Those are my feet in the Sea of Galilee on a very hot July day! I marvelled at the beach that day – not because I wanted to walk on the water but because of the stories of Jesus preaching from the beaches and boats. It is the parish Stewardship Sundays at the moment so had to tie all this together. Think I did okay with the help of Journey with Jesus (https://www.journeywithjesus.net)
I wonder if you have ever worked hard at something, really put effort in and found that after all your graft – the net was empty at the end of it.
There is a scene in the Jack Nicholson film ‘About Schmidt’ that shows the retirement party and speeches of Warren Schmidt as he ends a rather uninspiring career as an insurance salesman. The following week, Warren returns to visit the office to see how ‘the new guy’ is getting on. As he walks by the garage of the office, he spots box upon box of his life’s work stacked next to the bin waiting for collection. It’s quite a depressing scene and the rest of the film shows Warren trying to overcome the futility of his working life.
Sometimes the things we plan for in this life don’t pan out the way we thought they would or wanted them too.
As Luke describes the scene in this week’s Gospel story, it’s early morning, and Simon Peter is cleaning his fishing nets after a bad night on the lake. Simon Peter and his partners (James and John) have worked hard from dusk until dawn (they fished at night). Morning has come and they have nothing to show for their night’s work. The nets are empty, their backs were probably very sore. There won’t be any money today.
Then Jesus shows up. He’d been preaching on the lake shore when he saw the two boats further down the beach. Even from a distance, Jesus was paying attention – he had met those 3 fishermen on previous occasions. He goes over and steps into Peter’s boat and tells him to ‘put out into the deep water.’
Jesus is telling Peter to do the same old same old one more time, with no guarantee that he’ll see better results. Simon Peter’s first response is to protest: ‘Master, we have worked hard all night long.’ But then he obeys: ‘Yet if you say so, I will.’ Peter does obey and suddenly his nets are bursting at the seams.
I like this Gospel story for a few reasons, here are a few of them:
Firstly, we might not know what it is to be fisherman but I’m sure we know what it’s like to work hard at something that matters and have nothing to show for our efforts when it’s done. We can have poured ourselves into jobs, relationships, the church, a club, a ministry, a dream – and come away exhausted, frustrated and done.
However, it seems that in these moments of loss and defeat is exactly when Jesus shows up. He doesn’t just stand on the shore and wave us on but gets in the boat with us. Maybe he has good reasons for asking us to return to places of pain and failure – maybe we missed the lesson or we weren’t done there yet.
Simon Peter’s first response was not one of wanting to head back out on the waters. Jesus’ timing is maddening sometimes; but it is also perfect. Simon Peter, James and John had nothing left to lose by saying yes to one more attempt at fishing – this time with Jesus at their side.
Secondly, this story honours the same old same olds of our individual lives. Jesus’ call in this story is specific and rooted in language, culture and vocation that the hearers will know best. Simon Peter knew fish and knew the water – Jesus calls Simon to use his experience and intelligence to fish one more time.
We don’t follow Jesus in the abstract or ‘in general’ as if Christianity comes down to nothing more than attending church, giving money and being a nice person. If we follow him at all, we’ll have to do it in the particulars of our lives, communities, cultures, families and vocations we find ourselves in. We have to trust that God prizes our intellects, backgrounds, educations, and our skills and that he will bless and multiply the daily same old same olds of our lives for his purposes. We though, have to want to be used, want to find out the plans and purposes, work at it.
Thirdly, the purposes of Jesus. There is a plan and purpose for your life. This day that started with failure ended with a huge, life changing event for Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John. They left everything and followed Jesus. So much to gain but so much to lose! These four were business partners along with James and John’s father Zebedee.
Think of old Zebedee for a moment! He was probably banking, like most Jewish father’s did, that his boys would take over the fishing business when he was done working. Even better there were four young, strong men to take over – his retirement is sewn up!
But then one day this Jesus comes and stands beside the lake and everything gets thrown up in the air! Retirement plans up in smoke, his sons and business partners have turned in their oars, left everything to follow this guy! I don’t know how you do when change comes likes this! I would struggle with this.
The question that gets me though, that burns in my thoughts every time I read this passage: is what was so attractive about Jesus that made these four, ordinary fishermen leave their nets and boats to follow him? Give up fishing – a lucrative family business, where you always have something to eat and not to mention the shame, they would have brought on their family by leaving Zebedee literally holding the net. We never hear about what happened to old Zebedee! Trust he was taken care of.
On this day, Jesus is going to really change the lives of his first disciples Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John. Jesus invites these four ordinary fishermen to a specially favoured place beside him.
They are not going to be fishermen anymore but ‘fishers of men.’ Or people – just to be gender neutral! We see Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John change and grow in the Gospel stories as they follow Jesus.
Fourthly, I love the abundance at the heart of this story. In Jesus’ day the fishing industry was under full control of the Roman Empire. Caesar owned every body of water and all fishing was state-regulated for the benefit of the rich. Fishermen had to get licenses to fish and most of what they caught was exported – leaving communities impoverished and hungry.
The image of boats so full of fish that even Simon Peter is overwhelmed is amazing! This is extravagant, bountiful generosity. Food for all, food security for all, justice for all.
Jesus is showing Simon Peter what God’s kingdom will look like when it’s fully established. There will be no empty nets, no empty tables and no economic exploitation. God’s kingdom means good news for all.
This is what we should be working for as a Parish – God’s kingdom being good news for all. We are the builders! We use our time, talents and yes, our money in this building. Unlike Warren Schmidt, if you remember my story from the beginning, our life’s work isn’t going to end up in the bin, judged by others as unworthy. Our life’s work is judged by God and we will be rewarded for it.
‘Master, we have worked hard all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ It occurred to me that I often feel like I live between these sentences.
Come on God, I’m working hard enough! Don’t want to do this! Yet, if you say so…
I think that we all live in that gap between weariness and hope, defeat and faith, resignation and obedience. Sometimes life is a grind, the same old same old of monotony!
The hardest thing to do at these times is to make that leap of trust that Simon makes, Yet if you say so, I will.
Yet if you say so, I will work hard when I don’t see the results.
Yet if you say so, I will follow you despite the costs.
Yet if you say so, I will work out the plans and purposes you have for me.
Yet if you say so, I will live out of your abundance and not my poverty.
Yet if you say so, I will trust your presence in my boat is better than anything else I can want or need.
Yet if you say so, I will cast my empty net in the waters and look with hope for your kingdom to come.