Sunday, February 10, 2019
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
I grew up on a coffee farm on the slopes of Hualalai in the Kona district of Hawai‘i island. We lived in a house with single-wall construction in the area known as Keauhou mauka not far from the Keauhou Elementary School. There was no indoor plumbing to speak of. We had an outhouse. There was no need for an air conditioner in summer or a heater in winter.
My tūtū or grandfather owned property down at Keauhou Bay, located about 9 miles down a narrow winding road from our upland home. By the time I was growing up, the “beach” house was in disrepair. A section of the bottom floor was wood but the rest of it was composed of ‘ili’ili or beach pebbles like kind you can see at the base of the walls of this church building.
The top floor where the bedrooms were located had puka or holes in the floors from termites. We avoided the area because it was also home to several nests of wasps.
Despite the poor condition of the house, it was a home to me in the same way that our “coffee land house” up mauka was a home. We spent weekends down at the bay. Some of the activities were limited to adults only, especially when it came to harvesting wana or sea urchins or going off along the rocky shoreline for opihi or limpets.
For the keiki or children, our days were spent swimming or floating along in inner tubes in the bay. At night we would find our way back to sit along the edge of the pier with our bamboo fishing poles.
We used frozen shrimp for bait. My mother would remind me that the shrimp was bait for the fish.
In order to bait the hook, we would take a bite out the shrimp to remove a portion of the shrimp and place that on the hook. I saw no harm in occasionally swallowing a bite, especially if I was hungry.
What I remember about those nights was how remarkable it was that all it took to go fishing was a bamboo pole, suji or a fishing line with a hook and lead sinker and a piece of frozen shrimp. We would sit on the edge of the pier, legs dangling over - and with a forward movement of the arm we would drop our lines into the water.
How the adults knew that the fish would be there was beyond me until I realized that in those days, the fish were plentiful enough it seemed like at any moment they start jumping out of the water and onto the pier. But the adults knew the area was home to lots and lots of upapalu or Cardinalfish. Though the largest would reach only about 6 inches in length, five or six upapalu provided a hearty meal for a child.
But the adults also knew there were po‘opa‘a or hawkfish and ala‘ihi or a variety a prickly squirrel fish that could puncture the skin if not handled carefully. We were inclined to pass both up for a meal no matter how hungry we were. We learned to remove them from the hook – carefully – and then toss them back into the bay.
Our reading from The Gospel According to Luke is about fishing, not from the shoreline but from a boat. Fishing with my family was one thing. Fishing with Jesus? Well, that was quite another matter.
It is Simon Peter who gets a glimpse of the Jesus’ power and knowledge. Simon becomes aware of his own sinfulness and yet he is called by Jesus to become a fisher of people (Preaching Through the Christian Year C, Craddock, Hayes, Holladay & Tucker, Trinity International Press, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1994, page 95).
In our reading from The Book of Isaiah, Isaiah himself is struck by what he perceives as his own unworthiness, but nevertheless is sent out into the world to be a prophet (Op. cit.). But for Simon it took a little more convincing. He is reluctant to do as Jesus tells him: “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4)
Did Jesus know something that Simon and the others whose livelihood was fishing did not know? Wasn’t he the son of a carpenter? What does he know about fishing?
Simon issued a slight protest. “We have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets” (Luke 5:5). It has been said that Simon’s “reaction to the call and command of Jesus [was] one of disbelief, distrust, and a little bit of defensiveness” (Living the Word, Christian Century, January 16, 2019, page 18).
In a way Simon’s protest is not unlike our protests as children when we were instructed to go to a certain spot to fish, “No can even see what’s in the water. It’s too dark. How you know get fish down there?” Yet when we responded to what we were told to do, the result was the same as when Simon responded to Jesus.
There was an abundance of fish. It is after Simon “hauls in the nets filled with multitudes of fish – so many fish that the nets are beginning to break – that he confesses his sin of disbelief is what prevented him from trusting in what Jesus could do” (Op. cit.).
Like Isaiah and Simon, we too are called in the midst of our daily lives to serve in God’s mission for the world (Op. cit.). And like them, we are reluctant to believe. Like them, we are afraid. Like them, we may feel unworthy of the call.
But Jesus did not condemn Simon for his sin. Instead he said, “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people” (Luke 5:10). And the six-winged seraph did not condemn Isaiah, but touched his mouth to blot out his sin causing Isaiah to respond, “Here am I; send me.”
Having said all of this, one may ask: “How is it that we could be so gullible to believe there are six-winged seraphs flying about or that after a night of an unsuccessful catch all Jesus had to say was let down your nets?” But we know that we must entrust the results of any catch to God.
When I first returned home to Hawai‘i twenty-eight years ago, I remember sitting down next to a kahu or pastor. If I had any memory of the significance of ‘aumakua in our family, it had faded away long ago.
But I was curious enough to wonder what it meant to have a family or personal god and what it meant for our kūpuna to believe that our ancestors were deified in the shape of sharks or owls, hawks or birds or in other forms, I sheepishly turned to her and asked, “Kahu, do you know anything about ‘aumakua?” - aware that the ‘aumakua often warned and sometimes reprimanded human beings in dreams, visions and calls.
“Well,” she said, “We are Christians now and we do not talk about such things.” I acknowledged her response.
Then she continued, “I remember when I was growing up my husband and I went out one day to go fishing. We were going out into the ocean channel on our canoe to catch ‘ōpelu not far from our home.”
“My husband put down the net. He threw some palu or chum into the water. The ‘ōpelu began to swarm around the chum, filling the net. When it was time to pull the net in, it had become so heavy with fish, I was certain the net was going to break.”
Then she described how she saw the dorsal fin of a shark, on the horizon, breaking the surface of the water. The shark drew closer and closer to the canoe, circling around once and several times more.
Whether or not the shark had already fed elsewhere, the shark seemed disinterested in the ‘ōpelu. It was then that she looked out over the horizon.
Dark clouds were gathering. The wind was beginning to pick up. A storm was on its way.
She called out to her husband. “Pau already. It is time for us to go. We cannot get greedy for more fish. We have enough.”
She did not say it was their ‘aumakua. But I knew she knew that the appearance of an ‘aumakua will sometimes appear when one is in danger. She did not say it was their ‘aumakua.
But the acknowledgement was made when she attempted to dismiss her own story by saying to me with a twinkle in her eye, “We do not talk about such things.” But she did tell a story about fishing and about a net and in her own clever way, she talked about such things without talking about such things.
Whether or not one believes in the story of an ‘aumakua appearing on the horizon or a seraph with six wings flying across the room of a temple, what our readings from Luke and Isaiah make clear is this: “ . . . the Gospel account of the call and response of the apostle parallels in significant ways the vocation of Isaiah and his response.” Both Simon and Isaiah believe that they are not worthy to live a life of a service to others, but neither are chastised or rejected. Instead, they are call to go forth to be in the service of others. It is to that life of service that we are also called.
Mahalo ke Akua! Thanks be to God. Amen.