything changes. God appears and sets loose a joy, freedom and abundance we never could have imagined. As the prophet Isaiah says: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
I don’t know about the rest of you, but in those wild Gospel moments, when the fish are flopping, the nets are breaking, and the boats are sinking, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have by my side than Aaron Lauer. Before I even knew I needed help, Aaron would be there, calmly whispering, “Do you want me to…?” It might have been a dead battery in the middle of a service, or something more serious, like forgotten marshmallows for the s’mores! They were small moments, but telling ones. I came to realize that I trusted him, with my life, and with the life of our church. The holy moments he and I have shared in ministry have shown me his heart. He is a servant leader. He understands that ministry only works when it is a partnership, a mutual and humble collaboration. He knows that it isn’t my agenda, or his, that matters most, but God’s.
Simon, whom Jesus renamed Peter, meaning “rock,” was the first disciple to be called to leadership in the early church. Professor William Loader offers the following summary of Peter as a biblical and historical figure and a model for ordained ministry:
[Peter] denies [Jesus] at the last. Mark portrays him as inept. Paul finds him shallow and unconvincing. John respects him but has him outrun in insight by the beloved disciple. Nevertheless he was the leader—all seem to agree…. Despite signs of legendary development the bearers of the Jesus tradition never divinized Peter. He remained one of them, one of us; leadership by grace.
Today, Aaron, who is one of us, is being set apart for this leadership by grace. He’s full of fear as well as faith, prone to error even in his brilliance, and like Peter—like any of us—is both a sinner and a saint. This very human Aaron is the Aaron we bless for ordained ministry today. And we do it knowing that the places where he is most in need of grace are likely the places where God can work most powerfully through him. That’s just the way God does things—don’t ask me why!
Today’s fishing story offers us not one, but two, models for discipleship, paradigms for the faithful living of our story. We tend to focus on Simon and his fishing partners, who were called to be on the move. In order to follow Jesus, they had to leave their work and commitments. They docked their boats and hung up their nets; they prepared to enter another line of work. They said goodbye to their spouses and parents and children, and they joined a new family. But consider, for a moment, the crowd. They were there, throughout, taking in the holy, Gospel moment that unfolded. They were the ones pressing in on Jesus so hard, that he had to take up preaching from a floating pulpit. It’s remarkable to me how forceful and clear was their desire to hear the Word of God. They were not called leave all their attachments and worries behind. They needed a Word they could carry with them back home, a Word that would re-orient their ordinary, daily lives around God’s holy Gospel moments.
We have a story to live. And, today, of all days, as we celebrate this joyous moment of ordination, it’s crucial to remember that there are many ways to be a disciple, many ways to follow, many ways enter the narrative. Ordained ministry is a particular role, a distinct path of leadership in the church. I often, say to myself, “Wow, I get to be in this holy moment right now, and this is my job?” I get to sit and think about the scriptures, the stories I know, the news, and the meaning of life. I get to hold and bless newborn babies. And I get to be with people when pregnancies and marriages and illnesses do not go as we’d hoped, when all we can do is grieve. I get to do work that is as varied as any I can imagine. A leaky dishwasher, a website update, a staff performance review, a confirmation lesson, a protest in the streets—who knows what will cross my desk in the course any given day! As amazing as this life of ordained ministry, and this role of Pastor is, it’s not sufficient unto itself. Ministry is the life’s work of the whole people of God. The role of the church’s leaders, both ordained and lay, is to stay focused on what matters most: living together into a story that changes everything.
It was not the right time for fishing, Simon knew. And, in many ways, this is not the right time to be a church. Membership, money, investment of time, it’s all on the decline. Our nation’s politics grow more and more toxic, wars and famines rage, our climate warms and economic and racial inequity continues to widen. These days, a pastor is kind of like a spiritual mad scientist: testing and trying, mixing this with that, blowing stuff up to see what will happen. Should we accept credit card gifts to the church? How do we care for a person and a family in the grips of an addiction? Who is going to sign up to host coffee hour? What are the steps toward racial justice for this community? Why are we using so much paper? What does youth ministry look like now? We simply don’t have a blueprint for the living of our story. There are so many new skills to learn, so many crucial questions to ask, questions that we must live rather than attempt to answer.
This long night of soul-searching can feel futile and fruitless. Aaron, you will have days when you do not want to get back in the boat. You will not see the point of putting out into the deep water. You will ask, why should we cast these nets one more time? Will it really yield anything new? How could God possibly be at work in this? But, know that it is also in moments such as these, at just the wrong time, that God is likely to surprise us, to invite us into a holy moment, a Gospel moment, a moment that changes everything, a fish flopping, net-breaking, boat-sinking moment. Together, let us trust the voice of Jesus, who says: “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”